Loud music ruins your hearing… and your tastebuds…

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Regular readers will know that I have in the past used my editorial page as a soapbox to complain about both the level of background noise in restaurants, and the sound quality of the sound systems used by restaurateurs to play background music in their restaurants (see previous story HERE). And, although I have taken sound pressure level meters onto aeroplanes before to measure noise levels, I’ve never taken one into a restaurant. However, last year, someone did.

Daniel Castro, of Sydney firm Wood & Grieve Engineers, was commissioned by the Sydney Morning Herald’s Good Food Guide to check the noise levels of a number of restaurants in Sydney and Melbourne. I wasn’t surprised to read (in articles in the SMH written by Nina Rousseau and Richard Cornish*) that noise levels in some cases exceeded the official WorkCover safe limit of 85dBSPL. At two restaurants, Café Nice (Sydney) and Chin Chin (Melbourne), the two acoustical engineers recorded measurements of 95dBSPL! Not that either of the restaurateurs was apologetic, with Barry McDonald, of Café Nice telling Rousseau: ‘I like a certain noise level in my restaurants. It helps create atmosphere.’ Chris Lucas, of Chin Chin, went even further. ‘You can’t have fun without noise’, he told Rousseau. ‘We set out to replicate the buzz of a Thai street market.’ Fairfax’s food writer, Richard Cornish, obviously thinks their statements were disingenuous, to obscure the real reason behind the noise levels. ‘Absorbing sound costs money. It’s one of the things that gets cut in tough times.’

And restaurants are certainly doing it tough, with many icons shutting up shop entirely, and others changing their names and moving downmarket in search of patronage. As I have said previously, I think high noise levels turn off customers, most of whom aren’t there so much for the food as to enjoy the company of the people they’re dining with… and if you can’t hear what they’re saying, you can’t really enjoy their company.

However, on a far more important note, anyone working in a restaurant that regularly has noise levels that even approach 95dBSPL runs a real risk of losing their hearing. Pay rates for wait-staff isn’t high anyway, but no amount of money could ever compensate for going deaf as a result of working in a restaurant. At least flight attendants, who endure noise levels exceeding 88dBSPL for periods of up to ten hours at a time (which would certainly damage their hearing), get to see the world while they’re going deaf. Meanwhile, the pilots and engineers get to wear noise-cancelling headphones, not to mention that because they’re up the pointy end, well ahead of the engines, it’s a lot quieter than down the back where the crew are working.

But back to restaurants, and it appears that I’m not alone in complaining about noisy ones. Roslyn Grundy, of The Age Good Food Guide 2014, says many Guide users ask for ‘quiet restaurant’ recommendations. ‘We get a lot of feedback from people saying they can't hear the conversation at their own table, let alone eavesdrop on the table next to them,’ she said. Noise can also apparently affect your tastebuds. An experiment by Russell Keast, an associate professor of food and sensory science at Deakin University, proved that high levels of background noise reduced a taster's ability to detect salt and sweet foods. It’s been theorised that this may be one reason the meals served on planes taste so bland. I’d suggest that the other reason is that they’re deliberately made that way, but that’s just my personal opinion.

In the meantime, I’d suggest that to protect your hearing, and to maximise your enjoyment of your meals, you should boycott all restaurants with excessive noise levels. And in those situations where you can’t help being in a noisy restaurant, be sure to give your waitperson a generous tip: the extra money will help pay for their hearing aids a little later on in their life! # greg borrowman

(This article first appeared in Australian Hi-Fi Magazine, Volume 45 No 1, published in January 2014)