At crowded restaurants with loud music, people’s attempts to compensate for the din merely exacerbate the problem.

The Din at Dinner

Acoustics experts in the business-jet industry have been developing ways to better soundproof noisy cabin interiors—but when you get to where you’re going, you’re likely to confront another sonic challenge: noisy restaurants.

Last summer, my wife and I went to dinner at a restaurant in Tampa that was blasting Frank Sinatra. It was one of those stirring Nelson Riddle arrangements, and it sounded as if a dozen trumpets and as many trombones were blaring at a level that could have woken Sinatra from his grave. We couldn’t hear each other talk, which is a complaint you hear a lot these days about restaurants and bars. Many of them are just too darn loud for normal conversation.

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There are several reasons for this, including that interior designers at many restaurants got rid of sound-muffling carpets and even tablecloths in favor of minimalist surfaces like stainless-steel and stone fixtures and hardwood floors. High ceilings became fashionable, too. At the same time, restaurateurs desperate to attract more millennial diners made the questionable assumption that Other People’s Music has general appeal when it is boomed out at belt-grinder decibel levels.

I recently met someone for a business breakfast at the trendy Hash Kitchen at Gainey Village in Scottsdale, Arizona. The turkey-bacon hash with poached egg was very good. But when I arrived at 7:45 a.m. on a weekday to wait for my companion and was the only customer in the place, rock music was blasting so loudly that I couldn’t concentrate on the menu. I asked the waitress whether it could be turned down. She checked and reported that the sound level was preset by the manager.

The Atlantic recently did a piece titled “How Restaurants Got So Loud,” which noted that some restaurant critics now even carry sound-level meters. Also not long ago, the New Yorker had an article titled “Yelp for Noise,” about a new app that enables anyone to measure and report loudness in restaurants and bars. I downloaded the free app, SoundPrint, and got in touch with its creator, Gregory Farber, a research analyst.

“Reaction to the New Yorker piece was fantastic,” Farber said. “Our inboxes got flooded with users’ stories about the frustration of being in noisy places.” He added that he has hearing loss from childhood meningitis and that his quest for restaurants where he could better hear dining companions inspired him to create SoundPrint.

Here’s how the app works: you tap a “Start” button and let the software measure the decibel level of the restaurant or bar for at least 15 seconds. You can then submit the reading to SoundPrint’s searchable database, which at the end of 2018 included more than 20,000 restaurants and bars in cities throughout the U.S. and internationally. The app also is building city-by-city “Quiet Lists,” separating out the places that pass muster for acceptable levels, which Farber defines as below 75 decibels.

My Scottsdale breakfast table maxed at 83 dB—and remember, I was the only customer in the joint and it was 7:45 a.m. “Once you eclipse 76 dB, the ability to hear conversation gets increasingly difficult,” Farber said. At 81 dB and above, “human hearing health is jeopardized.”

At crowded restaurants with loud music, people’s attempts to compensate for the din merely exacerbate the problem. “With each higher notch of background music, people talk louder to be heard, so the noise level keeps increasing,” Farber said.

Restaurants and bars are hardly the loudest venues, of course; but unlike movie theaters (where sound levels sometimes exceed 90 dB) and rock concerts (often 120 dB or even louder), they are places where you expect to have a conversation over a meal or a drink.

My wife and I recently went to a Bob Dylan concert. We left after about an hour because, as I told my wife at dinner afterwards at a noisy restaurant, “If you want to hear some cranky old guy singing incoherently over way-too-loud music, you can actually do that at home a lot cheaper.”

 “What?” she said over the thumping music. I shouted back, “I said, ‘If I want to hear some cranky old guy…’ Oh, never mind. Pass the wine!”