If you’re noise-adverse and working-from-home consider buying this gear
Non-affiliate disclosure: My blogging, including this post, is for recreational and information-sharing purposes only (unless otherwise stated!). Despite my enthusiasm, none of the following links or recommendations earn me commission.
There’s an explosion of interest in working from home at the moment and one of the most common issues people are reporting having difficulty with (besides fighting the urge to stay in their pajamas all day) is handling what might be a noisier work environment than they are used to.
Children playing, neighbors having impromptu parties, and roadworks going on outside your front door — veteran home workers have probably experienced it all.
Whether you need noise isolation because your working environment is too noisy or because you might be a certifiable genius, there are fortunately a few steps you can take to make your working environment that much quieter.
I gave my stock recommendations in my recent blog for Get5 (“How to Make Your Home Office A Productivity Haven”) but — for the sake of having something to quickly link people to — let me repeat them here.
(Note: this post is for informational purposes only; none of these links are affiliate marketing!)
1. Etymotic IEMs / Other Headphones/IEMs With Excellent Passive Noise Isolation
The first and most obvious form of auditory barrier that tends to jump to people’s minds when they’re thinking about how to work with better focus is a good set of “headphones”.
Bose is almost immediately thought of as the gold standard — particularly something like the QuietComort (QC) series.
Bose has certainly done a terrific job of carving out a reputation for themselves as the go-to manufacturer for blocking out exterior sounds — and on all other measures I would agree that they are superb premium earphones But unfortunately Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is not the optimum technology for drowning out human voices.
To understand why, understand how these things work. (And if you don’t want to take my word for it — although I’m just about the most sound-sensitive person I know — check out this explanation from NoisyWorld).
ANC headphones work by using microphones that “listen” to noise from the outside world. They then play an opposing frequency with the idea of drowning out the background noise.
As anybody who was taken a long-haul flight with one of these can attest, the technology works excellently against noises which remain at a relatively constant frequency — such as those given off by jet engines.
Unfortunately, human voices modulate in frequency unpredictably. If you’ve ever tried to block out the sound of an open office with a more basic pair of ANCs, then you probably already know this to be true.
So, ANC headphones are a good choice if you’re trying to drown out the noise from a specific and consistent “offender” — such as, say, an obnoxiously loud air conditioner wall unit.
But if — like me — your auditory nemeses tend to be things like ambulance sirens and loud groups of people talking outside your apartment, then passive noise isolation is the way to go.
If you’ve ever covered your ears with your hands, and discovered that the world is a much quieter place as a result, then you know how passive noise isolation works — you simply isolate sound coming from the outside world so that less of it gets into your ear canal (although did you know that you also hear some sound through bone conduction?).
When it comes to passive noise isolation, in the opinion of most audiophiles, Etymotic In Ear Monitors (IEMs) do this better than just about any other headphone manufacturer on the planet.
Etymotic is a small and otherwise relatively obscure Illinois-based business that specializes in things like high-fidelity earplugs, hearing protection, and high-end earphones. But they have a cult following among the audiophile community for a reason.
If you’re looking to block out noises, their range of IEMs is what you want to be looking at. In Ear Monitors are called so because they are often used by musicians to listen to the “monitor” output feed while performing in a noisy on-stage environment where passive noise isolation is obviously an important requirement. But they’re really just high-performance headphones that fit in your ears like earbuds. And you can use them in an office too.
Be prepared: Etymotics take a bit of getting used to. They fit deep into your ear canal and can be a little uncomfortable at first. But — properly fitted (this video is a little ridiculous, but watch it anyway) — the passive noise isolation they provide is amazing, particularly with the triple flange fittings.
- Etymotic ER4X4
- Etymotic ER3XR
- Etymotic MK5 — the budget model and a great option if you want to just try Etymotics out without risking too much cash.
(If you prefer a handsfree model you can simply fit a Bluetooth receiver onto the end of any Etymotic model with a 3.5mm audio jack.)
All Etymotic models are rated to provide 35–42 dB of isolation, which gives a comparable Noise Reduction Rating (NRR) to that of most earplugs.
2. A White Noise Machine (For Sound Masking)
Optimum ambient noise reduction for home workers can be achieved by taking a layered approach.
Remember how I explained how ANCs work?
White noise machines clearly do not modulate their output, but they can be useful for sound masking purposes. Because white noise is a collection of different frequencies played at the same intensity, it tends to override (or mask) small and otherwise annoying “blips” of background noise.
I use the LectroFan — and it’s just about the most popular version on the market, although truly there are many others.
3. An Additional Sound Source
There are two beautiful things about Etymotics or other headphones which provide impressive passive sound isolation:
a) If you’re working in a quiet sound environment, you can just use the headphones without actually playing anything through them (essentially just using them as earphones). And just turn on some music if there’s really a need. This is because they provide roughly the same level of passive noise isolation as most earplugs.
b) If you are listening to music, you can listen at far lower volumes than would usually be possible. This is because they fit deep into your ear canal.
If you really want to round things off, then you can opt for a 1–2–3 approach using Etymotics, a white noise machine, and playing a sound masking track through your computer.
There are plenty of websites that stream audio for this purpose.
Brain.fm: Music to improve focus, meditation & sleep.
Brain.fm - Music designed for the brain to enhance focus, relaxation, meditation, naps and sleep within 10 - 15 minutes…
Online Background Noises * Relaxing Sounds * Noise Masking
Welcome to Noises Online! Noise isn't always the chatty colleague in your open-plan office, or the sound of your…
Enjoy Your New Working Environment
The above should be enough to block out all but the most intrusive of sounds.
In fact, it’s unlikely that the white noise machine and Etyomics used in tandem will ever not be enough — I literally used this combo to work while there was a construction crew ten meters from my apartment engaging in heavy drilling work eight hours a day for six months. Not an experience I would like to repeat, but I’m glad to know that if I find myself in that situation again I am properly equipped to deal with it.
One final word of caution.
Sound sensitivity is associated with some neurological disorders and some very unusual ones such as misphonia and hyperaucusis for which there are treatments that might be partially helpful.
If your sound sensitivity is really severe and bothersome, it might be worth getting it checked out. Or, as I try to remind people, you might just be a certifiable genius.
Finally, there is some preliminary evidence that continuous exposure to white noise might actually be bad for you. So I think that finding an actual quiet place to work is still the better option for you and your brain.
And very finally, be warned that sound blocking can be too good. If you’re minding children, for example, you might want to ensure that you’re blocking out some distracting sounds but are also able to hear them if they require attention.
The first ever DSR Ghostwriting podcast was on this very subject.
So here it is:
Good luck staying productive while working from home — whether you love background noise or hate it!