In my previous post, I explored how day-time noise impairs our cognitive performance and what we can do about it. But there is another big elephant in the room – our night-time sleep. Sleep or the lack of it has a big impact on our ability to perform at our best, both physically and mentally.
Less or disrupted slow-wave sleep, for example, entails poor memory and poor wound healing.
Among the worst offenders interrupting our night-time sleep is the all too familiar sound of SNORING. Snoring can be loud – very loud indeed. A loud snorer can reach more than 90 decibels of peak sound pressure level. That is about as loud as a lawn mower.
Intrigued by the capabilities of some of the newer devices to block out noise and sophisticated white noise apps, I decided to run an experiment to answer this question: What is the best way to block out snoring noise?
Test equipment and candidates
- An iPad equipped with a sound level meter (Noisee for iOS).
- Two different white noise apps: myNoise for iOS and White Noise by Tmsoft for iOS and Android.
- Earplugs of different sizes by Hearos, 3M, and Mack with a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 29-33 (an NRR of 33 is about as good as you can get).
- Good-quality earbuds (a good fit is vital for sound quality and noise isolation).
- The best earmuffs I could find, with a noise reduction rating of 31 (3M Peltor X5A).
- DIY noise isolating earbuds and sleep headphones.
- The best noise cancelling headphones I could find (Bose Quiet Comfort QC35).
Testing the snore blocking effectiveness
1. I found myself an obnoxious snorer on Youtube, and played the snoring sound via desktop speakers sitting on my bed about half a meter from my sleeping position (=measuring position).
2. I tested earplugs, sleep headphones with white noise, noise cancelling headphones, etc. (see the table below for all combinations) against the snoring noise, played at 3 different levels:
- A moderate snorer, snoring at 51 dB(A) (LAeq) with a peak snoring sound pressure level of 77 dB.
- A loud snorer, snoring at 57 dB(A) with a peak of 83 dB.
- A very loud snorer, snoring at 65 dB(A) with a peak of 92 dB.
What are decibels anyway?
Our ears detect sound pressure differences. Decibels are used to put a figure on the sound pressure emitted by a source or received by our ears. Decibels (dB) are a relative measure, with 0 dB being the softest sound that can be detected by the human ear at a frequency of 1000 Hz. Decibels are also used for other physical quantities. When we refer to decibels (dB) in this post, we mean decibels sound pressure level (SPL).
Important: An increase of 6 dB in sound pressure level amounts to a doubling of the sound pressure. So in the experiment, the snorer at 57 decibels caused twice the sound pressure as the snorer at 51 decibels.
How does this relate to loudness? +6 dB amounts to a loudness gain of roughly 50%. A source emitting 10 dB more than a second source is perceived as being twice as loud. So the very loud snorer was more than twice as loud as the moderate snorer. If you want the math and more details, check this website.
When talking about decibels (dB), the distance is important. I measured the level at about half a meter from the snoring source. This is about right if you are sleeping next to a snoring partner.
Getting further away from the snorer is of great benefit
For each doubling of the distance from the snoring source, you get a reduction of 6 dB in sound pressure level.
If the snorer sleeps in a different bed 2 meters away, you can block the snoring noise much easier than if it is your partner, snoring 30 cm (1 foot) from your ear. On the other hand, you might be able to convince your spouse to get checked for sleep apnea, wear a chin strap or sleep on the side, but your fellow student sharing the same dorm room might not be so forthcoming.
Back to the experiment:
3. I started with simple solutions, such as wearing earplugs, listening to white noise through my favorite earbuds, and listening to white noise through sleep head phones.
4. Since this was not enough to block out loud snoring, I came out with bigger guns: I combined my earplugs with white noise through sleep headphones, listened to white noise through noise isolating earbuds, and listened to it through noise cancelling headphones. I even added earplugs underneath the noise cancelling headphones.
This table shows all tested combinations and my snore blocking effectiveness ratings
So, what is the best way to block out snoring?
In my experiment, I used earplugs (Hearos Xtreme Protection, original formula) with a noise reduction rating (NRR) of 33. This is pretty much the highest NRR you can get. What’s more, I have been using this type of earplugs for 2 years, they fit well, and they block a lot of noise.
Yet, they clearly weren’t enough to block loud snoring noise well enough so that I wouldn’t be bothered by it.
Another approach I used is noise masking; that is, playing white noise (and other ambient sounds) to drown out the snoring, and thus reduce its distracting and startling nature.
White noise played at a moderate volume via normal earbuds or sleep headphones (good for side sleepers) was also not enough to mask a louder snorer. I would have had to crank up the volume to a level where the masking noise would have kept me awake. Over time this could also have damaged my hearing.
