My first white noise machine was a pedestal fan. It was very soothing and easy to fall asleep with.
Over time though, when the traffic outside got louder, that fan wasn’t loud enough anymore.
I am not sure whether consumer white noise machines even existed at that time.
My friend had a marvelous trick to make the fan louder and turn it into a white noise machine of sorts.
He had used that trick for years:
“Cut small slits into a large enough plastic bag and then completely cover the fan with the bag, securing it with gaffer tape.”
I did this, and boy it worked.
The fan was loud and the traffic noise was gone. It didn’t really sound like my fan anymore more but it blocked the noise.
I don’t think what I did then was very safe, so don’t do that! I did it out of desperation.
Now there are better and more effective options.
How white noise machines and fans compare when it comes to helping you sleep better
Both create a soothing sound that can induce sleep
For this purpose white noise machines and fans are equally well suited.
What counts is that you find the sound relaxing and can get lost in it.
While it can take a little bit of time to get used to any new constant background sound, your ideal sleep sound should have very little annoyance factor.
(See below for examples how white noise machines, fans, and fan-based sound machines sound.)
Both can mask annoying noises that would keep you awake or wake you up, but good white noise machines do it better
For blocking noise, white noise machines are generally more effective and versatile than fans.
White noise machines can cover more frequencies, they generally go louder, and the volume can be finely adjusted to your liking.
Most importantly, the pitch (frequency spectrum) of a well-designed white noise machine can be more widely adjusted to better match the noise you don’t want to hear.
For example, provided they are not too loud, the barking sounds of various dog breeds ranging from Rottweiler (low-pitched) to Chihuahua (high-pitched) as well as insects such as crickets (high-to-very-high pitched) can all be masked by tweaking the pitch of your white noise machine.
By comparison, fans typically have a characteristic frequency spectrum that can’t be changed all that much.
To stick with the previous example, the sound of a particular fan might have worked well against the Rottweiler, but what if it is now a cricket that is bothering you?
If you have a very powerful fan, you may be able to make it loud enough by setting it to a high speed and thus get rid of the cricket too, but then you have to put up with the additional air the fan pushes.
In a word, fans can work for masking annoying noises, but they are a lot less versatile than white noise machines and with some noises you may be out of luck.
My post Dohm vs Lectrofan compares sound blocking prowess, volume, and frequencies of a good white noise machine and a good fan-based sound machine.
White noise machines much more so than fans play well together with earplugs, turning them into an even better nighttime noise blocker
Earplugs make everything quieter but they don’t reduce all frequency equally. Furthermore, different types of earplugs (e.g., foam and wax) attenuate noise differently.
As a result, sometimes bothersome noises may come to the forefront because their frequencies are reduced less.
White noise machines and fans will also be quieter and sound different when you have your ears plugged.
With a good white noise machine, you can widely adjust the pitch and volume to make it sound good and loud enough when wearing virtually any kind of earplug.
In this way, you can also boost the earplugs’ performance and mask noises that still annoy you when you have your ears plugged.
Note: With earplugs, I find higher pitched white noises I would normally not like suddenly sound good and come in very handy to block certain noises.
The pitch and volume of a fan can be adjusted much less: Your fan may sound better or worse when wearing earplugs, but there is much less you can do about it.
In fact, if they are not close, both my fan and fan-based sound machine almost disappear when I wear foam earplugs.
White noise machines are more portable than fans, allowing you to re-create your familiar sound environment in an unfamiliar place
People who move to the city from the country side/suburbs and vice versa often have a hard time getting used to the sounds in their new environment.
When I travel to different cities/countries or stay in different hotels, there are usually some sounds that strike me as odd, making it more difficult to sleep.
It may be the compressor of the room fridge, a slightly rattling air con, TV sounds seeping in from a neighboring room, etc.
Even if the room is quiet, the sounds are different and keep me more alert.
By bringing my white noise machine, I bring my familiar sound background. This makes it much easier for me to fall asleep even in an unfamiliar environment.
This is a big advantage of a portable white noise machine over a standard fan. You can play it anywhere and use almost any power source.
For travelers who can only afford minimal additional weight, even very decent micro-sized white noise machines, weighing less than 3.5 oz (100g) are available
Fan-based sound machines such the Marpac Dohm are more portable than standard fans, but they are still twice as large as and a lot heavier than standard-sized white noise machines.
How do white noise machines and fans sound?
There are four main types of sound machines.
1 White noise machines that create non-repeating sound, for example by using a synthesizer.
This includes the Lectrofan family (Classic, EVO, Micro). I like how the Lectrofans sounds.
Here is a sound sample of the Lectrofan Classic with three different pitched white noises (out of 10):
2 Fans (e.g., pedestal fans & box fans) and other devices (ceramic heaters, air purifiers, etc.) that contain fans.
Their main purpose is to move air rather than create sound. Nevertheless, some of them produce a very soothing sound.
I like the sound of my bedroom fan (high speed):
3 Sound machines that contain a small invisible fan.
Non-repeating sound escapes from small openings on the side and top of the housing. Fan-based sound machines are a good choice if you like the sound of a fan but don’t want the cooling effect. They also stir up virtually no dust.
