How to Block out Noise before It Kills Your Work and Study Performance

Noise affects you as a professional, office worker, teacher, and student. It impairs your ability to read and write effectively, remember what you have learned, and do math. Everyday noise can cause a performance loss of 50 percent or more. This is easily the difference between an A and an F. Luckily there are some smart ways to block out and mask noise so it doesn’t disrupt you.Block out noise and improve cognitive-performance

A good 18 months ago, I was sitting on my balcony watching an online lecture on my computer. My balcony is facing a small aisle, but the traffic noise from a nearby road is still very noticeable.  I was wearing decent earbuds, so the noise wasn’t bothering me – or so I thought.

Just out of curiosity, I put on a pair of earmuffs, which I had purchased earlier to block out noises that often startle me during my early-afternoon naps.

Well, they did a hell of a job with the traffic noise: I was sitting there, and all the honking, squeaking and rumbling had receded into the background. It wasn’t completely quiet, but everything was so faint. That’s very nice indeed, I thought.

Why not try continuing the lecture with my earbuds underneath the earmuffs?

The first thing I noticed was that the voice of the lecturer was now way too loud. Annoyingly loud.

I had to turn down the volume from 10 to 3 to make it comfortable again.  I also noticed that I could hear the finer nuances of the lecturer’s voice. I could even understand other students’ questions. These students weren’t equipped with microphones as this was a normal computer science lecture recorded at MIT in a big lecture hall (part of MIT’s Open Courseware program).

Wow – it was so much easier to follow the lecture and take in the whole experience. One of the great advantages of watching a recorded lecture is that you can stop it and re-listen to parts you couldn’t comprehend the first time. After putting on the earmuffs, this became almost completely unnecessary. Not only was I able to listen at a much lower volume and make out previously unheard details, I was also comprehending faster!

Bolstered by that experience, I experienced with earmuffs in other learning and reading situations as well

● I put them on while reading articles and papers in my living room. Again, they boosted my ability to focus and made it much easier to read and comprehend what I had read.

I do a lot of my reading and research in coffee shops. I love coffee and I love the atmosphere. In the past, I had to be selective with where I go to avoid excessive noise. Well, now I brought my bulky hearing protectors with me.  My first pair was pretty big, a lot deeper than headphones.

I must have looked a lot like Walt Disney’s famous mouse or some kind of oddball to other patrons, but I didn’t get excessive stares so I just worked with them on whenever the noise bothered me. Even louder coffee shops were no match for these muffs.  I could still hear some background noise and some muffled voices, but everything was so much quieter.

When even the earmuffs’ noise isolation wasn’t enough for me, I used earbuds underneath and played masking sounds (see below for noise masking).

● Most mornings, I meditate for 20 minutes. I just observe my breathing or other sensations in my body.

Now I do this in my living room, with my balcony door open – I enjoy the sunlight of the new morning and put on my earmuffs. The city rises and so does the background noise. But with the earmuffs covering my ears, I get almost blissful silence.

I highly recommend that you try this! (for recommended earmuffs, see below)

OK, that’s my experience.  But what about other people? What about students, office workers, and children?

How does noise affect our ability to study and do cognitive work?

Noise impairs people’s ability to concentrate, learn, and perform cognitive work

Noise impairs memory and math

There is now ample of evidence that noise makes professionals and students less productive.  Particularly distracting are clearly discernible voices, e.g., due to nearby conversations or people talking on the phone — basically stuff you get in smaller offices, dorm rooms, and coffee shops all day long.

So it is not only big open plan offices that drive down performance, and people nuts.

Even typical office noise without voices significantly reduces people’s ability to remember and do simple mental math

This is what UK researchers Banbury and Berry concluded in 1998, when they had people memorize a paragraph of prose and perform simple arithmetic under three different noise conditions: office noise with speech, office noise without speech (including keyboard and printer noise), and silence.

