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Sound Masking vs. Sound Absorption

Sound Masking vs. Sound Absorption

Posted by The SoundPro Team on Aug 21st 2023

Estimated Reading Time: 8 Minutes 

Achieving optimal acoustic conditions is crucial for creating comfortable and productive environments. Two key techniques used to address acoustic challenges are sound masking and sound absorption. Although these terms are often (and erroneously) used interchangeably, they serve distinct purposes.


Sound masking does not reduce the volume in a noisy environment but rather adds background sound to increase speech privacy and reduce distractions. This is achieved by injecting low-level noise into the space, making other sounds less distinct by comparison. Sound masking systems typically employ the use of speakers or emitters strategically placed to distribute a low-level, broadband sound, such as white or pink noise. The idea is to make it sound like nothing more than a standard HVAC system kicking in, meaning that the difference in decibel levels is reduced between the ambient noise and human voice.

Common Applications of Sound Masking:

  • Office Spaces and Call Centers - Open office layouts often mean several conversations are happening simultaneously. Overhearing another conversation can be distracting, leading to reduced productivity and increased stress levels. Sound masking helps to minimize distractions and provide a more peaceful working environment.
  • Healthcare Facilities - Compliance with HIPAA regulations regarding patient privacy is essential. Sound masking systems ensure speech privacy in medical offices, waiting rooms, and other healthcare environments, preventing confidential conversations from being overheard.
  • Educational Institutions- Classrooms, libraries, and study areas benefit from sound masking systems, which create the illusion of a quieter space for learning and concentration by making background noise less distinguishable.
  • Financial Institutions – Like healthcare facilities, banks, credit unions, and other financial environments require confidentiality during transactions. Sound masking helps prevent sensitive information from being overheard.

Best Practices for Sound Masking

Strategic placement of sound masking speakers or emitters helps effectively inject the background sound into the surrounding areas. It's important to note that the effectiveness of your sound masking system can be influenced by factors such as ceiling height, room size, and acoustics. Here are some key considerations for sound masking placement:

  • Zoning: Divide the space into zones based on the desired sound masking levels. Different areas may require varying levels of background sound depending on their specific needs. For example, confidential meeting rooms may need higher masking levels compared to common areas.
  • Speaker/Emitter Placement: Position the sound masking speakers or emitters throughout the space to achieve optimal coverage. The goal is to create a uniform distribution of background sound. Place the speakers or emitters evenly within each zone, ensuring that they are not concentrated in one specific area.
  • Enhanced Dispersal: As opposed to traditional speakers for audio reinforcement, sound masking systems employ speakers that point towards the ceiling. Upward-firing speakers can provide enhanced sound dispersal in rooms with high ceilings or open layouts.
  • Diffuse Sound Field: Sound masking aims to create a diffuse sound field where the background sound is evenly distributed. Directing the sound toward the ceiling creates a larger reflective surface, allowing the sound to bounce off and spread more evenly across the space.
  • Calibration and Adjustments: Work with a professional installer to calibrate the sound masking system for optimal performance. An installer will help determine the appropriate volume levels and frequencies to achieve the desired masking effect while avoiding over- or under-masking. Regular adjustments may be needed to accommodate changes in the space or user preferences.
  • Room-to-Room Privacy: In situations where privacy is a concern between adjacent rooms, it is important to ensure that the sound masking system extends beyond the confines of the individual room. The sound should be injected into the surrounding areas to reduce the risk of conversations being overheard through walls or other partitions.


Sound absorption focuses on reducing the reflection of sound within a space. It involves using materials designed to absorb sound waves, partially converting them into heat energy that is then dissipated and “lost” instead of reflecting into the room. This technique helps control reverberation and echoes, improving speech intelligibility and overall sound quality in a space. Various types of products are available for absorbing sound waves and reducing echoes effectively.

Acoustic Panels

One of the most prevalent sound absorption solutions, acoustic panels are designed to absorb sound waves across a wide range of frequencies. They consist of a core material (typically made of mineral wool, fiberglass, or foam) encased in an acoustically transparent fabric that absorbs rather than reflects sound waves. Acoustic panels are available in various sizes, shapes, and thicknesses, providing flexibility for different installation requirements.

