Once Again for the Last Time?
Some TimeGoesBy Blog Housekeeping

Crabby Old Lady and Loud Movies

Last week we discussed hearing loss. Today, it is the opposite – painfully loud noise. Specifically, the audio volume in movie theaters.

A couple of months ago, a friend suggested seeing Spotlight at a local theater.

Crabby Old Lady hardly ever does that anymore. One reason is that it's not nearly as easy as it was in New York City with dozens of theaters within easy distance. Here, she must drive several miles for all but one tiny theater near her so she doesn't often do that.

Even so, Spotlight was on the “don't miss” list and it would be nice to see her friend so they met at the theater. As soon as the lights dimmed and the screen lit up, the bigger reason Crabby mostly avoids movie theaters came back to her.

Crabby's real problem is that the piercingly high volume of movie sound nowadays causes actual pain, a deep ache in her ears.

Crabby's not talking about action movies that don't interest her anyway. She is talking about even the few films still produced that consist of dialogue – like Spotlight.

It had been so long since Crabby watched a movie in a theater that she didn't think to bring ear plugs (not that they help much) so she stuffed her ears with Kleenex. Only in the most minimal way did that reduce the pain.

As Crabby and her friend walked out of the theater afterward, her ears were ringing even louder than from the perpetual tinnitus she has lived with for the past eight or ten years, and ambient street noise along with her friend's voice sounded muffled. That can't possibly be good for anyone.

As Crabby has mentioned here in the past, she firmly believes that if it (“it” being pretty much anything) is happening to her, it is happening to hundreds, maybe thousands or even millions of others.

News stories or commentary about excessive movie volume had never crossed her path so Crabby didn't expect much from a Google search. Wrong, at least to a small degree.

”The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders reports that prolonged or repeated exposure to sounds 85 decibels and higher can cause hearing loss,” reports the healthyhearing website.

“And the louder the sound, the less time it takes for damage to occur.”

Hearing loss at above 85 decibals. For old people who, by age alone, are more susceptible to hearing loss, loud movie audio could be devastating. KRCA-TV in Sacramento, California, tested the levels of several movies in and around that city.

Insurgent and Cinderella - at five different local movie theaters. Both films frequently hit peaks above 85 dBA (decibels), with Cinderella reaching a peak of 120.4 dBA and Insurgent reaching 118 dBA.”

Here's a 2014 report from KXAN-TV in Austin, Texas about excessive movie audio volume:

In 2014, legislation was introduced in the Connecticut legislature aimed at regulating the decibel level of movie audio in theaters but apparently nothing came of it. One reason cited is that people objected to more government intrusion in their lives. As opposed, one wonders, to deafness?

Others say that due to the digital nature of film projection these days, “limiting the noise level could make it difficult to calibrate motion pictures for easy listening when it comes to dialogue and other low-volume scenes.” (healthyhearing.com again)

Yeah, right. Crabby Old Lady has quite a few years of past experience with audio editing and although digital has come along since then, she would need to see some proof before she believes that audio between a scene with explosions and a quiet conversation next, for example, cannot be balanced.

It could be done in the past; why would digital make it impossible?

Meanwhile, Crabby watches movies at home but there are always some she would rather see on a ginormous screen in a theater and to do so without horrible pain in her ears, not to mention potential physical damage. It is unacceptable for a technology known to cause hearing loss to be ignored.

Does any of this (dare Crabby say it?) ring a bell with you?


Yes! Yes! Yes! (I am emphatically whispering this). I agree and often hold my hands over my hands when I infrequently go to a movie theater. By the way, movie-going in a theater used to be one of my favorite activities, but since aging and noticing hearing loss, I've gone less. I also have pain at home when my husband doesn't reduce the volume on commercials. He is so tired of me asking him to "turn it down" when most commercials come on and then "turn it up" when the shows return! Hallelujah to some decibel-control in theaters and maybe for commercials so my remote and hubby aren't too stressed.

I could have written that column myself, Ronni. I don't often go to the movies anymore, either, and every time I do I'm shocked at how loud they are. Fortunately, I don't wear my hearing aids to go or I'd be completely deaf by now. grrr.

I am so sorry this was such a miserable experience for you, Ronni aka Crabby Old Lady. When you said you and your friend were going to Spotlight, I was immediately glad since it is such a splendid film, splendidly filmed, thought out, acted, everything.

And basically a quiet film as well. But all of that was lost on you.

