/ Food & Drink, Health, Travel & Leisure

Are you fed up with noisy cafés, pubs and restaurants?


Action on Hearing Loss members are fed up with noisy cafés, pubs and restaurants – but it’s not just people with hearing loss who want quieter public places. Do you find dining out too loud to enjoy yourself?

Whether you’re out for after-work drinks with colleagues at the local pub, a family meal at a restaurant or a quick coffee with friends in a cosy café, we tend to think of going out for food or a drink as a social activity.

Part of what attracts many of us to a particular venue is its atmosphere or ‘buzz’ – but how much is too much?

Public places should be quieter

At Action on Hearing Loss, our members told us in a recent survey that they wanted us to focus on making cafés, pubs and restaurants more accessible, as they are often no-go areas for people with hearing loss.

We think this is a problem that affects lots of people, with or without hearing loss. And it’s something that seems to be backed up by many Which? Convo community members. Sharon, for instance, recently commented on how she’s fed up with piped music ruining her evening:

Muzak in public places is a modern scourge, but worst of all is muzak in restaurants, pubs and cafes. When you go for a meal, you’re there for an hour or so to enjoy the food and chat to your companions.

The widespread use of background music and the fashion for open-plan designs and hard furnishings are just two factors which can help create a high level of background noise in these spaces.

As conversations become louder and louder, fighting to overcome the existing level of noise can create quite a stressful environment – whether you have hearing loss or not. I know I find it uncomfortable to sit in these places too long, struggling to hear my friends and family and needing to shout to make myself heard.

Do you think eating out is too noisy?

Have you ever moved on to a new pub because it was too loud to hold a conversation? Or thought twice about going back to a restaurant because of the noisy dining experience? I know I have!

We would love to hear about your dining experiences. Is ease of conversation something you consider when choosing where to go out? And if you think this is as big a problem as we do, what do you think cafés, pubs and restaurants should be doing differently to get you back through the door?

This is a guest contribution by Luke Dixon of Action on Hearing Loss. All opinions are Luke’s own, not necessarily those of Which?


I have noticed a significant increase in background music during the past year. I find it irritating, even if it is not loud. At present I can vote with my feet and avoid venues with music but the choice is becoming smaller.

I am more concerned about employees who might have to listen to music throughout the week and for those with hearing difficulties. I’m delighted that Luke Dixon from Action on Hearing Loss has been invited to host this discussion.

Sally says:
11 October 2015

Why don`t you ask them to turn it down. It usually works.

I have done, Sally. I make a few comments about making comments and sending emails in the earlier discussions. One of the groups I’m concerned about is those with hearing difficulties, which is why I am pleased that Action on Hearing Loss has had the opportunity to host this Conversation.

Throughout the previous Conversations on this topic my main concern has been the failure of commercial establishments to recognise that hearing loss or impairment are disabilities and that their legal duties and responsibilities towards disabled people includes towards those suffering from hearing problems and the particular difficulties caused by conflicting sound sources for those with hearing aids. I can only assume there is some twisted thinking [which I hope I don’t have to spell out] that leads to an assumption that people with any degree of deafness are unaffected.

This new Conversation is mainly concerned with eating and drinking places which, basically, are there for our pleasure. So why is that pleasure being ruined for so many people by the onslaught of loud music, often bad music, that makes conversation and enjoyment of our drinks and meals such a pain? Essentially it’s a volume issue because there is no doubt that an empty echoing restaurant does need a little atmosphere to be introduced and music is a sensible method of doing that. It enables people to have conversations without being overheard and to add character to what might otherwise be a rather neutral premises. But as the number of customers increases the volume should be turned down but the opposite seems to occur. The modern bare finishes and furnishings don’t help because not only do they harden the acoustic but they amplify the background noises of chair-scraping, pot-banging, and espresso machine explosions which destroy the music as well.

