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How Loud Is It?

When Schiff and Lally and I visit Balthazar at 5 p.m., we discover that the noise inside (78 decibels) is louder than the street outside (72). But who cares? The whole point of going to Balthazar is for the amiable chaos. The same goes for Pastis, its chattery sister bistro in the meatpacking district, which clocks in at 81 decibels. I’ve got friends who brunch there because if their 1-year-old daughter starts to cry, nobody cares. When we visit Grand Central Terminal at 3 p.m., it’s 71 decibels, but since you’re expecting a crowd, it feels quiet.

No, the worst noise is not the background rumble of daily life. “You can drown out any regular noise, anything with a regular rhythm,” Schiff says. “But when you hear something irregular, it demands your attention. You can’t ignore it. And that’s the stuff that really gets people complaining.” That’s why street traffic, with its jazzlike bursts of screeching, shreds your nerves. Proximity, of course, also matters: When we stand in front of our minivan while the driver honks the horn, it’s a skull-quivering 101 decibels. Age also affects things: As you get older, your ears begin to lose high-frequency sensitivity, making it harder to pick out conversation from background noise. Weirdly, some pregnant women become more sensitive to sound.

A city-by-city comparison of decibel levels.  

Noise, ultimately, is subjective—which is why the new laws may cause problems. Previously, if police officers wanted to issue a fine for a car alarm or a dog, they needed a meter. Under the new law, they can merely judge with their ears. Air conditioners will face new scrutiny, too. Right now, each unit is allowed to emit 45 decibels, but several in a row poking out of a building can cumulatively go much higher. The new rules measure the total output—and if it’s higher than 50 decibels, the owners will have to figure out how to reduce it by 5 decibels.

Bloomberg’s new laws also go after a source of surprisingly vehement complaints: Mister Softee ice-cream trucks, with their creepy little psycho-clown jingle. Precisely how loud are they? At 43rd and Madison, we spot one and swoop in. The operator, probably figuring he’s enough of a target already, refuses to switch on the music. But, as Lally points out, the tune isn’t the whole story: The refrigeration unit in the back of the truck clocks a rip-roaring 83 decibels from five feet away. As we’re measuring, a Whole Foods delivery truck zooms by, and Lally points at it: “Just as bad,” he says. “The refrigeration unit is up high, so the noise really spreads out.” And there are some parts of the city where horrific din is an unavoidable fact of life—such as the subway. We ducked into the Astor Place station, where the No. 4 train blows by at full speed around a bend. It produces a truly apocalyptic bouquet of noise: a deep roar with a shrieking metal-on-metal overtone. It’s 101 decibels, and because it lasts for several seconds, it’s easily the most grating thing we’ve heard.

If you’ve got money, of course, you can hide from noise. Schiff and Lally’s firm is often hired to figure out how to muffle apartments (including Jerry Seinfeld’s), hotels, and other buildings. It can involve elaborate constructions, like floors on shock-absorbing springs. And if you’ve ever wondered whether it’s worth the cost of living on a calm side street, the answer is: Yes. When we checked the levels on a low-traffic stretch of Waverly Place, off Washington Square Park, it was a relatively peaceful 61 decibels.

But say you just want an hour of peace. St. Patrick’s Cathedral on Fifth Avenue seems reverentially hushed—yet between shuffling feet and reverberant marble, it registered 57 decibels, the same noise level we recorded inside our minivan as we drove through heavy traffic. The Rose Main Reading Room at the New York Public Library, at 55 decibels, beat out the cathedral. If you want a quiet drink, try Temple Bar on Lafayette at 5:30 p.m., before the evening rush. Almost empty, it was only 57 decibels, even with the No. 6 train rumbling below.

But for true urban bliss, there’s one classic destination: Central Park. We entered at Strawberry Fields and then ducked down a path to a clearing in the trees. We could hear little but birdsong and rustling leaves. On the meter, it was the lowest we’d seen all day: 54 decibels. In Manhattan, that’s the sound of silence.