As office designs have become more open, with less use of ceiling materials and lower, or no, panels to separate employees, they're "creating environments with tremendous noise problems," says Michael Polan, director of sales with Lencore Acoustics Corp. But some facilities have gone in the opposite direction, and installed building systems so quiet that every conversation becomes annoying and intrusive.
In either case, one way to address the acoustical impact of these trends is sound masking, or the introduction of a background sound to a space to make it more difficult to decipher others' conversation, even if you can hear talking. "Sound masking makes offices livable," Polan says.
While sound masking has been around for decades, it's changed significantly. Twenty or 30 years ago, sound masking consisted largely of "harsher white noise that could be distractive," Polan says.
In addition, the systems had a single point of control that didn't allow adjustments throughout the space, says Niklas Moeller, vice president with K.R. Moeller Associates, developers of the LogiSon Acoustic Network. This made the sound too loud in some places, too quiet in others.
Facility managers looking at sound masking systems today will find that much of that has changed. For starters, the sound is engineered to be more pleasing and easier to listen to, Polan says. In the past, the background noise itself could be grating, so it wasn't unusual for the systems to be turned down until they no longer were effective.
Unlike many older systems, which often required physically climbing into the ceiling to make adjustments, today's systems may be connected via a computer network and controlled from a single workstation or panel. "It's easier to use and more precise," incorporating a larger number of small adjustment zones, Moeller says.
In fact, some systems allow the operator to use a network interface to control sound masking systems in several buildings, Polan says. In addition, some networks can be used to control other systems, such as music and paging, as well.
— Karen Kroll
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