We were in a Trattoria in London for lunch the other day and, typically, it had bare floors, bare tables, and big glass windows without curtains or blinds. There were a handful of other customers having normal conversations. Shortly after we sat down the background music – which we had been more or less unaware of – was turned up to high volume and everybody had to raise their voices. The waitress who took our orders had neither Italian nor English as her first language and had difficulty hearing what we wanted so I had to get up and point at things on the blackboard. And that young woman had to endure that for many hours every day. Not only does the combination of conflicting and over-riding sound sources and volumes contribute to hearing problems but I believe, suffered for long periods, actually does your brain in as you are continuously trying to unscramble the sounds. For the two of us it was a less enjoyable eating out experience than it might have been; for the staff it was an infliction of mental torture.

What is the HSE doing about this?

Grace says:
9 October 2015

I couldn’t agree more with you, John. I wear hearing aids and have had many difficult experiences in cafes and restaurants. The only thing that keeps me from boycotting them altogether is the fear of becoming socially isolated which I think can become a big problem for many with a hearing loss.
I recently contacted Shona Robison, MSP and Secretary for Health. I explained my problem with noisy restaurants and cafes and asked if the government had any plans to ‘encourage’ establishments to make reasonable adjustments for those with a hearing impairment. I was surprised and disappointment in her reply which stated ‘there is no definitive measure at which hearing loss becomes a disability’ and that ‘there are no plans to introduce further legislation on this issue’ . As for the health and safety of employees, she stated that ‘the volume levels experienced (by staff) are typically significantly below those detailed in the (current) legislation’. What hope have we got when our Health Secretary won’t even recognise that there is a problem for those with hearing loss?

Sally says:
12 October 2015

This is a puzzling reply from Shona Robison, Grace. Just because there is “no definitive measure at which hearing loss becomes a disability”, does this mean that the Scottish Government has no obligation at all to help people with hearing loss?

Your comment about the waitress not being able to hear was interesting. We run a mountain-top cafe for a friend for a day a week and our background music is Classic FM and Radio 3. But I’m acutely aware that sometimes – over the noise of the chiller, the coffee steamer and the use of the smoothie maker – I can’t hear the folk trying to order things at the counter. Yesterday we had a totally deaf lady in. Fortunately, I can sign, but we had some difficulty at the outset as she was trying to speak and I hadn’t realised she was totally deaf.

It’s a major problem and – as you say, John – some of the newer and more ‘chic’ places don’t help sound reduction, with open kitchens, non-absorbent surfaces and noisy background music.

Badly behaved noisy kids and people shouting loudly into their mobile phones are as much disliked as heavy background music in both restaurants and pubs, these should be places of relaxed convivial enjoyment not a shouting match to compete with the above background noises. We have become far more selective where we go these days , quite often just turning around and walking out once we encounter this problem.

I have a hearing disability (hearing loss) and simply do not go into premises that play music – be it coffee shop, restaurant or pub. If I am going out with friends I want to converse and catch up with their news but premises which play music are effectively discriminating against those who suffer the same affliction. They invariably refuse to acknowledge that by playing music those present have to raise their voices, simply to be heard, and this leads to an overall escalation in the noise levels – making it even harder for those with the impairment to follow any conversation.

Grace says:
9 October 2015

I find it almost impossible to find any commercial establishments that don’t play music any more! If I didn’t go into the music playing ones, then I wouldn’t be able to go out for meals at all. And why should we be forced to stay at home? We need to make more cafes and restaurants aware of the scale of the problem. I think, maybe, too many people don’t feel able to complain or make their concerns known.

I agree with David’s comments, about noisy unruly children .
3 weeks ago after being out all day we visited a Toby Inn at around 5.30 pm, to have an early evening meal, this is obviously not a good time to go there. The place had several tables with some noisy unruly kids whose parents seemed oblivious to their offspring’s behaviour, while the other customers were all looking on with dismay. We asked to be moved to a quieter area of the restaurant to get away from the racket, meanwhile one of the children had decided to get up onto the table and walk around. It’s unbelievable the way some parents allow their children to behave in public but quite common now.

Occasionally I feel guilty for the conduct and attitudes of the offspring of my generation for it is their children who seem to cause the most offence. But there is no need for guilt or for any excuses; that generation [the current parents] was one of the best educated and employed in all time and has had plenty of time to learn good manners and behaviour and teach them to their offspring even if their own parents suffered from a bit of 1960’s laissez-faire.

