/ 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?


I do not go to the cinema because it is to loud and damages hearing.

I also go to the Odeon in cardiff. I agree sound level is far too loud. I have to wear Alpine ear plugs. Cineworld in Cardiff is just as bad. Do Environmental Health from Cardiff City Council ever check the levels. Thanks for raising this.

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It would be interesting to know whether anyone has actually spoken to the cinema manager or written to the owning company about the volume levels, and with what result.

I believe one of the problems is that in many films made these days, due to a directorial conceit, some dialogue passages are performed in almost a whisper while ambient sound is not suppressed, so the voices have to compete against engines running, doors banging, other people talking in the background, a coffee machine blasting away on the counter, helicopters overhead, the inevitable gunshots, and so on.

If you watch an old film the speech is concentrated and well-enunciated, the close-ups intensify the drama and the audience becomes immersed in the crisp dialogue, feeling their pulses racing as the sensations gallop around the theatre, Then the violins get going, followed by the piano, and then they’re off, swept gloriously aloft in a grand surge of emotion and smiles, absorbing the great crescendo with a touch of moistness in the palm. Today’s directors don’t want that. They want realism and, as has been said before on this topic, the multi-screen cinema boxes are an acoustic compromise for the new kind of production with nowhere for the ‘noises off’ to escape.

By the way, The Great Crescendo appears by kind permission of the Wood Green Empire, and only the adverts now uphold the old traditions.

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They want realism “. Funny thing, when I’m out and about and somewhat dramatic things go on around me, or when I am adoring mrs r, or witnessing blue lights heading to an emergency down the local main country road, I cannot hear any music blasting away. I may not, of course, live in the real world……….

I find perpetual foreground music in film and tv not even acceptable in its own right (unless its a musical programme of course), let alone when it is drowning out the dialogue. They want realism “. Who they? Not me.

Talking Pictures TV is for you then, duncan. Channel 81 on Freeview.

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I see that there is a film called ‘Whirlpool’ on tomorrow, but suspect it should be recalled.

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🙂 I realise that I have survived the Christmas break without being dragged along to the cinema and having my ears assaulted. I don’t think I can remember when I last wanted to go to a cinema.

John’s post is thought provoking, so I thought about it. Yes – the old films were much more easily understood, despite the fact that dialogue was routinely performed around 70% faster than it is today. One reason why is simply because sound recording systems have changed, for which you can thank – initially, at any rate, George Lucas.

It was he who realised that to create what passes for reality in cinemas you need a far, far wider dynamic range than was currently available. His answer was THX – a sound system designed to reproduce reality and more. Why more, I hear you wonder?

Not many people realise that almost all sound FX are dubbed. Explosions, gunfire, falling bodies, decapitations – none of these is either easy to arrange or record. So they’re created, and then overdubbed onto the FX tracks. Frequently, dialogue also has to be re-recorded, which is why the Foley stage came into existence and why many major films now use ADR (automated dialogue recording) as standard.

So when you watch a film, you’re now faced with Total Realism Plus, which means that all the sounds you might expect to hear in a war, for instance, are featured, plus the SFX editors’ concept of what major explosions, etc. might sound like. Because chances are that the SFX editor has never heard a bomb exploding, a body falling 49 storeys, a head being sliced off or the sound of bones being deliberately broken.

Malcolm also brings up an interesting point, when he says when I’m out and about and somewhat dramatic things go on around me…I cannot hear any music blasting away. Music is much older than film of course, but there’s ample evidence that the right music can enhance the emotional impact of what you see. It’s not always ‘blasting’, of course, but from the 13thC composers have been keenly aware that their music can affect the listener, in a variety of ways.

One final point: when we’re out and about, our brains allow our hearing to ‘focus’ on specific sounds. It’s how we can ‘tune out’ ambient sounds to listen to say – a conversation. That’s not possible in a cinema, because we’re not aware of what we should be listening for, so the SFX editor is supposed to anticipate that. As even Blue Planet II shows, however, they often get it wrong.

wavechange – keep watching. It is being followed by Total Recall ( funnily enough, this came out first. Must be time travel).