What did work well was the combination of earplugs and white noise via sleep headphones
I put in my trusted earplugs, put the sleep headphones on top of them and played my white noise. I used DIY sleep headphones made of earphones and a headband. Acusticsheep (sleephones) and Firik sell ready-made sleep headphones (a headband with two flat speakers).
White noise played through noise-isolating earbuds worked similarly well. I made my own by combining the drivers of normal earbuds with earplugs: I punched a hole into the earplugs, which are made of memory foam and inserted the earbud drivers.
Etymotic Research is well-known for their noise isolating earbuds. I have not yet had the chance to try them though.
As a side sleeper, I find the combination of earplugs and sleep headphones a bit more comfortable than noise isolating earbuds.
Both – the combination earplugs/sleep headphones and the noise-isolating earbuds did struggle with the loudest snorer though. I had to play the white noise at a volume that was too loud for my taste.
Playing white noise through the Bose QC35 noise cancelling headphones was the most effective solution of them all
The headphones cancelled out the lower-pitched parts of the snoring, and I could effectively mask the remainder by playing the masking sound at a moderate volume.
Combined with earplugs underneath, they were the only solution that comfortably blocked the loudest snorer with white noise played at a moderate volume. Also, I find the Bose QC35 comfortable to wear for long periods of time.
The downsides: You have to be a back sleeper, which I usually am not anymore. And at around $350, the QC35 are a very expensive solution. I had cheaper noise cancelling earbuds in the past. They are now broken, but they wouldn’t have stood a chance. I suspect if you want to go down that road, it won’t come much cheaper than the Bose.
Regardless of whether you sleep on your side or back, use a combination of earplugs, sleep headphones, and a good white noise app for your phone or tablet (e.g., myNoise for iOS, or TMsoft’s White Noise for Android) to get restful sleep in the presence of a nasty snoring sound. Good noise isolating earbuds are an alternative to keep in mind.
If that doesn’t do the trick and you are a back sleeper with enough cash, try the Bose QC35.
What are the best earplugs for snoring?
In short, use the highest-rated earplugs that properly fit your ear and are comfortable enough to sleep throughout the night. Different people have different-sized ear canals, so you might have to experiment a bit to find your favorites. I have listed some options below.
I have always been a light sleeper, easily aroused by sudden noises, and in particular lower-pitched intermittent sounds. I sleep with earplugs in my ears almost every night, and have been doing so for years. To me, they make a big difference.
Good earplugs provide a noise reduction rating (NRR) of up to 33 decibels. The NRR states the average noise reduction achieved in a laboratory (the earplugs are tested on 10 different people). This value tends to overestimate the noise reduction achieved in the real world, but let’s assume we can achieve it:
Take a look at our moderate snorer with a 51 dB(A) average and 77 dB peak. The peaks would still come through at about 44 dB. That’s about as loud as a bird’s call. Yes, this does improve the situation, and you might fall asleep.
Wearing my favorite NRR-33 earplugs (Hearos Xtreme Protection, original formula), I felt disturbed by the snoring.
But these earplugs are already the best I have found (so far) for my ear canals. I have worn this type for nearly two years and I know how to insert them so that they seal properly.
The loud snorer at 57 dB(A), 83 dB peak appeared to me just like a moderate snorer with no earplugs worn: too loud to fall asleep.
What does this boil down to?
You want high-rated earplugs available as your first line of defense, i.e., with a rating of 30 to 33. They have to be large enough to properly seal your ear canal and comfortable enough to sleep through the night. Different people have different-sized ear canals. I would guess that mine are medium-large.
To block out louder snoring, expect to combine ear plugs with white noise (described below).
Earplugs I have tried
Hearos Xtreme Protection, original formula, NRR 33 (the blue ones in image): These are the ones I used in this experiment, and have been using nightly to block ambient noise for the last 2 years. Maybe a year ago, Hearos changed the formula – according to many reviewers for the worse. Listening to the complaints and probably fearing for their business, Hearos is now offering the original formula again. The package is green and has “original formula” printed on it.
3M 1100 Earplugs, NRR 29 (the orange ones): They are slightly smaller, but still seal my ear properly. They block noise well and are a bit more comfortable for sleeping than the Hearos. The NRR is 29, which is at the lower end of what I want. They are a bit less durable, so expect to change them more often.
Mack’s Ultra Soft Foam Earplugs, NRR 32 (the brown ones): I have found them comfortable, and a lot of people like them. They might work for you, if you have a smaller ear canal, but they are too small for me. They don’t completely seal my ear canal and block a lot less noise than the Hearos or 3M earplugs.
Other options with good reviews (which I haven’t yet tried): The Max-1 (larger ear canals), Laser Lite, and Max Lite (smaller ear canals), all by Howard Leight.