The noise was pre-recorded and played at a level of 65 dB(A) via two speakers. The study participants were seated at about 1 meter from the speakers.  How loud is this? About as loud as a normal conversation overheard from a distance of about 1 meter.

Banbury and Berry concluded “The magnitude of disruption is fairly impressive.”

In other words, performance under the noise conditions was terrible.

When exposed to noise during learning and recall, participants in both noise conditions remembered only one third of what they remembered in the quiet condition.

That is easily the difference between an A and an F!

They also did significantly worse when performing simple arithmetic under noise, regardless of whether the noise contained speech or not.

The researchers suggested that it is the variation in the noise (the changing state of the noise) that is causing the disruption.  Looking at the data, performance under the speech condition was worst though.

There are plenty more studies to choose from, and while not all show distraction on the same magnitude as this one, the tendency is pretty clear:

Changing-state noise impairs performance in a variety of cognitive tasks, including:

  • Serial-memory (and thus most tasks that involve keeping track of ordering information)
  • Mental arithmetic
  • Proofreading
  • Writing

What kind of noise impairs people’s mental performance the most, and is everyone affected?

  • For most tasks, it is the changing-state nature of the noise that disrupts (this is also known as the irrelevant sound effect), and the worst offender tends to be human voices.
  • When white noise, pink noise, or other constant broadband noise was compared to silence, it did not significantly impair performance, if at all, provided it wasn’t excessively loud. Here are 15 seconds of pink noise:
  • Some people are more disturbed by noise than others: A series of studies compared the performance of introverts and extroverts on reading comprehension, prose recall, and mental arithmetic while exposed to music, noise, or silence. The studies suggest that introverts (as classified by the Eysenck Personality Questionnaire) are more negatively influenced by noise. While some people’s performance dropped significantly, others were only slightly affected. Introverts and extroverts both did a lot worse on prose recall though when exposed to noise.
  • As to voices, the level of disruption tends to increase as the number of speakers increases from 1 to 3, and then it decreases. While a few clearly discernible voices can be very disturbing, mumbling exhibits less variation over time and might not disturb at all. This is also known as the “babble-effect.” Chatter containing a large number of voices can be an effective masking sound and return cognitive performance to levels close to observed under silence (for sound masking see below).
  • Soft noise can be as disruptive as loud noise. That is, unless the sound level of the noise is really excessive or the noise is startling you. To make a real difference for the better, you allegedly need to lower the level of the noise to below the threshold of hearing. I have found that, for example in coffee shops, you don’t need to reduce it quite that much, but you need to get it down to a level where the remaining background noise resembles just faint mumbling, and voices have become unintelligible.

How can you block out the noise?

Well, preferably, remove yourself from a noisy environment if you feel it is agitating you or you have a hard time concentrating.

In many cases, this has not been an option for me though. In other cases, I wanted to enjoy the benefits of noisy places. Coffee shops inspire me, so I don’t want to cut them out of my life. My living room is as it is, and unless I move, I am stuck with it.

You might work in an open plan office, or worse, in a small office where one or two people are constantly on the phone serving customers.  You might be a student who finds that even the whispers and creaking floor in the library are too loud for you.

Maybe you don’t even know that the noise around you is hurting your performance. My noise-isolating earbuds seemed to work just fine until I put earmuffs on top of them and realized that this setup allowed me to concentrate a lot better.

I recommend that you get a pair of good earmuffs to test how a quiet environment impacts your work and studying. They are very reasonably priced and highly effective.

