Thursday 18 November 2010

Testing and recording bicycle bells

In most countries of the world it's a legal requirement to have a method of warning people that you are approaching on a bike. In some countries, such as the UK, the human voice is considered to be adequate. In other countries, such as the Netherlands, a bell is a legal requirement on a bicycle.

I've got a bunch of bicycle bells here at the moment as we've wanted for some time to have these available in the webshop, and as with other things in the shop, I've specifically bought in those that we like. However, rather than just listing the bells, I decided we should do this well. Let's test them to find out how loud they are, and also have sound samples so that people can hear what the bells sound like. And here are the results, ranked in order of how loud they are from one metre away, and with recordings of each bell. Click on their pictures if you'd like to buy them:
Widek 80 mm Ding Dong bell (€9.88)
106 dBA
"Ping" bell (€2.50)
100 dBA
Gazelle handlebar grip bell (€25 for pair of grips with bell)
98 dBA
Spanninga "Turning" bell (€3.09)
96 dBA
Classic Brass bell (€5.83)
96 dBA

If you have space for it on your handlebars, the Ding Dong bell gives the most sound. Note that there are many copies available of this bell, often painted in different colours, and all that I've heard sound dull in comparison. It's rather subjective, but to me it also gives by far the best sound of the bells. Just listen to that sustain. The Ping bell, which is smallest and weighs just 20 g, is best for those with limited handlebar space or who are concerned about weight, but while the sound is loud, it has little sustain so is not really as effective as a traditional bell. The Classic Brass bell has a remarkably pleasant tone due to the brass, and 96 dBa is still very loud.

And for the geeks amongst us, this is how it was done.

I used my old Radioshack sound-level meter to find out how loud the bells were. Each bell was held one metre from the SPL meter. These tests were all done in the same way, so they are directly comparable with one another. However, because this was done indoors and with reflective surfaces (the wall and table) nearby, you would get different figures if you measured out in the open. Each bell was rung a few times in succession, as you might if you thought you were about to collide with someone. I think it's reasonably representative of what you might do if you were really trying to get someone's attention. With a single ring, the slow rise-time of the analogue meter missed the peaks. As a result, this helped the ping bell result more than the others. A single "ping" doesn't really sound louder than some of the quieter bells. The loudest bell subjectively with a single ring was definitely the ding dong bell.

In any case, the peaks were quite a lot louder than the figures here. By the end of the test, it was not only the bells, but also my ears that were ringing.

These and other practical components for
bicycles are available from our web shop
A Sony WMD6C "pro" walkman was used to make the recordings. I'm not a big fan of Sony, but this was always a splendid product. I found the quietest room in the house, and used a long microphone lead so that I could be at the opposite end of the room from the recorder. I did in in this way for two reasons. First because I wanted to get away from the fan noise of the computer - the walkman is much quieter and easily portable - and secondly because I liked the idea of playing with the walkman again. It's a great piece of equipment which I now rarely use. Yes, an analogue recording on a cassette, but not any old cassette deck. The recordings give a pretty good idea of the sound of each bell, though reproducing the sound at a level anything like so loud as in real life is actually quite difficult to do.

I'm not going to pretend I don't care about technical issues, around cycling or anything else. I don't think it's cool not to know stuff. I'm proud to be a geek...

This blog post can also be read on the DutchBikeBits,com blog.


Wilfred Ketelaar said...

So the difference between the softest (96 db) and the loudest (106 db) is 10 db, which is quite a lot. Do you know if my Mango has the default 96 db bell? I was thinking of exchanging it for the ding-dong bell. First because I already suspected it to be louder and second because the sound is a ding-dong instead of a tring-tring. In The Netherlands this sounds more like a bakfiets or other large bike.

Bicilenta said...

I'd rather prefer the classic brass bell because I think it sounds more bicycle like.

WestfieldWanderer said...

"...Each bell was rung a few times in succession, as you might if you thought you were about to collide with someone. ..."

Of course, if I thought I was about to collide with someone I wouldn't be able to operate the bell because both hands would be on the brakes, which is why the human voice works best in the real world. Also amongst real world traffic noise any bell is useless. The only practical technical alternative is probably something like the Air Zound.
Having said all that, I do carry bells on my bikes, if only to respond to pompous self-important types who invariably challenge with "Don't you have a bell!?" to which I can honestly reply "Yes thanks".
There was one occasion on our local bike path which demonstrated the fundamental uselessness of bicycle bells. My wife and I came up behind an elderly couple and associated small hairy dogs. We deliberately didn't call out and just trundled along behind them pinging the bells just to see what happened. After a couple of minutes we gave up and called out. After the standard "Don't you have bells!?" challenge, we replied "Yes, and we've been ringing them constantly for the past couple of minutes.". "Oh!" they replied, "We thought it was birds."

You can't win, but you can laugh.

David Hembrow said...

WestfieldWanderer: I think the problem you were having was the usual one caused by British planners not actually knowing what a cycle path is. They often seem to think it's the same thing as a narrow walking path, and put both in the same place at the same time...

As for how useful bells are - I find they work very well. You might want something noisier for riding in heavy traffic, but to communicate with other cyclists and pedestrians I'd rather be a bit more friendly.

dr2chase said...

