Sound Masking: How It Works & Why You Need It

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Sound masking is a method of using ambient background noise tuned to a specific frequency to create privacy for speech and conversations. It reduces the intelligibility of speech for increased privacy.

Essentially, sound masking creates non-distracting background noise that can actually make the room seem quieter.

Not only does it help to keep conversations private, but sound masking can also make a workspace less distracting, allowing employees to focus more closely on the task at hand while drowning out noisy distractions and surrounding conversations.

Sound masking is not the same as white noise, which can be irritating to the human ear. Instead, it is specially tuned to match human speech frequencies to drown out distant conversations.

There are many different products and strategies on the market today that provide sound masking capabilities.

Why You Need Sound Masking

The average large office workspace has a decibel level of 50, which can be distracting and make it difficult for employees to concentrate on their work.

Noisy Workplaces

In one study conducted by acoustic specialists, 2,000 office workers were polled about their experience in open office spaces. They found that a third of respondents were irritated by their colleagues, and a fifth said their office relationships were damaged due to the sound levels at work. The researchers said 60% of office workers were unable to concentrate due to the noise at work, and as a result, they turned in poor-quality work.

To stay focused and productive, some employees resort to wearing noise-canceling headphones. In fact, some human resources specialists recommend this step. However, when all employees are plugged into their phones, the potential benefits of an open office are lost. Staff can’t collaborate when they can’t hear one another.

Researchers in Australia found that offices cluttered with many personal possessions likely had a noise problem. In their study of 71 people working with varying levels of privacy in four different areas, people were asked to describe their noise levels and how they felt. In general, people who felt the noise was too loud tried to reclaim their personal space by creating barriers with potted plants and personal items.

Even if your workers don’t add plenty of stuff to their desks, the office could still be too loud.

Sound masking can create a specific form of ambient noise that can actually help to cancel out some of that noise, reducing it to more of a “hum” that is more tolerable.

How Sound Masking Helps

As a result, sound masking can make employees more productive, minimizing the distractions of distant conversations.

Sound masking makes it harder to make out specific words in a conversation, which can help these sounds to fade into the background. It also works to mask speech and provide privacy for sensitive conversations.

Overall, sound masking can make the environment seem quieter by decreasing the radius of distraction.

The Technical Side of Sound Masking

Human speech is made up of a series of sound frequencies ranging from 80 Hz for men to 300 Hz for women. Speech also includes harmonics, which can add clarity and intelligibility to the speech. Sound masking systems exploit a theory called auditory masking.

In auditory masking, a quieter sound is masked by a louder sound at a similar frequency. We might encounter this problem when we’re trying to have a conversation while riding in a noisy car or sitting in a loud restaurant. The background noise makes it harder for us to pick up the sounds we want to hear.

A sound masking system adds noises at the same frequency as human speech (between 200 Hz and 4,000 Hz). The added information makes it harder for our brains to distinguish the details of nearby conversations, even though the overall volume of the masking sound itself is very small at just 40 to 48 decibels.

How Sound Masking Systems Are Set Up

A series of loudspeakers placed into a ceiling or suspended from the ceiling of a workspace typically make up a sound masking system.

The system uses specific frequencies tuned to match human speech in order to “mask” conversations that are 15 feet or more away. Sound masking does not interfere with face-to-face conversations.

Sound masking uses a frequency curve to create a pleasant ambient background noise that renders external conversations unintelligible. In this way, it can also make the space seem less distracting and quieter even though it is adding some noise. The added sound helps to cancel out distracting speech.

Masking volume for a sound masking system is typically set between 40 and 48 decibels.

Sound masking can be a good solution for an open office plan where noise and poor speech privacy can impact productivity and employees’ overall well-being.

Sound Masking vs. White Noise

Sound masking and white noise are often confused with one another, but they are not the same thing.

Both of these run on different frequencies. White noise, for example, generally spans an audible range of 20 to 20,000 hertz and can often sound like static or hissing. This sound can be a distraction and irritating to the human ear.

Sound masking, on the other hand, runs on a narrower audible range of 100 to 5,000 hertz — sometimes up to 10,000 hertz — and works on a curve tuned to the individual space that the system is working within.

Sound masking helps to reduce distractions by creating a background ambient noise tuned to human speech frequencies, while white noise can contribute to the distractions and noise levels of an environment instead of lessening it.

Products Used for Sound Masking

Sound masking products are designed to work within specific environments and tailored to those spaces.

