Design

A fascinating study about restaurant noise

Photo credit: rawpixel.com from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

Restaurant noise is a problem for patrons trying to converse with their dining companions, and a common complaint in the Zagat survey.

When ambient noise is loud, people raise their voices to increase the speech to noise or signal to noise ratio to help others hear what they are saying. This creates a positive feedback loop, where everyone increases how loud they are speaking, until it’s so loud that no one can understand anything being said. The phenomenon, called the Lombard effect or cocktail party effect, has been known for a long time.

This study in the world’s most prestigious acoustical journal, the Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, adds to our knowledge of how restaurant noise affects understanding of speech. The researchers studied speech in a sound booth at different ambient noise levels. The sound level of speech increased as ambient noise increased. Subjects reported disturbance of speech beginning at 52.2 A-weighted decibels (dBA), with vocal effort beginning to increase at 57.3 dBA. The researchers noted that as background noise increased, it triggered a decrease in the willingness to spend time and money in a restaurant. The researchers concluded that restaurants should have ambient noise levels of 50-55 dBA. That’s a much lower sound level than that in most restaurants.

The study is quite technical, and I have two quibbles with it.

First, it was done in a sound booth. That is ideal for research, but I would be interested to see the study replicated in a real or simulated restaurant environment.

Second, the average age of the subjects was 21, with a range from 18-28. I would like to see the study repeated, even with the same methods, in a population age 58-68, with an average age of 61, or even 68-78, with an average age of 71.

I suspect the findings would be similar, but the decibel numbers would be significantly lower.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

Restaurant noise is still a problem

Photo credit: Navjot Singh licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This recent article in the Chicago Tribune discusses the problem of restaurant noise, and what can be done to solve it.

Controlling restaurant noise can be a challenge. There has to be a balance between a reasonable amount of noise, and the ability of patrons to converse each other, but not so much quiet that everyone can hear what others are saying at the next table.

Some restaurant noise is unavoidable, e.g., the conversation of patrons, noise from the street, and the clatter of dishes at the tables, but kitchen noise can be isolated by an interior window if a visible kitchen is desired, and background music doesn’t have to be turned up to rock concert levels.

There is no “one size fits all” solution to restaurant noise. But acoustic science is up to the challenge and quieter restaurants are entirely feasible.

DISCLOSURE. Dr. Fink serves as Medical Advisor to SoundPrint, which is mentioned in this article.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

New method claims to cancel noise without ear-blocking headphones

Photo credit: Marekich licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This report from the University of Illinois Coordinated Science Laboratory describes a method to cancel noise without ear-blocking headphones. It uses behind-the-ear technology to send sound waves to cancel the incoming sound.

I hope the technology can be commercialized–it sounds like it has promise–but to me it would be much simpler, easier, and probably cheaper to just turn down the volume of amplified sound, install sound-absorbing or sound blocking materials at the time of construction, and mandate quieter cars, trains, and airplanes.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

There doesn’t have to be a tech “solution” to everything

Case in point: The sun-blocking umbrella drone.  One could just carry an umbrella around, but no, a couple of tech bros came up with something spectacular:

WARNING: Lower the volume on your device!

Make that spectacularly awful. Says Sasha Lekach, Mashable, the “annoying hum and buzz renders the entire concept useless.”  And what is its intended use? Why “[i]t’s intended for golfers on sunny greenways.” Of course it is.

The umbrella drone is as likely to exist as Uber’s flying taxis.

How to deal with distracting conversations in an open plan office

Applying “local acoustic treatment” in open plan offices, says the Acoustical Society of America, “may be able to provide relief in the future.”  What is “local acoustic treatment?” Science Daily reports:

To make these environments less noisy, while still providing acoustic support for speaking and listening, researchers are creating small “acoustic islands” using high-back chairs and retroreflective ceilings to direct sound to help you hear your own conversations — not others’ — better.

Or we could look back–when life was quieter–and embrace these things called “offices.”  One hopes that eventually the cost of mitigating the noise in open plan offices makes them so untenable that reason prevails and people can have a small quiet space to get their work done.

Should appliance makers pay more attention to sound?

Oh look, an orchestra.

We would say yes, but no to singing washing machines.  While we appreciate sound artist and designer Yuri Suzuki’s desire to “‘propose ways for sound to not turn into noise but rather help enhance harmony and comfort” in our surrounds,” can we suggest that designers consider reducing the whirrs and rumbles of domestic appliances, allowing us to enjoy our homes in quiet?