What is a White Noise Machine?
“White noise machine” is a catch-all term that can describe a wide range of models, ranging from those that create white through mechanical means, such as with a fan, to those that play both white noise and soothing tracks, like nature sounds or music. The connection among these different machines is that all are meant to offer sounds that drown out unwanted noises , also known as noise pollution, while relaxing or focusing the listener. Because of this goal, many white noise machines actually produce the more calming pink or brown range of noise.
People use white noise machines for several distinct reasons, including studying or working, meditating, or reducing the perception of tinnitus. However, possibly the most popular use is to help people fall or stay asleep.
Research shows that white noise can help improve sleep , particularly in noisy environments. Babies also show a good response to white noise, with one study finding that 80% of very young infants fell asleep within five minutes when exposed to white noise, versus only 25% of those without white noise. There is also some evidence that white noise may calm infants who suffer from colic.
Of course, what aids or hinders sleep is always highly personal. White noise machines can help many people achieve better sleep, but they do not work for everyone. Some people, regardless of age, respond poorly to white noise machines. Even those who enjoy white noise or nature sounds may be very particular about what sounds they find soothing, and the wrong frequency of white noise may quickly become aggravating. If this is true for you, it’s worth investing in a model that allows you to customize the pitch and tone of the noise.
How to Choose a White Noise Machine
Choosing a white noise machine can feel difficult, particularly with the wide range of varieties on the market. This guide will walk you through what you need to know before making a decision, including both critical attributes like volume control and additional functions like alarms and lights.
What to Consider When Purchasing a White Noise Machine
By considering these eight important factors, it’s easier to decide what features are important to you and what machine might work best for your needs.
Sound Options White noise machines either play recorded sounds or mechanically generate white noise, usually with a fan. Choosing between these options is largely a matter of personal preference, though people interested in other sounds (such as waves or birdsong) will most likely prefer a machine with recorded sounds for a wider variety of options.
Volume Options The volume of a white noise machine should be loud enough to cover noise pollution but not so loud as to interrupt sleep or damage hearing. This is particularly important for children, as studies have shown that excessively loud white noise can be especially harmful to them. Most white noise machines have a wide range of volume options and sensitive controls, though some lower-end or minimalist models may only allow you to choose between two or three volume settings.
Value There are white noise machines available at virtually every price point, though the majority cost less than $100. Lower-priced models tend to have fewer features, while those at the higher end usually have lights, alarms, and/or other additional functions. These can offer a good value if you would otherwise buy a separate machine for these functions, but lower-priced white noise machines work well for those who are only interested in soothing sounds.
Smart Features Just like so many other electronics, many white noise machines now offer smart features, like integration with apps or home networks. These models tend to also have other functions, such as lights or routines, that make app connectivity useful. For most situations, this is a non-essential feature, but parents may appreciate having this kind of control over their child’s white noise machine.
Display Light from a white noise machine can disrupt sleep, so it’s crucial to choose a model with either minimal light or with lights that can be dimmed or turned off. Many well-made machines have no lights at all, while others have a clock screen or even function as a night light. The latter variety usually allows for more in-depth control, allowing owners to change the color and intensity of the light.
Timers Some people prefer to have their white noise machine running all night, while others like to have it turn off automatically at a certain point. Most white noise machines have some kind of timing function, but this can range from preset automatic shut-offs to programmable on and off timers set through an app.
Portability If you plan to take your white noise machine traveling, or even move it from room to room on a regular basis, it’s worth considering its portability. While many white noise machines are quite small, particularly those without additional lighting features, they may require a plug-in outlet or weigh more than one might expect. Travel-friendly models, however, are likely to be lightweight and offer features like USB charging.
Other Features As the white noise machine market is fairly crowded, many models try to set themselves apart with additional features. Alarms and lighting are both common, as are USB ports for charging your electronics. Headphone jacks are rarer but highly valued by those who share a room with a partner not interested in white noise or other sleep sounds. Depending on your needs, these features may be necessary, useful but not essential, or entirely unwanted.
Can White Noise Be Harmful?
While white noise is generally thought to be safe, there are some risks and considerations to keep in mind. Any prolonged noise over 70 decibels the level of a washing machine when standing next to it can damage hearing , so it’s crucial to keep white noise machines at a lower volume than this. There is also a small amount of evidence that regular white noise as a part of tinnitus therapy may cause long-term issues for those with tinnitus, but this is unlikely to be a concern for most people using white noise machines as part of their sleep routine.