Very nice (especially the WMD6). I've been wondering how long till we have the MP3 downloadable bike-bell. I imagine "I'll get you my pretty, and your little dog, too".

Or perhaps, Jim Dale's rendition of Dolores Umbridge's "hem-ahem" (from Harry Potter, it's very good, though perhaps not so loud).

Isla... said...

Regardless of which is actually loudest, the traditional bells win everytime for being just so pleasant & inoffensive.

The 'ping' bell is the standard fitment to most new bikes now in the UK, but is IMO just the cheapest token effort to get over legalities.

My Wifes Pashley came with the 80mm bell, and I think thats what I'll get for my Gazelle which is currently lacking in decibels - save for the squeaky drum brakes, just as they come to a stop :>D

Nice post. There's nothing wrong with a bit of geekery, and the recordings will make a great addition to your webshop.

Neil said...

I believe that most cycle paths in the UK do not prohibit pedestrians. i.e. they have a right to be there. But as you point out, the problem really is that they are often combined or indistinguishable from the footpath.

ndru said...

I have the ding dong bell on my Pashley and to be honest it usually feels like an overkill. Most of the times I like to give just a little warning and instead what comes out sounds like "Get the ef out of my way, peasant!". However I found that if you just nudge the button halfway you only get the ding part which is quite acceptable.
The classic bell however sounds best to me.

Kevin Love said...

My Pashley has the "ding-dong" bell, which I use for warning pedestrians. I also wear my old Army whistle and use it on car drivers. Designed to be heard on a modern battlefield, the whistle is highly effective.

Micheal Blue said...

I have a classic brass bell on my big bike, and like the sound so much, sometimes I ring it just for the heck of it (when nobody is around). Unfortunately, it's too big to fit on my foldable bike. There I have a small Cateye bell; it looks like a tiny brass bell, but is pratically useless. Traffic noises and dog farts completely drown its sound. I also came across two instances of people standing in the middle of the path and I was ringing the brass bell constantly and they didn't even notice me; in the end I had to shout at them. Aliens, perhaps? When riding in traffic, it would be helpful to have some loud electronic noise-maker. Air horns are too bulky.

Anonymous said...

I'm proud to be a geek too! Understanding makes life interesting.

The ding-dong bell is fabulous. I recently rode a bike with one and it not only gets people's attention but it's not as 'aggressive' as most bells. It seems to make pedestrian's smile whereas the lound, single 'ping' bell seems to irritate.

As for the 'loudness' issue. If I'm close to people but I feel I need the bell, I dampen the sound with my finger on the bell and then ring it. It still is audible but it takes it down a notch.


Paul Martin
Brisbane, Australia

WestfieldWanderer said... communicate with other cyclists and pedestrians I'd rather be a bit more friendly.

It's sometimes difficult to tell which is more friendly, voice or bell. I've been chastised for using both: "How dare you ring that bell at me" type of attitude. From experience I've learned that friendly verbal warning is usually the best on, what as you rightly say, the appallingly designed British multi use paths.

Kevin Love said...

David wrote about:

"British planners not actually knowing what a cycle path is. They often seem to think it's the same thing as a narrow walking path, and put both in the same place at the same time..."

Kevin's comment:
Yes! The dreaded Multi-Use Path. Which is OK if it is only for a small cut-through or if the peds know enough to stay off it or is for recreational (slow) use only.

Toronto has been doing a good job recently of seperating peds and cyclists. My all-time favourite cycle path is here:

Peds have their sidewalk (on the left of the photo) cyclists have a cycle path and cars have their path. And the monoliths are all set to crush any car that goes "out of control" long before it gets near any cyclist.

moz said...

I love my big ding-dong bell. I have almost one per bicycle.
I'm curious about how bells work on velomobiles. My rotovelo has no good way to mount a bell, the options being outside the bike where it can be heard which means it has to be next to my ear so I can reach it; or inside the bike where my hands are but it's almost inaudible.
The race kids use piezo horns but pedestrians here either ignore them or jump out of their skin. Neither really works as a bicycle bell.
I really should look around the interwebs for solutions, but I'm hoping you can point me at the one manufacturer whoe makes a bell designed to work through the skin of a velomobile.

David Hembrow said...

Wilfred: The bells in Mangos are quite basic. They're quite similar to the 96 dBA "classic" bell in the test, but usually steel, which sounds not quite so nice as brass.

Dr2chase: I thought about doing something with a PIC playing samples for a "bell", but the problem is with making it anything like loud enough. With a small wide range 3" speaker you're lucky to have a sensitivity of more than 85 dBA from 1 W. To make the 110dBA peaks required to produce a convincing bell sound at a high enough volume to compete with an actual bell, you need a surprisingly powerful amplifier with 50 V power supply rails, and to use enough power that you'll probably damage the speaker itself. Resonant mechanical devices like bells have a huge advantage in making this much noise with minimal energy input.