Comparing earplugs and earmuffs
For me, good earmuffs (e.g., 3M Peltor X5A, NRR 31), attenuate the noise better than even 33-rated earplugs.
Attenuation levels for different frequencies, starting from 125 Hz are printed on the boxes of both the muffs and the plugs. At each frequency point my earplugs seem to provide more or at least the same noise reduction as the earmuffs.
But in the real world they don’t.
I suspect this is because the earmuffs seal the complete ear, not only the ear canal. The bones around the ear, the ear lobes and other soft tissue also conduct noise into the inner ear. For higher-pitched sounds, earplugs work well for me, albeit not better than earmuffs. At lower frequencies they don’t stand a chance.
The problem is, for most, earmuffs are not comfortable enough to sleep with them on for 8 hours. If you are a side sleeper, you probably won’t be able to fall asleep at all.
Comfortable earplugs with a high NRR are a good start when it comes to blocking out snoring. However we need something more:
White noise for snoring
Noise masking is the addition of white noise (and other ambient sounds) to drown out unwanted noises, such as snoring, and thus reduce their distracting and startling nature.
Because snoring can get really loud and vary a lot in intensity, the noise isolation provided by earplugs isn’t enough to effectively block it. However, combining white noise and earplugs (or other noise isolation) allows us to fall asleep and sleep through louder snoring.
What is white noise?
Strictly speaking, white noise is broadband noise having the same intensity at all frequencies. Here is a 15-second sample:
Pink noise has more intensity in the lower frequencies. As the frequency increases, the intensity decreases. Pink noise can be combined with rain, ocean waves, or water streams to create very pleasant masking sounds. If I had only one noise to choose to mask snoring and other sounds, it would be pink noise:
There is also brown noise, violet noise…
Other sounds can also be very effectively used to mask snoring, including rain, water streams, ocean waves…
In many apps and posts, the term white noise is used as an umbrella term to include all the different colored noises plus ambient sounds (rain, fans, ocean waves, babble, etc.) that are used for masking, relaxation, sleeping, and meditation. I am also going to use the term a bit more loosely.
Creating your personal snoring masking sound is best
Everybody’s snoring sounds different. If you can tweak your white noise to drown out your snoring offender(s), you can play it at a lower volume.
This is important because high-volume white noise can also interfere with your sleep. Besides, any sound that is too loud can damage your hearing.
Ideally you want to create your personal masking sound by changing different frequency points until the white noise optimally masks the snoring.
The myNoise app (iOS) and website provide this kind of function. The app also offers an automatic calibration function: It can listen to the snoring (or other noise) via the iPhone/iPad’s internal microphone and automatically create a frequency curve.
If you are not yet satisfied, tweak the different frequencies until the white noise optimally masks the snoring sound. You can also create a mix of different sounds, such as rain with added pink noise, and again change the frequencies to mask the snoring.
On a PC, MAC, and some Android devices you can use myNoise from the website. Your browser downloads the sound generator, so you are not streaming the sound via the Internet.
On Android, I continue to use the excellent White Noise app by Tmsoft. In this app, try pink noise. In my experiment, it worked quite well. While Tmsoft doesn’t have an equalizer, you can create mixes of multiple sound sources. For example, combine pink noise, white noise, and rain to get a feeling for how you can manipulate your masking sound. For each sound in the mix, you can individually change the pitch and volume.
If that doesn’t do it, Chroma Doze is an Android white noise app with a built-in equalizer, allowing for very fine-grained adjustments of the masking sound. It doesn’t offer multiple sounds as Tmsoft does, but it might help you out with snore masking. It also doesn’t have a timer function, so you need to install a sleep timer app or let it run continuously while you are sleeping.
Sleep headphones consist of a headband and a pair of thin speakers placed inside. You can sleep with them comfortably on your side as well as on your back. Without additional noise isolation, they only block soft snoring through the masking sound. However, since the speakers don’t sit in your ear, you can wear earplugs underneath. Playing white noise through sleep head phones with good earplugs underneath allows you to block even loud snorers quite effectively. They are readily available from AcousticSheep (sleepphones), Firik (sleep headphones ultra thin), and other companies.
I have made my own sleep headphones using a headband (adjustable size) and earphones (Panasonic) that sit on top of the ear canal. Since I wear earplugs, in-ear earbuds would not work.
I can comfortably sleep on the side with them, and they were very effective in the snore blocking experiment. The earphones sit in the ear on top of the earplugs, and the headband keeps them in place. If you want to go DIY, make sure you get earphones that don’t have any protruding spikes or humps (not ideal for sleeping on the side).
