/ Travel & Leisure

Should cinemas turn down the volume?

cinema

For some, the sound levels at the movies can be unbearably loud. Our guest, opera singer Christopher Gillett, thinks cinemas should turn down the volume. Do you?

I may be of a certain age, nearly 60, but I’m no stranger to loud music. I’m a professional opera singer. Singing loudly is what I do for a living.

I’ve spent my career standing in front of massed choirs and full-sized symphony orchestras playing hell-for-leather through the very loudest works of Wagner, Beethoven and Britten. I really do know what loudness means and how it works in the field of entertainment.

Not so Lucky

At least I thought I did until I went to the Odeon cinema in Cardiff last week to see the film Logan Lucky.

The film isn’t to blame. It’s a good movie. And in the context of the mass of superhero films that make up the larger part of the cinemagoer’s choice of films these days, short on the crashes, bangs, booms and thuds that are the regular diet of the modern cinematic sound engineer.

The soundtrack isn’t symphonic. There are no wailing choirs or thumping timpani. No, the grievance I’m airing is that the volume level of the whole experience, especially the trailers and adverts, was set well beyond a Spinal Tap 11, all the way up to 19 or 20.

The cinema, a 400-seater or more, was empty save for five punters, yet the volume was cranked up as though we were sitting in a packed Wembley Stadium. It was physically painful – nauseating, even.

I was about to complain, but when the main feature began, the volume was lowered, although once or twice, as a song kicked in, it became unbearably loud again.

When characters whispered, they may as well have been yelling. A rustle of paper sounded like a hurricane through a palm tree. By the end of the movie my ears were whistling and hissing with tinnitus.

We spoke to an usher who agreed it was probably too loud, but claimed there was nothing they could do. The volume was ’set by the distributor‘. It seemed like an unlikely explanation.

Harmful to hearing?

I know parents of young children who will only take their kids to movies wearing ear defenders. They are complaining that their ears hurt after seeing Despicable Me.

This can’t be right. Hearing loss is already a problem among younger adults, thanks to long exposure to overamplified music in pubs and clubs. Now it seems we want to deafen our children when they visit the cinema.

The orchestras I stand in front of have taken strong measures to protect their players; some wear earplugs, others are protected by Perspex baffles.

I think it’s time for cinemas to show leadership in preventing hearing loss and turn down the volume.

If they don’t, I, for one, won’t go any more.

This is a guest post by Christopher Gillett. All views expressed here are Christopher’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?

Do you find the sound at the cinema too loud? Or do you think it’s just right and part of the experience?

Comments
Guest
S Towneley says:
16 September 2017

Yes! the music is way too loud. And what about our children’s ears? Might the unpleasant sound levels help explain why cinemas are often empty?

Guest
Vik Cooke says:
19 September 2017

I also find the volume watching films in cinemas is too high. Also I agree that the background music is always too high. Sometimes drowns out the dialogue.

Guest
J Miller says:
16 September 2017

Yes, definitely. I find it painfully loud at times – and I have just been advised to get hearing aids!

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Guest

In fact the volume control can be adjusted. It’s worthwhile making your concerns known to the management at the outset, who should respond sympathetically, especially if you mention potential dire consequences to hearing.

One problem cinemas face is the inconsistency of the editing stage in any production. There is no standardised sound level for a film, and the aim in some editing suites is to ensure that the sound FX are very loud, so as to provide the shock factor important to the Director’s intent. There are also numerous filters that can be applied, of which the compressor and expander filters tend to be the villains, if not carefully handled.

I encountered this only once – in an American cinema – and went to see the manager. He apologised profusely and took the level down by around 20db. But modern systems can adjust all the sound parameters, so they can reduce the amplitude of a sound track in frequency-defined ‘slices’.

Overall, a good sound track at its loudest shouldn’t hurt the ears at all and at its quietest should still be clearly discernable.

As a final aside, Christopher, like you I have performed before a full symphony orchestra, albeit on a piano, so I’m sure you’re aware that hearing damage is related more to the frequency mix than to the overall volume. Thus a symphony orchestra in some of Mahler’s symphonies might register an output similar to a Jet engine, but it’s the latter that will de the most damage in the shortest time to your irreplaceable hearing.