Installation Methods:

  • Wall-Mounted - Panels can be directly mounted on the walls using adhesive or mechanical fixings. They can be arranged in a pattern or evenly distributed across the wall surface.
  • Ceiling-Mounted - Panels are suspended from the ceiling using hooks or wires. This method is ideal in rooms with high ceilings or limited wall space.
  • Freestanding - Portable acoustic panels can be placed on the floor or moved around as needed. They are commonly used in temporary setups or spaces where flexibility is required.

Bass Traps

Particularly useful in controlling excessive bass resonance and minimizing “boomy” or “muddy” sounds in a room, bass traps primarily focus on absorbing low-frequency sound waves. As opposed to standard acoustic panels, bass traps are typically designed as larger, thicker panels to address lower frequencies effectively.

Bass traps are often placed in the corners of a room where low-frequency sound tends to accumulate. Installing them in corners maximizes their effectiveness in absorbing bass energy. Bass traps can also be mounted on walls or ceilings to address specific low-frequency reflections. They can be positioned at reflection points or areas where low-frequency buildup is prominent.

Diffuser Panels

While not strictly sound absorbers, diffuser panels are an essential component of acoustic treatment. They scatter sound waves in multiple directions to create a more balanced acoustic environment and reduce flutter echoes. Diffusers are commonly used in spaces where you want to preserve the natural ambiance and avoid a completely “dead” sound. They are typically installed on walls at specific reflection points, and their positioning depends on the desired diffusion pattern and the size of the panels.

Ceiling Clouds

Ceiling clouds are suspended sound absorption panels that are hung horizontally from the ceiling. They are effective in controlling reflections from the ceiling and reducing excessive reverberation. Ceiling clouds are often used in larger spaces such as auditoriums, conference rooms, or performance venues. Using wires or chains to suspend them from the ceiling, they are strategically positioned to cover areas where sound reflections are most significant.

Other Installation Considerations

  • The quantity and placement of sound absorption panels depend on the size, shape, and acoustic properties of the space. Consultation with acoustic professionals can help determine the appropriate quantity and optimal placement for maximum effectiveness.
  • Depending on the chosen installation method, appropriate mounting hardware such as hooks, wires, or brackets should be used to ensure secure attachment of the panels.
  • Conducting a room analysis, including measuring the room's reverberation time and identifying reflection points, can guide the placement and selection of sound absorption panels.


Sound masking and sound absorption are not mutually exclusive; they can be used in combination to achieve optimal acoustic results. By combining these techniques, you can address both the reduction of noise transmission and the control of reverberation. This approach is particularly effective in environments such as conference rooms, auditoriums, and recording studios.


It is important to note that the effectiveness of acoustic treatment solutions depends on the requirements of a space. While some individuals may be capable of installing sound masking or sound absorption systems themselves, it is recommended to consult with professionals in the AVL industry, such as consultants or installers, who specialize in acoustic solutions. They can assess your needs, provide expert advice, and ensure proper installation for the best results. Their expertise ensures optimal product selection and placement to achieve your desired acoustic goals.

Installation time varies depending on the complexity of the system and the size of the space but can range from a few hours to a few days.


In addition to the applications already mentioned, sound masking and sound absorption techniques are beneficial in:

  • Restaurants: Enhancing the dining experience by reducing background noise and improving speech intelligibility.
  • Recording Studios: Achieving accurate sound reproduction by controlling room acoustics and minimizing unwanted reflections.
  • Temporary Setups: Both sound masking and sound absorption can be used in temporary spaces, such as event venues or rental spaces, using portable or modular solutions.
  • Home Theaters: Controlling echoes and reflections, enhancing audio quality, and improving the overall cinematic experience.

Sound masking and sound absorption are essential for optimizing acoustic environments. With the right combination of techniques and quality products, you can create comfortable, productive spaces that meet your unique requirements. Embrace these techniques and enjoy the transformative power of well-designed acoustics!

Ready to put acoustic treatment into action in your space? Check out SoundPro’s top brands for Sound Masking including AtlasIED, Quam, and Yamaha, as well as Sound Absorption from Gator, Primacoustic, and more! Contact our Account Managers for expert advice at or 800.203.5611.

Written and Edited by the SoundPro Team