Listening to the Data: Optimizing Conversation Sound Levels for Venues

by SoundPrint Team

SoundPrint establishes first-ever sound level benchmark for venues for optimizing conversation 

By Erin Dugan, SoundPrint’s Acoustic Data Scientist 

Using the SoundPrint data crowdsourced from its user community, we analyzed 10,000+ sound level submissions of U.S.-based hospitality venues (restaurants, bars, and coffee shops) to determine the optimal sound levels needed for venues to best cater to their patrons. 

SoundPrint data enables us to compare the objective sound level with the user’s subjective interpretation of a venue’s loudness. For example, each crowd-sourced sound level measurement (what we call a “SoundCheck”) contains both the objective sound level measurement of a venue and the user’s input on whether they thought the venue’s sound level for conversation was Great, Moderate, or Difficult. Comparing objective versus subjective data yielded very interesting insights. 

What sound levels do the public perceive to be Quiet and Loud?

Over the past couple decades, the world has gotten a lot noisier, as evidenced by noise surveys and media articles lamenting the trend. It is our experience that the general public, and by extension, venue managers, do not understand what truly constitutes an optimal or good listening environment. If venue sound levels are objectively very loud but patrons are complaining about the difficulty of hearing in them, then the venue manager may not be setting the right acoustic environment for its patrons and doing a disservice to their bottom line as patrons may not return. After all, per Zagat surveys, noise is usually one of the top two complaints about restaurants. And SoundPrint surveys have shown that ~52% of restaurant patrons have not returned to a restaurant due to loud noise. 

To explore this question, we first establish what the general public considers to be a good sound level for conversation. While some results are expected, the sound level that comprises an environment for good conversation is different for everyone, and it varies based on the type of venue. A high sound level in one type of venue may not be considered high in another venue type, especially when it comes to the ability to carry on conversations.  

The following chart shows the median sound levels measured by SoundPrint users along with their subjective ratings for conversational ability within each venue type. It appears that the public universally agrees on what comprises a Quiet hospitality venue; a space that is lower than 70 decibels (“dBA”), whether in a restaurant, bar, or coffee shop, is generally considered ‘Great’ for conversation.  

The next conversational ability category of ‘Moderate’ shows that the public’s perception of what constitutes a moderate sound level for conversation varies by venue type. For restaurants, the median level is 75 dBA, for nightlife it is 77 dBA, and for coffee shops it is 71 dBA. This is not surprising as people are likely to expect the sound level in a coffee shop to be much lower than in a bar. This trend also holds true for the ‘Difficult’ category, as nightlife’s median sound level is much higher than in restaurants, which is much higher than in coffee shops. 

Venue managers should use this data to acoustically optimize their venues

These findings can be of immense value to venues. 74 dBA is the median sound level by which patrons in coffee shops deem the place to be too difficult for conversation, working, or studying. SoundPrint’s database shows that ~37% (almost four out of every 10) of coffee shops have sound levels above 74 dBA. Thus a very high number of coffee shops may be frustrating and, consequently, losing many patrons. 

In a similar analysis for restaurants, the data shows that, for conversational purposes, 80 dBA or above is the median level that is too loud for a restaurant. This is about six decibels louder than levels considered too loud for conversation in a coffee shop. When 31% (three out of every 10) of restaurants have sound levels higher than 80 dBA, such high noise levels may be a contributor as to why certain restaurants are losing repeat customers and hurting their bottom line. See this study demonstrating how higher sound levels detrimentally affect a restaurant’s bottom line. 

Thus, this data allows us, for the first time, to determine a base-line optimal sound level for coffee shops and restaurants (we are currently not addressing nightlife as its typical average sound level sits way above the recommended safe sound level guidelines). Venue managers for coffee shops and restaurants should first measure the sound level of their venue. And if their sound levels are at or above 74 or 80 dBA, respectively, they should consider taking steps to reduce the sound level or obtain acoustical treatment. While 80 dBA may be the median level for difficult conversation ability, and some venue managers may be comfortable with having their venue sound levels sit at this level, it is important to note that 80 dBA is the threshold by which SoundPrint considers a venue to potentially endanger the hearing health of patrons and their employees who are exposed to longer durations of such noise. Thus, venue managers should aim to maintain their interior sound levels below 80 dBA. 

In summary, the power of the data enables, for the first time, the establishment of a benchmark by venue type by which venue managers can target their sound levels to attract and keep their patrons happy by optimizing their environment for conversation.  

What proactive steps can venue managers take? First, they should assess their sound levels by taking multiple sound level measurements during peak days and peak hours when their venues are typically patronized by the public. Many sound level meter apps are available on the Apple or Android platforms, including the well-known SoundPrint app. Note that while there are many sound level meter apps available, many are not relatively accurate nor in the correct decibel-weighting scale. Make sure measurements are taken in the dBA scale, which is weighted for human hearing, and not the dBC, dBZ, or other scales. Care should also be taken to ensure the measurements are made in the center of the space, away from hard, reflective surfaces, such as walls or tables, and not in the direct vicinity of any potentially loud noise sources. 
Second, once the venue manager is able to assess the typical sound level of their venue, and if it exceeds the thresholds mentioned above, they can take inexpensive steps to optimize their sound levels for better conversational ability. A list of Venue Manager Tips is available on the SoundPrint website, including determining the amount of sound-absorption materials your walls and ceiling should have. Venue managers can also implement carpeting, tablecloths, drapes, or plants in targeted areas to better absorb the sound. And they can assess their floor layouts to evaluate how sound is directed and flowing throughout the space. Another approach to consider is reaching out to an acoustical consulting firm or one of SoundPrint’s partners for a professional assessment.