I think I have missed it now. Over the past few days I’ve watched enough TV to last me the month, while recovering from illness. At least at home you have the control of the sound volume.

music can enhance the emotional impact of what you see“. I enjoy music, and it is emotional. However, I’d prefer to watch a factual programme without artificial attempts to increase my emotions. FX was quite a good film and I’m pleased to be reassured that special effects are used to simulate decapitations and bones being broken; several takes are often required and practising the real thing would seem quite wasteful of stand-ins.

🙂 But I know what you mean about the music. It doesn’t have to be there all the time, but for that you can partly blame producers, as opposed to directors.

One of the strangest uses of background music I have come across recently was that which accompanied a film entitled ‘In pursuit of silence’. As the title suggests, the film was looking at how difficult it is to get away from all the noise in today’s society and find total peace and quiet. For some reason the director thought that introducing background music, even to the extent it was masking dialogue, enhanced the film. My husband and I both found it intrusive and stressful. When I wrote to ask the director why he had added background music to a film about silence, he replied that it wasn’t background music at all but “a delicately crafted original score…in order to give silence a shape and personality”

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Why does the USA have to figure in so many conversations, and without any substantiating links?

Since most Americans don’t live in big cities, and many live in very remote places, I find that hard to believe, Duncan. I cannot see why the preference for silence should differ between races or nationalities. Luckily, Americans have a far wider range of interesting and exciting territories than us to which they can escape for solitude and a large percentage [admittedly, of the better off] do just that.

There is hardly any more silent place on Earth than Antarctica and when we were there a few years ago with a party of Americans they loved the peace and quiet. It is a myth that Americans are all brash and noisy just because their chosen mouthpiece is that way inclined.

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Hear! Hear! Malcolm. I was going to suggest that we have a “No America” week but didn’t because I thought it would be too controversial.

What is American culture if it isn’t the development of largely European ideas and models, Duncan?

Are American clothes and fashions making a big impact in the UK? No, it’s generally the other way round.

Are American celebrities doing well over here? No, again it’s the opposite [Meghan Markel? – Never heard of her; must be a misprint].

Do we drive American cars? Mostly not.

Do we have American furniture, appliances, accessories in our homes? Not much.

Are our high streets full of American stores? No – and our shops are not full of American products either [Cf. the number of posters to Which? Conversation who complain they have to import goods from the USA and pay customs duty].

Are our big houses like ranches? Do we use American speech forms? Do we use American words for common terms [lift, pavement, torch, trousers – I could go on]?

As for food, we seem to be hooked on Oriental and Continental styles, and our BBQ’s are a far cry from the US version – not for them a few spindly sausages and a slice of onion. MacDonald’s is now more British than many other eating places [that’s why they’ve done well].

We have the city centre, not downtown; the Underground, not the subway; train drivers, not engineers; shopping trolleys, not carts; estate agents, not realtors.

I don’t think our culture is being submerged under American idioms yet. Some of us are striving to keep it that way and avoiding too much exposure to the USA by proxy. You should try it!

Agreed – I think the statement is pants (and we have trousers, anyway).

Meanwhile, slightly back on topic, I wonder if having our ears assaulted by sound at a cinema is an international problem. If not, is there something we could learn?

Back off-topic, I was amused when a new commercial sponsor offered to pay for transportation of me and a couple of colleagues to see their research facility in the USA. I’ve generally associated transportation with a visit to Australia.

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You need to define what you mean by ‘internet freedom’.

Those things aren’t all bad, Duncan.

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Hi, could we keep this on topic please. It would be interesting to know if US vs UK cinema noise differs.