Noise isolating earbuds
In my experiment, DIY noise isolating earbuds were as effective as sleep headphones combined with earplugs. I made my own by punching a hole into a pair of Hearos earplugs (with a leather punch tool) and inserting the drivers of regular earbuds.This works because the earplugs are made of memory foam that re-expands around the drivers.
Wearing them, I can sleep on the side, but I find sleep headphones combined with earplugs underneath a bit more comfortable. Earbuds also get more easily dislodged during sleep.
Etymotic Research is a well-known company that makes noise isolating in-ear earphones.
I would only buy noise isolating earphones that clearly state how much noise isolation they provide. They should have a similar NRR as good earplugs, otherwise you are wasting your money. A lot of companies claim that their earbuds are noise isolating when in reality they provide little more isolation than normal earbuds.
Personally, I would rather go with the combination earplugs and sleep headphones: That way, you can find the ideal earplugs for you ear canal, and add sleep headphones and white noise as needed. For moderate snoring, you can also use just the sleep headphones with white noise, without sticking anything into your ear.
Do noise cancelling headphones work for snoring?
Recently, I got a pair of Bose Quiet Comfort QC35 active noise cancelling headphones. After hesitating for a long time because I didn’t want to spend $350, I finally pulled the trigger and emptied my wallet.
Sampling them in a Bose store, I had been so impressed with their ability to cancel low-frequency noise and the wearing comfort that I decided I had to have them in my arsenal. Low-frequency noise irritates me during the day and keeps me awake at night. I think low-frequency noise triggers a stress response in me.
They work well if you can sleep on your back. I have been wearing them for 8 hours during the day and found them very comfortable. The QC35 sound great. I use them a lot during the day when I want to concentrate. I also nap with them. They are wireless Bluetooth headphones, working with iOS, Android, MAC, Windows, etc. They also come with an audio cable for wired connections. The rechargeable battery lasts for 20 hours (wireless with noise cancelling on), so you can easily get two nights out of them before recharging.
However, they are over-the-ear headphones and hence only suitable if you sleep on your back.
Combined with my custom white noise settings, they blocked moderate and louder snoring noises very well.
For really loud snoring, I combined them with NRR 33 earplugs. Using this combination, I was able to effectively block even the loudest snores with a moderate level of white noise.
Their unique advantage is that they cancel the lower-pitched parts of the snoring noise (more pronounced in male snorers). I found these parts to be difficult to get rid of with earplugs or noise masking alone.
So, yes the Bose QC35 together with white noise are effective for getting relief from snoring if you sleep on your back, albeit with a hefty price tag.
They are worth considering if you are a frequent flyer, spend a lot of time commuting, or are exposed to a lot of rumbling traffic noise. I have come to really like them: they make me calmer.
How about cheaper noise cancelling headphones?
I suspect that you really need very good and expensive noise cancellers like the QC35.
I had cheaper noise cancelling earbuds in the past, which are now broken, so I can’t test them. But their noise cancelling only helped to attenuate constant humming sounds. Ear plugs combined with sleep headphones and white noise are cheaper and more effective than my cheaper noise cancelling earbuds.
Do you snore? Does your partner know how bad their snoring is?
Snoreclock and Snorelab are apps (iOS & Android) that detect and record snoring during the night. I have used Snoreclock for a couple of nights – I had a snoring score of 2 to 3%. The first two red bars appeared while I was purposely sleeping on my back. I woke up and turned on my side:
So during recording nights, I snored only very occasionally. People who snore often don’t know how loud and frequent their snoring is. Suggest to your partner to use an app like Snoreclock to record their sleep. Hearing themselves snoring and seeing all the red alarm bars that indicate detected snoring periods might be enough to convince them to get themselves checked out or change their sleeping position. You can also zoom in and hear what was actually going on during a particular snoring episode.
So this is my treatise on snore blocking. I hope you have found it useful and are now better equipped to tackle snoring and other night-time noise.
Also read my post on how noise affects cognitive performance and how to block it,
Have a good night and a most restful sleep.
I would love to hear about your experience and solutions in the comment section.
- Meteli. Sound Samples from Ten Minutes of White Noise, Pink Noise and Brownian Noise (Public Domain). Accessed October 21, 2016. http://archive.org/details/TenMinutesOfWhiteNoisePinkNoiseAndBrownianNoise.
- Kent Wilson et al., “The Snoring Spectrum: Acoustic Assessment of Snoring Sound Intensity in 1,139 Individuals Undergoing Polysomnography,” CHEST Journal 115, no. 3 (1999): 762–770.
- J. A. Fiz et al., “Acoustic Analysis of Snoring Sound in Patients with Simple Snoring and Obstructive Sleep Apnoea,” European Respiratory Journal 9, no. 11 (1996): 2365–2370.