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Guest

20 db? I can’t remember the exact details but I believe 3db is double the sound so that is absolutely insane!

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Guest

It’s not quite that simple. Decibels express a power ratio, not an amount. They tell how many times more (positive dB) or less (negative dB) but not how much in absolute terms. Decibels are logarithmic, not linear. For example, 20 dB is not twice the power ratio of 10 dB.

The defining equation for decibels is

A = 10*log10(P2/P1) (dB)

where P1 is the power being measured, and P1 is the reference to which P2 is being compared.

To convert from decibel measure back to power ratio:

P2/P1 = 10^(A/10)

If you want a fairly simple comparison a Military jet aircraft take-off from aircraft carrier with afterburner at 200 ft is roughly 130 dB. 110 dB however, is live rock music or inside a steel mill.

They’re both loud – both painfully so, but a 20dB reduction makes it tolerable instead of permanently damaging.

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Guest
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Guest

Ian-You have to take into account Ian that at levels below pain prolonged exposure to noise progressively causes the death of nerve hair follicles which might go unnoticed for a long while till you have trouble hearing low levels of decibels . There is no “magic ” restoration of hearing other than hearing aids and that operation non but the brave would allow. “A” weighted sound levels closely match the human ear in perception of loudness and are measured on the logarithmic scale so that a small change in decibels results in a huge change of noise and potential damage to ears . Just quoting decibel levels without directly relating it to long term ear damage wont show the full story . In the US a workers exposure to noise (8 hour day ) should not go over 90 DBA (PEL) The OSHA standard uses a 5DB exchange rate so if the noise is increased to that level the workers exposure to it should be halved. 100DB= LESS than 15 minutes daily exposure. I wouldn’t argue too much with this the US government Dept.of Labor has its qualified audiologists backing it.

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Guest

I agree, but even though it is loud often speech is not clear and discernible. It seems that authenticity in the way of background noises often take priority over clear understandable speech. Though I wear hearing aids, I have made a point of asking younger member of the audience, if they had difficulty in understanding what was said. More often than not it is NO. With an ageing population we need to address this problem, especially so when a significant part of cinema audiences seem to be in their late fifties onward.

Guest
RedRob says:
16 September 2017

I agree, in fact, I take earplugs with me if I go to the cinema or theatre. I forgot once when attending our local theatre hosting a well respected blues artist. I sat through the event with my fingers in my ears. I wrote to the theatre’s manager to complain of the excessive sound level, pointing out that young people were also subjected to damaging sound levels. I did get a reply, just to say that nobody else had complained.
I have had experience in sound level measurement and know that if the levels of sound that I have experienced in cinemas and music venues were found in workplaces, the owners would be bound to provide ear protection in accordance with the Health and Safety at Work Act. It’s a pity that the general public don’t have the same protection in their leisure activities.

Guest
S.Johnson says:
16 September 2017

Most certainly,went to the cinema last week, first time in months won’t be going again the sound was far too loud, l will wait until they come out on DVD at least you can control the sound button.

Guest

CSTB says:
For many years I have found sound levels too high for comfort and comprehensibility, especially for speech. Ordinary everyday sounds like a door closing are served up at an unrealistic level. In my view not only should the overall sound level be reduced but the bass content of the sound track should be drastically reduced as too much bass drowns or masks the higher intelligence-bearing frequencies so essential for understanding speech.

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Guest

Bass I find particularly painfull and have turned my tv and car levels down yet it still bothers me at times.

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Guest

I haven’t been to the cinema for a few years now, a film was advertised a few months ago which I thought would be best seen on the movie screen but decided not to bother as the last couple of times I had been the sound was way to loud and I left the building with my ears ringing. I have slight tinnitus already but loud music etc makes this very uncomfortable for a few hours afterwards and so I will wait until it either comes out on DVD or is shown on the TV and have the sound at a much lower and more comfortable level.

Guest
Sparty says:
16 September 2017

Completely agree. Went to see Dunkirk at the local cinema a few weeks ago and the louder scenes were physically painful.

With so much talk about the decrease in cinema attendance they really should be looking at things like this. Make the experience unpleasant and you’ll end up with unhappy punters.

