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Are movie theaters turning the volume up to 11?

I claim to hate going to movie theaters for lots of reasons — cell phones, crying babies, stale popcorn, etc.

But the one thing that is really keeping me home lately is the volume level.

When I saw True Grit over Christmas weekend I watched the whole film with my hands over my ears to try and control the volume. I felt ridiculous, but worried that my hearing could be damaged if I didn’t take this precaution.

I feel like an old man bringing this up, but I am confident that something has happened in the last several years that has resulted in movie theaters turning the volume up to painfully high levels. I have observed this phenomenon in a half dozen different states, in all regions of the country, at art houses, multiplexes and IMAX theaters.

I like cranking the volume up on music and movies — my neighbors can attest to this. I own a surround sound setup with floor standing speakers. When I was watching the Apocalypse Now Blu-ray with a friend last week it sounded like the Vietnam War was taking place in my house. But if I were to ever set the volume to levels similar to movie theaters, I think I would probably damage my speakers.

I cannot imagine that I’m the first person to recognize and complain about this issue — and a Google search revealed that this is a popular topic local news stations like to report. Over the last several years reporters have gone into theaters and have found that the volume during action scenes surpasses 85 decibels — anything above that can cause hearing loss — and into the mid 90s to levels that are comparable to subway trains. I’m pretty confident that the whole screening of True Grit was above 85 decibels.

So data is out there to backup my claim, but nobody seems to care. Maybe most people have already suffered hearing loss from listening to their iPods too loud?

Besides the potential lawsuits, I would think that people in Hollywood might care about this volume problem because of the way it screws up the soundtrack. When I watch a movie on Blu-ray and DVD I always pickup on subtleties in the surround sound mix and fun uses of the rear channels that were totally distorted at the theater.

Given that the volume problem keeps getting worse, I really am hesitant to go to movie theaters anymore. The other night friends asked if I wanted to go out with them to see a movie, and I declined because of the thought of the sound — I knew I’d be sitting there with my hands over my ears. At the end of the day I’ll put up with the cell phones and babies so I can have the experience of seeing something on the big screen when it is first released. But I will draw the line at my hearing. Considering that ticket sales drop every year, it seems like it would be a lot more cost effective for theaters and studios to optimize the movie-going experience rather than add more 3D screens.

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