Theaters’ loud sound systems threaten long-term hearing

Loud cinematic adventures such as “Jurassic World” may be doing our longterm hearing no favors when played at current noise levels.
Loud cinematic adventures such as “Jurassic World” may be doing our longterm hearing no favors when played at current noise levels. Universal Studios and Amblin Entertainment, Inc.

Movie theaters and other entertainment venues need a new business model, one with strategic objectives that boost the bottom line but reduce sound levels to ensure that everyone in the audience – including seniors, veterans and young people – has a fun experience that does not harm their hearing.

While movies and their trailers may be beautifully edited with digital sound, usually by engineers taking instructions from a film’s producer, they are often played so loud that they exceed safety levels for hearing. In response, some (mainly older) audience members are being driven away.

While millennials and Gen Xers in my family have cut back on movies and concerts, those decisions are more about the cost of tickets. At their age, they may not realize that exposure to loudness is cumulative for permanent hearing damage. Science shows that human perception of loudness can acclimate a person to louder sounds with each exposure.

You may know the decibel as a sound measurement named after Alexander Graham Bell, who is credited with inventing the first practical telephone. Exposure to sound pressure levels above 80 dB potentially causes noise trauma and hearing loss.

According to hearing specialists, loss occurs when tiny hair cells are damaged or die. (They do not re-grow.) So most hearing loss not caused by genes or aging is caused by hair-cell damage, which can include tinnitus (ringing in the ear) and ultra-sensitivity to sound for those of us with hyperacusis.

Think about the metaphor of the boiling frog. If a frog is placed in cold water that is heated gradually, it may not perceive the danger and jump out; instead, it can be cooked to death. Audiences may not perceive threats to hearing that occur gradually. Local audiologists say they are seeing patients who need hearing tests and digital hearing aids at a younger age than ever.

I’m a grandparent, aunt and elementary school volunteer who’s been hearing-impaired since 32. (Much of this was preventable.) So I contacted Tom Gabbard, president and CEO of Blumenthal Performing Arts (presenter of shows such as “Billy Elliot” and “Jekyll & Hyde”), and Linda Garland, senior guest services coordinator for the AMC chain of movie theaters. I also left messages for Regal’s Entertainment Group, which has not responded.

Gabbard apologized for sound levels that were a problem for me but said all artistic elements are under the producers’ and creative team’s control. He’s contractually prohibited from making changes. While the Blumenthal has a right to require reductions if sound consistently exceeds an agreed-upon level, he said it’s rare for a Broadway tour to come close. (A rock concert might.) Gabbard agreed shows have gotten louder in recent years; he’s not a fan of this idea but understands it’s “rooted in wanting to attract younger theatergoers, whose preferences are shaped by rock ’n’ roll.”

Garland touted AMC’s closed-captioning program for the deaf and said theater managers have some discretion about sound, but “customer surveys found few complaints.” Sounding apologetic, she said that, as an aunt herself, she understands. “But AMC has no plans to lower sound anytime soon.”

Even if you attend an early bird matinee, where the audience is likely to be older, theaters play films and trailers at excruciating levels – not just for epic adventures but for the likes of “The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.” According to my Decibel Meter Pro phone app, all exceed safety limits.

The entertainment industry is losing a prime opportunity to reinvent itself. For that to happen, exhibitors and theater managers must step up. And fans should insist upon lower sound levels so audiences can laugh, learn and cry together – during a movie or show played at safe, comfortable sound levels.

Christy Kluesner, a retired public administrator, had an early performance art career and has been a member of Charlotte’s Tinnitus Support Group and a supporter of the American Tinnitus Association.