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Guest

Its many decades since I went to a cinema , well — 1970,s in Harrowgate -Yorksheer (as John Lennon would say ) but I remember the innovation of Cinemascope in the 50,s which was accompanied by what I would describe as “awesome ” sound from high quality equipment . I posted a short while back that the new American Freeview channel Blaze had background so loud that you could hardly make out what was said and that put me off watching it – they described it as – the American “way ” , if so all Americans must either be “deef ” as they say there or have zero attention span . I dont know if they take note of Which convos or if I was not the only one to complain but they have now turned it down —-a notch.

Guest

I will enclose a rather longer comment here than I normally would because of the uncanny deja vue of the situation. Odeon Bournemouth recently sent me a survey after viewing a film there and I commented that the volume had ruined my evening and made me nauseous. They replied with an apology for the ruined evening but gave me the company line of:
“All of our screens volumes have been checked and do comply with health and safety laws.
American Made is in our state of the art Isense screen.
Isense does have different speakers to our other screens as it hosts Dolby Atmos surround that are known for heightening the realism and impact of every scene, with high clarity to create a completely lifelike and realistic experience, bringing you closer to the film”.

Below is my reply to them which has uncanny echoes – point by point – of Christopher Gillett, Opera Singer’s article which I have just spotted:

“I do know that the isense cinema is different in that it has speakers with Dolby surround for clarity, realism and impact, but surely speakers of that calibre should ’speak for themselves’ as it were, without having to increase the volume to ’blasting’ level. I have some lovely Bose speakers at home and their quality means you never have to blast out sound to enjoy it – in fact, really high volume causes them too loose finesse and quality. Less is more, sometimes.

I accept that all your screens volumes have been checked and do comply with health and safety laws, I do wonder about the volume of the preceding trailers, however. Trailers and ads are always louder which has made me take the decision, from now on, only to enter the cinema after they have finished. As I had decided, regretfully, a year ago to give up on Tower Park Cinemas, Poole, for the same reason, even though they aren’t quite as loud as Odeon. My husband joked that maybe I should bring my hotel wax earplugs with me to American Made! I did and certainly needed them for the trailers. With the mouldable earplugs full inserted (to a degree where I would hear nothing in a hotel) I could hear every word of the trailers so clearly that I wouldn’t have known I was using earplugs. I cannot accept that this level is healthy for anyone and am quite sure it isn’t for children. ‘Health and Safety’ make a fuss over much less!

As there are quite a few comments in reviews about the volume in Bournemouth’s Odeon cinemas, why don’t the maneagement do a trial for a month where one showing of each film is specifically advertised as screened at ‘user friendly’ volume level and see the public’s reaction. As someone who has worked in Customer Services for a big multi-national airline all my life (hence really wanting to enjoy the flying theme of American Made!) I am fairly confident that the experiment would be popular with the public and provide very good PR for Odeon cinemas, as being an innovative way of attracting ‘more mature’ (maybe mentally rather than age-wise) cinema-goers that Bournemouth has in sizeable numbers!! Never underestimate the buying power and discernment of that particular sector! Maybe you could pass on that suggestion to the ‘Powers That Be’ at the top of Odeon Manageament I joined the Odeon cinema club because I enjoy films on a large screen and am one of those customers you are keen to attract as I can afford to go to the cinema regularly (even at Isense extortionate rates!) but actually can’t bear to sit through most of the films on offer, because of the volume. With the long winter nights approaching, there are lots of us out here only too happy to spend evenings at the cinema, if it were a relaxing experience”.

The cinema is so expensive now, Odeon Isense particularly so, that maybe people should make their views known and demand a response. The customer isn’t always right (in my experience) but on this occasion I feel they are.

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Guest

There is an issue that’s been known about for some years regarding the hearing of the technicians who set sound levels in cinemas.

Hearing loss has become quite marked in children over the past 20 years, owing to over-exposure to loud music in discos and home cinema systems and the like. These young children become the technicians who adjust sound levels in cinemas, and thus adjust to to their hearing level.

It was well documented some years ago that the US navy was finding it very difficult to train sonar operators, owing to so many of the young men in the navy having hearing defects.

Guest

I totally agree . The sound level in my local cinema (Showcase Bluewater) is frequently far too loud. The most recent instance for me being a couple of weeks ago when we went to see ‘Dunkirk’. It wasn’t the main feature film so much, but the ads and trailers preceding it. I spent the whole of the first few minutes in the cinema with my fingers in my ears considering whether to leave or not.

