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How to Deal With Noisy Restaurants and Hearing Loss

New tech can help if you’re fed up with high-decibel dining

Illustration of waitress taking an order in a loud restaurant, customer having trouble hearing her.

REMIE GEOFFROI, AARP

With loud music, high ceilings and hard surfaces that don’t absorb sound, restaurants now find noise to be the top complaint about them, according to the 2018 Zagat National Dining Trends Survey. Entrepreneurs are trying to solve the problem.

Gregory Scott, who has hearing loss, was frustrated at not being able to follow conversations with his fellow diners at restaurants. So he came up with a smartphone app to help. Diners use SoundPrint to take a decibel reading, and the app then averages the location’s readings, so anyone can view relative noise levels before choosing a place for gathering and eating.

You also can search for quiet (or loud, if you’re into that) restaurants in your area based on other users’ evaluations. There are now more than 16,000 users and 30,000 submissions — most so far clustered in big cities like New York and Chicago, but expanding. Scott says he hopes that each submission will “let venue managers know that we care about noise.”

A similar app, iHEARu, created by a Seattle audiologist, is in the early stages of compiling decibel readings at restaurants and other public venues. Yelp, a popular app and website that offers customer ratings and reviews, lists noise level among restaurant attributes, but only in a characterization such as “average”; also, that label is assigned by the business, not customers. And some restaurant critics, including those for the San Francisco Chronicle and the Washington Post, have taken to providing decibel readings in their reviews.


Learn how to test your hearing for free. 


Normal conversation is about 60 decibels; if restaurant noise is 70 to 80 decibels, you’ll need to speak up. Scott notes that New York City restaurants average 77 decibels; bars, 81 decibels. 

He offers some tips for eating out if you have hearing loss or are bothered by restaurant noise. 

  • Before you go: “Call or email ahead and ask to be seated in a quieter area of the restaurant such as an alcove, a separate room, or a table away from the bar, espresso machines, open kitchens or larger tables (because larger tables tend to be louder). It helps to choose restaurants that have incorporated sound absorbers into their design, such as tablecloths, carpeting, plants, upholstered chairs and wider spaces between tables.”
  • When it’s noisy and there’s nowhere quieter you can move: “Ask the venue managers if they can turn down the background music (often a leading cause of excessive noise). It helps tremendously if you can show them a sound-level reading indicating that the place is too loud.”
  • If you read lips: “If you’re part of a larger party, ask to be seated at a round table rather than a rectangular one, and search for places with brighter lighting. Both make it easier to read companions’ lips. And tell the waiter that you read lips, so they can enunciate clearly.”

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