I am an inveterate movie goer, love films, love being in cinemas - so I do go as often as I can. What has struck me and others with me too is that it is the ads and the previews that are shrieking at us -- as soon as the film begins, that sound is noticeably lowered. We, being cynics, have assumed that it is the MONEY that is in play here: things for us to buy, things for us to pay to see.. It is terribly annoying, but we endure it for the relatively short amount of time it lasts.

But what I hear from you is that the whole thing was deafening. In that case, it is worth complaining. I can remember occasions when the sound did not get reduced, and somebody went out and complained, and the volume got lower. I agree with you, some films should be seen on a big screen -- but maybe with Spotlight you would be better off looking at home where you can control the volume.

It is such a fine film, and I really regret that you had to endure it - rather than be granted the great pleasure of seeing it.

Agreed! I too have tinnitus Crabby, and always have earplugs in my bag for movies. I even need them for symphony concerts occasionally. Cincinnati's Music Hall has wonderful acoustics and the sound can reach painful levels for me. I'm happy to take responsibility for my comfort there, even if I might miss some of the full on timpani and trombones! But movie sound is a different case and could certainly be more reasonable for all moviegoers.
Could it be that all sound engineers are already deaf?

I'll be trying earplugs next time. The last movie we went to actually made me want to cry, it was so loud. I couldn't enjoy it and when I came out I couldn't hear normal sounds.

I agree as well. Even watching a movie on dvd or blu-ray at home does the same thing with regard to soft and loud. It gets loud, we turn it down. Then there is soft talking, and we turn it up. Rinse and Repeat. Hate it! We started using closed-caption or subtitles, which also helps tremendously when there is an accent we aren't familiar with.

For me, it's a "catch 22". The loud and explosive previews torture my hearing, but once the main feature comes on, I have to strain to hear the quieter (and more meaningful) dialogue. So going to the movies has become an exercise in frustration. But I still go, since I love the big screen, with its vivid and expansive presentation. In my small city, several movie houses are within walking distance so, as long as I can make the 15 minute hike, I'll be "at the movies"!

I haven't been in a movie theater in years so can't really comment only to say that when sound is so loud that it hurts, it's time to avoid the experience no matter how high the rating of the movie.

Hearing is so precious that no one should be exposed to dangerous levels of sound. By all means, complain to the management loud and often. Only when enough of the paying public complain and stop going will anything change.

I agree and have another compliant:I don't care for the movie theater experience overall (they are freezing, expensive, crowded, cell phone lights, etc), and rarely go, so watch DVDs at home -- why the heck don't they send the DVD out for good mastering so the sound doesn't vary so much? Watching at home I have to have my hand on the volume control the entire length of the film.

That's not my problem. I can't hear when the music and dialogue are at the same levels....she says shaking her head.

Like Darlene I haven't been to a movie in years, sometime in the mid-seventies to be exact, so the current sound levels in theaters admittedly I am not familiar with. I'm not sure how the louder sound might affect me. Often here at home I have to increase my television volume but again, not sure how that would translate to current movie theater issues you have experienced. Someone suggested ear plugs, if you just must go to the theater that sounds like a good precautionary suggestion.

"Loud" was one of the reasons I stopped movie-going many years ago. My hearing is not wonderful in the best of times, and I'd like to keep what there is left. Then we could talk about the gratuitous violence, of course and a few other annoyances.

Still the best antidote for the movie-experience is the book. Buy the book on which the movie is based, and enjoy the plot in silence. Besides, I find it fun to imagine the characters, and the scenery, rather than see them portrayed for me.

I haven't been to movie for couple of years. Sound level is one of several reasons. It seems like loud sounds bother me more and more. Yet, have trouble understanding what people are saying.

While we are discussing noise...or at least loud to me sounds... Does anyone else have trouble with restaurants? We like eating out, but I have gotten to a point that I'd rather stay home and eat a peanut butter sandwich than handle the loud talking. Impossible to have nice visit with friends without feeling like I am yelling.

Glad to see this addressed. I have come close a couple times in walking out to the lobby to request a sound adjustment for the sake of all movie goers. It can't be just the older ears that are being damaged. If the younger folks don't mind, they will when they have hearing loss as they age. What is good for us is also good for them.

The movie theater I go to in Seattle has a very good sound system which is not set too loud. It also has the " audio loop" sound enhancing transmitter that works with my hearing aids. So I get a comfortable hearing level and enough clarity so that I can get most of the dialogue in movies. Hearing loss means never again having a perfect listening experience, but these enhancements really help.
I'm so enthused I'm going to start putting pressure on local theaters to provide audio loops.

