/ 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?

We have also put together a short survey to try to understand what factors influence where people decide to go out, and what you think are the biggest problems in these venues. We can’t wait to hear from you as we begin to plan our new campaign!

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


That’s a very good point, Dorothy. PRS and PPL have been aggressively pursuing businesses for the past few years to buy licences. But the way they do this is to argue that any music played – however quietly it’s played – has to be paid for. Imagine the small cafe or shop owner, who keeps a small radio playing for himself and a member of staff. That simple preference will cost him dearly, and they often threaten to take the owner to court to recover past years’ licence fees unless the owner buys a licence.

The upshot of this is twofold: the shop or cafe owner takes the view that if he has to pay anyway, he might as well turn it up so everyone can hear it, while he simultaneously resents having to pay for something he’s already paid for, in the case of his radio or his own CDs. It’s an obscenely grasping and short-sighted policy.

Coming at this from a slightly different angle and one that has been touched on above, much of the irritation and intrusiveness of piped music is not down solely to volume and type of music played, but also the quality of the replay systems. As something of an ‘audiophile’, I have found over the years that even awful music of a genre I wouldn’t choose to listen, can be rendered quite pleasant, or at the very least bearable, if played through reasonable quality speakers, rather than the PA address type systems which establishments often use (and which are designed for transmitting voices loudly, nothing else).

And establishments do not have to spend thousands or have esoteric audio knowledge either; I was in an antique type shop last week and was delighted to see that the 30’s and 40’s era music they were playing was coming from big old rusty, battered speakers which looked like they came from a radiogram of the same era! The smooth and warm tone emitted was very hard to dislike and due to the lack of harsh treble, very easy to talk and hear over, even though they were quite loud.

I was in another shop the same week and they had a Sonos speaker which although very modern, emitted a similar sound quality, which I guarantee would make most piped musak sound pleasant, or at least harmless. Granted most pubs and clubs won’t be filling their premises with Sonos speakers as they cost quite a bit, but from personal experience I know that you can buy very expensive speakers from yesteryear for a fraction of their original prices, 2nd hand; I’m talking stereo pairs for £60 that originally sold for £4-500. So if premises put a bit of thought into it, they could please all parties by continuing to play music, but with a fidelity/lack of distortion or shreaking treble/overblown bass which would please more people than it offends.

Excellent point. Most shops seem to specialise in Music reproduction systems that cover the entire frequency gamut from 10kHz to 10.0001kHz, which makes everything sound as though it’s being played down an old ‘phone.

The worrying shift at the moment is from the chain stores, who are using their own, piped music from their own stations. HSBC have their own radio station, and I suspect they’re in company with the likes of B&Q, Co-op and many more.

Bring back old ‘phones. I find the modern ones distort voices more, and they are too quiet.

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Sally says:
14 October 2015

The trouble with background music in pubs and restaurants is that often you can’t pick it out properly at all because there are so many other sounds going on. But it is still there as an extra layer of noise. Completely unnecessary and irritating. And preventing you from having a conversation without shouting.

Easy solution, just vote with your feet if the muzak is unacceptable, but tell the management or leave a comment online somewhere. It’s sometimes acceptable if at a reasonable volume, but not in pubs or restaurants where conversation should be the only background noise. Wetherspoons have a no muzak policy other pub chains should follow their example.

Ryan says:
15 October 2015

It should also be pointed out that this is not just a problem for the hard of hearing. My hearing is particularly acute, but it is precisely this ‘sensitivity’ that makes conversation in places with background music an impossibility – I get bombarded with so many different auditory stimuli that I find it impossible to filter out the unnecessary noises.
On a similar note, I have often walked out of shops playing background music as I find that choosing between two competing items is impossible whilst I’m being bombarded by needless noise (this is mainly in the case of electronic goods or clothing, rather than the more mundane grocery shopping that can often be done on autopilot).

Brian says:
15 October 2015

Let’s face it, there isn’t any one type of music that suits everybody, but anything with vocals, be it jazz, standards, or especially rock or rap, is especially irritating–it doesn’t work as background, and paying attention to the lyrics instead of your companions or your food, is ridiculous on the face of it. I know half a dozen restaurants with good food that I won’t go to again because of the music, mostly its volume but also the type of music. It’s bad enough being assaulted by loud music in the gym, to have to be mugged by it in a restaurant is too much.

I find that the music/muzak that is played in shopping malls to be extremely annoying and distracting. There is continuous noise of shoppers etc, so no need for other sounds on top of this.

As for the music in shops – well, I feel very sorry for the shop assistants who have to put up with the sound all day long.

Bryan Burt says:
15 October 2015

I like Weatherspoons group. as there is no music in their pubs/diners, and the TV is on, though there is no sound. The sub-titles are on, so people can still watch the TV, but other customers are not annoyed by it. Hopefully more pubs/restaurants will follow their example. By the way, their food is good value, too !