Thank goodness these points are being raised. We thought it was just us who were finding it increasingly difficult to find a peaceful place to enjoy coffee or lunch. Only this week, we again mentioned this problem to our local Costa coffee Manageress. We were told they were issued with music to play which we found just added to the cacophony of uncomfortable noisy banging of implements by staff, shouting to be heard by customers, lack of sound insulation and general discomfort experienced by both myself with hearing aids and my husband with none.

Lizzie says:
9 October 2015

I suffer hearing loss in both ears, and wear 2 hearing aids. I find some restaurants and pubs unbearable.. Especially when there is music playing. The acoustics and layout of an eating place are really important, and if restaurants get it wrong, I suffer! I went to lunch in a big garden centre type cafe with a pitched roof, and the acoustics were that bad, I felt physically sick!! I generally accept in noisy pubs where live music is being played that I won’t hear most conversations and in a group, that can be really isolating. My friends and family are very sympathetic, and we will test the water for noise levels before we even sit down.

I have mild hearing loss at high frequencies, and tinnitus.

My main issue is not so much the music (although this is a problem too) it’s the lack of soft furnishings in restaurants, so the noise just isn’t absorbed. I’ve been trying to find a nice, modern, restaurant for a special birthday meal, but when I visit them there’s not a curtain or cushion in sight, just hard flooring, no table cloths, blinds, open kitchens… All of these contribute to the noise level and makes me worried that I will have to strain to hear my fellow diners. When I mention it to the staff they always say, ‘oh yes it does get very noisy’ as if this is normal and totally acceptable, and seem surprised when I say I have hearing loss, perhaps I look too young?! The noise levels certainly spoil my enjoyment and prevent me from going out as often as I would like. Noise levels everywhere seem to be increasing, and I’m sure this will mean more people suffer from hearing loss caused by high noise levels in life.

We have lunch in hotels from time to time and they are usually much more comfortably furnished with heavy drapes and upholstery and deep pile carpets. The difference is extraordinary. Not always expensive at lunchtimes either and very pleasant for a special occasion.

My wife and I try and avoid eating out in pubs and restaurants who insist on forcing muzak down out throats, but sadly all that means nowadays is we find it harder and harder to find anywhere to enjoy a meal out. Frankly although the pubs etc are losing our business our protests and requests to at least turn the noise down a little are it seems wasted on the youngsters who man the bars and work in that environment etc. Maybe they too will understand when they too are deaf and its to late!

James M says:
10 October 2015

Completely agree. After football matches I have been in crowded pubs with dozens of people talking loudly, some indeterminate music providing background noise and televisions showing sporting events with the commentary turned on. The combination makes any individual part impossible to decipher. I would avoid like the plague but as a meeting place after a match there are limited choices and they all seem to feel the need to be exactly the same. The only benefit has been to make me realise my hearing has deteriorated and I should get a test.

My hearing at higher frequencies is not good. My wife and I avoid noisy pubs and restaurants because it’s so difficult to hold a conversation. The complete absence of sound-absorbent materials like carpets, curtains and upholstery creates echo chambers. Everyone shouts to make themselves heard over the music and the overall sound volume becomes unbearable. We don’t want a stilted atmosphere – we like ‘lively’ – but the sound levels in too many places are just crazy loud!

Richard S says:
10 October 2015

You forgot to mention shops, I walk out when there is this modern “jungle” noise blaring out. Now if it were some music, real music, as played by musicians in the 20’s, to early 50’s then one could enjoy, concentrate and spend money in the shop

John says:
10 October 2015

Agree with most of the previous comments. I am thinking of having D-E-F tattooed to my forehead. That way people in public places with excessive background noise might treat you as being deaf, not daft. Does anybody know of a source of collapsible ear trumpets? I have been looking for ages but have failed to find one.

I’m not a fan. But then few people are. I remember reading some stats about people’s preferences and apparently 10% actively favour piped music, 20% dislike it and 70% either don’t notice or don’t care. The problem is that restaurants and similar lump the 70% in with the 10% as justification for the noise.

The simple reason is that piped music, particularly if it’s loud, makes us consume more. It raises levels of stress hormones and our behaviour speeds up as a result. We eat more and drink more when it’s noisy. We buy more in supermarkets when it’s noisy. There’s a business reason for bombarding people with noise, and it’s nothing to do with ‘creating ambience’.

