Two weeks ago Apple unveiled a huge and glorious new retail store on University Avenue in Palo Alto, Calif., right in the heart of Silicon Valley. As you’d expect from Apple, the new 5,000-square-foot emporium is an architectural marvel, with glass walls, a curved glass roof and that fancy Italian stone that Steve Jobs loved so much. Apple calls it a “prototype” for future Apple stores.

There’s just one problem. The new flagship store is “unpleasantly, almost unbearably noisy,” according to Jean-Louis Gassee, a former top Apple executive, who writes in his weekly “Monday Note” blog that the sound levels in the store are not just annoying – they’re dangerously high.

It’s so bad, Gassee says, that the wife of one of his friends “walked in, spent a few minutes,  and vowed never to return for fear of hearing loss.”

Someone else Gassee knows, the wife of an Apple employee, refuses to go into the store “because of the cacophony.”

Monsieur Gassee Does Some Sleuthing

Gassee is one of the best writers on Apple in the world. He’s a former head of marketing and advanced product development at the company, and since leaving in 1990 he’s remained a huge Apple fan, as well as an entrepreneur and investor.

He’s also a guy who studied math and science in college, and so, puzzled by the sound levels he had noticed, he decided to investigate. He returned to the Palo Alto store with an iPhone app called SPL Meter that measures sound pressure levels. 

What he discovered was pretty shocking. The sound level in the store was higher than 75 decibels – well above the 70dB threshold where a the EPA says long-term exposure could cause hearing loss.

In fact the inside of the store was 10dB louder than the sound level outside on University Avenue, a busy street in Palo Alto. And the way decibels work is that every 3dB gain represents an approximate doubling of sound pressure. So that 10dB difference means the inside of the store was roughly 10 times louder than the busy street outside.

What’s going on? Gassee reckons the problem is caused by the shape and volume of the store, and the fact that it has so many reflective surfaces, like huge glass windows and a curved glass roof. “There isn’t a square inch of sound-absorbing material in the entire place,” he writes.

Heads May Roll, But Don’t Worry You Won’t Hear It Because Of All The %$#@ Noise

It’s an uncharacteristic blunder for the usually perfectionist-to-a-fault company. “Could Apple really be this tone deaf?” Gassee writes, adding that he doesn’t know how the architects and building contractors didn’t notice the problem.

Fortunately, Apple seems to be aware of the problem. Gassee, as he made his rounds, noticed a professional SPL meter set up on a tripod. He also noticed two store employees roaming around with sound recorders on their shoulders. 

“It appears that Apple is taking the problem seriously,” he writes. He figures Apple must have already hired acousticians to study the problem and find a solution.

Whatever that solution may be remains to be seen. For now, if you’re visiting the big new Apple store in Palo Alto, you might want to wear a pair of sound-canceling headphones.

Image courtesy of Apple.