/ 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?

Anna says:
6 October 2018

I don’t go to the big chain cinemas but to our local Picturehouse and particularly their Screen Arts. Recently ‘Turandot’ from the Met was screened at an almost unbearable volume – though I (in my mid 70s) seemed to be the only person affected by it. I spent most of the time with my hands pressed into my ears and will wear ear plugs another time. It seems to be a new trend and I’m not at all happy with it.

I’m a part time projectionist at an Art Cinema in Croydon and West End (of London) screening room following my retirement as a broadcast sound engineer. Most, if not all cinemas that are part of a large chain do not have any projectionists or technical people on site. Films are centrally programmed to start at a particular time, along with turning lights down and playing of commercials and trailers. The volume is set to a particular level that is recommended as a “Dolby line Up” which suits most films but not all. It certainly doesn’t suit trailers which have sound levels that are markedly higher (with compression also added) than features in general. Small cinemas that are not part of a large chain and which operate manually with associated projection operator will tend to adjust volume to suit the film (features also vary slightly) but because of my background I’m probably rather more pedantic about this aspect than others may be.

Thank you, Roger, for that information. I thought centralised control was the explanation because there is no difference from one cinema to another within the same chain. Presumably the physical film or disc is not even present either in the multiplexes but streamed from Odeon Central Control or Vue HQ.

My wife and I gave up going to the cinema years ago because it was too loud. We both now have ear defenders which we wear in our church because the music there is uncomfortably loud as well. Why is there this need for high noise levels everywhere?

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Adam Raphael says:
6 October 2018

Both my local Vue cinemas (Shepherd’s Bush and Westfield, London) are a nightmare because their sound levels, particularly when showing ads, are deafening. When I complained to Vue, they replied that they observe sound levels set by the local authority. They don’t apparently care about their customers’ experience. This is a shortsighted policy. No wonder I prefer to stay at home and watch and listen in peace to a good video.

Lucy says:
20 January 2019

I have just returned from watching The Favourite at Westfield Shepherds Bush. The cinema was too hot I thought I might faint as I have low blood pressure and the adverts were uncomfortably loud especially the one at the end advertising Dolby sound which was never ending and when I thought it might stop continued. There’s something very disempowering
about being in a situation where you’re spent
a lot of money and been sold unpriced but expensive food and drink

I am quite amazed that in the current era of health and safety no one seems to care about subjecting the young (and the rest of us too) to very loud noise in cinemas. I’m now at the age where my hearing is beginning to deteriorate, but for years I have been finding sound levels in the cinema too loud, which is one of the reasons I rarely go. Would audiences really find films less exciting if the sound system was set at a non-injurious level? Like Anna, I went to a Met Opera screening and found that too loud throughout – and the whole show was 4 hours long as well!

I think the Health and Safety at Work act is not administered evenly in all workplaces and, in particular, leisure industries get rather less scrutiny that do high hazard industries.

For those employed there, a cinema is a workplace, so they should take care that their activities cannot harm the public – including, of course, their paying customers.

We’ve simply stopped going to the cinema in E14 or E15 because the adverts are painfully loud and the staff on site can do nothing to help. On the rare occasions I go now, I wear earplugs. I’ve used a phone app that, while probably not technically accurate, supports my belief that if I were on a building site, I would be required to wear ear-defenders. The contempt with which these companies treat us is breathtaking.

Nicola to eri says:
4 February 2019

My last few outings to the cinema ( once every six months) have become unbearable because the sound levels are too high. Adverts feel like an assault and I hold my hands over my ears. I know I’m not alone. Something should be done about this.

Helen McAllister says:
10 February 2019

Yes, it’s far too loud, especially in the adverts. We go in just before the film starts (15 minutes after advertised time) to avoid this, but we don’t go as often as we might because it’s so loud. As there are 4 of us, it’s cheaper and healthier to wait and buy the DVD.

I dislike going to the cinema as it is too loud. I have tried wearing ear plugs and that does not work.

Laura Baldwin says:
10 February 2019

I have to take earplugs to help me cope at the cinema, otherwise it can be unbearable.

Jane Silbert says:
10 February 2019

We are very lucky to have a great little local cinema but I hadn’t been for a while and when I went to see Mary Queen of Scots last week I couldn’t believe how loud it was. I thought at first it was just the adverts blaring out but when the film started it maintained the same painful volume. It’s not as though the sound has anything else to compete with!

P Jones says:
10 February 2019

I can’t bear to go to the cinema anymore because of the high volume of sound. I used to try to arrive in time to miss the ads which were totally deafening but the films are not much better. It comes to something when you have to put your fingers in your ears to shut out the even noisier parts of films, this is usually when there is some fast action or increased drama. The loud level of sound in cinemas takes away all the pleasure of enjoying a film in the cinema.

To all the new people posting on this – Welcome to the Convo Community!

I am not surprised this has got people talking. We were at the cinema at the weekend with our 6 year old and some of his friends. We all struggled with how loud it was. When you can’t hear the running commentary of 4 children over the sound of a film you know it is loud.

I have been to the cinema on several occasions with my grandson who is 4 years old and he always says he doesn’t like the loud noise. I am all in favour of surround sound but do think the sound needs to be turned down. We don’t want to see a generation of young people with hearing impairment.

I Recently visited a Vue cinema in Hertfordshire to see Mary Poppins with my daughter, and found the volume so painfully loud that it set off my tinnitus. I watched most of the film with my fingers in my ears and swore that I would not go back to this cinema again. It completely spoilt a good film for me. We need stronger laws and spot checks on volume levels at places of entertainment to stop these venues damaging people’s hearing.

Sadly, I gave up going to the cinema years ago because of the volume of the soundtrack, way too loud and spoiled any hope of enjoying the film.

Brian says:
7 August 2019

The surround sound is great and yes, sometimes it is very loud. But, it does drown out those who insist on talking all the time and the inconsiderate who insist on unwrapping food, sweets, popcorn.

Mike Sheppard says:
7 August 2019

I gave up going to the cinema in Bristol nearly two years ago. I value my hearing too much to endure the excessive volume.

Fiona Turner says:
7 August 2019

Definitely the volume should be turned down. I use ear plugs and still suffer with the volume and I am mid 70s! We hardly go to the cinema due to the loudness of adverts and the actual film.