The sooner that businesses lump the 70% in with the 20% and realise that, actually, only 10% of their customers would choose to be subjected to someone else’s choice in music, the better. But at the moment where’s the incentive? Noise increases their profits and it’s only when people start refusing to visit places with overly loud music that businesses will do something about it.

I agree with the point about eating faster. Restaurants learned some time ago that if you stop people talking, they will eat faster and leave, thereby freeing up a table for new customers. The only way that we can fight back is to insist that the music is turned down. If the waiter refuses, call for the manager, and do so in manner that makes it evident to the diners on other tables that you are complaining. If you want to be really truculant (best if not a special occasion with a group of friends), either refuse to order until the music is turned down but continue occupying the table, or place your order and then if the music isn’t turned down, tell them you are leaving on Health and Safety grounds. You could also try mouthing your order silently to the waiter (assuming they understand irony)!

Luckily for me I do not (yet) suffer from any hearing problems; quite the reverse, so the current craze for muzak which seems to consist of hysterical females screaming at the tops of their voices drives me mad. The solution is frequently to ask for it to be turned off – not down but off. In most places this works so please everybody, take the matter into your own hands and do something about it rather than complaining on this forum which none of the people responsible will ever read.
Another assocoated problem is that muzak is now in our banks. Is this the end of the world??

Since half the population seems to wander around in a catatonic state permanently plugged in to a music device, restaurateurs and publicans might be forgiven for thinking that it is so desirable and popular that it is an essential ingredient in their offering.

I often walk into a pub early and look around at the speakers on the walls looking for a “quiet spot”. They cannot be found – speakers abound. I’m told that this is what the customers want.

So here is my challenge to pub/restaurant managers: Try removing, or turning off half the speakers. Put up clear signs to indicate that this is what you have done, then watch to see which areas fill up quicker.

Marty says:
10 October 2015

I am not a technical person but the following seems to cure the noise.

1.Approach the offending loud speaker.
2. Insert the ferrule of your furled umbrella into the cloth cover and push firmly until the noise ceases.

I hope that helps folk.

Like it ! Reminds me when we were in Florida staying at a Disney resort, imagine if you can its ten thirty in the morning your drinking coffee and reading the paper by the pool. Disney tend to play “loop” music that is the same tunes over and over, I can assure you that ” Two Pina Colladas ” played over and over is enough to test anyone’s hearing . The American gentle man sat next to me heard me say how intrusive it was and agreed but leave it with him. Off he went and in a short while the music faded away to just an audible level as he returned.
I asked him how did he get that done and he said ” I asked them who the most important people were in the hotel and poolside, when they had long enough to think about it I gave them the answer, us. Turn it down before we walk ” Result.
Of course he’s right. I have no problem applying this principle anywhere I go, sometimes it works, not always but a lot of the time you get a result even if it is only half turned down. The most stupid reason for not turning it down is when your told ” Our head office tell us we can’t turn it down ”
I’ve had it turned down in Burger king, Beefeater restaurant’s and Harris+ Hoole ( instore at Tesco’s and they really did annoy me as they had commercial radio station on)
I’m all for local environmental officers being able to measure sound levels on a spot check basis.
There’s no harm in asking, but politely of course , remember if they won’t you can always walk and not return.

John (Ward’s) comment about folk listening to music all the time made me smile. It’s spot on, of course, and hearing loss has been detected in an alarmingly high percentage of young people, which is a growing problem. Some years ago the Swedish Navy was unable to find sonar operators among the ranks of its young sailors, a problem it attributed to over-exposure to loud music when young. Drifting slightly from the issue of restaurants, it’s worth noting that many schools run discos for their pupils at which the volume levels can approach the dangerous.

David Jenkins says:
10 October 2015

It’s not piped music that’s the problem for us – it’s the lack of sound insulation in the restaurant. No drapes, shiny floors with no carpeting, metal tables and chairs, bare walls, ceilings. People talk louder to be heard and the general level of noise can escalate to the point where it is literally an uncomfortable place to be. We lunched out at a glitzy restaurant in Shrewsbury and I felt really unwell by the time we left.