Advances in Sound Masking System Technology Improve Office Acoustics

By Karen Kroll  
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Advances in Sound Masking Systems

While sound masking systems have been around for about forty years, advances in the technology in the last five or ten years enable the systems to offer greater privacy and comfort. The systems also have become easier to install and maintain.

The improvements in privacy and comfort are critical, given that these attributes "no longer are just nice to have," says Jonathan Leonard, vice president with Lencore Acoustics Corporation. The ability to carry on private conversations is required by law in some settings, such as health care facilities. Even where it's not required, it's often needed to ensure that confidential information remains that way. Moreover, given the trend toward more open environments in many offices and other buildings, "sound masking is really the only sensible way to gain privacy," Leonard adds.

At the same time, the improved comfort that sound masking provides can help occupants perform and feel better, whether they are patients, students or employees. Facilities that lack sound masking systems become noisy as soon as someone talks, says John Heine, president of Cambridge Sound Management. "There is nothing to interfere with the intelligibility of the conversation."

When the first sound systems came on the market in the middle of the last century, the sound generators, equalizers and amplifiers were centralized within the core of a facility. Sound was distributed through speakers in the ceiling, says Niklas Moeller, vice president with Logison. As a result, it often wasn't possible to adjust the sound to suit different areas. Instead, facility managers had to find one setting that worked — at least to some degree — everywhere.

That improved in the 1970s, when the electronic components were moved into the speakers themselves, Moeller says. This allowed facility managers to fine-tune the systems for different areas. However, they still needed to physically access the speakers to do the work.

Beginning in the early part of this decade, sound masking companies started using computer networks to connect the speakers, Heine says. As a result, facility managers could monitor and tweak the systems from their computers, without having to physically manipulate the wiring. Networked systems also allowed for additional features, such as enhancements to the paging system, Moeller says.

At the same time, manufacturers' increased use of digital signal processors (DSPs) to process noise signals means the systems can more effectively adjust to changes in the environment, such as open floor plans in one area and closed offices in another, Leonard says. "The speakers can have many programmable zones."

More recently, some manufacturers have moved the sound masking speakers from their traditional location within the plenum, and installed them directly within the ceiling tiles, or attached to beams or lighting fixtures, Heine says.

To be sure, sound masking systems cost money, although it's relatively small compared to the cost of a facility overall. For example, a sound masking system might run about $1 per square foot. In contrast, specialty ceiling tiles that provide enhanced sound absorption can hit $5 per square foot, Heine says. Facility managers also need to keep in mind the boost in productivity and comfort that can result from the use of sound masking. "Sound masking has proved its worth," he adds.

— Karen Kroll

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