Want a quiet restaurant? There’s an app for that

This photo shows how Current design trends in restaurant layout and interior finishes have increased sound levels. (Image credit: SoundPrint)

Current design trends in restaurant layout and interior finishes have increased sound levels.SoundPrint

Eating in a noisy restaurant is a fixture of American life. Loud conversations, blaring music, and poor acoustics all contribute to incessantly high noise levels. Case in point: Zagat’s latest report about dining trends shows that the number one complaint diners have is noise — followed by service, crowds, high prices, and parking. Yet nothing seems to change as people still choose to go out. But in Gregory Scott’s case, it’s more than just an inconvenience — it’s an isolating experience because he suffers from severe hearing loss.

Scott’s need to find a quiet place led him to create SoundPrint, a mobile app that crowdsources reviews about the noise levels in restaurants, bars, and cafés.

“I was dating in New York and wanted to find quieter spots to better connect with my dates and not worry whether the place was going to be loud or not,” he told All Turtles in an interview. “I would Google ‘quiet spots in New York’ and check out the places, but most of the time, they were still really loud.”

Scott wondered whether it was loud just for him or if these places were objectively loud. And so he started bringing a decibel meter to restaurants to measure the actual sound levels. He shared the list of quiet places with extended groups of friends who loved it, proving there was interest beyond the hearing impaired.

Finding a quiet place

A research analyst by trade, Scott outsourced development of the SoundPrint app and launched it in April. Users activate the decibel meter inside the app to measure the sound level of public places and can choose to submit the results. In order to create its “Quiet Lists” of city venues, SoundPrint analyzes data submitted during peak days and hours (i.e. evenings) and scores the quieter venues based on their typical average sound levels.

Scott says there have been about 42,000 submissions so far (this includes the app’s beta period in 2017). Based on the collected data, SoundPrint has created “Quiet Lists” in various American cities including New York, San Francisco, Las Vegas, New Orleans, and Nashville.

In New York City, Scott found that the average noise level in restaurants is 78 decibels (dB), which, according to his findings, is considered “Loud.”

This photo shows a View of sound level categories in the Soundprint iOS app

View of sound level categories in the Soundprint iOS appSoundPrint

A “Loud” atmosphere (76 to 80 dB) is likely safe for hearing health, according to SoundPrint. As the dB begins to rise from 76, the likelihood of noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) increases. A “Very Loud” atmosphere of 81 dB and above is potentially very dangerous for hearing health. The risk is dependent on the length of exposure, however.

“Even if a restaurant is at 90 dB, the time limit for safe exposure is two hours,” Benjamin Kanters, associate chair of the Department of Audio Arts and Acoustics at Columbia College Chicago, wrote in an email to All Turtles. “So an average dinner would not be hazardous. But a venue manager or waiter working several hours a day is at risk of suffering from incremental and irreparable hearing loss.”

Of the roughly 40 million Americans suffering from hearing loss, 10 million cases can be attributed to NIHL, according to Dangerous Decibels, a public health campaign designed to reduce the incidence and prevalence of NIHL and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).

“Right now, people start losing their hearing in their 60s or 70s,” Scott said. “We think that in the next decade or so, people are going to start losing their hearing earlier, in their 40s and 50s.”

Why are restaurants so loud?

“Noisy is the new normal in restaurants,” said David B. Schwartz, an acoustic designer with Essential Communications, a New York-based builder of sound systems. “It’s undeniable that recent changes in restaurant design and construction have increased sound levels. The trend of making restaurants look stark or industrial has bred an abundance of fashionable materials — all hard surfaces that can reflect and amplify sound, such as ceramic tiles, concrete floors, glass, and metal.”

The noise level in restaurants is getting ever louder. Restaurants such as Umamicatessen in downtown LA, with its honeycomb ceilings, are trying to make dining more bearable.

The noise level in restaurants is getting ever louder. Restaurants such as Umamicatessen in downtown LA, with its honeycomb ceilings, are trying to make dining more bearable.Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

Even though it’s much easier (and cheaper) to consider acoustic design when you’re building and designing your space, there are still ways to mitigate sound at a later time. Examples of these measures include drapes, plants, tablecloths, thinking about table spacing, and avoiding open kitchens.

“In my experience, many restaurant owners are hesitant about applying materials that may in some way alter the appearance or detract from the interior,” added Schwartz. “It’s difficult to adequately treat a noisy, loud restaurant without using materials that will be seen. Anything that could be used and not seen would have to be planned for in advance and implemented during construction.”  

This is something SoundPrint wants to help with. “We want to become a platform where venue managers can reach out to us,” Scott said. “Many of them don’t feel like they can do anything about the noise, so we want to connect them to acoustic designers and suppliers who can help.”  

The SoundPrint app is free and is currently only available on iOS phones. (According to Scott, the microphones on Android devices are inconsistent and difficult to calibrate.)

In the coming months, Scott and his team will be mapping out more venues in U.S. cities, including gyms, cinemas, and stadiums. “I’m getting new requests on a regular basis,” Scott said. “I even got emails from people about churches being too loud!”