The quest for a quieter environment is no longer in vain. Design has caught up with sound-absorbing tech, offering stylish solutions so that you can enjoy the (almost) silence.
Today, the cacophony of daily life has reached almost unbearable levels, which explains the ubiquity of noise-canceling headphones. Yet, in our culture of collective digital overshare, it’s not uncommon to hear strangers blasting music on the subway or screaming on a video call in a restaurant. Our need to tune things out feels more like an act of survival than a simple desire to finish the last 30 minutes of that podcast.
Amar Bose, founder of the audio company that bears his name, first conceived of noise cancellation on a flight from Zurich to Boston. It was 1978, and although air travel was then a more dignified affair, the engines were much louder. Members of the U.S. Air Force could relate, and Bose spent nearly a decade producing prototypes that were evaluated by the military pilots during flight tests.
In 2000, more than two decades after Bose’s original idea, the company introduced its now-iconic QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones to the consumer market. It’s a technically complex proposition to measure a sound wave, then immediately create equal and opposite waveforms in order to effectively blunt offending noise—and to do it in a smart, non-clunky way (that doesn’t make listeners look like conspiracy theorists listening for scoops on Area 51) definitely takes time.
Now, a new breed of cool, colorful offerings has finally given the noise-canceling category a well-deserved double take. At this year’s edition of the contract design show NeoCon, a number of companies showcased products engineered to trap noise. “The need for peace and quiet has become evident from both a wellness and productivity perspective,” says Byron Morton, NeoCon’s vice president of leasing. “Today, these categories have grown to include phone booths, privacy pods and pop-up meeting rooms, manufactured by companies large and small.”
The notion of sound-blocking wall panels is not new, but the modern, adaptable configurations now available as dividers, wallcoverings and even light fixtures has taken the category to the next level. When a pendant light can help mitigate echoes and illuminate a space, or an acoustically engineered pouf can absorb sound while providing extra seating and remaining lightweight enough to spirit away, the cumbersome and occasionally style-restrictive nature of these products is replaced by very real design possibilities.
But how do you sort through all of the noise to know if a product is the right solution for you? A material’s ability to absorb sound is measured by the Noise Reduction Coefficient (NRC). In the simplest terms, a rating of 0 means all sound is reflected; an NRC of 1.0 theoretically means all sound is absorbed. Concrete, for example, registers at 0.3, which explains why we find ourselves shouting in crowded restaurants with industrial-chic interiors. A shag carpet might have an NRC of 0.25, meaning that it absorbs 25 percent of all sound (but at perhaps too great a style sacrifice).
Anyone in an open office environment can appreciate eliminating incessant reverberation of voices and movements, but our relationship to sound is not static—some ambient noise is a good thing. And while many of the latest innovations might seem most appropriate for contract and hospitality settings, a craving for quiet seems universal, and the norms that define the workplace are shifting further away from the strict desk-job narrative.
Modulating how much we take in is the current frontier of noise reduction, but it points back to how many sounds are clamoring for our attention. “Now, it’s not just about physical distractions, but digital ones,” says Rodrigo Gomes, headphones product line manager at Bose. “Noise canceling can help you focus and be more productive.” If a host of acoustically smart design products can create a physical environment that’s just quiet enough, maybe we can actually think for a minute.
Photography: Courtesy of brands