You are sitting in an office, a coffee shop, or your home office and can’t focus because you have to listen to your coworkers or the folks at the next table.
Or you are in your bedroom or a hotel room, having to listen to your neighbors having a good laugh and cranking up the TV.
In this post, I am going to introduce three different techniques for blocking out people’s voices.
Against louder speech, we will combine several techniques. For quieter conversations one of them will suffice.
To block louder conversations, combine passive noise isolation and noise masking. Optionally add active noise cancelling.
Speech above a certain sound level (volume) cannot be completely blocked by covering or plugging your ears alone, or using noise cancelling for that matter.
What you need to do is this:
- Reduce the noise by as much as possible through noise reduction earmuffs, active noise cancelling headphones, or earplugs. If the speech noise isn’t very loud, this may be all you need.
- To push loud voices below your hearing threshold, additionally play a masking sound such as speech-frequency-optimized white noise or a waterfall or rain sound.
Alternatively, if you are looking to block conversations that are taking place in an adjacent room or further away, a low-volume masking sound all by itself can work very well.
Overview techniques for blocking out people’s voices
Active noise cancelling
- Works very well for the lower frequencies of human speech. Most effective up to about 400 Hz (and somewhat up to 1000 Hz). Very useful, in particular, if you want to work in a café that has bass-heavy background music playing.
Passive noise isolation
- Good across the whole speech frequency range
Noise masking (e.g., with frequency-optimized white noise)
- Good across the whole speech frequency range
Why is it so difficult to completely block out loud voices?
Speech noise encompasses a wide frequency range from about 100 Hz up to 8000 Hz.
The crests of louder speech (e.g., in a coffee shop) can exceed 70 decibels. Sound this loud also gets conducted via the skull directly into our inner ear.
So, even if you perfectly plugged your ears, you would still hear loud voices.
Note: For normal speech, most sound energy is in the range up to 1250 Hz. However, when someone raises their voice, this extends to about 2000 Hz, and for loud speech, there is substantial energy up to 4000 Hz.
And, the busier the place, the louder people talk, as everyone tries to be heard.
Take a look at two noise spectra from a moderately busy coffee shop:
How to shield yourself from loud speech
This could be people talking in the same office cubicle or at a neighboring table in a coffee shop, or someone in an adjacent room shouting.
Or, perhaps your next door neighbors are having an argument or cranking up the TV.
As mentioned earlier, for loud speech, we need to combine noise isolation with noise masking.
1. Noise isolation
In an office, coffee shop, or while working at home, you first want to block as much noise as possible.
Depending on your budget, I recommend using over-ear noise cancelling headphones (most comfortable), Bluetooth earmuffs (very effective and economical), or noise cancelling earbuds (portable but less effective).
Alternatively, you can also use normal over-ear headphones or noise isolation in-ear headphones.
(See also the post Tools to block Noise in an Office or While Studying.)
1. Add a masking sound
Your headphones or earmuffs are going to substantially reduce the chatter, but chances are you will still hear too much of it for focused, distraction-free work.
To mask the remainder of the noise, you need to use a sound that is loud enough in the range where most of the speech energy lies (100 to 4000 Hz).
The sounds that tend to work best are shaped white noise as well as waterfall and rain sounds.
The app myNoise (iOS, Android, website) offers a large number of suitable sounds and, importantly, it has an equalizer, allowing you to emphasize the frequencies that are not sufficiently blocked through your headphones while keeping the overall volume low.
Start with the sound White Noise & Co (or rain or waterfall noise):
By default, the sound is set to “pink noise,” which is not ideal for blocking speech noise.
Luckily, the app also offers a speech noise blocking preset, available under Color->Speech.
Now adjust the volume to mask most of the speech noise around you.
I have found this setting to work very well with Bluetooth earmuffs, such as the Worktunes Connect.
Active noise cancelling headphones such as the Sony WH-1000XM4 or the Bose QC35 are very good at reducing low frequency and high frequency noise but weaker in the mid-frequencies from 500 to 2000 Hz than most earmuffs.
(For further information, also read my post Why Noise Cancelling Headphones Don’t Block Voices.)
