Sound Bites - Acoustics in Restaurants

By Lewis Crabtree

10 October 2017

As an acoustician specialising in the built environment, I believe any push to increase general awareness of acoustics in the spaces we occupy is a welcome one.

This is particularly so in the context of our comfort and enjoyment in those spaces. 

Last year, the national charity “Action on Hearing Loss” announced a new campaign for quieter dining experiences.  The campaign stems from an online poll conducted in 2015 by the charity (formerly the Royal National Institute for Deaf People) that surveyed over 1,400 respondents, many of whom had reported tinnitus, hearing loss or both, on attitudes relating to noise in restaurants, cafes and pubs. 

Some highlighted findings include:

-  80% of respondents have left a restaurant, café or pub early because of noise

-  81% of respondents had difficulty holding a conversation due to high levels of environmental noise

-  91% would not return to an establishment where noise levels were too high

-  92% identified a reduction in background music as one of the top three changes they would want restaurants, cafes and pubs to make

The respondents identified background noise as the combination of environmental noise (e.g. people talking or noise made by a coffee machine, or impact noise from cutlery) and background music

The charity has also released a guide providing practical steps that restaurants, cafes and bars can take to reduce background noise.

In designing restaurants, cafes and indeed any building, it is important to quickly establish the aspirations of the client and anticipate the needs of the customers, employees or other occupants.  As can be expected, these are almost always varied and complex.  Acoustic aspirations should always form part of this brief. 

In restaurants for example, there may be a need to balance a “buzzy” atmosphere, acoustic privacy (if it’s too quiet, people may feel uncomfortable or inhibited), and acoustic comfort (being able to have a conversation without shouting or straining).  One example that we like here in the Max Fordham Acoustics team is the “The Understudy”, a bar at the National Theatre at the South Bank in London, which we think combines these considerations well.   

The different elements that can affect the quality of sound in any room are numerous.  In a restaurant, these might range from the types of surfaces in the room, the number of diners and their distribution and density, activity noise from the kitchen and other sources, noise from ventilation and cooling equipment and ambient music. 

The most obvious choices for good acoustics may not always be a perfect blend with the client, architectural or design intent.  It is down to us as acoustic engineers to help meet those aspirations but still design an acoustic environment that is a comfortable one for all end users.   

More information on the Speak Easy campaign can be found on the Action on Hearing Loss website.


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