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What Is Sound Masking & How Does It Affect the Office Space?

What Is Sound Masking

Are noise distractions and the lack of speech privacy negatively affecting workplace productivity?

In that case, your office needs a sound masking solution.

But what is sound masking, and what does it do?

Don’t worry. We’ll answer that question for you.

All you have to do is read on!

Table of Contents

What Is Sound Masking?

Sound masking is an expanding field in architectural acoustics. Simply put, however, it’s used to “mask” unwanted sounds in an environment.

It’s done by adding sounds, which are actually UNNOTICEABLE, in the background! An example of its common use is in an office space.

It’s used to reduce the intelligibility of human speech, conversational distractions, and provide greater speech privacy!

How Does Sound Masking Work?

To easily understand how sound masking works, imagine any office spaces. You’ll notice that the ambient noise level is typically low, right?

Due to the lack of ambient background noise, people can easily (but unintentionally) overhear conversations. This shortage of speech privacy can create difficult situations for anyone!

How Sound Masking Enhances Speech Privacy

How it works is it adds a soft and unobtrusive ambient background sound into the environment via a loudspeaker system. This helps reduce noise distractions from any noise in the workspace.

It does so by making the ambient sound level more uniform. This, in turn, enhances speech privacy!

Does Sound Masking Cancel Sound?

Not really. To be honest, sound masking does NOT cancel sound or eliminate all speech noise.

All it does is simply REDUCE how far away conversations can be heard and makes them less distinguishable. To use a more technical term, though, it decreases the radius of distraction!

Reducing this radius of distraction allows you and your employees to focus better, and your productivity can also have a measurable increase as a result!

How to Implement Effective Sound Masking

First, there are two approaches to properly masking sound. Here’s a brief look at both.

1. Direct Field Sound Masking

This approach involves installing your sound masking system in a direct field position. This just means your sound masking speakers are pointing downwards from the ceiling.

Direct Field Sound Masking

From there, directly emit the sound masking into the office space. What this does is it creates a uniformly-distributed sound-field!

2. Indirect Sound Masking

Installing your system in an indirect position, on the other hand, means your speakers are concealed above the drop ceiling and pointed upwards.

Indirect Sound Masking

This results in the sound masking being reflected off the ceiling deck, then back into the surroundings.

Two Key Considerations

When masking sound effectively, the sound you add to your environment can’t just be any sound. Here are two factors you need to consider:

  1. Make sure the sound you add is random: It should have no context and not transmit any information to the human ear. Why? Any sound that conveys meaning (take birds chirping as an example) will just create a distraction!
  2. Also, the added sound should be broadband or wideband: This simply means that the sound should have a frequency of 20 to 20,000 Hz. Those frequencies cover a wide range of the audible spectrum!

What Is a Sound Masking System?

The basic approach of a sound masking system is to use specialized electronics that are used to drive loudspeakers. This, in turn, distributes a broadband sound throughout a space.

Components of a Sound Masking System

To give you a better grasp of sound masking systems, here’s a brief look at all its working parts:

Components of a Sound Masking System
  • Masking Generator: Source of random electrical signals.
  • Spectrum Equalizer: Converts electrical signals to be friendly to human ears.
  • Mixer: Sets the appropriate levels for signals.
  • Amplifiers: Increases the signals’ amplitude.
  • Zone Controllers: Controls the signals’ transmission into user-defined workspace zones.
  • Speakers: Transmits signals to users in the form of white or pink noise.
  • Vibrators: Alternative to speakers. Signals are passed onto vibrators which use physical structures to transmit the sound.

Designing a Sound Masking Project: Important Rules

Before implementing a sound masking system, here are some guidelines you should follow.

1. Acoustic Response

This basically means different rooms have different sound masking requirements. Acoustic response is how a room’s design affects how sound reverberates.

2. Zoning

First, you should zone spaces based on the room’s purpose. A good example would be how a conference room and lobby shouldn’t be in the same sound masking zone.

Zoning

Next, treat each zone as its own acoustic environment. This allows users to control the level of ambient background sound engineered to match each space’s requirements.

3. Speakers

Make sure loudspeakers in the same zone are of the same make and model. This ensures the right frequency response!

4. Room Response

Don’t forget to make certain that each loudspeaker in a zone has the same acoustic room response. This guarantees an effective sound masking solution!

Where and When Is Sound Masking Needed?

Typically, sound masking is used in different offices and workspaces. Some prime examples would be open-plan offices and call centres.

These are examples of work environments where a lot of conversational noise is heavily present.

The Disadvantages of Call Centers and Open Work Spaces

Open-plan offices were designed to be collaborative workspaces. However, the lack of divisions and private spaces means more noise!

As for call centers, imagine an indoor environment where everyone is answering calls seeking customer support. A lot of background chatter will be prevalent!

This Is Where Sound Masking Comes In

Whether through white noise or pink noise, a sound masking system is an integrated solution that should reduce distractions and speech intelligibility.

Your work surroundings will not only sound comfortable, but it will muffle out any distracting human speech!

Is Sound Masking Harmful to You?

The straightforward answer is no. Masking noise is actually safe!

As previously mentioned, sound masking is specifically engineered to mimic the frequencies of human speech. Exposure to this does not have any health ramifications!