I went to the cinema last week, for the first time in a long time, and it was very loud. I didn’t really appreciate how loud it was until I got outside and my ears were ringing 🙁

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I wrote to the Chief Executive of Vue a couple of months ago to say that my husband and I, regular cinema-goers, had been driven out of our local Vue cinema by the noise and now travelled across the city to an independent cinema where the sound levels were much lower. I received a standard response from one of his ‘team’. He made 3 points:

1 “our technical team regularly test sound levels and set them within a comfortable range; we will also adjust the volume for specific shows if we receive feedback from audience or staff”
2 “we do set the speaker volume during the adverts and trailers lower than the speaker volume for the main feature as often the pre-show content may seem louder as these are mixed to mainly use the front speakers only rather than the surround sound”
3 “if you ever find the volume too loud in the future I would urge you to speak to a member of staff who can provide further assistance”

Point 3 is somewhat difficult to follow up as the only staff I ever see in the Vue are one ticket collector for all 12 screens and the staff on the refreshment counter, who are usually very busy. Who are we supposed to ask?

There is a very simple solution to this….

Cinemas could have showings with promoted reduced loudness.

Depending on how popular these shows are, they should be able to determine if they need to reduce overall sound levels.

As well as avoiding having my ears assaulted, I would also appreciate not being surrounded by people talking to each other, playing with their phones and feeding their faces.

Perhaps, as on aircraft, you could have the option to be issued with noise cancelling headphones – or take your own – and set the sound level you choose, eliminating the outside world.

Alternatively the sound level could be set to a level that everyone can cope with and those who want a more immersive experience could don headphones and increase the volume to what suits them.

Either or. Or buy the dvd and save money at home, with cheap pop and sweeties.

On the other hand the film will eventually appear on BBC TV without adverts and I will skip the junk food, thanks.

It’s very tempting to give up and just wait until films appear as dvds or on the BBC. However, watching films at the cinema gives an extra dimension and some films just don’t come across as effectively on a smaller screen. It seems crazy that so many of us are being driven out of cinemas just because the volume is so loud. I’m all in favour of alfa’s suggestion that there should be promoted quieter screenings. Good, too, that Which? has approached Action on Hearing Loss. It would be great if they were to become involved as they did with their Speak Easy Campaign after the Which? correspondence on noisy restaurants

The suggestion makes good sense, but even if the sound level was acceptable, being expected to sit through adverts is enough to keep me away.

When you book at our local Vue cinema, you do get allocated a specific seat. This means you don’t actually have to take your seat until the film is about to start. I’m assuming it is the same throughout the chain. So you could miss the adverts altogether. (Still have the problem of the junk food, mind you!)

I had wondered about that possibility. 🙂 I have just looked at the website for our local cinema which is a small independent. For the benefit of those with autism etc. they offer films with lower sound levels, and no adverts and trailers at the start. Unfortunately, nothing is listed at present.

Edit: Have a look for autism-friendly screenings at Vue cinemas, Dorothy. I don’t know if the showings are available at all Vue cinemas or not.

From the Vue website:

Who can attend an autism friendly screening?

Our Autism friendly screenings are specifically tailored to support Vue customers on the autism spectrum, these screenings are open to all and may also be particularly suitable for younger, first-time cinema-goers who would also benefit from a less-rigid cinema environment.

The lights are left on low, the sound is turned down and there are no adverts and trailers. When you book tickets for an autism-friendly screening, you will be asked to choose allocated seats, we do expect guests to move around and make noise during the film as it is a relaxed environment.

I’m all in favour of autism-friendly screenings, wavechange. It means that sufferers from autism and their carers have the opportunity to watch a film in a relaxed atmosphere, without having to worry about people leaving their seats and moving about, or calling out during the film. They know that other members of the audience won’t complain about such behaviour because the screening is targeted at that group in particular. However, people who don’t suffer from autism, might find such a relaxed screening is not ideal when they are trying to concentrate on a film, so I’m not sure that autism-friendly films are the answer to our problem. What does emerge from what you’ve quoted from the Vue website is that they are perfectly capable of turning down the sound. Which is all we are asking!

I agree, Dorothy. However, the fact that cinemas are prepared to turn down the sound for disadvantaged people seems a good start and might create a demand from those of us who are fed-up with being subjected to loud sound. Sadly, the local cinema does not list any forthcoming autism-friendly screenings.

