Harnessing technology to shush the neighbors

At home, whether you’re trying to work or to rest, noisy neighbors can be a real nuisance. Modern technologies can help.

Noise protection tools and methods for the home, remote work, and videoconferencing: noise isolation/cancellation, OS settings, and other life hacks

Roughly a year ago, the COVID-19 pandemic and its lockdowns and self-isolation regimens turned our homes into offices and classrooms. The new work format has benefits, but it’s also brought problems, not the least of which is noise.

In that respect, remote workers find themselves under attack from all sides. Even at the best of times a neighbor with a drill or a screaming baby is a headache, but when you’re trying to work from home, simply having family members, roommates, pets, even washing machines and televisions around can be a lot.

Home noise doesn’t just interfere with work; it can affect mood and well-being. Among many studies we hardly need to confirm the obvious, a group of Danish researchers produced one finding that irritating sounds from neighbors can lead to physical and mental disorders. Fortunately, modern technology can help to combat this scourge.

How to get rid of noise: Passive soundproofing

You can use passive or active means to counter neighbor noise. Passive methods include soundproofing the home with special sound-absorbing panels on the walls and floor — a laborious and costly, albeit effective, choice.

For a more budget-friendly passive-protection option, try earplugs. The most common polypropylene type does not sit well in every ear. More expensive varieties — made of wax or silicone — tend to provide higher noise reduction and comfort.

In general, earplugs are very specific to the individual, and you may need to experiment to find the right ones for you. Once you’ve settled on yours, remember to replace or disinfect them regularly — and don’t wear them all the time; it’s not good for your ears.

Let’s not forget the main drawback of this inexpensive and easy choice for sound protection: Earplugs muffle not only unwanted noise, but also the sounds you need to hear, such as colleagues during a video call. For a more selective noise-control experience, we need to consider active methods.

How to get rid of noise: Active noise reduction

Active methods are intended not to shut out unwanted sounds, but to dampen or filter them. German scientist Paul Lueg, who patented a method for neutralizing noise using a sound signal, first proposed the idea of active noise reduction almost a century ago.

To understand how active noise reduction works, consider what sound is. Sound consists of vibrations that, for simplicity’s sake, we can represent as waves, or oscillations, that move from peaks to troughs in a cycle.

Lueg proposed generating a series of mirror-opposite oscillations such that the peaks of the suppressing noise would coincide with the troughs of the ambient noise, and vice versa. If the waves are perfectly symmetrical on reaching the ear, they cancel each other out. Essentially, by adding sound to sound, you can create total silence — although the hearer needs to stay in one place or the waves will fall out of sync.

Noise-canceling headsets

Noise-canceling headsets work according to Lueg’s method. They contain built-in microphones to pick up ambient sounds, in response to which the headset creates a counternoise. In addition to headsets, some smart earplugs now offer active noise canceling.

Such gadgets cannot, however, cancel all extraneous sounds and thus do not provide complete silence. They can dampen the monotonous hum of an airplane effectively, for example, but not the piercing bark of a dog.

If you decide to buy a noise-canceling headset or earphones, first read reviews and feedback, and then, if possible, test your choices in store to spare yourself expense and frustration.

Noise-canceling microphones for conference calls

If you often take part in online conferences, consider the people at the other end as well; they’re probably not any fonder of your neighbor’s drill than you are. Here, a noise-cancelling microphone can help.

Most often, such mikes use a second microphone. Both the main microphone and the secondary one pick up approximately the same ambient background noise, but the first microphone captures the valid signal — your human speech — much better. The device sifts out the overlapping sounds to produce noise-free speech.

If you don’t want to buy a new headset, consider attaching a noise-canceling adapter to the one you already use. Such adapters can be expensive, but they do make your voice much clearer at the other end of the line.

Noise reduction with operating system settings

You can instead try to remove extraneous sounds using regular computer tools. Your operating system settings, for example, may include noise reduction functions. As with a special microphone, OS-based settings are for others on a call, not for you.

The relevant settings in Windows may use different names depending on the sound card, and in some cases may not be available at all. But to give you an idea, using Realtek as an example, to adjust noise reduction, open the Control Panel, select the Sound tab, navigate to microphone properties and, in the Enhancements tab, enable noise cancellation and echo cancellation.

Under Levels, you may also want to lower the Microphone boost setting, which amplifies noises as well as the speaker’s voice.

Likewise, macOS has built-in noise cancellation. To enable it, open System Preferences, select Sound, go to the Input tab, select your microphone, and check the Use ambient noise reduction box.

Noise-control apps

Specialized noise-filtering apps can also help. Some remove unwanted sound from your microphone; others also suppress noise from other callers. Some apps can block any sound at all in which they detect no human speech, which protects your colleagues in case you forgot to mute the microphone while having a snack or typing up the results of the meeting.

Videoconferencing apps such as Zoom and Skype also have built-in noise reduction.

Be careful not to overdo it when trying to improve sound quality, and definitely experiment in advance of any important phone calls. Also, if you want to use several noise-canceling tools at once, test them beforehand, because you don’t know how well they will get along.

Noise generators

If sounds are disrupting your solo work, you may find salvation paradoxically in more noise, not less — from a noise generator. That’s because uniform noise (in varieties called white, brown, and pink) masks extraneous sounds, making them less perceptible. Various studies have shown that such ambient sound improves sleep quality.

White noise is the same at all frequencies, brown is louder at low and quieter at high ones, and pink is somewhere in the middle. Most mimic the sound of falling water, the rumble of a rainstorm, or plain old static, but low frequencies make the brown noise feel “softer” — more like the gurgling of a waterfall in the distance, whereas white noise feels closer by. Incidentally, water noises have masked other sounds since ancient times; numerous fountains in the palaces of the Ottoman sultans prevented people from eavesdropping on private conversations.

Before settling on a noise generator, you can evaluate its effectiveness in a mobile app that generates background sound. Smartphone speakers are usually weak, but connecting the device to a wireless speaker makes the effect more pronounced.

Instead of artificial noise per se, you might prefer to play recordings of soothing natural sounds, such as ocean waves or rainfall. In any event, the main thing is not to overdo it. Too high a volume can, for example, damage a child’s delicate hearing. And remember that everyone is different — the only real way to find out whether you and your household are comfortable with various types of sound-masking noise and background sound is by trial and error.

The future of silence

No foolproof method exists to completely rid the home of external noise — yet — but research is underway.

For example, scientists at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore have unveiled technology that uses the same principle as in noise-canceling headsets to block street noise. The researchers created the desired effect by placing two dozen speakers and microphones by a lab window.

The company Silentium has developed personal “quiet bubble” technology and is working on noise reduction inside cars (nothing for the home yet). The company’s plan is to place antinoise speakers in seat headrests.

Sometimes the solution isn’t technological. In the struggle for home comfort, you may find harmony in … harmony. If you and your neighbors can agree on quiet times, the problem may solve itself — and if noise is not your only or main concern, check out some of our other useful tips for creating a digital comfort zone.