I currently use two different pairs of earmuffs:

The 3M Peltor X5A have a very high noise-isolating capability and are quite comfortable. They are a bit heavy and make you look like the famous mouse or an aircraft mechanic though. On the other hand, they also signal to other people around you that you mean business and don’t want to be disturbed.3m Peltor X5A Earmuffs

The 3M Peltor X4A earmuffs have a much lower profile and still isolate very well. People have mistaken them for Bluetooth headphones. Probably due to their slimmer profile, they have to put a bit more pressure on the head to achieve the good noise attenuation they provide. I take them with me whenever I go to a coffee shop and don’t want to look out of place. They are good, but the main advantage is that they are lighter and look more like headphones.  In terms of noise isolation they are no match for the X5A.3m Peltor X4A Earmuffs

Noise masking with masking sounds

Constant-state, broadband noise, such as white or pink noise (the noise you get when a TV or analog radio is not tuned into a station) tends disrupt much less or not at all if played at a normal volume.

Soundscape designers make use of these sounds to mask speech and other noise in open plan offices. They place speakers at various locations and play pink noise, chatter, spring water, or ocean waves at a level determined to mask speech to a degree where it becomes unintelligible and non-disruptive.

This sound masking of speech has been shown to improve performance in both laboratory settings and real open plan offices.

I have been using a white-noise app by TMSoft for napping and sometimes sound masking for quite a while. It is a good piece of software with a large number of sounds to choose from.

Recently, I have come across the really cool white-noise website

They also have a myNoise app for iPad/iPhone. This app is what I am using most these days.  If you use a PC or Mac, the website will work just fine.myNoise White Noise App

The quality of the sounds is astonishing, and, what is more important for masking of unwanted background noise, you can change the character of each sound at 10 frequency points from 20 Hz to 20000 Hz. This works a lot better than the equalizer in my smartphone.

Basically, you can manipulate the frequencies across the complete range of human hearing.

What’s more, the iOS app can use the iPhone/iPad’s built-in microphone to analyze the background noise you are currently exposed to and automatically adjust the masking sound’s characteristics to optimally mask the prevailing background noise. You can store multiple noise-blocking profiles. I have one for my living room, one for my bedroom, and one for my favorite coffee shop.

myNoise automatic sound masking

I have found this feature extremely helpful.

With many white-noise apps, you choose between white noise, pink noise, brown noise, spring water, ocean waves, chatter, etc. to mask your background noise. You can do this with myNoise too. The problem with this approach: sometimes none of the sounds optimally fits the background noise.

So you crank up the volume more than would actually be necessary. With myNoise, you choose your favorite sound and adjust its tone so that it optimally masks your background noise. This allows for better masking at lower volume levels.

While basic white noise doesn’t sound great, the adjusted white noise I use to mask the noise in my living room sounds more like a stream of water, albeit a bit more regular, which I like.

The website is free (it sustains itself through donations), so you should definitely try it. Even the iOS app together with 5 or so sounds is free. This is what I currently use, and because you can completely change each sound’s characteristics, one sound is enough to mask a large range of unwanted noises. You can add additional sounds for a fee, or all available sounds for a flat fee.

Do you have a snorer sleeping next to you?

If you do, you could use your iPhone to analyze the snoring and have myNoise generate your personal snoring masking sound. I don’t have a snorer sleeping next to me, but maybe you do?

So do I still use earmuffs then?

Yes, because I can’t properly mask a rumbling bass, loud music, or sudden, startling noises with a white-noise app alone, unless I play the noise at a real high volume.  The combination of earmuffs and earbuds with a masking sound works great.

Also, sometimes I really want silence – and for this, bulky earmuffs can’t be beat.

Silence is golden

Are noise-cancelling headphones an option?

I have owned a pair of Audio Technica in-ear noise-cancelling earbuds. They sounded good, but the noise-cancelling electronics only attenuated constant low-frequency sounds, and only slightly so. It did not help with voice at all. So those were definitely not an option.

A friend recently let me try his new Bose QC35 Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones in a pretty noisy coffee shop, so I could directly compare them with my traveling earmuffs. Bose’s noise-cancelling technology is considered state of the art. For noise-cancelling in consumer headphones, they are the company to beat.