I agree with everybody about movie theaters, but let me add another excruciatingly loud venue: NYC restaurants. It's just about impossible to find one where you can hear your own table's conversation without leaning in to the middle and bellowing at each other. Yet (mostly youngish) patrons seem to think it's a sign of energy and with-it-ness. Ruins the whole meal for us.

I wear hearing aids, and volume isn't the only issue for me, so at home, I use closed captioning and don't bother turning the volume up. I wish that movie theaters offered closed captioning that you can only see with special glasses. Then the captions wouldn't bother the rest of the audience and folks like me would be able to understand the dialogue. I don't use my hearing aids in the movie theater because it's so loud to begin with. I also miss most of the dialogue, but that's not because of the volume. It's because of other hearing issues that closed captioning would take care of. Just sayin'....

Diane and others...
It's not just New York City restaurants that are loud - it's everywhere. It started 20 or 30 years ago when restaurant owners and managers decided that a high level of noise made patrons think the restaurant was "cool" and (except for the highest end restaurants, they mostly removed carpeting and anything on the walls that muffled sound. They replaced all that with hard, sound-reflecting surfaces.

You'd think a fad would be over after decades, wouldn't you. But no.

But, that is not the only problem for old people. One of the most common forms of hearing loss (if it can be called "loss") is a diminishing capability of ears to screen out unwanted noise. When we were younger and unless the noise level was toxic, we could hear close in at our table and the rest was just background rumble we could ignore.

Old ears generally can't do that anymore.

I find a "good" movie on a large theater screen is great escape from the stuff in life that bugs me (not that there are many "good" movies around these days).

Some years ago, I visited a large hardware store and found (out of a good selection) a pair of what I think are termed "ear mufflers". I see similar ones on grass cutters using huge, noisy machines.

Yep, I sometimes forget to take them with me, and they're certainly bulky and not easy to fit into a purse, but they do a great job........they're wonderful in a large music hall with a 60 or 90 piece live orchestra also. I highly recommended looking for a pair.

I don't go near a movie theater without my Mack gel ear plugs. The others don't cut it for my ears, and I have handed out some to other surprised people. It's criminal, in my opinion. The only people who don't have a problem are already deaf.

I always have my Mack's silicone earplugs with me when going to the movies! Those high decibels are shocking and I'd hate to lose any more of my hearing :( My husband has more hearing loss than I do, but he isn't bothered much by loud audio. Aging is such a strange adventure!

I'm incredibly lucky in having, at almost 79, essentially no hearing loss at all. (I have the audiology results to prove it.) And I DON'T find the sound in movie theaters too loud. But the volume of the previews they run before the main feature begins is deafening. Aha, you'll say, you're just getting used to it--the volume's just as high for the feature. I don't think so. I think they actually crank up the sound on the previews to excite young people, thus making it more likely they'll come back and spend money. But, I could be wrong. I do agree with you that when it's too loud, it's REALLY too loud!

LOVED Spotlight, saw it at home on On Demand. Damn you, Comcast!

While I'm mentioning On Demand, I MUST urge you all to see the current film Youth. I've watched it three times so far and am totally knocked out. Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Jane Fonda (fabulous cameo role), Paul Dano (love him), Rachel Weisz--just terrific! And the classical art song that is performed at the end by the amazing Korean soprano Sumi Jo--killing, absolutely killing. I think you'll thank me.

I have Mack's silicone earplugs too. Walgreens sells them. They seem to work for me. It's a bother that not only the film you see is loud but in our "cinemaplex" you can hear the sound from the theaters on each side as well. I still have decent hearing and I'd like to keep it if I can.

Yes it does ring a bell, Ronni.

We are regular movie goers.

And we climb to the top row of seats to protect our ears.

Even before the feature movie begins, the audience is subjected to screeching mynah bird sounding commercials for cars, soft drinks, cell phones.

And then come the movie previews.

More noise.

My brother and I were just talking about how sensitive we have become to noise as we age, and not just movie noise.

Sometimes you wish everyone would just pipe the heck down. O_o

Maybe it's just me (and I know that I have some hearing loss), but today's movies' "background" music is so loud that both my husband and I have great difficulty in understanding the dialogue. We use closed captioning at home when it is available, but the print many times lags so far behind the action that I sometimes just give up and quit watching.

My husband is so considerate that he wears headphones if he's watching something while I'm on my computer or reading. I used to be able to "tune out the noise," but nowadays I can't seem to concentrate on anything else if the television is on -- the noise is just too distracting.

We don't go to movie theaters at all anymore.

