Earplugs keep noise from reaching your ear drums by absorbing and reflecting sound energy.
They can very effectively reduce annoying noises at all frequencies we can hear, provided they fit well.
In contrast to this, a white noise machine does its magic by adding noise to your environment:
It creates a waterfall-like sound to mask (=drown out) annoying background noises so that they become less noticeable or even completely disappear.
Imagine yourself in a library.
One person is whispering, and another one coughing. And, these old wooden chairs are timed to creak at the worst possible moments.
With earplugs in your ear, the whispering and creaking and all the other “little noises” are gone. The occasional coughing is still noticeable but a lot quieter.
Now imagine yourself close to a waterfall (=a white noise machine).
At a distance, a group of children is playing: they are laughing and shouting—and throwing rocks.
But if you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t know.
Chances are that all you hear is the sound of the water gushing down.
Perhaps you feel the waterfall is too loud for comfort.
So you put in your earplugs, and now this waterfall has just the right volume.
You relax and fall asleep.
Did someone cough? You have no idea.
The Lesson: Both earplugs and white noise are very effective noise fighting tools, and in many cases they work best together.
This post helps you decide what is right for your bedroom.
A closer look at earplugs
Earplugs, in particular foam earplugs, are good at reducing noise across the whole frequency range of human hearing.
This includes truck rumble, snoring, barking dogs, chatter, and chirping birds and crickets.
Here is the noise attenuation table for the cylindrical Flents Quiet Please (one of my current favorites) with a noise reduction rating of 29:
As you can see, the noise reduction effectiveness varies with the frequency:
With optimal earplug insertion, we are looking at >30 decibels at lower frequencies and up to 50 dB at high frequencies, both of which are very good.
Some foam earplugs are even good at frequencies well below 125 Hz.
For example, the humble Quiet Please (shown above) substantially reduces even truck noise (30 – 40 Hz).
Note: It does that for me because I can insert it very deep and still be comfy. Earplug fit is everything when it comes to blocking low-frequency noise. YMMV.
With this amount of noise reduction, most background noises (e.g., creaking, the sound of the AC, road noises) disappear from your bedroom, leaving you with a quiet environment.
But earplugs don’t block all noise.
Loud snoring, a loud TV in an adjacent hotel room, crickets outside the window, or a dog barking in the next apartment will be quieter, but can still be heard.
For more info on which earplugs to choose, take a look at these articles:
Pros of earplugs
- Very effective at reducing noise across the whole frequency range.
- Can completely eliminate quieter intermittent noises (clicking, AC or fridge compressor turning on, creaking…) that would startle or annoy you. These noises are pushed below the threshold of hearing.
- Effectively reduce louder noises (snoring, barking, traffic) so that they are less likely to wake you up.
- Good also for side sleeping.
- Some earplugs are quite good even at reducing low frequency noise (truck rumble, bass, stomping), which is very hard to do.
Cons and challenges of earplugs
- You have to plug your ears.
- Foam earplugs are overall the most effective ones, but they take practice to insert well.
- You may have to experiment with different earplugs to get the deep seal necessary for optimal noise reduction and still remain comfortable.
- Snoring, barking, footfalls, and crickets become a lot quieter, but your brain can still focus on them, potentially keeping you from falling asleep.
- Earplugs that seal at the ear canal entrance such as wax and silicone earplugs are comfy, but can amplify body generated sounds (e.g., heartbeat, pillow or bed sounds conducted into the skull). This bothers some people.
- Because they block most noise, tinnitus that would otherwise be partially masked (by the noise background) can become more noticeable.
A closer look at white noise
Strictly speaking, white noise is broadband noise with equal intensity at all sound frequencies. For most purposes it is too high-pitched and sounds a bit harsh.
In this post (and most of the Internet) white noise refers to a family of fairly constant sounds that cover a large frequency range but can have various frequency spectra / pitches.
Included are for example:
- True white noise, pink noise, brown noise, dark brown noise, etc.
- Waterfall sounds, rain sounds, and other nature sounds that cover a large spectrum.