Nonetheless, if you have concerns or underlying health issues, it’s always best to talk with your doctor before starting a new routine.
Are White Noise Machines Safe for Infants and Children?
White noise machines appear to be safe for children, regardless of age, so long as they are operated properly. One study has shown that many models are capable of being loud enough to damage an infant’s hearing, but the study’s authors were clear that the volume, machine position, and duration were all important factors in reducing this risk. They recommended placing the white noise machine some distance from the crib, playing it at a comfortable volume, and not using it over extended periods.
Is White Noise Helpful for Focus?
White noise aids focus by blocking out noise pollution. Since it “fills in” the space between outside sounds, it thereby dampens them. For people who work in loud spaces or are easily distracted, this can make a significant difference in their focus. There are also some indications that white noise may affect perception and cognition depending on the timing and task at hand.
How do sound machines help you sleep?
It isn’t just pure sound that wakes us up, per se. It’s actually the sudden starting or stopping of sound or a sudden and major increase or decrease in volume. If you’ve ever lived above a bar or had neighbors that enjoyed blasting music throughout the night, you know that heavy bass is enough to keep up even the most tired among us. Our brains automatically zero in on sounds, so in order to get to sleep and relax our minds , we have to drown out those sounds.
Sleep machines are designed to create a constant yet neutral sound that our brain has a hard time focusing on. Typically, it’s quiet and rhythmic, but not too looping, as our brains can focus on sounds that loop, too. Nature is fantastic at creating soothing sounds that make us comfortable rainfall, the crashing of ocean waves, the chirping of insects in the distance and that’s why you find that so many sound machines feature these natural sounds in addition to the regular white noise sound.
Looking for more great stuff? Find more on our sleep hub
Why use a baby sound machine?
Chances are, your little one’s nursery isn’t soundproof which means everything from cars honking outside to your phone ringing in the next room to a noisy older sibling can disturb baby’s sleep. Babies can be startled quite easily by sudden noises, but a sound machine can help drown out disturbances to keep your little one sleeping peacefully.
With sleep being so crucial, especially in those early days, a sound machine can be a lifesaver. (They can also help you get some much-needed winks yourself.)
How do baby sound machines work?
By playing constant, repetitive white noise, sound machines help to lull babies to sleep and keep them asleep. It’s as if he is back at home in Mom’s belly especially if you use a wave or heartbeat sound.
Some baby sound machines also project lights, animal shapes or stars on the ceiling or walls to give baby something soothing to watch as his lids grow heavier and heavier.
Where to place a baby sound machine in the nursery
Sound machines are great for helping baby sleep, but you also want to make sure you aren’t damaging your little one’s hearing.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends using a machine that’s no louder than 50 decibels, so you’ll want to place the sound machine about 7 feet away from baby’s crib and use a low volume setting. You’ll also want to ensure that the machine is out of your child’s reach and any cords are safely tucked away.
Here are the best sound machines for your little one’s nursery.
Just so you know, What to Expect may earn commissions from shopping links.
Why use a white noise machine?
Although apps, fans, and smart speakers will probably be good enough for some people, there are a few solid reasons to consider using a standalone white noise machine.
Firstly, not everyone wants air blowing around their bedroom in colder weather, so a standard fan isn’t always appropriate. A white noise machine with a small encased fan will give you a similar soothing sound, but without the air movement.
Secondly, not everyone owns a smart speaker or wants one in their bedroom. I certainly wouldn’t buy one just to play white noise, unless you were already thinking of getting one for other reasons.
Thirdly, a white noise machine might be more convenient and effective than an app. Listening to white noise through a smartphone app will steadily drain the battery. And if you’re playing white noise to kids, you either need to leave the phone in their bedroom or have it within range of a Bluetooth speaker.
Good white noise machines tend to have louder volume and better speaker quality than many phones. And although regularly listening to white noise very loudly isn’t ideal, I know some people specifically want that, such as when their neighbors are having a party.
It also helps to put the device next to the window, door, or wall where the intrusive sound is coming from. So that could mean not having your phone on your nightstand. A minor detail perhaps, but one to consider.
Some white noise machines have more sound options than the free versions of phone apps. And the recordings used by apps aren’t always of the highest quality.
One or two devices also double as nightlights, and nearly all have timer functions. I also like how easy they are to operate in the dark, as they tend to have easy to use buttons, so you change the settings without having to squint at your blinding phone screen in the dark.
So with all that said, let’s take a look at my recommended white noise machines. I’ve tried to include a good range, from high-end to budget, white noise to nature sounds, compact to large and feature-rich.