They played pretty loud music with a booming bass in that coffee shop, you could hear “cling, cling” from cups, spoons and glasses, and the people next to me were engaged in a passionate conversation.

Bose QC35 noise-cancelling headphones and low-frequency noise

The QC35 headphones’ ability to cancel out low frequencies was astonishing. After I switched them on, it was as if someone had removed the sub-woofer from a home stereo system. Low-pitched noises were completely gone. I really liked that!

I then directly compared them to my X4A traveling earmuffs: the QC35 attenuated the low frequencies quite a bit better than the earmuffs — and the earmuffs aren’t bad at getting rid of low-pitched sounds.

For voices and other higher-pitched sounds though, the earmuffs easily beat the Bose QC35. It was a draw: Bose 1, earmuffs 1.

So if you want it quiet without sound masking or listening to music, Bose headphones aren’t going to do it.

Low frequency noise increases stressBut I really hate this rumbling bass when I want to concentrate, so…

Today I went to a nearby Bose show room, and brought my iPad loaded with the myNoise white-noise app with me.  Coincidentally, they were playing music with a techno bass from a typical Bose sub-woofer sound system — a good meter and a half from the headphone testing station.  That’s how they attract customers.

I put on the QC35 headphones without any music but noise-cancelling switched on. The sub-woofer’s bass changed from “Umpf, Umpf, Umpf” to “deck, deck.”

No-one would buy such a meek woofer.

The headphones had removed the bottom from the music. And this wasn’t your steady-state low-pitched sound (airplane turbines, air-conditioners, etc.) for which noise cancellers are usually recommended. Bose’s noise-cancelling technology works fast!

Voices and higher-pitched sounds were attenuated but did come through though.  However, using myNoise, I was easily able to mask what had remained.

Are you bothered by low-frequency noise? The Bose QC35 combined with a white-noise app are a very good combination, if you have the cash.

So far, I have avoided the hefty price tag Bose puts on their noise-cancelling headphones.

After today, I am tempted because they are quite comfortable as well. Maybe I could even use them for sleeping?

Still, I am pretty sure they won’t replace my very reasonably-priced (93% cheaper than the QC35 when I last checked) earmuffs for when I want to experience silence. They make everything so quiet.

Besides, there is a reason why participants in memory championships wear earmuffs…

Are you troubled by noise in your work or studying? What noise-busting remedies work best for you?

I am looking forward to your comment.


8 thoughts on “How to Block out Noise before It Kills Your Work and Study Performance

  1. Hi Helmut. Thanks for the article. How have you found the 3M Peltor X5As at blocking out human speech? I work in a very chatty office and can’t concentrate for all the conversations going on around me. I have Bose QC25s, but unfortunately these specifically permit human speech frequencies, which is exactly what I want to exclude. The industrial ear defenders also often seem to be designed to permit speech frequencies, in order for the workers to communicate without removing their earmuffs.

  2. Hi Alex,
    the 3M Peltor X5A are very good at blocking speech. They attenuate by about 40 dB in the range most critical for speech intelligibility. You are right; there is a different type of earmuffs that is designed to let voices through, such as the Peltor WS Tactical Sport Electronic Headsets. If you wanted to communicate with someone while wearing earmuffs, the X5A would probably be the worst choice. 😉

    In coffee shops, I generally use the X4A, which attenuate not quite as well as the X5A, because of their lower profile. Still, they make a world of a difference to me when reading while other people are chatting around me.

    If looking geeky is not an issue though, then the X5A are better and at least for me even more comfortable than the X4A.
    Should the noise around you get really bad, you could even wear earbuds underneath and play white noise. For that I would recommend the type that sits on your ear canal rather than in-ears.

    I have the Bose QC35, which are comparable with the QC25 in terms of noise-cancelling. They are great for low-frequency noise (I really like them), but a lot worse at blocking speech. I think it is more the physics of active noise-cancelling than Bose trying to let voices through.
    To make them more effective for voice blocking, you would have to play white noise as a masking sound.