Guest
Regan Toomer says:
16 September 2017

Surely it would be possible for a cinema to formally decide on a realistic maximum dB level and install audio limiters on the power amplifiers to bring down otherwise excess volume? The technology is hardly complex and certainly not expensive.

Guest
D HANNIGAN says:
16 September 2017

One of the main reasons I will not go to the cinemas——I thought it must be me as nobody else seemed affected by it being so loud

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Guest

I don’t think I have been to the cinema since the last Conversation about it. The adverts are more than enough to put me off.

I wonder if putting popcorn in our ears will help protect our hearing.

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Guest

Lucy has made a very interesting post and a few points are raised -1- iSense which is usually applied in a medical aspect . AS someone deeply involved in Audio since the early 60,s in building/repairing/modifying /redesigning top end hi-fi I have never come across this nor heard it mentioned , but I stopped about 10 years ago so maybe its a medical /scientific view of acoustics ? . 2- Dolby I do know about but there again I stopped at -5-1 . Dolby Atmos is a -7-1 system where speakers are positioned all round the cinema with several drivers ( loudspeakers ) facing upwards , so that the sounds bounce off the cinema ceiling as well as others off the walls-ceiling speakers are also added + centre focus . This has been praised by many on the technical side as presenting an “exhilarating -electric- total “enjoyment ” effect for the audience and as I mentioned about the US transferring its audience participation surveys its all about USA audience enjoyment . It has never occurred to US minds that British people like a bit of subtly judging them to be “Americanized ” now . Remember the craze for 5-1 Dolby in your Home Cinema outfit , well this is the giant- big brother of it but while you can tune or turn down your home system you cant do that with in a cinema .If anybody wants I can go into the finer technical details but Lucy is quite right any digital modification of a sine-wave of say 20Hz- 20Khz is NOT real hi-fi or better -is NOT top end AUDIO reproduction due to many digital methods including compression . Remember folks , they said it passed all the audio health laws and its “not ” emphasizing any frequency excessively , but cast your minds back to the uproar when adverts sounded very loud compared to the normal speech on the TV programmes , that used the same techniques AND the same excuses. You want real hi-fi top end sound ? then spend many £1000,s to obtain it for what you hear in cinemas is nowhere near it Compression=distortion in most cases . I am prepared to argue this with anybody disagreeing on the technical points and I can go deep into this ,if required . As the Aussies are wont to say- Good on ya Lucy gal !! top post for me !

Guest
Uni Howard says:
17 September 2017

Problem is the more people listen to louder sounds , they become accustomed to that level and therefore want/need sound even louder. For those of us who listen at a more reasonable level we suffer even with hearing aids out often because of the vibration of the bass sounds. It can actually be quite a painful experience, although my young deaf relative loves it because it provides a sensation not otherwise experienced. What we need from the voice is clarity and good enunciation not increased volume.

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Guest

I had a look at Odeon “Isense ” I see it in a cinema,s case it relates to 4K projection , therefore “Isense ” has different meanings when related tp physical entities . Isense .Corp of American is in the medical device business and manufactures sensory devices that interface with the human body . It does not take a leap of faith to work out the transference of meaning to Odeon cinemas – equipment interfacing with humans to obtain a reaction , in this case disgust at bursting eardrums or the perceived mental equivalent to it. As a matter of fact reading their resume including wireless remote devices /probes / etc used to control human behavior I can see how bigger US government entities would be generously backing them . We are only one step away from cinema mass hypnosis where you walk out thinking -wow ! that was great. Well –you just cant get away from the Land of Built to a Price – Odeon+UCI -owned by US AMC- owned by ???— Chinese conglomerate , Dalin Wanda -founder-Wang Jianlin- multi billionaire. I see isense (music ) sells apps etc I also see the word “ISense ” isn’t patented , at least I cant find a patent on it.

Guest
bishbut says:
17 September 2017

No comments I have not been to the cinema for years Cannot afford the prices fo anything there

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Guest

I found this on the website of the UK Cinema Association (a trade body) website:

Cinema sound levels
Investment in the cinema environment has resulted in the installation of systems capable of astonishing sound quality.