Annie Rhodes says:
12 January 2018

I attended an NTLive showing of Young Marx at the Festival Theatre in Edinburgh this week and had the experience of having to block my hearing ear during trailers before the main film and during music played at scene changes. My companion who does not have hearing or sound sensitivity problems said he found it too loud.

Sally says:
17 January 2018

Does making the sound so loud in cinemas that it cannot be tolerated by elderly people or those with sensory problems constitute age discrimination and/or disability discrimination?

That’s a good point. I think a good case could be made. It is arguable that the high volumes are harmful even to younger people and those without sensory problems. I am surprised cinema staff have not complained.

I’ve been listening very carefully to the sound tracks of several films over the past several weeks on our own sound system and I agree there’s a definite and worrying increase in the sound FX levels, while dialogue levels have fallen. It’s happening on TV series, too, so that it’s never certain when you start a new film or programme whether you’re going to get blasted off your seat or strain to hear the first words.

In regard to Sally’s excellent point, the younger attendees at cinemas will tend to tolerate loudness more than the elderly, but it’s almost certainly doing the same amount of harm to young ears, and youngsters do live in a noisier environment generally. I remember the Swedish Navy having real trouble finding young sonar operators some years ago whose hearing was excellent, and the conclusions drawn were that the youngsters’ attendance at discos and concerts had permanently left many with hearing loss. And that was by the time they were 20.

As well as the tendency for the film producer to provide unbalanced volume and accentuate the sound effects, is there also the possibility that the cinema can tweak the multi-channel sound tracks to raise the dramatic tension of sound effects in an attempt to further enhance the sensory experience?

People have often suggested entering the auditorium just before the main feature starts in order to avoid the advertisements and trailers, but all my life it has taken me some time for my ears and brain to adjust to the sounds in a cinema, so it’s not just a recent phenomenon. I prefer to get in early enough to acclimatise to the sound level and acoustics.

The sound in film trailers is grossly overblown and covered in additional sound FX that don’t actually feature in the actual screened version of the film. When have arrows ever whooshed? And bodies thudded when hit by a weak punch? And mugs made a coarse scraping sound when slid along a counter?

The film Pride and Prejudice brought this home to me when I watched it in a cinema. The opening sequence was so overlaid with birdsong and ornithological twittering it was deafening. Perhaps the nineteenth-century microphones were too crude to give a realistic rendition.

Marcus says:
29 January 2018

Cinemas are to loud and when I remember I take ear plugs, when I don’t remember Infind some tissue to stuff into my ears.

Pubs have a similar problem I can barely hear the people I have come to talk to and in order to be heard we all have to shout.
I suppose people will drink more since they can’t talk. But since there is no dancing music in pubs should be background noise rather than raping your ears.

Paul Butler says:
3 April 2018

I took my grandchild to a children’s film at the local Vue cinema and the sound was so painfully loud for her that we had to leave. The cinema said it was apparently impossible to turn the sound down to a (for us) sensible level.

T.Champion says:
29 May 2018

I went with a friend and her 4 year old daughter to a Vue cinema to see a so called children’s film and came out with a bleed on my eardrum (this can be verified). Complained to Vue Cinemas, no reply until, provoked by threat to go public and maybe sue!! Reply that I should have had a word with the cinema manager and that their cinemas volume is within the acceptable decibel level. I would never allow a child to go to a cinema again if it was mine.

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One of my friends used to work at a Vue Cinema and she said that they regularly blow speakers / amplifiers

Its all because loudness makes it sound more impressive!

Side note, one of my friends used to work for Vue and she said that they regularly blow speakers / amplifiers!

It looks like we shall have to have deerstalker hats on when we go to the cinema and pull the flaps down to protect our ears.

Or put cheese in our ears, like we have to, when Madame Edith sings.

Is that better than popcorn?

It probably has superior elasticity and viscosity, leading to more effective attenuation.

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It’s actually a 3 year degree course followed by a Master’s degree qualification in clinical science (neurosensory sciences) around two years under most circumstances. There is an annual application cycle for the STP (Scientist Training Programme).