Typically, this will include the use of speakers that are strategically placed on or in the ceiling of a workspace and angled either straight down or placed at an angle.

The sound masking system will typically consist of the following products and components:

  • Sound masking or noise generator: This is the source of the random electrical signals.
  • Equalizer: This converts the electrical signals to the correct sound masking frequency.
  • One or more band or power amplifiers: This increases the amplitude of the sound.
  • Controllers: These manage the sound transmission.
  • Speakers placed in strategic spaces around the environment: These transmit the sound.
  • Application software: This can be installed on computers, smart devices, smartphones, or tablets for further control of the sound masking system.

There are desktop sound masking products and options that are available for private use and smaller spaces, but a sound masking system will typically be installed and tuned by professionals. Once installed, it can be controlled by an admin or employee with access to the system and controller.

Do Sound Masking Systems Always Work?

While open-office plans and noisy work environments are common, the solutions aren’t always straightforward.

In one study published in 2020, researchers interviewed employees of a bakery about the noise they endured and how they felt about it. Then, they installed sound masking equipment and waited for 14 weeks. They interviewed the staff again and didn’t find improvement in worker stress levels or productivity. In fact, some people were annoyed about the sound masking noise itself.

However, in a separate study published in 2017, researchers replaced a standard sound system with one that produced nature sounds. They found that the 77 staff in this experiment appreciated the original system and found the nature sounds too distracting.

Studies like this demonstrate why it’s critical for business owners to ask for and accept feedback from their staff. They will tell you if your solution is working or not.

Sound Masking FAQs

What does sound masking do?

Sound masking helps to create speech privacy by rendering distant conversations unintelligible. This can also help to mask distracting conversations and noises in the workplace, promoting increased employee productivity and focus.

What noise is it used to mask?

Sound masking matches the frequency of human speech to make conversations from 15 or more feet away difficult to understand. Sound masking reduces the ability to understand specific words or make out conversations, which turns them into mere background noise that the human ear can successfully tune out.

Is sound masking the same as white noise?

No, sound masking is different from white noise, as it uses a different frequency curve. Sound masking helps to minimize distracting sounds, while white noise can actually add to the distraction and noise level of an environment.

Will a sound masking system make the workplace louder?

Although it seems counterintuitive, sound masking systems actually can make the workplace seem quieter and less distracting by “masking” external conversations. Sound masking matches human speech frequencies, which serves to make them fade more into the background.

Will sound masking look the same in every space?

Sound masking systems need to be customized to the space and depend on the type of ceiling and number of square feet being covered. Sound masking systems are typically installed by trained professionals who can tune and set them up properly.

Will sound masking look the same in every space?

Sound masking systems need to be customized to the space and depend on the type of ceiling and number of square feet being covered. Sound masking systems are typically installed by trained professionals who can tune and set them up properly.

How much does sound masking cost?

Professional installation companies say that the average sound masking system costs between $1.50 and $2 per square foot. However, your system could be less or more expensive depending on factors like the acoustics of your space, the noise you’re trying to mask, and more.

What do I need to do to maintain a sound masking system?

Most modern sound-masking systems don’t need extensive maintenance. However, it’s wise to walk through your space periodically and ensure that every speaker is producing the sounds you want.

Does everyone like sound masking systems?

No. Some people with auditory processing disorders find it’s harder to focus when sound masking systems are on. They can find the sounds confusing rather than clarifying. Ensure that your staff and employees can give feedback on the systems, so you can turn the volume up and down as needed.


Common Noise Levels – How Loud Is Too Loud? International Noise Awareness Day (INAD).

Tuning into Sound Masking. (November 2016). High Performing Buildings (HPB) Magazine.

Sound Masking 101. Architectural Record.

How Much Do Sound Masking Systems Cost in 2023? Telco Data.

Mechanisms and Mechanics of Auditory Masking. (May 2013). The Journal of Physiology.

Noisy Workplaces are Damaging Productivity and Health for Office Workers. (September 2022). Facilities Management Journal.

Staying Focused in a Noisy Open Office. (October 2018). Harvard Business Review.

Commentary: This Desk is Mine. How Noisy Offices Can Make Us More Territorial. (September 2023). CNA.

Long-Term Effects of the Use of a Sound Masking System in Open-Plan Offices: A Field Study. (January 2020). Applied Acoustics.

Perception of Water-Based Masking Sounds: Long-Term Experiment in an Open Plan Office. (July 2017). Frontiers in Psychology.

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