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Say what? Why it's hard to hear in some restaurants

One of the questions I get asked most often at dinner is “why is it so difficult to hear the people sat right next to you in this place?”


With the recent trend for industrial aesthetics, exposed concrete slabs and tiled floors, we are struggling more and more to hear each other above the background noise in restaurants.

The thing that surprises me most often is how many of these comments come from people in their twenties and thirties - this isn't just the latest grumbling topic for grumpy old men. 

Now don't get me wrong, I don't want to eat out in a padded cell of tedium - there's no fun in going to a bar or restaurant that’s got no atmosphere. But surely half the point in eating out is the conversation.

Action on Hearing Loss are running a campaign called Speak Easy, encouraging restaurants and pubs to consider acoustics in their interior design. If you can relate to anything I’ve said so far, imagine the same situation with hearing loss.

So, I hear you say, if this is a problem that people care about what can be done?

Firstly, don’t expect too many of the restaurants at the lower end of the market to make changes overnight. They’ve done their research and they know that keeping the environment a little uncomfortable will make sure that people don't tend to hang around too long once they’ve finished eating. Yes really.

The biggest technical challenge is that all the surfaces are physically (and therefore, acoustically) hard. So adding softer, acoustically absorbent surfaces will help.

There’s a whole world of “acoustic products” that can be used to help. But they’re not the only solution, and for restaurants where all the other walls and surfaces are reflecting sound, adding a fairly small amount of acoustic treatment can help a lot.  Hotel restaurants and traditional pubs usually don’t suffer from this problem simply because they’ve got carpets and cushions everywhere.

This aesthetic isn’t to everyone’s tastes, and the magic therefore lies in integrating acoustic absorption within the interior design, rather than seeing it as an add-on.

The most important thing about acoustic products is that the science behind them is very simple, and for businesses on a budget, it’s actually quite straightforward to make your own, or add the functionality to features that are already present. That might include artwork, lights, furniture, even the walls or ceiling. The key is to think creatively, and look at it as an integral part of the design.

Robert Marriner is WSP associate for acoustics in London