Sensitivity is a measure of how effectively an earpiece converts an incoming electrical signal into an audible sound. It thus indicates how loud the headphones are for a given electrical drive level. It can be measured in decibels of sound pressure level per milliwatt (dB (SPL)/mW) or decibels of sound pressure level per volt (dB (SPL) / V).Unfortunately, both definitions are widely used, often interchangeably. As the output voltage (but not power) of a headphone amplifier is essentially constant for most common headphones, dB/mW is often more useful if converted into dB/V using Ohm's law:
Alternatively, online calculators can be used. Once the sensitivity per volt is known, the maximum volume for a pair of headphones can be easily calculated from the maximum amplifier output voltage. For example, for a headphone with a sensitivity of 100 dB (SPL)/V, an amplifier with an output of 1 root mean square (RMS) voltage produces a maximum volume of 100 dB.
Pairing high sensitivity headphones with power amplifiers can produce dangerously high volumes and damage headphones. The maximum sound pressure level is a matter of preference, with some sources recommending no higher than 110 to 120 dB. In contrast, the American Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends an average SPL of no more than 85 dB(A) to avoid long-term hearing loss, while the European Union standard EN 50332-1:2013 recommends that volumes above 85 dB(A) include a warning, with an absolute maximum volume (defined using 40–4000 Hz noise) of no more than 100 dB to avoid accidental hearing damage.Using this standard, headphones with sensitivities of 90, 100 and 110 dB (SPL)/V should be driven by an amplifier capable of no more than 3.162, 1.0 and 0.3162 RMS volts at maximum volume setting, respectively to reduce the risk of hearing damage.
The sensitivity of headphones is usually between about 80 and 125 dB/mW and usually measured at 1 kHz.