Popular Science

noise level

Comal, a bustling, Oaxacan-inspired restaurant in Berkeley, California, has all the ingredients for the kind of ear-splitting ambience that’s become familiare in modern eateries: packed bar, open kitchen, high ceilings, and concrete walls. But when I join a dinner there one spring evening, it’s easy to jump into the margarita-fueled conversation and order up plates of grilled corn, carne asada tacos, and rotisserie chicken with mole.

Despite the clinking cutlery and up-tempo Latin rock music, nobody strains to hear the waitress when she points out the chipotle, habanero, and chile de arbol salsas that she plunks down with our chips.

This apparent sonic miracle is crafted by computer. An algorithm embedded in a system of networked microphones and speakers carefully controls the din. Called Constellation, the setup is the brainchild of San Francisco Bay Area firm Meyer Sound. The company, run by John and Helen Meyer, has built audio systems for concert halls, sports venues, and Broadway theaters for 40 years.

The couple first turned their ears to restaurant noise one night in 2010, when they met some good friends at an upscale tavern famed for its seasonal Mediterranean fare. The meal was superb. The racket of a packed house and an open kitchen was unbearable. Their table talk all but ceased.

While most people would just raise their voices for the evening and move on, John was inspired. He’d found their next challenge.

“We were trying to figure out exactly what interferes with conversation at the table,”

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