You may have just gotten a white noise machine for your bedroom and are unsure how loud you should set it.
Or you have tried to use it for a while but it doesn’t seem to be soothing enough or block enough noise.
Now you are wondering how loud you should play white noise to help you fall and stay asleep.
As a general guideline: play white noise at a sound level of less than 50 decibels (dBA) if your bedroom is otherwise quiet.
When it comes to adding white noise to your sleep routine, quieter is often, but not always better.
Note: throughout this post, whenever I use the terms decibels and dB, I am referring to A-weighted decibels (dBA), unless otherwise specified. A-weighting is commonly used in studies and virtually all sound level meters support it. If you take a look at the sound meter in the title image or the app below, they are set to display dBA.
How to determine your optimal white noise volume
You want white noise to help you sleep, so you and your partner are the best indicators for how loud is right for you.
I recommend you do a quick experiment to understand what a certain decibel number (i.e., sound level) actually feels like:
(The experiment doesn’t take long but if you don’t have time, read below for my recommended range.)
Get the NIOSH sound level meter app for your iPhone or a sound level meter and test this in your bedroom.
(Unfortunately this app is not available on Android. At the end of this post I’ll share some thoughts about alternatives.)
Set up your white noise machine at a place you deem suitable.
I usually have mine on my nightstand.
Alternatively, put it on a small table at the foot end of your bed to get a more equal sound distribution for yourself and your partner.
Choose a white noise pitch that you find soothing and set the volume to a comfortable level.
Then measure the sound level at the position where your head comes to rest in your bed.
Note: Always measure where your ear is going to be, not directly at the white noise machine’s speaker.
Now increase the volume (ask your partner to help you if the machine is out of reach) by one step and measure again.
Are you still comfortable?
Repeat this until the noise becomes annoying to you and measure the sound level a final time.
Now you have your comfort zone for white noise. That’s generally the range I would stay in if your bedroom is quiet.
I have done this experiment a few times, and I prefer a sound level from 44 to 48 decibels at a mid-pitched white noise setting.
So the recommended maximum sound level for white noise is 48 dB for me.
At 50 dB, things start to get annoying. 55 dB are clearly too loud for me.
In a 2017 study, white noise played at 46 decibels reduced time to fall asleep by 38 percent
In a 2017 sleep study at Brigham and Women’s hospital, researchers investigated whether white noise can help healthy subjects to reduce the time to fall asleep (measured as reaching sleep stage 2). In their experiment, they used white noise at a sound level of 46 dB against an environmental noise level of 40 dB.
On average, white noise reduced the time to get into sleep stage 2 by 38% when compared to environmental noise alone.
The sound level used in that experiment is pretty much in the middle of my comfort range.
How loud can you play white noise if your room is noisy?
In an ideal world, according to WHO recommendations for community noise (1999), the constant noise level in a bedroom would be less than 30 dBA, with intermittent noise events not exceeding 45 dBA.
Unfortunately, in particular in cities, sudden noises often exceed 50 or even 60 decibels.
If your bedroom is generally quiet at 30 decibels, this amounts to a sudden rise in the noise level of 20 to 30 decibels.
A difference that large wakes many people up, or at the very least disturbs sleep.
If you played white noise at a sound level of 50 decibels in that kind of environment, you would reduce the difference to sudden noises to less than 10 decibels for most noises.
For many people this could work.
However, if you are a light sleeper in a noisy room, 50 dB may still not be enough.
Note: It is more the difference between background noise and a sudden noise event than the absolute noise level that arouses people.
Perhaps you have to increase your white noise volume to 55 or even 60 dB to keep sudden noises from disturbing your sleep.
While I find this too loud for comfort, if I found myself in some noisy motel room, I would increase the volume of my white noise machine to 60 decibels if it allowed me to sleep, provided there is no small child sleeping in the same room.
Being annoyed by white noise is still better in my book than being unable to fall asleep or being constantly woken up.
So, when I sleep in a noisy place this is exactly what I do:
I play white noise at a level of between 55 and 60 decibels. This minimizes the difference between bedroom background noise and sudden noises, so they don’t startle me.
But, I don’t get annoyed:
Because I put in foam earplugs.
This reduces the overall white noise volume to something more akin to a comfortable fan sound in the background. I am again in my comfort zone.
And this is what I recommend:
If you need loud white noise, use foam earplugs to get the volume down to a comfortable level
Set your white noise machine loud enough so that it masks sudden noises and they don’t bother you anymore.
Then put in foam earplugs, fine tune your white noise for optimal comfort, and go to sleep.
Just make sure you are not torturing your partner with excessively loud white noise and don’t do this if you have a baby sleeping in your room.
Depending on the environment, I have played white noise as loud as 70 decibels together with foam earplugs. Beyond 70 decibels, it gets annoying for me even when wearing earplugs.
As a side note, this is one of two reasons for why you want a white noise machine to get really loud when you need it: You want to be able to use it with earplugs.
The second reason is that if the machine gets louder, you have more options for placement. For example, you can put it close to the door if you have a lot of noise coming in from the hallway.
But obviously, don’t put it next to someone’s ear and crank it up.
Alternatives to the NIOSH sound level meter app for bedroom noise measurements
NIOSH, in their FAQ (why is the app only available on iOS devices), explain why they don’t offer a sound level meter app for Android.
They are basically saying they are currently not able to test and verify the accuracy of such an app on Android due the large variety of phones, audio chips, software versions, and manufacturers.
Consequently I too am hesitant to recommend an app for Android. I have no way of knowing how it will perform on your phone.
Instead, if you don’t have access to an iPhone, consider a standalone sound level meter like the one in the title image of this post to measure noise levels and white noise machine output in your bedroom.
I have used that sound level meter for bedroom measurements for a while now.
This particular model is a budget meter, but it allows you to switch between dBA and dBC and between slow and fast response like the NIOSH app does. It also keeps track of the peak sound level.
For your white noise measurements, you want to set your meter to dBA, slow response.
(Being additionally able to make dBC measurements and comparing them to dBA levels enables you to detect low-frequency noise among other things.)
I have sometimes used the popular Sound Meter by Abc Apps on a Samsung Galaxy J7 and my bedroom readings were similar to what the NIOSH app showed. Unfortunately, this app seems to shows only unweighted decibels, so you can’t see dBA, which is what you would want to for our purpose.
More importantly, the app itself states, “performance of the microphone will be different for each device. so calibration needed before use.”
I am not writing this to to criticize the developer, but merely to alert you to the issues you are facing when trying to use an Android phone for sound level measurements.
In a quiet room I recommend to play white noise at a sound level of less than 50 dB.
If you want one number, try 46 dB.
If I find myself in a noisy room and 50 decibels aren’t enough, I increase the sound level to between 55 and 60 decibels to mask noises that would otherwise wake me up.
(If no small child is in the room.)
However, in that case I usually wear foam earplugs to bring the white noise volume back down to a comfortable level.
I recommend you do the same.
In extreme cases, while wearing foam earplugs, I have played white noise at 70 decibels (and perhaps even more).
Read the posts How to Block Barking Noise and How to Block Out Traffic Noise While Sleeping for information on how to use white noise in your bedroom to solve specific noise problems and get restful sleep.