Is Your Bar or Restaurant Noise Polluted?

Music is integral to the guest experience. So is music’s cohort, noise.

It’s just as important for bars and restaurants to manage their noise levels as it is to manage music volume and tempo.

And it turns out there’s a “Yelp for noise.”

Owners, operators and managers don’t have enough on their plates—including actual Yelp reviews—so they must now contend with a crowdsourcing app called SoundPrint.

The app allows people using it to measure sound levels in a bar or restaurant via a built-in decibel meter. Bar and restaurant visits are largely driven by a desire to socialize, of course. The idea behind SoundPrint is that it helps people find venues with decibel levels that facilitate conversation.

An operator’s first instinct may be to think, “Oh, great—another thing I have to worry about.” But music and noise levels factor in heavily to a venue’s atmosphere and guest experience. They’ve always been important, no question about it.

Rather than be too bothered by a Yelp for noise, operators should see at least some value in SoundPrint’s mission and data.

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SoundPrint claims to have the largest database for sound levels in bars, restaurants and coffee shops. They conducted the first-ever large-scale study that focused on noise levels in bars and restaurants, surveying 2,376 venue in New York City.

The report reveals intriguing findings2:

  • A “significant number” of bars and restaurants have sound levels high enough to impact conversation negatively. The sound levels may be bad for guest and employee health.
  • Operators who describe venue noise levels on their business sites may be underestimating how loud they actually are.
  • The neighborhoods in which venues are located and the types of cuisine in which they specialize have a correlation with venue sound levels.
  • Other studies have shown that louder venues experience faster table turnover because guests eat and drink faster, so higher sound levels seemingly generate more revenue.
  • Modern bar and restaurant design may be contributing to higher sound levels: hard surfaces without sound-absorption (more windows, less or no carpet, lack of paneling, lack of plants) and open kitchens make venues louder.

The study also shared the results of Zagat’s 2016 Annual Survey. Overall, poor service was the biggest complaint (28 percent) among diners who completed the survey. Noise was the second overall complaint, with 25 percent of respondents identifying it as an annoyance3.

However, noise was the top complaint of survey respondents in Boston, New York City, Portland and San Francisco. According to Zagat, their 2016 survey found that 72 percent3 of NYC diners “actively avoid restaurants that are too loud.”

That last bit of data is particularly interesting for a couple reasons. First, there’s no denying that NYC is a trend-setting bar and restaurant city loaded with industry-leading operators, experts and critics. The World’s 50 Best Bars has released the results of their other list, bars number 51 through 100, and nine NYC bars earned rankings.

Second, NYC is one of the cities SoundPrint has identified as having the loudest bars and restaurants (San Francisco also claims this dubious honor). Other cities are measured against NYC in terms of noise levels, and SoundPrint revealed recently that Portland and Seattle noise levels are approaching those of NYC.

The company measured the sound levels of more than 2,300 bars and restaurants in Seattle and Portland. According to SoundPrint, venues in both cities average 77 dB. Fifty-six percent of bars and restaurants in Seattle are too loud to have a conversation, and that number jumps to 65 percent in Portland. Both cities also have venues with noise levels that can damage hearing, with 24 percent in Seattle and 27 percent in Portland reaching more than 80 dB.

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Another survey cited within SoundPrint’s report revealed the startling impact of noise levels on bar and restaurant guests. Luke Dixon’s “Speak Easy: Hearing the Views of Your Customers. Action on Hearing Loss” survey results4 were released in 2016. Among 1,461 UK respondents both with and without hearing loss, almost 80 percent said they had left a bar, restaurant of café due to noise. More than 90 percent said they wouldn’t return to a venue they had left because of noise levels.

It turns out that noise really bothers some people, and they keep track at least mentally of venues with sound levels that drive them out. According to the SoundPrint report2, about 11 percent of adults suffer from tinnitus (ringing in the ears), and around six percent are afflicted by hyperacusis (increased sensitivity to sound). The report also notes that noise can be a contributing factor for increased stress levels, hypertension, coronary heart/artery disease, stroke, obesity, and exhaustion.

In other words, constant exposure to LOUD NOISES = bad for health.

Without context, none of the talk of noise levels and decibels means much. According to the guidelines listed on the FAQ section of SoundPrint’s website, decibel levels (dB) of 70 and lower are safe for hearing health and conducive to conversation. Levels of 71-75 dB are also safe and don’t inhibit conversation, although conversations will likely be a bit louder than those held in spaces of 70 dB and lower.

Spaces that are considered loud by SoundPrint measure 76-80 dB. It’s “likely” that these levels are safe for hearing health, but conversation will be difficult. A “very loud” venue would come in at 81 dB and above, therefore endangering a person’s hearing health and being unconducive to conversation. SoundPrint claims that, compared to a Type 1 professional sound level meter, iPhones are “reasonably accurate” (+/- zero to 1.2 dB).

The company does have some tips for bar and restaurant operators to lower their noise levels:

  • Analyze the space. Venues that lack sound-absorbing materials on half of the ceiling and 20-30 percent of the walls, sound can be a problem.
  • Relocate loud machines and server stations so they’re as far away as possible from guests. If they can’t be relocated, consider installing sound-absorbing materials on the sections of wall and ceiling near the machines and stations.
  • Acoustic products such as acoustic ceiling panels and sound diffusers can be planned, customized and budgeted for initial buildout plans or renovations.
  • Carpet, rugs, tablecloths, upholstery and plants can absorb noise.
  • Acoustic consultants exist. They can analyze your space and provide solutions.

SoundPrint users contribute to Quiet Lists in cities across the globe, including Chicago, Las Vegas, NYC, Portland, Seattle and San Francisco. On these lists are suggestions for bars and restaurants that have been identified by users as having noise levels of 70dB and below. Cuisine, dollar range and location are noted on Quiet Lists, and each venue links back to a Yelp page.

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So, yes—operators do have one more thing to worry about. Competitors may be actively seeking inclusion on Quiet Lists, and operators will need to find a balance between noise levels, turning tables, and generating revenue.

The SoundPrint app and the company’s data can be helpful resources, providing targets for operators to reach to help tweak guest experience and potentially boost revenue. Bars and restaurants shouldn’t be like libraries (apart from the Multnomah Whiskey Library), but they shouldn’t be deafening either.


1. SoundPrint website

2. Scott, G (2016) An Exploratory Survey of Sound Levels in New York City Restaurants and Bars.

3. Zagat Survey (2016) The State of American Dining in 2016.

4. Dixon, L. (2016) Speak Easy: Hearing the Views of Your Customers. Action on Hearing Loss.