Many white noise sleep studies were, in fact, done using pink noise (which decreases moderately in intensity with increasing sound frequency).
Here is a short sample of pink noise.
And here is one I call dark brown noise (own creation) which emphasizes the lower frequencies:
These two are electronically created white noises, but natural ones work too.
Most important for blocking noises that disturb you (=noise intruders) is that your chosen white noise is loud enough at the frequencies of the noise intruders (to mask them effectively) but not too loud at other frequencies that don’t help.
Chirping crickets and birds make higher-frequency sounds, so you need a white noise that has enough intensity in these higher frequencies. Otherwise you hear both the crickets and the white noise.
When larger dogs bark, you hear mostly higher bass- and mid-frequencies. Accordingly, to mask the barks you need white noise that is loud enough in the higher bass- and mid-frequencies.
Ideally you want a large selection of white noise presets with different pitches. This way you can cycle through them to find one that matches your particular noise problem and sounds soothing.
Alternatively, apps with a built-in equalizer allow you to fine tune the sound. This is even more versatile but requires a bit more tweaking to find the best sound for your purpose.
Pros of white noise
- You don’t have to plug your ears.
- Can make many intermittent noises disappear completely (complete masking) by increasing the background noise level.
- Reduces the difference between background noise and sporadically occurring noises. This makes waking up and sleep disturbances (moving from deep sleep into a lighter sleep stage) less likely. Ideally you want to keep the difference to <15 decibels.
- Gives your brain something soothing to focus on and relax into: Slows down thinking and distracts from other noises.
Cons and challenges of white noise
- To work against louder noises you may have to play white noise too loud for comfort. Then it can disturb your sleep.
- Your partner might not appreciate the white noise.
- Masking low frequency noise with white noise is challenging:
- Commercial white noise machines don’t work well against low frequency noise (trucks, footfalls, bass) because their speaker can’t produce the necessary frequencies.
- Using headphones or large speakers can work, but low-frequency-emphasizing white noise can become a disturbance in itself.
Where to get your white noise from
White noise machine
Good white noise machines, such as the Lectrofan or the Sound+Sleep, are easy to use and offer a large selection of different-pitched white noise presets.
Currently, I use the Lectrofan most nights.
White noise app + headphones
This is a good option if your partner doesn’t want to hear the white noise.
I like myNoise and Atmosphere. Both are available for iOS and Android.
If you are in need of sleep headphones, read the post on my favorite sleep earbuds and headphones.
White noise app + Bluetooth speaker or sound system
Use one of the above-mentioned apps and just connect your phone or computer to your speaker/sound system.
The apps can produce hi-quality sound, so if you have a good speaker you should get great sound.
Don’t expect your phone’s built-in speaker to work against a Rottweiler.
What is the optimal white noise volume?
For more information on recommended white noise volumes read my post How Loud Should White Noise Be for Adults.
Combining earplugs and white noise
Earplugs and white noise make a great couple: they can hugely enhance each other’s ability to fight noise.
To completely mask louder noises such as traffic from a busy road, the TV from an adjacent room, or the crickets outside the window, you often have to play white noise loud.
In some situations, the necessary volume just becomes too loud for sleeping.
So what to do?
Crank it up so that the white noise drowns out most the road traffic / TV / crickets. This may be 60 or even 70 decibels.
Then put in foam earplugs to reduce the overall sound level back to a comfy 30 to 40 decibels.
This combination has several advantages
You can block a lot louder noises than you would be able to with white noise or earplugs alone.
You are better equipped against noises that may occur sporadically throughout the night.
The waterfall-like background noise gives your brain something soothing to listen to, instead of having mostly earplug-silence interspersed with the remnants of road traffic or TV.
As mentioned earlier, white noise machines aren’t particularly good against low-frequency noise. So even when you play your machine very loud, you might still hear that truck passing by.
But, well-inserted foam earplugs can work against the low-frequency parts of road traffic, so now you are getting the best of both worlds.
For more information on combining earplugs and white noise, read these articles:
Have a great day and a restful sleep.