restaurants and bars

Which Restaurants Are Way Too Loud (or Not)? Get Real Data and Share It!

By Kathi Mestayer

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Recently, I found myself in a restaurant that was so noisy, the waitress leaned over and told us, “I can’t hear in here, either!” So, it’s not just me. In fact, a 2015 survey by Zagat that found that noise in restaurants was listed as the top complaint by diners.

One of the more satisfying things I do in that situation is to get out the decibel app on my smartphone and take a measurement. Is it really that loud? The answer is usually yes! I’ve gotten decibel readings as high as 95 dBA (“dBA” refers to decibels adjusted for human hearing). So, I gripe politely to the wait staff or manager, and consider adding it to my “never again” restaurant list. Or I visit during off hours, at 3 p.m.

Then I discovered that there are decibel apps that allow you to share your data on how loud (or quiet!) the restaurant is! Here’s SoundPrint, which I have been using for a couple of years with great success (and whose founder wrote in the Spring 2019 issue of Hearing Health about the genesis for the app).

Here is how SoundPrint works:

1. Download the app from the site above.

2. When you want to take a decibel reading, take out your iPhone, open the app, and touch the “Start” button. Record the dBA level for at least 15 seconds.

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3. Then, hit “Stop.” 

4. To share the sound level at the restaurant/bar/coffeeshop, hit the “Submit” button. 

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5. That will take you to the “Your Location” screen, which will give you its best guess as to where you are. You can also enter the name of the venue into the field near the top. (It will be easier to find the venue if you have the “Locations” setting activated on your iPhone. You can turn it off again immediately, if you’re as paranoid as I am.)

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6. Select the venue and hit “Submit.” Your data will be on the SoundPrint site, without your name or any identification, for the rest of us to see. I’ve submitted data on places that are way too loud or nice and quiet. 

I just took a look, using the Search icon at the lower left of the iPhone screen, at Richmond, Virginia, where I live, and got a few hits! The red ones are way too noisy, orange is pretty noisy, yellow is a little noisy, and green is… quiet! The brown ones are venues that don’t have any data yet.

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Clicking “View details” got me to the address and phone number, and gives you the option of leaving a comment. Now, that said, if you go there and it’s loud, you can take another measurement and submit it, too. And you can add a comment for others to see.

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If SoundPrint users continue to add to the database, for places all around the country, and especially when places are quiet(ish), it results in such a wonderful shared resource! My favorite memory is of the time I was taking a decibel reading and the waitress was looking over my shoulder, very curious about what I was up to. I showed it to her, and hope she shared it with the manager.

Staff writer Kathi Mestayer serves on advisory boards for the Virginia Department for the Deaf and Hard of Hearing and the Greater Richmond, Virginia, chapter of the Hearing Loss Association of America.

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Eight Pairs of Earplugs in Four Noisy Settings: My Hearing Protection Experiment

By Kayleen Ring

Before my 2018 summer internship at Hearing Health Foundation (HHF) in New York City, I underestimated the importance of protecting my ears, often leaving myself at risk for damage from noise at concerts, sporting events, and other loud places. I took my typical hearing for granted until learning that hearing loss is largely caused by noise exposure and can negatively impact the brain function of young adults, even in its mildest forms. But I was also encouraged to discover noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) is preventable. Earplugs in particular are a convenient, low-cost tool for hearing preservation.

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To improve my own hearing health and to create awareness about NIHL, I experimented with different types of earplugs in various loud settings. Expecting no more than a handful of foam options, I was excited to learn what an assortment of earplugs is available—each with different shapes, sizes, and features. Previously, my earplug experience had been limited to basic foam pairs to drown out my college roommates’ snoring!

I evaluated each personal earplug use experience with a 1 to 10 rating—10 being highest—for effectiveness, comfort, and ease of use. The Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) metric indicates how much noise is blocked out by the pair of earplugs.

Setting: Concerts

Just one loud concert (decibel levels up to 120 dB) can cause permanent damage to your ears. I tested earplugs at two musical events.

1. Eargasm High Fidelity Ear Plugs

  • NRR: 16 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

At first, I worried wearing earplugs at a performance by one of my favorite artists would negatively affect my concert experience, but this pair allowed me to hear and enjoy the music perfectly at a reduced volume. They were so comfortable I forgot they were in my ears! They were easy to remove using the pull tab and I  also liked the carrying case they come in, because it fits in my small bag and keeps the earplugs hygienic for reuse.

2. Moldex Pocket Pak Squeeze

  • NRR: 27 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 9

  • Ease of Use: 9

The triple-flange design, neck cord, and carrying case provided a secure earplug experience at an even louder concert where sound levels spiked to 120 dB. Unprotected exposure to noise at this level, which is equivalent to that of ambulance sirens or thunderclaps, can damage hearing in seconds. Fortunately, the ridged edges on the earplugs I used made inserting them far easier and faster than foam earplugs that need to be shaped prior to use.

Setting: Group Fitness

At a popular group fitness class, I recorded sound decibel levels and the results showed extremely loud and dangerous levels of noise. The average was 91 dB and the max was 119 dB over the one-hour class period. For a healthier workout, I wore earplugs.

3. Mack’s Blackout Foam Earplugs

  • NRR: 32 dB

  • Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

These were excellent because I was able to hear the music and the trainers’ instructions, just at a lower volume. Less distracted by the loud music than usual, I was able to focus more carefully on my workout and form. They fit snugly and stayed in place over the course of the 60-minute, high-intensity session.