While this is welcomed by the vast majority, the Association is aware that on occasion it does give rise to concerns about sound levels.

No cinema operator would of course wish to cause discomfort to audience members. Cinema technicians regularly test sound levels and set them within a comfortable range. Notwithstanding this, cinemas also operate within the established guidelines for noise exposure for employees as set out in the Health and Safety (The Control of Noise at Work) Regulations 2005.

With regard to audience exposure to noise, there is no similar statutory standard, but cinemas tend to use the criteria specified in the 2005 Regulations as an authoritative guide. In practice, the actual levels in theatres are generally set well below the upper recommended limit.

Any member of the audience who is experiencing discomfort about the noise levels within a cinema theatre should let a member of staff know.

I’m not sure what ‘astonishing sound quality’ has to do with sound level.

Maybe we need more than guidelines and legislation relevant to the workplace.

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Guest

Sound in entertainment is a notoriously tricky arena. I have a 9:1 sound system at home and there’s an entire set up process to ensure the sound levels are properly adjusted. However, the disparity in amplitude between channels is astonishing. It’s something the industry has failed to get right for a long time.

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The trade body’s website states: “In practice, the actual levels in theatres are generally set well below the upper recommended limit.” Sometimes I don’t believe what I read. 🙁

Guest
Alan Roberts says:
18 September 2017

Yes the sound needs turned down but the adverts needs scrapped too , they’re normally louder too. I never watch ad’s and I object to being forced to watch them at my local cinema (Eden Court in Inverness). I’ve paid to watch the movie so stick it on at the advertised time please.

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Alan-Its a long time since I visited a cinema , I don’t remember much in the way of adverts but subliminal images were tried out then , it brought a lot of criticism and was supposedly scrapped . Your right about the adverts being “louder ” although somebody will come on and say technically they aren’t . This,to me , makes applying Standards of a technical nature to a human being look a bit stupid. Its perception that counts and adverts just sound louder than normal , especially on TV. Would you defend Standards in the face of deafness ??

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The adverts are not inherently ‘louder’ but they’re run through compressors to ensure the dynamic range of the ads is all at the same level – loud – which means they all sound loud. Not defending this technique, since I deplore it myself, but it’s how they can argue it’s within ‘accepted parameters’. So you’re right, Duncan.

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It’s clear that proper regulation is needed and maybe dynamic range compression to make the ads sound louder should be outlawed.

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Guest

I totally agree.

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Guest

I know they are run through compressors Ian I knew that decades ago , I have brought this up before on Which.. I know the whole principle of dynamic compression techniques . Audio is a “specialty ” of mine but compression and distortion go together , any change in the flatness of the frequency response ( in db,s ) constitutes distortion. A good power amp can have a flatness to 0.1 db ( orc less ) between 20Hz and 20Khz , a top end amp can extend that to 100Khz or more THere is a school of thought that say it doesnt matter about the very high frequencies because you dont hear them but you as a Classical music aficionado should know that you lose a certain “feel ” for the tonal qualities if there is a sharp cut-off at 20Khz. Its not easy to put into words but I am sure many musicians agree with me.

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Guest

Yes; there’s also some evidence that frequencies you would not expect to hear can have a subliminal effect on your overall appreciation of music.

Guest
Phil Williams says:
18 September 2017

I took my grandchildren to Vue in Swansea a few years ago to see ‘Happy Feet’ and had to stuff kitchen roll in my ears as it was HURTING !

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Phil-If your ears hurt with sound -BEWARE I have intimate knowledge on deafness having dual NHS heaviest duty hearing aids . I suffer both from conductive deafness and NERVE DAMAGE , nerve damage can NOT be cured . What happens in deafness is the small hairs in your ears connected to the nerves are BLASTED to death and so you progressively become very deaf. Last resort ?? a hole drilled in your skull and electrodes inserted connected directly to your auditory nerves and the brain and yes it looks terrible unless you are a female with long hair. Yes I have seen it.

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Guest

While we’re at it can we get the tv to turn down the bass and music that many people find so annoying? We have to decide whether to listen to the dialogue or everything else, to hear the talking you have to have it at unpleasant levels when the music or explosions come in.

