If you work in a busy office, you might find it hard to concentrate on the task at hand with all the chit-chat, clickity-clack and cacophony of the contemporary collaborative company. I will admit that I am frequently the one being heard, louder than most.
When you don’t want to go into another room, and you can’t just tell everyone to STFU, the solution need not cost you a bundle like these Bose ear-buds for $330.
Why not just use the decent set of headphones you already have at your desk to place yourself into a warm cone of silence?
First, take a minute to recognize what a noise floor is. You’ve probably seen a sound wave before. The loudness of a sound is measured in dB SPL (sound pressure level). A typical office can produce sound pressure levels from about 30dB to 50dB. For reference, the rustle of a leaf is about 10dB, and riveting hammer clocks in at 130dB.
All headphones use isolation to reduce noise (blocking outside sound). Noise-cancelling headphones use a little microphone to flip the phase of the incoming signal which “cancels” some of the signal. These work well on a plane because the incoming noise is a fairly flat wave and can be more easily cancelled. In an environment where the noise is more transient, this type of headphone is less effective.
It is these transient signals that are distracting and what we really need is to make the noise floor flat without being irritating.
Meet Brownian noise. Also known as Brown noise. Noise is actually a pretty interesting topic, but what you should know is that many types of noise are quite annoying. Remember “static” on a TV? That’s white noise. Not pleasant. Brown noise “decreases in power by 6 dB per octave … and, when heard, has a “damped” or “soft” quality compared to white and pink noise. The sound is a low roar resembling a waterfall or heavy rainfall.”
You can find Brown noise sources just about anywhere you can stream music. My favourite is this 12-hour YouTube clip (the goofy name is also interesting). You can also find Brown noise on Spotify.
The trick is to start the noise very low and gradually increase the volume until it masks the ambient noise of your environment. No need to go any louder unless things get rowdy in your office.
Now, just like the dreamy hum of fan gently caressing your brain as you sleep, you can enjoy relative total silence while you work. After a few minutes, you won’t really notice the noise and when the headphones are removed, it’s surprising just how “noisy” your environment now seems.
Thanks Robert Brown!