How Modern Architectural Trends Have Turned Sound Masking Systems from a Luxury into a Necessity


Bucking The Trend

The bigger, the better; the bolder, the better; the louder, the better. These philosophies permeate countless aspects of today’s world, and in many ways, the audiovisual industry is no different. 90” TVs, multi-display video walls, and beefed up sound systems are all current hot-ticket items – just ask any AV designer. Few things in life – and fewer in the AV industry – are meant to operate without being noticed. Yet, one style of system does fall into that category: it’s called sound masking. A proper sound masking system functions entirely in the background, outside of conscious sight, and – more importantly – conscious earshot.

What is Sound Masking?

Sound Masking ABCs - Copy   Sound Masking Graph - Copy       Sound Masking Speaker Layout - Copy

Sound masking systems are comprised of strings of small speakers than emit white noise. The object is to raise the noise floor of a given area with a continuous sound that blends in as background noise. The speakers are either installed above a dropped tile ceiling or high up in an open ceiling, and connect back to a small head end unit installed in a closet or a cabinet. The system provides enhanced privacy for sensitive conversations, reduces sound distractions across the office, and provides employees extra confidence and comfort in knowing that not every word they speak will be overheard. Installations are typically quite effective: the International Commission on the Biological Effects of Noise (ICBEN) conducted a three-year study on employees’ recall abilities across offices with and without sound masking. The commission found an 8.7% increase in employees’ ability to recall a series of numbers and a 7.8% increase in their ability to recall words in offices with sound masking systems versus in those without.

New Directions

Still, for a long time, sound masking systems tended to land in the “wants” column of a CTO’s checklist rather than “needs.” Recent architectural trends, however, have made these systems more of a necessity than ever. Here’s why:

The Open Office

Open Office - Copy

Perhaps the most overwhelming trend in today’s world of commercial architecture is the emphasis on larger open workspaces. Modern business        philosophies emphasize team-based operations that require consistent interaction, and business owners are tailoring their offices to reflect this style.    According to a 2010 survey by the International Facilities Management Association, 68% of offices feature an open seating plan. Within these offices,  “cubicle farms” are being abandoned in favor of tables and desks. In offices that don’t have an open floor plan, modular partitions are often being  installed in lieu of proper walls as a cheaper and flexible alternative. This shift towards openness means louder workspaces with more auditory  distractions and significantly less privacy. This tradeoff has not gone not unacknowledged – according to Building Design & Construction magazine,  “An open office has one major drawback: lack of acoustical privacy.” This is one of the exact problems that sound masking systems were designed to  fix.

Glass Walls

Glass Walls

Another striking feature in today’s commercial architecture is the prevalence of glass conference room walls. The advantages are plentiful: they look chic, they make spaces look bigger, they maximize daylight, and they allow a more transparent – literally and figuratively – workspace. However, any acoustician will tell you that glass walls are a nightmare. Sound waves bounce off glass like a rubber ball, creating a cacophonous and echoed sound. More pertinently, glass allows much more sound to travel through it than sheet rock does. This can be quantified via a measurement called Sound Transmission Class (STC). An STC rating, usually between 30 and 60 decibels for any type of wall material, reflects the reduction in decibels from one side of the wall to the other as sound waves pass through it. In other words, the higher the rating, the lower the percentage of sound that makes it through the wall. Typical sheet rock walls have an STC of 35. ¼” monolithic glass has an STC of 30. This may not seem like a big difference, but these measurements are logarithmic, and a 5 dB change, as defined by, is “clearly noticeable.” All this is to say – sound from inside conference rooms with glass walls leaks out significantly more than it does from those with sheet rock walls. Closed-door, conference room meetings are very often sensitive, private, and proprietary, and executives cannot afford to have their content overheard. Raising the noise floor solves this problem.

Smaller Offices & Workspaces

Square Feet Per Employee - Copy

As items born of the technological world tend to do, computers have gotten a whole lot smaller in recent years. In some cases, desk phones are being abandoned in favor of cell phones. These trends have allowed workspaces to shrink: offices, desks, and cubicles are all smaller now than ever before. According to a 2013 survey by corporate real estate association CoreNet Global, within the next five years, the average allocation of workspace per employee in the USA will fall to an all time low of 150 square feet. And while more people in smaller spaces means more productivity, it also means more conversations, and thus, more distractions. In 2008, ICBEN surveyed 689 employees across 11 companies on work performance and office acoustics. According to the survey, speech is the number one cause of reduced productivity, and the average employee wastes 21.5 minutes per day due to conversational distractions. The addition of background noise can help eliminate these distractions.

Is Sound Masking Right for Your Office?

Open floor plans, smaller workspaces, and glass walls aren’t the only considerations when it comes to sound masking. PPI’s Account Managers have the experience to make an informed recommendation as to whether this type of installation is right for your office. Systems can be installed as part of a new build or in a fully finished office, and installations can be done outside of work hours so productivity is not compromised. Contact PPI to start the conversation today.

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