In my experience, much too often the choice and volume of music/tv is decided by the bar staff. It probably helps make a mundane job a bit less boring, however, my visits to pubs and restaurants are always to meet and catch up with friends and there is nothing more exasperating than trying to compete with background music. I have also had similar experiences of intrusive music on holiday at hotel pools.

I have tried,unsuccessfully ,to get my local gym to play suitable music for the morning clientele,predominantly over 60s. Every imaginable excuse is offered as to why we have to put up with yawping female”singers” and gibbering “rappers”. I wish you luck but will not hold my breath .

It is important to register a complaint to staff because if enough people do so action to reduce the noise (it is not music) may be taken.
I have walked out of Marks & Spencer after giving my reason to a member of staff.

Alta says:
16 October 2015

Good for you! I have done the same, and been told that “No one else has ever complained” – just about 5 minutes after I had overheard a very polite young man telling the same staff member that the music was much too loud!

This doesn’t surprise me. Have a look at the earlier Which? conversation https://conversation.which.co.uk/shopping/annoying-background-music-shops-supermarkets/ Out of those complained about the most, M&S was in the top three. Dozens of people said they had been told that “no one else has ever complained”. What was brought out in the conversation is that M&S doesn’t take any notice of complaints made in store, only of those made to its executive office. I know we are discussing restaurants, rather than shops, but the background music even pollutes the coffee and restaurant areas in some branches of M&S.
But no one ever complains…

The assumption is that we all share the same tastes in music. I find this impudent, and take the view that lack of musak annoys nobody while loud musak infuriates many of us. In correspondence with restaurateurs who subject customers to loud musak I have been told that ‘musak creates a mood and maintains privacy’, to which I have replied that the only mood engendered in me is one of fury and that people shout over the musak thus negating the privacy argument. Our local council here has been guilty of musak pollution on the grounds of generating excitement, creating intolerable sound levels miles away. After hundreds of complaints one hopes they have learned restraint, but it does show a worrying trend towards loud musak as a norm, rather than silence. The admirable organisation Pipedown campaigns tirelessly against musak in public places

Sylvia Mason says:
15 October 2015

My hearing is fine but I resent having music which is not to my taste forced upon me. Can we add hairdressing salons to the list of noisy places playing loud music?

Auriol. J. Stephenson says:
15 October 2015

I can’t add anything to what has been said already other than to say I HATE all muzak.

Gordon Smith says:
15 October 2015

I enjoy music of my own choice at a time of my choosing and at a noise appropriate to the surroundings. I refuse to be browbeaten by the music n***s who want to inflict their chosen genre on their customers. It is rather like trying to force a one size fits all T shirt on the whole population.

Maggie O'Regan says:
15 October 2015

I couldn’t agree more. Like any music lover, I have definite likes and dislikes and I really resent having other people’s choice of music forced upon me. I will not shop anywhere there is muzak. I also avoid restaurants/pubs where the music is anything other then extremely soft. I want to be able to have a conversation without shouting.

Why I hardly frequent these places at all nowadays!

But also this is so symptomatic of the apparent increasing attitude that wanting peace and quiet is an affectation.
Daily we are assaulted with Leaf Blowers, Strimmers, Disc Cutters, a whole panoply of audio assaults, and try a journey in a “quiet” carriage on and learn how utterly inconsiderate a significant number of people are!!

May I be so bold as to suggest this is all part of a phenomenon that includes intrusive air conditioning, and monster TV screens in pubs etc – to be able to show you can afford all this “Stuff” is a display of status, utterly redundant in a world full of such “Stuff”.
It’s clearly not at all clever to show off you have a sound system whatever when they are so ubiquitous, but it doesn’t seem to have got through culturally.

Needless to say the really “Posh” joints are generally remarkable for their lack of such intrusion.
I had a meal recently at the Castle Hotel in Taunton – a modest repast of no great culinary standard, but served discreetly in a hushed Dining Room with low key courtesy. A revelation!!

Many years ago I wanted some new little speakers to use with my computer. I went into Currys, and they had a display which enabled you to listen to about eight different speakers systems by turning a dial. Unfortunately, this was immediately below another somewhat larger speaker blaring out some awful ‘music’. I pointed out to a member of staff that it made it impossible to try out the computer speakers but he refused to turn it down. I went elsewhere.

G Anderson says:
15 October 2015

I heartily agree , I have a hearing loss now but before that, I was fed up with music in shops and pubs. As most people go out with friends, they want to talk. If the pubs and restaurants feel they have to have music, have it playing quietly in the background. I do now avoid places which have music if possible.

Perhaps, as on aircraft, if you want to listen to music in pubs, restaurants and cafes you could have earphones that plug into the table, or wireless ones, so you can listen to it without affecting others. Use just one earphone if you also want to talk to your fellow diners. That then leaves all the others to enjoy a peaceful meal or conversation.

Chris R says:
15 October 2015

I understand the premise of ‘background music’ but my experience is that most ‘bars’ / ‘restaurants’ seem to believe that preventing people from talking (i.e. enforced shouting) is OK.

Recently I went to a leaving do where the bar staff could not take orders unless we leant over the bar and shouted!

Not a good experience / to be recommended.