    If you don’t mind, you could wear earplugs, such as the 3M 1100 or the Hearos Xtreme Protection (original formula) underneath your Bose. (The 3M 1100 are more comfortable, the Hearos a bit more effective, but both should do.) That would get you noise isolation comparable to the X5A. If you then play white noise on top of that, you can block almost anything.

    If sticking something in your ear is not what you want, then I think it doesn’t get much more effective than the X5A.

    Have a great day.

  3. Hello, I just wanted to say thank you very much for your extremely informative and brilliant blog post. I find it difficult to study in our school study room and you answered all of my questions!! Even the comparison with the Bose QC35 which I looked at today, potentially saving me £200. Thank you!

  4. Hello E,
    thank you for your kind words. I am glad you found what you were looking for.
    Have a great day.

  5. Hello,

    I am wondering your recommendations on the best low-frequency earplugs available. I know you recommend the 3M and Hearos, but are there any specifically tailored to bass and low-freq noise?

  6. Hello Connor,

    that is a very good question.

    Unfortunately, as far as earplugs go, so far I haven’t found any that work better for low-frequency noise than good foam earplugs. For best low-frequency attenuation, you have to insert them quite deep into the ear canal. If you are looking for another NRR-33 foam earplug: I am also using the Moldex Meteors and quite like them. They have a very different shape than the Hearos and 3M 1100.

    There is an approach to use a weight centered in the earplugs to block lower frequency sound. So far, this approach has received mixed reviews though.

    Short of a noise attenuation helmet, the only effective ways I have found to achieve better noise attenuation are combining earmuffs and earplugs or really good noise cancelling head phones and earplugs.

    I mostly use earplugs for sleep. I find them really difficult to reinsert after they have gotten warm in my ears, which makes them less than ideal in an office setting. What’s more, I want to give my ears a break during the day. Ear muffs don’t irritate the ear canal and can just be put on and taken off when necessary.

    It is important to note that sound is also conducted via our bones, which limits what passive attenuation can achieve, for example at 125 Hz to 40-45 dB.

    Also, in the US, manufacturers only have to test and publish data down to 125 Hz for their plugs and muffs, and the NRR is also calculated using frequency points down to 125 Hz but not below. Obviously, we can clearly hear stuff below that, so IMO the published data and the NRR don’t adequately address low-frequency noise.

  7. Hello,

    I am looking to purchase a set of ear muffs to help me block noise out while studying. I am about to move into university accommodation and have had the misfortune of being allocated a room next to a communal kitchen so potentially some speech and other kinds of noise will make its way to my room. I consider purchasing the 3M Peltor X5A if they indeed do a good job at blocking speech while reading, but I also I like to revise by whispering or talking quietly to myself. How clearly can you hear your own speech while wearing them? Are the comfortable enough for wearing for longer periods of time?

    Many thanks.

  8. Hello Plamen,

    you can hear yourself talking because your voice also gets transmitted through your body. However, it will sound slightly muffled, i.e., the higher-pitched parts of your voice will get attenuated more than the low-pitched parts. To get an idea of this effect, just plug your ears with your index fingers and recite. (The X5A block a lot better than your fingers though, so body voice conduction will become a bit more pronounced.)

    The longest I wear them is for about three hours at a time. After three hours my ears definitely need a break.

    Normally, I take a break after about an hour or so at most. I can’t read or revise effectively for much longer than that anyway. At the end of the day, comfort varies from person to person. It depends on ear-size, head-size / shape, and room temperature. All earmuffs have a higher clamping force than headphones. For me the clamping force of the X5A is OK.

    One big advantage over earplugs is that you can just remove the muffs and take a break. Wiping the ear-pads and putting the muffs back on is a piece of cake. Earplugs that have gotten warm tend to be very difficult to reinsert.

    What’s more, the X5A block speech better than any earplugs I have.

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