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Office Sound Masking and the Art of Productivity

Blog Post
November 13, 2020

How many times have you been working productively, minding your own business and focused on a deadline when suddenly, in the middle of your eureka moment, you become painfully aware that you’re hearing all about your office neighbor’s recent dental surgery?

It can be jarring and disruptive – if not downright uncomfortable and embarrassing. But, in increasingly modern offices with industrial designs and wide-open spaces meant for collaboration, sound travels – and, sometimes, it travels far. When this happens, you need sound masking.

No one likes that guy who heats up last night’s fish dinner in the lunch room. His noisy counterpart is no better.

Noise Affects Productivity

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that workplace noise adversely affects millions of people’s lives, resulting in complaints of stress-related illnesses, high blood pressure, and hearing loss. This, in turn, can lead to losses in productivity, increased frustration, and general disruptions to the workday.

When a physical space offers a little passive noise control, such as high cubicle walls, private offices, or softer, sound-absorbing materials, the effects on each person’s well-being – as well as their productivity – can be profoundly improved.

According to a study by the University of California, Irvine, productivity decreases by as much as 40 percent from noise and distractions. The study found that, on average, employees are interrupted once every 11 minutes, and it can take as much as 23 minutes to get back on task.

In addition to the effects of loud sound on individuals trying to focus, in loud offices where it’s nearly impossible to avoid overhearing conversations, a natural dynamic known as “sound supremacy” occurs. Sound supremacy is when one group of speakers is distracted by another group’s talking. Instinctively, they raise their voices to be better heard, as do other groups, ultimately creating a cacophony of competitive conversations.

Unlike the phantom fish fry microwaver, you can manage unwanted noise with a sound masking system for the office.

What is Sound Masking?

Sound masking entails making an active acoustic effort to veil unwanted sound waves, controlling noise to a positive end.

One of the most well-known examples of noise control is a simple sound masking machine for the office producing white noise. It provides just enough background sound in an office setting so employees can focus on their tasks without being distracted by conversations around the coffee machine about last night’s giant pro darts championship.

In the best-case scenario, the office has evenly-distributed white noise. In the worst-case scenario, you’re stuck in a hotspot where the artificial sound becomes deafening and distracting by itself. Or you’re trapped in a cold zone where the sound barely reaches you, but where you hear every word about the fishing opener. Every word. Every time.

How Sound Masking Works

Sound comes in what is known as a “power spectrum.” Different types of noise correlate to color terms. The most commonly discussed – and used – in sound control are “white noise” and “pink noise.”

White Noise

White noise is sound energy that contains every frequency. Similar to how white light contains all the wavelengths or colors of the visible spectrum, white noise holds a flat frequency in any bandwidth. Because of its flat, all-encompassing frequency, listeners often perceive it as sounding “staticky.”

Pink Noise

Pink noise is sound energy that contains every octave. It has power in wide bandwidths, and each octave has an equal amount of noise energy. As a frequency increases, the power per hertz in pink noise decreases (whereas white noise stays equal). Thus, lower frequencies in pink noise are louder, creating the perception of even and balanced sound, which many listeners consider more soothing.

You can deploy both white and pink noise to disguise unwanted noise. Each sound creates an audible background of “shhhhh” – the universal “be quiet” and natural defense against sound supremacy.

Check out our infographic explaining how sound masking works

Types Of Sound Masking Delivery

Designing a quality sound masking system for the office means controlling the artificial noise in a way that does its job without causing even more distraction. There are two primary choices for how to deliver it.

Traditional Conical Loudspeakers

Typically, white or pink noise is introduced into an area via intentionally spaced, traditional loudspeakers that project the noise downward in a conical form.

Because sound disperses from these loudspeakers, it is vital to their efficacy to space them close enough to lessen the too-quiet cold spots and far enough away from each other not to create too-loud hotspots.

Planar Loudspeakers

These loudspeakers also use both white and pink noise, but via an immersive-audio sound-control system that harnesses planar-wave physics. They act similarly to the soundboard of a piano or the body of a stringed instrument. Planar loudspeakers turn any rigid, flat surfaces in a room into an acoustic wave amplifier that radiates evenly, providing a constant sound pressure level (SPL) across the entire listening space. You can choose between drywall, ceiling tiles, windows, or counters, all of which are hallmarks of modern and popular industrial-office design. These products can equally radiate all frequencies across existing rigid surfaces and help intentional sound (such as interpersonal conversations) diminish at a shorter distance.

For example, if your office Social Committee is in a nearby cube discussing their entries into this year’s white elephant gift exchange, you won’t be able to know ahead of time and spoil the surprise. Why? Because the planar loudspeakers reduce the sound much more dramatically over a shorter space. The experience for everyone outside of the conversation hears muffled sounds. You’ll know they’re speaking but won’t be able to tell the subject.

Because the white noise (or pink noise) is radiated equally across rigid surfaces, far fewer planar loudspeakers are required to cover the same space as needed for a comparable solution using traditional speakers.

Retrofitting traditional conical loudspeakers can be invasive, requiring time to fit and test many devices. A planar loudspeaker system, however, is relatively simple to implement. As it takes far fewer of this type of speakers to cover the same area, a planar sound masking system for the office can be more straightforward, quicker, and less expensive to install. You’ll also receive superior performance, letting you get back to your eureka moment in peace.

Read more about innovative sound masking solutions here.

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