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Guest

What you are getting whoblggs is American “entertainment ” values of loud noises to keep the attention span going.. Sadly we have longer attention spans of more than one microsecond.

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Guest

That’s not the entire story, Duncan. TV shows are now routinely edited to accommodate 7:1 surround systems and this can have unfortunate consequences if you’re using simply a sound bar or the TV speakers. Couple that to the fact that most sound editors themselves are youngish and possibly have hearing damage through disco attendance in their youth then you have the perfect recipe for over loud sound FX.

The other factor is that big movies are all dubbed in the sound editing phase to make gun shots sound like the editor believes the audience will imagine a gun shot to sound and explosions to sound like the editor thinks the audience would imagine an explosion to sound (see where I’m going?), so it’s little wonder that dialogue often becomes mislaid and barely audible. Add to that the fact that editors use the best quality speaker systems, costing many thousands, and edit to make it sound good on those, when the average punter then has to make it work on the Lidl amp and speaker package, you can start to see where the problems arise.

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Guest

Ian-The problem I have is that I have a high quality amp and high wquality speakers connected to my TV. When I say “high quality” -I mean high quality .The speakers are high end Tannoy -floor-standing the amp is self built using mosfets at the output – frequency response 15Hz- 143Khz -+/- 0.3db ( flat to 20Khz ) -DC connected = output balanced to off-set 2 millivolts -NO tone controls -direct feed etc. I have no trouble hearing all the flaws in the sound . They are also using the same techniques that were once banned by public adverse reaction decades ago so the excuse its a different method doesn’t wash with me – STILL the same old LOUD adverts , still the same old methods used , another piece of public control made a long time ago , re-introduced to sell.. Its obvious by the PC adverts in this country that young people are making them and the latest email adverts are now in giant letters of one sentence exactly like malware emails .I never click on any of them so wehave loud adverts and visually loud lettering -all to sell-all to make a profit -all to destroy peoples health .

Guest
Richard Scott says:
19 September 2017

Yes, we saw “Dunkirk” recently, and the gunfire and explosions were painfully loud and unpleasant. The “noise” spoiled the experience, and we could not always hear the spoken dialogue which was muffled.
I am always surprised at the poor quality sound in cinemas these days. This is the 21st century, and they should be able to transmit Hi-Fi sound without it being unpleasant.
I would not be surprised if the sound levels for gunfire and explosions are illegal.

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Guest

Thats a very good point Richard , anybody can stick speakers all over cinema but it takes a REAL professional audio company to Position the speakers correctly and even that is not good enough . To do the job right requires very expensive laboratory class technical equipment costing totals of £100,000 + to measure the return response both in decibels and frequency response plus harmonic distortion of each set of speakers , as the sound hits the ceiling/walls/audience etc and returns. It requires technicians of a high caliber – and even an Electrical Engineer who,s expertise is audiology as applied to audio reproductive systems. They dont come cheap. The science involved is no simple algebra but the ability to check sound waves reflecting off all types of surfaces . I cannot see any cinema paying out large amounts of money on that scale. The microphones connected for reception alone cost £1000,s.

Guest
David Mockridge says:
19 September 2017

The sound quality is one issue, fair enough, but this is a separate thing to the volume. No matter if it is perfect Dolby digital or just a 16mm projector with a speaker in the lid, if it is turned up too loud, it will damage hearing. And be deeply unpleasant.

Guest

Yes definitely. I usually stand outside until trailers etc are over while my partner keeps my seat. I have actually asked for the sound to be turned down in our local cinema but wouldn’t do so elsewhere.

Guest

It’s some time since I have been to the cinema, I think the last time was to a cinema in Colwy Bay, Noth Wales which is also a theatre and the sound was just acceptable. However I recently was invited to our local Cineworld in Llandudno to see Dunkirk. I think the sound and effects must have been like being at the real thing, the sound was so loud.

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From the 2016 Annual Report of the UK Cinema Association: “Reminding everyone of the millions of pounds that had been invested in recent times by operators in the cinema experience, the Association nevertheless noted that different people have different levels of tolerance when it comes to volume in particular, and encouraged any customer who found cinema sound to be too loud (or indeed too quiet) to make this known to cinema staff.” So ask for the volume to be turned down (or up!) when you next visit the cinema. You may have to shout to be heard.