To our neighbor the music might sound perfectly balanced, but for us “it’s all about the bass.”
Or, suppose the bass is coming from a party across the street or a dance club.
You live pretty far away, but still, the rhythm of the drums coming through your windows and door is inviting you to the party.
I have been asked by quite a few people how to block bass noise, so in this post I want to share what I have found to be effective.
Before I go into more details, the most effective tools and tool combinations for blocking bass sounds I have found so far are:
- Good active noise cancelling headphones in combination with customized dark-brown noise
- Foam earplugs (and some reusable earplugs) in combination with customized dark-brown noise
- If the intruding bass is not too loud, dark-brown noise or ocean underwater sounds alone
When I started using these tools, I was surprised how much noise reduction is possible.
For example, thumps that I thought I feel and therefore couldn’t be cancelled were in fact still coming through my ears—and could be cancelled.
But, if the bass is above a certain sound level or conducted directly into your bed via the floor or connecting walls, you will feel vibrations and no amount of noise cancelling can stop that.
The most effective antidote to annoying bass sounds is good active noise cancelling headphones
I have tested what I consider the currently two best active noise cancelling headphones (ANC headphones), and they make a big difference even with low bass notes. They are indeed fast enough to counter thumping beats.
The number one noise cancellers reduce low frequency noise in the range from 30 to 250 Hz by between 20 and 25 decibels.
For comparison: In an in-depth aircraft noise attenuation study, a very decent exterior wood stud wall (with added resilient channels and a double layer of gypsum board) reduced low frequency noise between 50 and 125 Hz (that’s where a lot of the bass is) by about 17 to 27 decibels (own readings from figure 1).
So against these bass sounds, active noise cancelling is like adding a room within a room.
I have tested two active noise cancelling headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose QC35 in three different situations:
- Against event noise coming from PA speakers across the street
- Outside a dance club with noticeable bass bleed
- Against a home subwoofer
In all three situations, both headphones significantly reduced bass noise.
In other words, active noise cancelling makes a big difference.
Caveat emptor: most budget ANC headphones are a lot less effective than these two.
How do these noise cancelling headphones compare?
With the home subwoofer, I was able to play different types of music and compare both headphones more in detail to determine which one outperforms:
I chose different songs specifically for the bass frequencies they contain.
These included classical rock (bass), pop (bass, low bass, and sub bass), and hip hop (low bass and sub bass).
Here are the low frequency spectra for a characteristic part of a hip-hop song (peak at 40 Hz) and a rock song (peak at 82 Hz).
I filtered frequencies above 300 Hz to make it easier to compare these headphones strictly on bass noise reduction.
As you can see, hip hop and rock pieces pose different challenges for both noise cancelling headphones/earplugs and your wall.
Subjectively, depending on the song, the Sony headphones performed 10 to 20 % better than the Bose. Furthermore, their seal was somewhat less sensitive to head movements.
If your prime reason for obtaining ANC headphones is to get as much relief from bass sounds as possible, I recommend the Sony WH-1000XM3.
(For sound quality and overall usability, I prefer the QC35, but if the bass was torturing me, I would get the Sony.)
Beyond a certain volume, however, even the best ANC headphones cannot cancel enough of the sound for it to remain unnoticeable.
But even then, not all is lost.
Enhancing the noise cancelling performance
Hidden in both headphones is another antidote: their excellent low frequency extension.
They can well reproduce sound frequencies from as low as 10 Hz; they go lower than almost any subwoofer you or your neighbor can buy.
How can you use this low frequency extension?
When the bass is loud enough to keep bothering you even with enabled ANC, you can additionally play shaped dark-brown noise to mask the thumps that might otherwise drive you nuts. (For more on how to do this, see below.)
This combination of active noise cancelling and low frequency noise masking is the most effective anti-bass tool I have found so far and it should indeed take you very far.
Please note this though: if your neighbor uses his home theater sub to simulate an earthquake, even this combination may not be enough.
Above a certain sound level, you will feel the bass.
Still, in my tests, bass that I thought I feel rather than hear was still largely coming through my ears.
Unfortunately, these ANC headphones are expensive, and while I find them comfortable during the day and when lying on my back, they are not ideal for side sleepers—which I mostly am.
My second suggestion: Use good foam earplugs and learn how to insert them deeply. Add dark-brown noise to mask the remainder of the bass.
I have tried several types of foam earplugs, including Flents Quiet Time, Flents Quiet Please, and Mack’s Slim Fit against my home subwoofer with the same types of music I used to test the ANC headphones.
The three foam earplugs I tested worked surprisingly well.
Note: for a complete coverage of these earplugs, please check my post The 6 Best Earplugs for Sleeping.
In my tests, ANC headphones did better against low bass, but nevertheless, the earplugs made a big difference.
The trick is to insert them as deep as possible, otherwise they may disappoint.
(Don’t insert them recklessly though and to the point where they hurt. This post can help with earplug insertion.)
How much of a difference does earplug insertion depth make?
In his paper Calibrating’ the insertion depth of roll-down foam earplugs, Elliot Berger shows that the difference between a partially inserted cylindrical foam earplug (3M E-A-R Classic) and the same earplug fully inserted can be close to 20 decibels at 125 Hz (own readings figure 2).
With tapered foam earplugs, the difference can be even larger: in Berger’s experiments, a fully inserted tapered earplug (3M 1100) provided nearly 40 decibels of noise reduction at 125 Hz while the partially inserted plug offered less than 15 decibels noise reduction.
