SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 Utah)  With all the hype over Sunday night’s Oscar broadcast, ABC4 Utah decided to investigate the sound levels in movie theaters to find out if they are so loud that they can cause hearing damage.

Good 4 Utah’s Randall Carlisle took a decibel meter into the Cinemark, Century 16 Theaters at State Street and 3300 South. They graciously opened their doors and let Carlisle measure some movie levels in some empty theaters so patrons wouldn’t be distracted or bothered.

They also took him to the projection room where the sound levels are controlled. Turns out it is a very exact science and the theaters take great precautions to keep sound levels within certain acceptable ranges.

Carlisle measured levels that ranged from a low of about 50 decibels when people are just talking to about 115 to 120 decibels during action scenes like car crashes and gunfire. The overall average for a 2 hour movie is just around 85 dbs or slightly less. Is that acceptable? Can it cause damage?

We asked audiology Dr. Kevin Harward for expert advice. “Your average conversation like you and I are having would be between 40 and 60 decibels,” says Dr. Harward at Intermountain Hearing Centers. “Mowing the lawn would be somewhere around 85 to 90 decibels and a handgun shot at the level of the ear is 150 decibels. that is instant damage.”

So what’s his final word on movies and hearing damage? “85 to 90 decibels for the average length of a movie, let’s say 2 hours, is not particularly dangerous in and of itself.”

But he says if you’ve worked for 8 hours at a job with levels at 85 dbs and then go to a movie, it could cause damage. He says ears can only handle so much loud sound in a day. They need a rest.

Movie operators like those at Century 16 take this seriously.  When a new film comes in, they do a careful test run. They start at the sound tower in the projection room. Using their db meter they check every speaker in a theater and set it so it averages 85 dbs or less. 

Carlisle interviewed patrons leaving a movie and found mixed reaction to movie noise levels.  “I think they’re too loud,” says Pat Friberg.

Declan Oglesby likes the levels “I think that loud sound is part of the movie experience and it’s good.”

Hollywood composers getting together at the recent Sundance Festival hate the idea of controlling sound in films. They say that would ruin the movie experience. Award winning composer Bear McCreary, “I don’t think it’s necessarily a bad thing that movies are loud. But loud is just part of the dynamic experience of a film. Like parts of it are loud, I hope there are parts of it that are quiet to let you explore that part of the scene.”

One of the biggest complaints Carlisle heard from movie goers is that trailers, the previews, are louder than the feature presentations.  Turns out they are. Not because the theaters jack the levels, but because all of the action high db scenes are compressed into a short preview.

Parents have often wondered if their children are suffering hearing damage when they cup their ears during loud scenes in a movie.  Not at all says Dr. Harward. He says children’s ears are more perfect than adults because they haven’t been damaged, so they are more sensitive to loud sounds. He calls it a “perceptual sensitivity” that is not damaging their hearing at acceptable movie levels.

Bottom line, if you’re worried about hearing damage at a movie, Dr. Harward says for the average person “it is not damaging your hearing to go to a movie.”