As others have said, the previews are miserably loud, and then the sound is somewhat more reasonable when the movie starts. When it isn't, I walk out to the reception area and ask that they turn it down--no one's told me "no" (yet). That said, many, many places are so loud that I generally skip the outing rather that sit through the whole meal, drink, game, pop-music concert, etc in ear plugs.

I second your post, Ronni, and all your readers' excellent comments. I have been carrying earplugs in my bag for years now and they almost always do the trick for me. I used to warn my students about the volume of music in discothèques here in Italy and show them articles about how 20- and 30-year-olds' hearing was more like that of 50- and 60-year-olds'. The volume of "background" music and chatter (and sometimes even TVs!) in restaurants and other public places irks me no end ... but at least I can "just say no" to those places. I love going to one old theater-turned-cinema here in Florence where movies in English are shown so that saying no to that would be more of a sacrifice. There are "volume regulations" and even laws but they are rarely applied. Why ads and movies and life in general has to be shouted, heaven only knows. It's like living your life in screaming headlines, which, after all, is the general tendency of journalism today - even when the report is just about the weather. Thank you for speaking up and out about this.

I agree movies in theaters and restaurants and even some other venues are too loud. They are merely an irritation to me, but my spouse has tinnitus and is very sensitive to certain pitches and sounds. We don't go to a lot of places because of that, which is sad for me.

I haven't been in a movie theatre in years. Y our post makes me doubt I ever will again. In addition to sound issues, I get dizzy and feel nautious with some camera work.

15 yrs. ago, my husband went to the movies with an older friend (husband is now 75) who has a hearing problem and has a hearing aid. When they got there, the friend put earplugs in his ears and offered some to my husband. Gratefully, he took them. And that was 15 yrs. ago!
Forever ago I went to movies but gave that up with it's over-the-top approach on every level. I've always had trouble with loud noises, and even when walking in the City (NY) where loud noises occur at the drop of a hat, I put my fingers in my ears. (Do that entering a church if the bells are ringing!)
Can't imagine how loud it must be now.
So now I'll have to alert our kids to try and mind what their kids are subjecting themselves to. A long shot, ya think?

Earplug hot tip. If all you have is tissue, then dampen it and the water with the tissue fiber does a pretty decent job of blocking noise.

EPA-tested, featherweight, and washable "3M E-A-R Classic earplugs" preserve sanity! At a minimum order of 30 Pair Per Box ($12.30), I ordered 200 pair from Amazon. Quarry workers and others in noise polluting, ear-drum-damaging occupations use them. As do I on buses, in restaurants, watching movies, and near screaming people, cellphone talkers, honking cars, etc.

Haven't seen Spotlight yet, but I "hear" you about the piercingly high volume of movie sound ... really annoying.

My strategies are two-fold. I carry earplugs wherever I go so concerts were the amps are at 11 are now tolerable as are movies if I need them to be. I try to get to the theatre early enough to catch the credits of the previous run of my movie as a sound check, then I go to the lobby and ask for a manager. I can usually tell them how far to back the sound off (one click, two clicks, etc) I've never been refused. This could have to do with the movies I chose to see since they are character driven and not the "adventure" kind.

I can't abide the decibel level of my commercials on television these days. I can be engrossed in a program or movie, then suddenly a commercial comes on that assaults my hearing. I spend the evening constantly adjusting the volume or, when I can, fast forwarding through the commercials. I'm sure advertisers would be disappointed to discover how many people mute their commercials rather than listening to them. Somebody tell them, please!

I also hear (pun intended) that at several pro sports stadiums, Seattle in particular, fans take particular pride in generating enough noise to cause serious hearing loss. Seems rather perverse to me but then again, I stopped following sports on a regular basis once I became an adult.

My friend & I went to see National Parks Adventure yesterday at the local IMAX theater. It's an incredible movie with astonishing photography and a brilliant soundtrack. And it was so loud I had to have my fingrs in my ears through the entire film. I complained on my way out, & I'm going to send a copy of this blog to the theater, even if I have to print it & snail mail it.

There is middle ground between "full" hearing protection (earplugs or over-ear hearing protectors) and no hearing protectors - those that attenuate too-loud sounds only, but don't block the audio completely. I tried "DUBS Acoustic Filters Advanced Tech Earplugs" (comes in different colors), available on Amazon, and they worked pretty well.

One nice thing about these is that they protrude slightly from the ear so they're easier to insert and remove quickly.

With them in, I could still hear everything around me that was emitted in a normal volume, but they did seem to reduce things that were louder than normal to the more normal level. Unfortunately, they didn't work for my co-worker a few feet away who can't help all-but-yelling during every telephone call.

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