The cafeteria study: Effects of facial masks, hearing protection, and real-world noise on speech recognition

Mary E. Barrett*, Sandra Gordon-Salant, Douglas S. Brungart

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


The objective of this study was to evaluate the impact of wearing various types of personal protective equipment on speech recognition in a real-world, noisy listening environment. Groups of four young, normal-hearing adults participated in a live version of the Modified Rhyme Test in a noisy public cafeteria with and without the use of a non-medical disposable facial mask or combat earplugs in two different modes. Speech recognition, response time, and subjective difficulty were measured per individual. In addition, the signal-to-noise ratio was estimated during the interval when the talker spoke the target word. Results showed that the listeners' speech recognition performance declined not only when the listener wore earplugs, but also when the talker wore earplugs. The measured signal-to-noise ratio significantly decreased when the talker wore earplugs, suggesting that occlusion may have caused the talkers to reduce their voice levels. Results also showed a decline in speech recognition performance when the talker wore a facial mask. Listeners rated all conditions in which talkers and listeners wore personal protective equipment as more difficult than the baseline condition. These data suggest that speech recognition in real-world listening environments can be impaired by personal protective equipment worn by both talkers and listeners.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)4244-4255
Number of pages12
JournalJournal of the Acoustical Society of America
Issue number6
StatePublished - 1 Dec 2021
Externally publishedYes


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