How Is Sound Masking Different From White Noise?

When it comes to acoustical engineering for the workplace, we often see the terms white noise and sound masking being used almost interchangeably. In practice, though, the two technologies are worlds apart both in the way they work and the results they can achieve. 

For most business applications, sound masking is the superior solution. But for certain industries — those where privacy is paramount or even regulated such as healthcare, financial services or even legal or government offices — sound masking is the only choice.

Why do I need sound masking?  

There are many reasons a business would want to introduce acoustical solutions to counter the background noises of the workplace. Those investigating sound masking or white noise are no doubt seeking to — among other issues reduce distractions and improve privacy. For some businesses, the goal is a clear matter of wanting to improve their office environment leading to happier, more attentive and more productive employees.

For certain industries, though, the need to improve privacy isn’t so much a choice but rather an issue of regulatory compliance. For instance, in the medical field providers are required to comply with privacy rules such as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).

HIPAA includes provisions that require healthcare providers to take proactive steps to protect patient privacy. Here, one of the leak points is in conversations between medical professionals and patients. Think of how many instances in healthcare where a patient needs to have a conversation with an intake clerk, nurse, pharmacist or doctor. A physician or any healthcare worker being overheard while discussing a specific patient’s case is just one of many potential avenues for violation.

Other industries bear similar risks: think about financial services where others — possibly bad actors — might be able to overhear a conversation between a client and their wealth advisor. Similarly, a legal setting where an attorney and their client may be discussing all manner of sensitive issues or where a social services worker is interviewing the principals in a new case file is another opportunity for sensitive information to leak.

This is why it’s important to take steps to protect privileged conversations with sound masking.

What is the difference between sound masking and white noise?

All too often the terms sound masking and white or even pink noise are used synonymously, but in fact, the two approaches to altering workplace acoustics, experiences and privacy are vastly different.

Devices generating white noise deliver sound waves that encompass all of the frequencies that can be heard by the human ear. A close cousin, pink noise, is the generation of all of the frequencies detectable by the human ear albeit with the highest of these broadcasts at a relatively lower volume.

Sound masking, by contrast, is the generation of an ambient background soundtrack specifically engineered to mimic the frequencies and volumes of human conversation. In doing so, almost counterintuitively, it creates the illusion that a workspace or room is actually quieter than before. Even more importantly for sectors such as healthcare, financial services and others, it also directly addresses privacy — rendering nearby conversations incomprehensible.

Why is sound masking superior to white noise?

Perhaps the best way to clearly understand the advantages of sound masking and the limitations of white noise is to first think in terms of the space where we want to engineer improved working conditions and privacy and then the volumes and frequencies necessary to get it done.

The space is often referred to as the radius of distraction. These are the points where we want to reduce distraction resulting from constant conversation, a noisy break room or loud children. Beyond mere distraction, we also need to address essential privacy. Where do we need to make certain that intimate conversations cannot be overheard?

Now for decibels (volume) and frequencies (pitch). White noise can certainly mask what can be heard, but the principal means of extending the reach of white noise is amplification. If you need to expand the radius of distraction while ensuring privacy, all you need to do is turn up the volume. 

But a shortcoming of white noise is that whenever amplified, its frequency also increases. While pink noise can help obviate this aspect, the volume issue remains. In short, the only way to increase the radius of distraction using white or pink noise is to make the sound louder and more irritating. While this can address privacy concerns, there are better ways of getting it done. 

Why sound masking wins

Alternatively, sound masking can achieve a greater radius of distraction while cloaking speech across a range of lower frequencies at lower volumes. Without venturing any deeper into the acoustical weeds, sound masking achieves a much broader, pleasant experience while still effectively canceling out conversations. In short, sound masking is a superior choice — not just for healthcare and financial services, but for virtually all offices.

At Taylored Systems, we’ve been designing, installing and maintaining sound masking systems for nearly 15 years, helping countless clients create more comfortable and private open floor plan offices, office suites with cubicles and medical facilities. Indiana-based, we’re here for a wide range of technology solutions for your business.