What is Sound Masking and Why Does it Matter


For many of us, the open office had become our norm. Dense workspaces that lacked privacy and fostered distraction more than collaboration. While the return to the office is going to take on new forms, it is important to consider all aspects of design and human welfare. There are 3 key components to acoustic design, known as the ABC’s:
A successful acoustic design needs to accommodate all 3. This article will focus on cover, in particular sound masking, and how it can contribute to a healthier work environment.

What is Sound Masking?
Sound masking is the process of adding ambient sound to reduce noise distractions, protect speech privacy & increase office comfort.

Why is Sound Masking Important?
The human ear has evolved to be most attuned to human speech. It’s easy to shut one’s eyes, but nearly impossible to shut one’s ears. Too much audible stimulus can arouse the central nervous system, results of this exposure of time can vary from annoyance & irritability to elevated blood pressure & exhaustion.

Noise levels within the office can vary greatly. Fluctuating noises are more distracting than constant noises. Sound-masking provides a constant ambient noise level.

Studies have shown that offices can range from 50dB – 70dB. 70dB is suitable for simple/transactional work but more cognitive tasks require greater concentration. 55dB is ideal for “mainly intellectual work” which can be classified as highly complex, creative thinking or problem-solving. General collaboration can often be achieved around 60dB.

Believe it or not, adding sound to an environment can make it seem quieter. Unlike white noise, sound masking targets the frequency of human speech. Thus providing greater speech privacy. By raising the ambient noise level with sound masking speech noise becomes less intelligible. When you can’t understand what someone is saying, their words are less distracting.

White noise adds to the ambient background noise level, but it does not target specific human voice frequencies which means you will need louder white noises to make human speech indistinguishable. When all you do is raise the ambient noise level without making speech less discernable, people will talk louder to be heard over the other voices in the area.

Many sound-masking systems are programable & zoned to achieve these levels of flexibility. This can help create diverse zones for an acoustically balanced enviornment. Providing speech privacy and sustainable decible levels for the type of work at hand.

Sound masking does not cancel sound or eliminate speech noise, it reduces how far away a conversation can be heard or understood by others.

The future of the workplace post-COVID-19 is still being investigated, but greater attention to human needs and health will be at the forefront. Designing a work environment that is safe, flexible, and can be adjusted and accommodate different user’s needs will help create a safer workforce.