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. 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.
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.
How It Works
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.
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.
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.