Those choosing to do a PhD of course, then work for longer.

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A friend of mine calls herself an otorinolaryngologist [a good spelling question for a pub quiz] because her specialty includes conditions of the nose as well as of the ears and throat. By her accounts the training and experience development process was extremely thorough and she did it after having already qualified as a physician.

It’s probably best to refer to UK practice when considering UK situations because it is more consistent than in America. In the USA there is far more variety in medical training and considerable latitude in what qualifications private specialists can present.

Indeed. The US is very different in many ways, not least their degree nomenclature and their willingness to sell PhDs to folk in return for a few hundred dollars.

In general, however, it’s only a four year course at the end of which they award a Doctorate, which makes it far less stringent than similar qualifications here in the UK.

The US University system is also significantly different to ours, and differs sharply from state to state in both the worth of their degrees and the demands made on the students to gain the qualifications. Generally, I would argue that far from the US having “stronger/tighter ?? medical regulations” their overall regulation is less stringent than ours although the best medical institutions – Princeton, Johns Hopkins and a few others – are the equal of any in the world.

However, the US maintains a distinctly poor position in secondary education in global terms.

I recently watched the film “Quiet” in Cineworld. For a film with such an appealing title, it wasn’t very appealing to my ears. I still found myself sticking my fingers in my ears as it was too loud! The background music was definitely not music to my ears. It was a great film but it had made me question whether its worth going back for another film.

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Pete Batchelor says:
8 June 2018

I’ve just returned from the cinema with my partner having left even before the main feature because the commercials were so devastatingly loud his hyperacusis and tinnitus, which cause him a lot of discomfort (and regularly pain) at the best of times, kicked in within 30 seconds of the first item (a demo of 4D) coming on; the following pre-screening adverts were no better, and simply exacerbated the screaming in his ears.

We haven’t been to the cinema in 3-4 years having noticed the levels getting steadily higher, but although we’d gone this time in some anticipation that it would probably be a bit uncomfortable for him (he was prepared to put up with that), we were both looking forward to enjoying a film on the big screen. It seems that that experience is now denied him purely because of excessive volume. Even I, without the same hearing condition, was finding it deeply unpleasant.

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Glad it’s not just me as I have to cover my ears during the vue advert . Makes me feel sick to . I’m always sayings it too loud and need tweaking down a little . Please please please just turn it down .

I took my kids (aged 10 and 8) to watch Incredibles 2 at a Vue Cinema in Basildon, and the the action scenes were deafeningly loud, so much so that my daughter covered her ears.

I complained to the staff during the movie and again after the movie and their response was that:
1) They tested the volume and it was at the correct volume
2) They are legally contracted by the film owner to set it at that volume
They didn’t seem bothered that I vowed never to visit that cinema again.

Is Which magazine willing to measure and publish volume levels in order to publicise this problem?

I found a BBC article that found “…researchers have discovered that cinema adverts average at 88db and can reach noise levels of up 95db… People experiencing noise levels of more than 85 decibels in their workplace are advised to wear ear protection.”

Hi Martin,

That sounds like a very frustrating (and ear-aching) experience. I had a similar experience at a cinema watching the film Spotlight – I don’t know why they made so loud given it’s mostly all dialogue and no action. I’ll pass on your suggestion about measuring sound levels.


And their no 2 reason was fabricated, Martin. It’s cinemas that are responsible for setting levels – not the film distributors / producers / owners.

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Ruth Maher says:
1 October 2018

I go to the cinema weekly and we time it so we miss the ads but see the trailers. It is loud and until people sue for hearing loss they will continue. Do we have health and safety or not I ask. My brother used to go regularly but not anymore as he too says it is too loud to enjoy these days.

Hi, I’m 76 year’s old., and my local cinema is at Bluewater, in Kent, and I visit it regularly. There’s nothing wrong with my hearing, and I must admit, I actually love the surround sound, and of course the volume. An experience I can’t get anywhere else. A feeling not available any where else. FANTASTIC.

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