To compensate for this weakness, you can emphasize the mid-frequencies in White Noise & Co, which allows you to lower the overall volume.
I have found the 500-and-1000-Hz sliders to be the most important ones. I recommend you start with these:
Noise cancelling earbuds like 1More’s ANC Pro or Airpods Pro are weaker in both the mid-and-high frequencies, so you may want to increase the 250, 2000, and 4000 Hz (and perhaps even 8000 Hz) bands as well.
At present, I am using the sound Waterfall Noise with noise cancelling earbuds and this is how I have set it:
Note: Both noise isolation and frequency response vary among different headphones, so feel free to experiment with the equalizer to get the optimal settings for your situation.
Alternatives to using an app like myNoise
As an alternative to the myNoise app for iOS or Android, you can also use the myNoise website.
Also, a ton of good masking sounds are available on streaming sites as well es YouTube and freesounds.org.
Waterfall, rain, and some fan sounds tend to work well as speech blockers.
With noise cancelling headphones (not earbuds), I like 3 Hours of a Waterfall on an Ocean Beach (YouTube).
- Be careful with sounds that contain too much variation or excessive stereo effects as these may be distracting themselves.
Blocking office speech noise coming from further away
If you find yourself overhearing conversations that aren’t particularly loud but nevertheless distracting but don’t want to use headphones, playing a white noise machine (review) or a white noise app, such as myNoise, via a Bluetooth speaker at your desk maybe be all you need.
But note: this usually isn’t a solution if it is people nearby (e.g., in your cubicle) that are doing the talking.
You would have to play your white noise so loud that you would disturb the people around you and make it hard to take phone calls.
Alternatively, if you don’t want to play any sound, economical passive hearing protection earmuffs are a good option to reduce moderate speech noise around you.
Commercial sound masking systems
For open plan offices, commercial sound masking solutions are also available.
A low volume masking sound is emitted through multiple speakers in the ceiling. A central control module generates and distributes the masking sound and allows the user to adjust the sound frequency spectrum (in a similar way as I have described above) and volume to match a particular office environment.
Companies also deploy this kind of system to increase speech privacy: the masking sound makes it more difficult to overhear conversations taking place at a distance.
Like white noise played via your headphones or white noise machine, commercial sound masking systems can also cover other distracting noises.
These systems are good at reducing speech noise coming from a distance but they won’t help much if the coworker next to you is shouting in his phone.
How to block nighttime TV or chatter from an adjacent room
Are you having trouble sleeping in your bedroom, a hotel room, or your RV because of noisy neighbors watching TV or chatting the night away?
Generally, walls, doors, and windows significantly reduce this kind of noise, but they don’t reduce all frequencies by the same amount, and loud neighbors can still be heard.
Here is, for example, the spectrum of my living room TV set fairly loud (watching the news), as measured in my bedroom:
It doesn’t look very loud, but our hearing is pretty sensitive at the frequencies where the TV comes through the loudest.
Note: My TV sounds pretty much like your average hotel room TV playing in an adjacent room.
Being mostly a side sleeper, I prefer not to wear headphones at night, so in this case I would use a white noise machine to cover the TV noise (e.g., the Lectrofan Classic (review) set to white noise #5).
Alternatively, you could again use the app myNoise (choose white noise, waterfall, or rain), set it to color “speech” and play the sound through a Bluetooth speaker.
As described above, adjust the sound using the equalizer to best mask the chatter.
Any quality mid-sized Bluetooth speaker with enough battery to last for a night should work together with myNoise. If you are looking for a good budget speaker, I own and like the Doss SoundBox Touch.
Note: I use mostly a white noise machine at night. I prefer that over running an app on my phone for the whole night.
Now if the TV noise or chatter is really loud, you may have to play your white noise machine too loud for comfort. In this case, I recommend you additionally wear foam earplugs (review) to lower the overall volume.
What if the neighbors are using a home stereo system that additionally creates a lot of bass noise? In this case, I would definitely try foam earplugs on top of the white noise.
For more options on getting rid of bass noise, read my post How to Block Bass Noise and Save Your Sanity.
I hope this post is of help to you.
Have a wonderful day.