/ 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?


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?

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.

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!

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.

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

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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.

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.

“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”

I’m sure a cinema counts as a workplace for the purposes of the HASW Act.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Duncan, the wider provisions of HASW set duties on employees and employers to protect public safety during their work activities.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Duncan – see example below:

“General duties of employees at work.
It shall be the duty of every employee while at work—
(a)to take reasonable care for the health and safety of himself and of other persons who may be affected by his acts or omissions at work; ”

Here I think “other persons” covers everybody else, including the public.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Duncan, I agree that we often fail to enforce existing safety laws. Perhaps we should aim to try harder in future….

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.

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.

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

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.

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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.

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.

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.

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.

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

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

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

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.

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.

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. 🙁