In fact, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has regulations in place that ensure a safety standard for sound masking systems. If you’re curious, you can look at it here.

Benefits of Sound Masking Systems in Offices

Now that you have an idea about how masking noise works, we’ll tell you how it benefits your workplace.  

#1 Sound Masking REDUCES Noise Distractions

Sound Masking REDUCES Noise Distractions Icon

In a typical workplace, staying focused can be difficult because of different types of noises. The most common one would be conversational noise.

This is where reducing noise distractions becomes so important. Not only does adding sound masking work to decrease background noise in a workplace, but it also helps employees stay focused!

#2 Sound Masking PROTECTS Speech Privacy

Sound Masking PROTECTS Speech Privacy Icon

A common problem in workplaces is employees overhearing each others’ conversations. This lack of speech privacy can create tricky situations, especially for people talking about private matters!

With sound masking systems in place, people in adjacent private offices won’t overhear other employees’ conversations. As a result, they’ll be able to speak more freely!

#3 Sound Masking IMPROVES Acoustic Comfort in the Workplace

Sound Masking IMPROVES Acoustic Comfort in the Workplace Icon

Let’s talk about acoustic comfort. Sound masking is important in creating a balanced and comfortable acoustic environment.

It’s become increasingly important in workplace design since it plays a role in increasing worker comfort. It also contributes to boosting productivity and reducing low levels of anxiety in an office!

#4 Sound Masking INCREASES Work Environment Productivity

Sound Masking INCREASES Work Environment Productivity Icon

Out of all work annoyances, the one thing office workers typically hate is noise and poor speech privacy. It can actually take its toll on an employee’s well-being and productivity!

Speech or other sounds that make up noise can subtly, yet greatly, affect an employee mentally. Here are some examples:

  • First, a study in the British Journal of Psychology found that background noise at work disrupts one’s “performance on memory for prose and mental arithmetic tasks.”
  • Also, an experiment at Cornell University found that employees in noisy work environments who attempt to crack an unsolvable puzzle are 40% less compared to workers in an environment with lower background sound levels.
  • Lastly, ICBEN conducted a lab study and found that complex cognitive functions and memory took a hit in environments which lacked speech privacy.

That’s why sound masking solutions raise productivity in offices or other commercial environments. Employees can focus thanks to a lower radius of distraction and better acoustic comfort!

Is Sound Masking Different From White Noise?

Actually, it is! Oftentimes, people make the mistake of referring to sound masking as white noise.

So how is sound masking different than white noise?

Unlike white noise, sound masking is specifically engineered to match the frequencies of human speech. It’s even made to sound comfortable or pleasant to the human ear!

How Sound Masking Works When Implemented Properly

Sound masking, if done correctly, just fades into the background “hum” of any workplace. At the same time, it should make speech hard to hear and understand.

This is another factor that makes sound masking different than white noise. The frequency of white noise is extremely irritating at volumes effective enough to mask human speech.

To compare it to something familiar, it would sound like AM radio static. Imagine that, but much louder!

Frequently Asked Questions

We’ve already discussed a lot about sound masking. Now we’ll just answer some possible questions you still have leftover.

1. Is Noise Masking Better Than Noise Cancelling? What’s the Difference?

To answer these two questions, we’ll tackle them separately.

Sound Masking Isn’t Necessarily Better Than Noise Cancelling

To put it simply, it actually depends on what kind of noise you want to reduce! Honestly, no technology can eliminate noise completely.

However, there are some situations where sound masking is better than noise-cancelling:

  • In surroundings with loads of low-frequency sound, the constant kind, noise cancellation is most effective! Some examples are an airplane or a bus.
  • For an environment where sudden bursts of sound are prevalent, sound masking is better at making it less discernible! An example would be a loud snore at night.

How Sound Masking Differs From Noise Cancelling

The science behind sound masking is different from noise-cancelling. It actually works with how your brain perceives sound.

Typically, noise-cancelling uses electronics to combat disruptive sound. Sound masking, on the other hand, introduces another sound simultaneously, making speech noise indiscernible!

It works because of how different sounds combine in our inner ears. When produced at the right frequencies, a constant and steady sound can make a distracting sound less noticeable to your brain!

2. What Does Sound Masking Sound Like?

Effective sound masking actually doesn’t sound like much. Typically, it’s an ambient sound that’s similar to airflow.

Because of that, when implemented properly, it’s like a constant and steady stream of sound that’s comfortable or pleasant. And at the end, it just fades into the background “hum” of any workspace!

Conclusion

Masking sound and reducing the radius of distraction positively affect any work space. You’ll be able to have private conversations confidently and even focus more on your work!

You and your colleagues or employees wouldn’t want to opt out of this wonderful solution, so good luck and enjoy the benefits!

About the Author

andrea_adams

Andrea has always been bombarded by the hustle and bustle outside her home. Living in the city doesn’t get any quieter. The never ending noise from construction, traffic, and dogs barking on the streets day in and day out drove Andrea to a breaking point.

For 3 years, Andrea committed herself to studying DIY hacks, performing soundproofing experiments, and installing noise-free solutions. Now, she lives a quiet life free of the stress from noisy environments.

She hopes to share this knowledge so that others don’t have to endure the noise reigning in their ears and live a peaceful, stress-free life.