/ Travel & Leisure

Should cinemas turn down the volume?


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?

Robin Hague says:
8 August 2019

Yes! Adverts and film always uncomfortably loud at my local Vue and Odeon cinemas. I’ve mentioned this to both, but to no avail.

Christine Heare says:
11 October 2019

Just come home from seeing a film at a Vue cinema, now I’ve got a headache and earache.
I asked if the volume could be turned down. Nothing seemed to happen, so I wore earplugs! I discussed this with an employee after the film and was told the films come with settings that can’t be altered. How can this be right. I had the same experience a couple of years ago, but forgot that this was the reason that I didn’t enjoy the experience. How can this be changed?

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Pippa says:
14 January 2020

I’d be interested in the medical points. I’ve just got back from a Vue cinema with ringing ears – even though I took my hearing aids out. Now I remember why it’s been 5 years since I last went to a cinema…
(If you have details on the effects of electric handdryers in public loos I’d also like to have them).

John Martin says:
12 October 2019

The sound is set far too loud, at eardrum bursting levels in Vue cinemas, especially during the trailers. Then, as a special bonus, some additional strobe-lighting effects to trigger a form of epilepsy . With cases of hearing loss increasing dramatically Vue could be held responsible and customers should vote with their feet.

Carol says:
18 October 2019

It is just not comfortable to go to the cinema because the volume is too loud and the adverts are impossible. WHY??

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Rosie Brenton says:
30 December 2019

Most definitely, the dialogue and music is far too loud in a cinema. Damaged ears or what.Disgusting

I don’t know – never found the cinemas that loud around me. The loudest thing I remember is Spiderman at Wyeside Arts Centre and also Jurassic Park at an IMAX. These were loud enough to be fun during the action scenes, but the dialogue was not much louder than an average television cranked about 3/4 of the way.

Perhaps some Cinemas are much louder than others.
I did see a Shaun of the Dead play where the actors’ mics were cranked rather high and whenever the characters shouted it was harsh on the ears.

Roger says:
15 October 2021

I went to the showcase cinema Southampton on 13th Oct this year and was shocked at the volume coming from what must have been scores of speakers positioned near the auditorium. I’m over a certain age and occasionally wear an aid to assist hearing in some areas and so had to immediately remove it as iy actually caused pain in my head. Not wanting to sound like an old fuddy duddy I didnt complain to the people I was with and tried to endure the movie without any fuss. I dont think Im unique in having hearing problems and over the years my unaided hearing tries to automatically compensate for lower noises so the outrageously loud sound from the movie was unmanageable and I had to leave the auditorium on several occasions as the heat and noise in there made me feel very ill and nauseous. It cannot be lawful to expose people to that sort of bombardment and even if it is lawful then some kind of warning should be given before entering these torture chambers. There must or should be a legal obligation by the cinemas to ensure safety and comfort not only in their sumptuous seating but also to the welfare of ALL their customers
In addition to the noise it was very hot and stuffy in there, probably some ploy to extract money for drinks etc, but those conditions taking into account the current Covid situation made the place an ideal breeding ground for the spread of infections.
What unthinking idiots govern these sort of places