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Why are cinema films so extremely loud?

Music - Alpine Hearing Protection
Reading time: 2 minutes

Have you already managed to get hold of tickets for the new Star Wars film? The film will be released in the Netherlands this week, and will probably enter the books as the box-office hit of 2015! Going to the cinema is often a good way to spend a night out; the enormous screen and the sound can make it an intense experience. However, the experience is quite intense in some cinemas. The experience is determined by the combination of vision and sound, but one question which arises very frequently nowadays is why is the sound so loud.

When you ask around, you will hear that quite a few people have been exposed to very loud cinema films. For some people, the sound level in cinemas is so high that they leave the cinema before the film has finished, or simply never return to the cinema. The sound level of animated cartoons or romantic comedies is usually OK, but as soon as a bit of action happens, the sound level goes up. Think, for example, of James Bond films, “The Hunger Games” or “Mad Max: Fury Road”. The high sound level of the films is not only unpleasant, it can also result in hearing loss. A few years ago, during a showing of the film “Inception”, a Belgian girl suffered hearing loss. Peaks of 118 dB were measured during this film. This is comparable with a fighter jet flying over. The corresponding noise level can almost cause instant damage. In comparison, the limit for hearing impairment lies at 85 decibels! However, even during a film such as Frozen, which is seen by many young children, the sound level reached 98 dB. In this way, an evening at the cinema may be a treat for your eyes, but certainly not a treat for your ears.

So are there any regulations on the sound level in cinemas?

It may surprise you, but most countries (Belgium forms an exception) do not have any regulations in place for the maximum number of decibels in cinemas. Joan Allen, the Vice-President of Dolby Laboratories, the company responsible for the sound of most films, explained that part of the problem lies with the filmmakers. Dolby recommends that the sound level be set at what is referred to as “fader level 7”. Cinemas know that audiences often find this too loud, and therefore set the sound level at 5/6. In response, filmmakers turn up the sound level of their films. So that can result in the final sound level still being very high.

Fortunately, there’s no reason to avoid cinemas all together. If you are thinking of seeing, for example, the film “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” soon, take adequate precautions and bring along a set of earplugs. This will allow you to enjoy the film (and sound) in such a way that you will not walk out afterwards with a ringing sound in your ears. If you like taking your children to the cinema, a set of special children’s earplugs is a good idea.

We wonder, do you ever wear earplugs in a cinema?