Marpac (now Yogasleep) conceived this type of machine in the 1960s and is arguably still the most popular manufacturer of fan-based sound machines.
Here is a sound sample of the dual-speed Dohm Classic (high speed). I like that sound as well:
4 Sound machines that use recorded sound samples.
All sound machines I know of that include nature sounds (like rain, birds, brook, etc.) use recordings.
These machines typically also feature a few white noises (e.g., brown, pink, blue, white noise) but many use recordings for the white noises as well.
With budget machines, sound samples typically range from a few seconds to several minutes. These samples are repeated in a loop.
Some high-end machines use recordings of several hours and some even use multiple channels to create seamless soundscapes with a lot of variety.
Note: A select few machines feature an additional synthesizer to dynamically create non-repeating white noises while using recordings for nature sounds, merging the best of two worlds.
For white noises (as opposed to nature sounds, for which we rely on good recordings), machines that create non-repeating sound (machines of type 1 to 3) rather than play recordings are a safer bet.
Why? It is not easy to do the looping seamlessly and with quite a few machines the repetition becomes obvious after a while.
While some people don’t mind a repeating sound, others get annoyed or notice sound artifacts akin to “chirping sounds” or “morse codes.”
Do fans make white or pink noise?
(This is a common question, so I’d like to address this.)
The sound of many table and standing fans is more similar to pink noise than pure white noise.
Like with pink noise, the sound intensity of such fans tends to decrease with increasing frequency, while the intensity of pure white noise is the same at each frequency.
Compared to white noise you are getting a “rolled-off treble.”
This makes pink noise and the “nicer-sounding” fans more soothing than pure white noise.
Other fans, however, sound very different from both pink and white noise.
Some exhibit a pronounced motor or whining noise. There are people who particularly like this type of fan, but others feel that the motor “pollutes” what would otherwise be a nice “wind sound.”
Note: The rate of intensity decrease with pink noise is well-defined (3 decibels per octave). A fan, on the other hand, can have a much higher (or lower) rate of decrease which influences its ability to mask environmental noise.
For example, listen to the Dohm again. For this fan-based sound machine, the manufacturer states that it creates pink noise:
Here is “real” pink noise for comparison:
I would say, the Dohm sounds quite different. I like both but the Dohm is perhaps more soothing.
On the other hand, it doesn’t mask environmental noise nearly as effectively as real pink noise because it covers a narrower spectrum.
And here is my standing fan again:
And finally, here is a “pure” white noise sample with equal intensity at each frequency:
If you want to experiment with real pink noise for sleep, a non-looping electronic white noise machine with a pink noise setting like the Lectrofan will get you closer than a fan.
Note: On most of the Internet and on this site, the term white noise machine is typically used to refer to a sound machine that can create a whole family of noises of different pitches, such as pure white noise (i.e. same intensity at all frequencies), pink noise, brown noise, etc.
White noise machine vs fan vs fan-based sound machine comparison table
|White noise machine||Fan||Fan-based sound machine|
|Stirs up dust||none||yes||minimal|
|Soothing sleep sound||good||good||good|
|Masks disturbing noises||good||OK||OK|
|Works together with earplugs||good||OK||OK|
|Power source||AC, USB, battery||AC||AC|
|Non-repeating sound||some machines||yes||yes|
|Volume adjustment||finely adjustable||only via fan speed||somewhat|
|Frequency spectrum (pitch) adjustment||adjustable||limited||somewhat|
|Nature sounds (e.g. birds, rain, brook)||some machines||none||none|
|Auto power-off timer||some machines||some machines||some machines|
|Min and max sound level (examples)||very quiet-80+dB (Lectrofan)||38-47 dB (my pedestal), 51-65 dB (box fan1)||49-63 dB (Dohm)|
|Power consumption (typical)||2.5 to 10w||30 to 60w (and more)||10 to 20w|
Some fans have a very soothing sound that can help you to fall asleep faster (I chose mine for its sound); others may emit a whining noise that keeps you awake.
If you need a fan for your bedroom, listen to it before you buy it, or make sure can return it.
With a nice fan you hit two birds with one stone: you get the cooling effect, and the sound helps you sleep. A fan is also great for making a room that is too quiet just right.
Many modern fans even have a remote control, allowing you to adjust the speed in 20 or more steps.
If you don’t like the cooling factor but want the sound of a fan, consider a fan-based sound machine.
However, if you are looking to block louder annoying noises to help you fall and stay asleep or want to improve on the performance of earplugs, a good white noise machine is better suited than a fan or a fan-based sound machine.
Additionally, many white noise machines are portable and can use different power sources, allowing you to take your familiar sound environment with you wherever you go.
Choose a machine that allows you to adjust the sound pitch and volume across a wide range. For white noises (brown, pink, white etc.) as opposed to nature sounds, I prefer a machine that dynamically generates sound and not just repeats a recording in a loop.
For more in-depth information, please also read the post How to Use White Noise for Better Sleep.