Pardon? Speak Up!
I've Just Been to the Movies

Wall Street Journal and Toronto Star, July 1997

By Marilyn Chase

The summer blockbusters are out: Loud and Louder. At least that's what impressed Sidney Russell of San Francisco about the movie Batman & Robin.

It wasn't about action or adventure. It was about volume. "It was extremely loud," says the 11-year-old. "It was almost painful."

Movies shouldn't hurt your ears. But sophisticated audio technology now enables soundtracks to be made, and played, at roof-raising volumes without the fuzziness or distortion of the past. Climactic scenes of summer blockbusters sometimes exceed 100 decibels -- the noise level generated by a riveting machine.

While many filmgoers relish a chair-rattling audio experience to enhance the drama on screen, folks with sensitive ears may find today's peak volumes physically uncomfortable or potentially hazardous. Ear-bludgeoning sound from feature films -- and even louder blasts from trailers -- are capable of inducing headache, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), or even temporary shifts in hearing that could presage early damage. Moreover, high noise levels can raise blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones.

Robert Sweetow, audiology director at the University of California, sampled sound levels at movie theatres with a sound meter. While decibel readings can vary widely based on theatre acoustics, audio equipment and volume settings, here's what he found: Batman & Robin peaked at 112 decibel in one theatre, while Contact measured 107 decibels at another -- volumes equal to those produced by a jackhammer. In the workplace, Ontario regulations limit noise levels to 90 decibels for an eight-hour day. At play, however, you're on your own.

State-of-the-art sound gets star billing these days as movie makers and theatres advertise digital soundtracks and audio systems by Dolby Laboratories Inc., Sony Cinema Products Corp. and Digital Theatre Systems, which is partly owned by Universal Studios.

"They're pushing the envelope," says hearing specialist Robert Schindler. "The problem," acknowledges Dolby Laboratories president Bill Jasper, "is that as we've developed digital technology, movie makers have taken advantage to provide a real wallop to the viewer. This can be disturbing."

This is especially true of coming attractions. "Studios want you to remember theirs," Jasper adds. "So there's a battle of the trailers." At Sony Cinema Products Corp., vice-president Bill Mead concedes "everybody agrees" trailers should be toned down. "But nobody wants to be first to do it."

As for feature films, Jasper and Mead say they don't dictate how a movie sounds. Digital-sound companies offer technical services to a movie's creative team, calibrating soundtracks and suggesting sound levels for the theatre. But volumes are largely determined by local projectionists, who may play films louder than is recommended, says Barry Reardon, president of Warner's Distribution, a unit of Warner Bros. Pictures, which created Batman and Contact.

Reardon says he gets annoyed by preview trailers boomed at "hot" decibel levels. "One trailer is played at normal levels and another blasts you right out of your chair. I've gone to theatre managers and said 'Hey, you're playing that too loud.' "

Schindler says the average filmgoer isn't hurt by volumes of 110 to 112 decibels but, he wonders, "Is it possible some members of the public would sustain damage? Yes, it's possible." At these levels, some people could walk out with temporary alterations in their hearing lasting minutes or days, Sweetow warns. "Someone with a propensity to get tinnitus could get pushed over the edge. Auditory problems are insidious. You don't realize when you're doing damage to your ears."

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