How to Create Effective Speech Noise Blockers for Office and Studying on a Shoestring

DIY budget speech noise blocking headphones

Are you sitting at your desk and trying to concentrate but can’t?

You really want to dive into that article, book, or paper but keep losing track after short while.

You are getting increasingly agitated.

How the hell can I get these folks around me shut the … up?

I have been there many times, and I was unarmed.

Maybe you don’t have the budget for those expensive noise cancelling headphones your friends have been touting, and you don’t want to plug your ears either.

This is what you can do to block out speech and other irritating noises so that you can focus.

First, get a pair of 3M Peltor Optime 98 industrial earmuffs.

3M Peltor Optime-98 earmuffs

They are cheap, comfortable, light-weight and they block the frequencies important for understanding speech quite well.

Most important for speech intelligibility is the frequency range from 500 to 4000 Hz.

Here is the attenuation data for the Optime 98:

Optime 98, NRR 25         
Frequency (Hz)125250500100020003150400063008000
Mean attenuation (dB)15.52233.739.736.542.740.139.840.6
Standard deviation2.73.52.62.42.62.62.82.72.5

The Optime 98 earmuffs block between 34 and 43 dB in the crucial range, which is a very good starting point.

When you wear them, a lot of the noise in your office or dorm is going to disappear.

Louder Chatter is going to be quieter, but may still come through.

Why is that?

A conversation taking place at 1 to 2 meters distance will perhaps average around 55 dB with peaks of up to 75 dB.

Here is a noise level sample from a cafeteria where I sometimes go for breakfast and also do some reading on the computer.

Noise level in an average cafeteria

It turns out that this noise level overwhelms even the best earmuffs and earplugs.

Yes, you will find great earmuffs (larger ones) and earplugs that block more noise, but even they can’t completely block the noisy tales you are being subjected to.

The reason for this is bone conduction. When you have blocked all noise coming through the ear, you will hear through your skull.

Wearing your earmuffs, what was 55 dB is now perhaps 20 dB and what was 75 dB is now 40 dB.

You have reduced a noisy office or dorm to a place where people are being admonished to keep it quiet—a library perhaps, with people talking in an adjacent room.

But this substantial noise reduction may not be enough because our brain is capable of tuning into even the quietest conversations, so we need a second ingredient.

The second ingredient is speech masking with white noise: Imagine a water fountain in the middle of your library.

Water fountains produce background noise that resembles white noise.

Chances are the fountain would drown out whatever remained of the background chatter, even people’s eating noises. I hate eating noises when I want to read.

So we need to equip our earmuffs with speakers.

I have several sleep headband headphones that contain small, soft speaker inserts. I have removed one of these and put them into the earmuffs.

But, unless you want to, you don’t need to buy sleep headphones to get these speaker inserts. Headband speakers are also available as a separate item.

Sleep headphone speakers

You could attach the speakers to the insulation foam inside the earmuffs with Velcro tape, but because the speakers are so light and flexible even that may not be necessary.

Surprisingly, I also didn’t have to file a notch into the ear cups to lead the wires through (as I had originally planned).

The ear cushion turned out to be soft enough to conform to the cable and provide a seal.  Sometimes I have to make minor adjustments when putting the muffs on, but that’s about it.

 

Optime 98 earmuffs with headband speakers

The speakers of the Panasonic RP-HT21 are a better sounding option (3 March 2019)

Since publishing this post, I have gotten the very economical Panasonic RP-HT21 on-ear headphones. I was surprised how good these cheap headphones sound, and the speakers can easily be removed (and re-attached) without breaking the headphones.

I tried them in the Optime-98 earmuffs—and they work great. With these, music also sounds quite decent. So alternatively get these instead of the headband speakers to build your budget speech blockers. They move around a bit more, but you can use Velcro tape to keep them in the best position for good sound.

Speakers for the Optime-98 earmuffs

Why not wear earbuds underneath the earmuffs?

You can do this and it is very effective. I have used earbuds together with muffs for a long time, but at least for me this combination becomes uncomfortable after a while.

Somehow all earmuffs seem to squeeze the soft part of the ear canal a bit, and my ears tend to get sore after a while when I have inserted earbuds.

The most important range for understanding human speech is from 500 to 4000 Hz, so this is what we are going to mask.

Pink noise is a good option to start with, but the frequency response of every headphone is different, so it is best to create your own masking sound tailored to your speakers and your environment.

The app myNoise, which is available for iOS and Android, allows you to do just that. You can load plenty of different sound generators, including rain noise, ocean waves, fans, and binaural beats, but the sound generator most suitable for masking speech is White Noise & Co.

myNoise has a 10-band equalizer. When you start White Noise & Co in your app, you get flat equalizer settings.

To mask the chatter around me, I often start by increasing the 1000-Hz slider until the voices are almost gone. Then I fine-tune the other sliders until I am happy.

In most environments, I end up with settings that look like this:

Speech noise blocking settings

When you are happy with your equalizer settings, save them as a new preset by tapping the menu icon to the left.

Voilà, you have a great speech blocker at the fraction of the price of noise cancelling headphones.

How does this solution compare to the Howard Leight Sync Stereo earmuffs?

The sound quality of this solution is adequate for sound masking with white noise or other soundscapes. You are getting a very effective speech blocker, but not a great music experience.

It should also work for listening to audio books, podcasts, and lectures.

The Howard Leight Sync Stereo earmuffs sound a lot better. They are a good budget option that works well, provided your head is on the smaller side.

The Optime-98 earmuffs block speech slightly better and I find them a bit more comfortable.

What is more important though is that Optime-98 earmuffs are more adjustable; they tend to fit larger heads as well.

How does this solution compare to noise cancelling headphones?

The combination Optime-98 plus speaker inserts costs a fraction of good noise cancelling headphones, so this is the main draw of this solution.

In terms of speech blocking, it is as good if not slightly better than playing white noise through the best noise cancelling headphones (currently Bose and Sony).

Expensive noise cancelling headphones block low-frequency noise a lot better though.

I love noise cancelling headphones because they can even cancel most of the traffic rumble or a techno bass. (Mind you I like techno but not when I only hear the bass.)

They obviously also sound a lot better and they are more comfortable.

So if you have the budget…

But if you don’t have that amount of cash, what I have outlined here is a cheap and effective way to shield yourself from dorm, café, and office noise and increase your study and work performance.

Please let me know how you are doing in the comments.

Have a most productive day.

 

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