For comparison, in this study by the Partnership for AiR Transportation Noise and Emissions Reduction, a good double pane window (Figure 0.4) reduced noise from 63 to 200 Hz by about 20 decibels.
Note: in the U.S., attenuation data for hearing protection earplugs is only reported down to 125 Hz, but in Europe foam earplugs are tested down to the 63 Hz band—many of them achieving a noise reduction well in excess of 20 decibels at 63 Hz with optimal insertion.
A well-fitted foam earplug can be as effective as adding another double pane window when the neighbor across the street is having a party.
And, reducing the noise level by 10 decibels means halving its volume, so 20 decibels amount to a 75% loudness reduction.
There comes a point though when wearing earplugs won’t be enough.
If the music is played loud enough, even a substantially reduced rhythmic bass is still annoying and can keep you awake.
When wearing earplugs, it may not be the loudness of the remaining bass that keeps you up, but rather its intermittent nature.
Use dark-brown noise to augment the earplugs’ performance and mask the remainder
If you have a good audio system, e.g. with a subwoofer or large speakers, play dark-brown noise through your audio system to mask the remainder of the rhythmic bass.
I use a similar solution against footfalls coming from an upstairs apartment.
You have to fine tune the placement of the speakers and pitch and volume of the brown noise so that it masks the bass, but doesn’t become a nuisance itself.
(Excessive constant low-frequency noise can also cause rumbling in your room, so you have to walk a fine line here.)
So how do you mask bass sounds with dark-brown noise?
Whether you are using active noise cancelling headphones or foam earplugs, at some point their noise blocking performance will not be enough.
This is the point where I would add dark-brown noise to mask what remains of intruding bass sounds.
If you are using ANC headphones, just play the masking noise through your headphones (see below for apps and settings).
If you are wearing foam earplugs, you can play your masking noise through your home audio system (better for side sleepers) or wear headphones with a good low frequency extension on top of your foam earplugs.
Tip: If the bass that annoys you isn’t very loud, try playing dark-brown noise through your speakers without wearing earplugs. Perhaps that is all you need for comfort.
Will a “normal” white noise machine work?
Most likely, it won’t be sufficient.
A white noise machine is an excellent tool against many kinds of nuisances such as barking noise, people talking in adjacent apartments, and even most traffic noise.
This is why they are so popular. I am a fan of these little sound conditioners and have accumulated a small collection.
However, against serious bass noise, the white noise machines I own don’t work very well.
This has to do with the way our hearing works.
To successfully mask a sound, you have to employ broadband noise (aka white noise) that encompasses the frequency range of the sound you want to mask, or at least gets close to it.
The frequency response of the small speakers of my white noise machines doesn’t get close enough to bass noise, so these white noise machines can’t mask the bass.
What’s more, it is easier to mask higher-pitched sounds with somewhat lower-pitched noise than the other way around.
But in principle, bass can be masked, provided you can produce masking noise in that frequency range.
We need a white noise machine with a good low frequency extension, one that can produce bass.
Your subwoofer, larger speakers, and good headphones are good candidates.
As mentioned earlier, most good headphones have a low frequency extension that exceeds your average subwoofer.
If you want to use foam earplugs and don’t have any suitable headphones or speakers (preferable for side sleepers), the inexpensive, humble on-ear Panasonic RP-HT21 headphones go down to 16 Hz.
Note: you could wear these over your earplugs.
And we need shaped dark-brown noise that emphasizes the bass frequencies we want to mask
The standard options you find in many white noise apps, such as white noise, pink noise, and to some degree even “normal” brown noise have a lot of sound energy in the higher frequencies.
You would have to play them very loud to get enough sound energy in the lower frequencies essential to masking intruding bass noise.
What’s more, the higher frequencies do not contribute to our objective: “masking the bass.”
An equalizer is a good tool for tailoring our masking noise to the sounds we want to mask. My favorite white noise app, myNoise has such an equalizer:
The sliders from left to right control the following octave bands: 31 Hz, 63, 125, 250, 500, 1000, 2000, 4000, 8000, 16000 Hz.
I have used the settings shown here together with the Sony WH-1000XM3 to mask the bass from my subwoofer.
As mentioned, you can experiment with headphones and subwoofers / large speakers to mask bass noise.
However, each of these has a somewhat different frequency response.
Consequently, you need to set the equalizer depending on the speaker/headphones you use, and the intruding bass frequencies that intrude into your house.
I recommend you start with the settings above and then adjust the four left-most sliders (31-250 Hz) and overall volume for optimal masking performance with the least amount of rumbling.
Finally, adjust the six remaining sliders according to what sounds best to you (and what other noises you want to mask).
Ocean underwater sounds are a great-sounding alternative for masking bass
If you find that dark-brown noise doesn’t suit you and want to try something different, the ocean underwater sound from the excellent sound app Atmosphere: Relaxing Sounds carries substantial energy in the low frequencies and it sounds great.
You can mix in other sounds such as waterfalls or brown noise to cover more of the mid and higher frequencies.
Again, you need to play these sounds through a subwoofer/large speakers or your headphones to mask bass noise.
Some active noise cancelling headphones and well-fitted foam earplugs in combination with customized dark-brown noise are surprisingly effective at blocking even louder bass noise.
I sincerely hope that you can get relief from annoying bass sounds and enjoy both a peaceful day and restful sleep.
Let me know how it goes.