Navigating Noise in Restaurants: When Does It Cross the Comfort Line?

Eating out is something we all look forward to. It is a treat for our taste buds, the conversation nurtures the soul, and a good night out leaves us on an endorphin high for days. But the background noise level often throws us into a cacophony of loud voices, clanging cutlery, and a busy bustling. At what point does the exciting ambience that draws us to restaurants tip over into uncomfortable territory where the noise becomes a glaring issue instead of a background lull? And why does it happen to some people and not others?

Like Goldilocks hunting for the perfect porridge, diners seek a perfect environment of audibility that suits their listening needs. Not too quiet, not too loud, but just right. If it’s too quiet, the sense of isolation can be off-putting, forcing diners to whisper as though they are in a library. On the flip side, a lively environment can mean completely missing the conversation at your table, but being more aware of other diners, loud music, and constant disruptions. This can greatly detract from the overall dining experience.

1. Deciphering Discomfort in Decibels

Generally, background noise becomes uncomfortable at levels that override our ability to engage in a natural conversation without straining. The cut-off point? Studies suggest it’s around 70 decibels, marking the threshold where speech intelligibility starts to diminish and the enjoyment of dining becomes increasingly challenging.

2. Individual Sound Preferences

Personal preference plays a major role in determining each person’s individual comfort level with restaurant noise. Some patrons seek a lively, energetic setting where laughter mixes with the clinks of glasses and music hums in the background. Others seek out quieter, more intimate eateries where the conversation can flow uninterrupted.

3. Speech in Noise Perception (SiN)

There’s more to it than simply preference. Audiologic factors, including our ‘Speech in Noise Perception’ (SiN) can significantly affect how comfortable we feel at each noise level.  SiN is an individual’s ability to perceive speech amongst different background noise levels. Even with the same hearing, two people may have completely different SiN, which means completely different abilities to comprehend speech in the same environment. People who are hard of hearing or are over the age of 50, generally need a greater speech signal above the background noise, to have the same comprehension as others with a good SiN perception.

4. The Environment 

The modern trend of open spaces, concrete floors and walls, floor-to-ceiling windows, and open kitchens is good for the eyes but not for the ears. These modern spaces turn into echo chambers that can amplify sound to uncomfortable levels. Add in noisy kitchen equipment, bustling crowds, or music on the verge of deafening—restaurants can quickly turn from a place of enjoyment to one of endurance.

5. Noise Sensitivity: A Sensitive Matter

For some individuals, restaurant noise doesn’t just toe the comfort line; it completely obliterates it. Noise sensitivity can stem from various conditions—autism, hyperacusis, Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), or even an ear infection. For those affected, the noise isn’t just an inconvenience but a source of genuine distress.

6. The Sound Barrier: Navigating the Noise Transition

 For individuals accustomed to the solace of a serene home or the hushed tones of a tranquil office, stepping into a bustling restaurant can signify a jarring auditory transition. The contrast in ambient noise levels accentuates the sensory experience, making moderately loud environments seem overwhelmingly clamorous. This adaptation, or lack thereof, to surrounding soundscapes, plays a subtle yet significant role in our perception of noise. Habituation to silence or soft sounds means that when one is suddenly immersed in a cacophony, the brain’s response can amplify the perceived volume, making conversations harder to discern and potentially diminishing the overall dining experience. Recognising this variance in auditory adaptation is crucial for both diners and designers, encouraging a more inclusive approach to acoustical planning in public spaces.


In summary, the dance between acoustics and dining marries the realms of science and art, highlighting the significant role that sound plays in shaping our dining experiences. From the careful curation of music playlists for strategic marketing manipulation, to understanding the psychological impacts of sound environments, it’s evident that a restaurant’s acoustic atmosphere is as important as its culinary creations. As we dive deeper into the nuances of how sound affects our enjoyment of food and companionship, striving for the ideal acoustic setting becomes crucial. This endeavour recognizes that a universal solution doesn’t exist; it continuously challenges restaurateurs and designers while encouraging guests to immerse themselves more fully in the sonic landscape of their preferred restaurants, revelling in the union of good friends, great food, and the perfect auditory backdrop. The bottom line, one size does not fit all.

But you can use the Ambient Menu to find the perfect acoustic environment to suit your individual taste. Begin your search today and experience the joy of a meal accompanied by the ideal acoustic environment.


Author: Laura Drexler

MAud, BHlthSc [Paramedic]
Ambient Menu Creator
Audiology Australia Internship Award 2022, AMP Healthcare Hero HELP Awards 2022, Flinders University Early Career Alumni Award 2022, Adelaide Dining Magazine SA Women in Food (Finalist)
Conference Presenter: Audiology Australia 2023 and 2024, Independent Audiologists Australia National Conference 2023, SA Gerontology Conference 2022 (best presentation), CICADA QLD.

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