4. EarPeace “HD” High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 8

I was particularly impressed that this pair included three set of filters offering different levels of protection. I used the highest decibel filter, 19 dB, and found the class music was still clear and enjoyable. My only challenge was properly inserting the very small filters.

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Setting: Restaurants

When I didn’t intern at HHF this summer, I worked at a restaurant on Long Island, New York, that was always busy, sometimes bursting with chatty customers waiting three hours for service. Beyond the crowds, the restaurant had live musical performances that amplified an already loud environment. This is dangerous for workers and patrons alike. Here, the earplugs I wore still allowed me to hear clearly and hold a conversation.

5. Etymotic ER20XS High-Fidelity Earplugs (NRR: 13 dB)

  • NRR: 13 dB

  • Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Etymotic earplugs had the positive qualities of the typical high-fidelity earplugs and included three interchangeable eartips, a hygenic carrying case, and a neck cord, providing a secure and effective earplug experience.

6. EarPeace “S”High Fidelity Earplugs

  • NRR: 19 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 10

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 10

This pair was great. They reduced the noise perfectly so it was at a comfortable yet still audible volume. The dual-flange design and soft silicone material made the earplugs fit well, were comfortable and easy to use.

Setting: New York City Subway

Decibel levels on the subway platforms trains are extremely high and can cause hearing damage, especially for frequent riders and employees. For my tests, I sat inside the 34th St-Penn Station 1/2/3 subway station across the street from the HHF office, where I was greeted by screeching trains, talkative tourists, and a steel drums player.

7. Moldex Sparkplugs

  • NRR: 33 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 9

  • Comfort: 10

  • Ease of Use: 9

The Sparkplugs blocked out noise while allowing me to hear conversations and train announcements. They were easy to mold into my ears, allowing for optimal noise reduction. The pattern on the earplugs is colorful and fun, making them appealing for children, and easily locatable in your bag.

8. Alpine Plug & Go

  • NRR: 30 dB

  • Overall Effectiveness: 8

  • Comfort: 8

  • Ease of Use: 8

These foam earplugs reduced volume but the noise was muffled. Consequently, these would be a great option for more sedentary activities, like sleeping and flying, where you are aiming to block out all noise. The foam was comfortable and fit snugly in my ears, but was challenging to mold.

The reviews and ratings here are based on my individual experiences and are not intended to encourage or discourage anyone’s use of specific earplugs. High ratings are not product endorsements. As someone newly informed about the dangers of noise, it is my hope my summer intern experiment for HHF will raise awareness and inspire others to investigate hearing protection that best meets their needs.

Kayleen Ring is a former marketing and communications intern at HHF. She studies marketing in the honors program at Providence College in Rhode Island.

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A Tool to Discover Quieter Restaurants and Voice Concern for Loud Noise

By Gregory Scott

Restaurants and bars are simply too loud. In New York City, restaurants, on average, have decibel levels (77 dBA) that make conversation very difficult.  And bars are even worse with sound levels (81 dBA) that put people in danger of noise-induced hearing loss.  

When you go out, do you strain to hear a friend, family member, date or business partner?  Do you wish venues were quieter to carry a conversation? Looking for a polite way to ask managers to reduce their noise levels? Do you seek a way to find out where the quieter spots are in your city?

These questions have been on my mind the past few years. As someone with hearing loss, I am sensitive to loud venues and have often struggled to hear companions in noisy bars and restaurants.

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I recall many times sitting at a restaurant table feeling completely lost in the conversation while others conversed and connected with each other. I would often nod my head in unison with the conversation, pretending to hear my companions when I could not, and then idly pass the time by entertaining myself with whatever fiction entered my head. At home, I would google “quiet spots,” which was often a fruitless endeavor. A place listed as quiet would often be blasting with music when I arrived with my date. This type of setting was not a great environment to talk in and get to know someone.

To overcome these issues, a free iPhone decibel meter app called SoundPrint has been created primarily for the hearing-impaired community, but even those with typical hearing can benefit. SoundPrint is also helpful for the blind, those with autism, or those who simply prefer quiet environments.

SoundPrint allows you to discover the quieter venues in your city. Using the app’s internal decibel meter, you can measure the actual noise level of any venue, which is then submitted to a SoundPrint database that anyone can access to find out if a certain venue is quiet or loud. A database for your city is created and, with each submission, is enriched and becomes more valuable. In addition, submitting SoundPrint measurements is an effective way to tell venue managers that you and others care about noise levels and that they should mitigate the increasing din.

An initial trial in New York City has begun and to date, 3,000+ venues have been measured, many of which have been measured three times or more. This has resulted in an invaluable curated list of 30 local quiet spots where one can actually hear others! No longer am I just sitting at a restaurant table unable to participate; rather I am engaged in the conversation and able to connect with companions.

The goal is to generate a similar list for other cities and let venue managers know that we care about noise. Join the SoundPrint community by measuring a venue when you are out. By doing so, you are helping each other discover which venues are quiet and noisy.

Gregory Scott is the founder of the SoundPrint app and is involved in the New York City hearing-impaired community. For more information, and to join the newsletter, visit SoundPrint's website and download the app. SoundPrint is only available for the iPhone, but venues are searchable on the app’s website. Greg is looking for SoundPrint ambassadors for other cities outside of New York (greg@soundprint.co).

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