Moz: The bell in the Mango and Quest is a normal bike bell (similar to the classic bell) with a hole drilled in the lever. There is a mount for the bell near the foot holes at the front of the frame and a piece of string runs from the handlebars down to the bell. That way it's nearer your feet than your ears, and close to the footholes so that the sound comes out better. It mostly works quite well, but it is a little quieter from outside than a bell on an open bike. That's why Wilfred is interested in a louder bell for his Mango.

Slow Factory said...

Very few of the cyclists here in Berlin know how to ring a bell, or have one.

Anonymous said...

One of the most useful posts ever. Thanks for the comparison.


moz said...

My thought for the day is a doorbell. Ringing device on the inside, bell on the outside. The bike bell and string seemed like a good idea until I tried it (months ago), but I had to pull quite hard on my ding-dong bell to make it ring and couldn't get it to mount firmly enough to make me confident. Maybe I should try a smaller bell.
thanks for the info

l' homme au velo said...

In Dublin they have come round with the idea of putting Bells on Bikes but it is those little Snap Lever Bells that come with the Modern Style of Bikes like MTB's and some Sports Bikes just the Basic to comply with the Law. A lot of Bicycles are still sold without any Bells at all, the Law is still a bit Hazy on this.

It is really only the Pashleys and Dutch Bikes that have decent Ding Dong Bells,but you can buy them in Bike Shops if you want to put them on your Bike.

I have Ding Dong Bells on all my Bikes now save the Brompton which has a Snap Lever Bell.
We have the same problems with shared use Paths as the UK with Pedestrians Walking in the middle of them.

I try to warn them a good bit away from them so as not to startle them. I give a few Ding Dongs until I am near ,then in desperation I have to Shout but they do not always hear you. I think the worse time is when they are approaching you on a Path and they still dont move aside and you have to ask them to move over Politely. Then they look at you in a vacant expression and step aside. The worse case Scenario is People with Dogs and long Trailing Leads,Lethal.

Willeke said...

When riding my bike I mostly pedal backwards or let my brake lever click back into the idle position. These are common bicycle sounds that do not disturb people, are not considered rude nor overly loud.
But they work, and in most cases they are louder than my bell.

But a good loud bell is very useful at times, specially if there is something about to go wrong.
If you can not use your bell with both hands on the grips, your bell is in the wrong position. Only if you can brake with just one hand on the grip you can have your bell farther from that ideal position.

Slow Factory said...

Like a car horn, a bicycle bell should not be about "get out of my way" but "here I am!" because a common target is a pedestrian who should always have priority (if not legal priority). Car horns get abused, so why do this with bike bells? Perhaps we need to aim towards "Lovely that I am passing you carefully. Have a nice day!"

Suzanne said...

Very nice! Actually, we from the Vogelvrije Fietser are considering a bell test also. With Chines bell and sogreni design bell.

Anonymous said...

I like the design of the turning bell, very neat. I have a ping bell but only as a momento of my trip to Amsterdam, much prefer to confirm that I am still human by calling out "good morning" or whatever is appropriate.
It is a great feature of cycling that you can speak, even if briefly, to those you meet on your journey. Of course you can have a bell too.
Mark Garrett, Bristol, UK

David J said...

Great post. I like the way you've displayed all your gear in the photo.

I'm so glad you managed to include the Ding-dong bell. Although I've never seen one for sale here in Australia, I do actually have one!
I came on a Chinese bike (a Pheonix)and it is the best sounding bell I've ever heard.

The sound is deep and produces a note that is quite nice to hear.

When I release the leaver and the bell rings as the hammer returns to it's place it makes a different note to the first. (I guess this is why it's called a Ding-dong.... er now I get it...!)

If you've ever ridden on a tram in Melbourne Australia you'll recognize the sound immediately.

I never thought I'd be so enthusiastic about a bell.

cocosolis said...

I have a bell, but in Manchester I'd think twice about using it - people resent it, and the less civil will make their displeasure known! I tend to cough politely, or change gears noisily, instead.

2whls3spds said...

Interesting test. I have quite the range of bells. I primarily use the big Ding Dong bells on my vintage Raleighs. I have the smaller ding bells on my other bikes. Some are steel and some are brass, I find the brass tone more pleasing.

In the US we quite often have to use MUP's for riding, the walkers quite often have some form of personal entertainment ear pods in, if they have them cranked up they are oblivious to anything but a blast from an air horn.

I seem to recall many years ago cars came with two horns that you could switch between, they had the small beep-beep horn and the louder shrill air horns.

For warning walkers and pedestrians I try and gauge my distance and ring the bell a fair distance in advance of overtaking, I also will mute the bell with a finger. The air horn has proved useful in auto traffic, I had one instance where someone was moving over on me in my lane, yapping on the cell phone and totally oblivious to what they were doing, a quick blast from the Air Zounds and the promptly jerked back into their lane.

Yet another reason for dedicated safe cycling infrastructure.


Matt said...

Presumably the Ding-Dong bell would be approved my Nigel Tufnel? Either him or Lesley Phillips...

Kevin Steinhardt said...

The Ding-Dong bell sounds so ... Dutch. :P I don't have a bell on my Hurricane, mainly because it's got underseat steering and handlebar accessories aren't exactly as accessible as they would be on an 'upright' bike. I whistle to alert pedestrians and cyclists.