If you’re having trouble falling asleep, a white noise machine might provide the soothing and relaxing vibes your brain needs to wind down after a long day. These machines can override distracting noises, like traffic or barking dogs, and make it easier to tune the world out and finally drift off.
You’ve likely heard of white noise machines and understand that they can help you fall asleep, but how exactly do they work? And, what features should you be looking for when shopping for one for your home? We’ve got the details:
- Random Noise Generation: One of the things the human brain does best is seek out patterns, but this stimulates it, which is the opposite of what it needs to do at night in order to fall asleep. By choosing a machine that generates complex, random noise, your brain won’t ever be able to latch onto a pattern, and you’ll finally catch some zzz’s.
- Sound Masking: In addition to giving your brain a noise to zone out to, white noise machines are also designed to help mask other annoying noises. Essentially, this noise is designed to create a sound shield around you, protecting you from brain-stimulating noises that can disrupt your sleep or outright wake you up.
- Noise Settings: For most people, the standard kind of static sound most white noise machines make is perfect. Others may want a little variety, though, so if you think you might, be sure and choose one with options like waterfalls, oceans, trains, and the like.
- Easy-to-Use Interface: White noise machines are designed to help you relax, which means their dials and buttons shouldn’t be difficult and frustrating to use. We love machines with clearly labeled buttons and knobs that are easy enough for anyone to use, especially when it’s late at night and you’re drowsy.
- Smart Design: Because you’ll probably be using them late at night, the white noise machine you choose should not have a bright LED display or other distracting lights (or it should at least automatically dim around bedtime). It should also have a small footprint that doesn’t take up that valuable space on your nightstand or in your suitcase if you need to bring it with you when you travel.
Sound waves are measured in “frequencies,” or wave vibrations per second, and the size of these waves is referred to as “amplitude.” We measure frequency in hertz (Hz) and amplitude in decibels (dB). White noise is a random flat-frequency signal that’s equally distributed across the audible frequency range (20-20,000Hz) at the same intensity level.
If you’ve ever fallen asleep with the fan running, during rainfall, or to static on the television, that’s white noise. It’s soothing to our brains because its equal-frequency distribution and constant noise drown out other sudden or inconsistent noises that can stimulate our brains, like a snoring partner.
The concept might seem off-putting because, essentially, it is just making more noise, but most people find it to be relaxing and helpful when trying to fall asleep. For an unlucky few, however, a phenomenon called stochastic resonance may cause the white noise to amplify noises it usually masks for others. So while it’ll probably work for you, there are no guarantees.
Although anyone can buy a white noise machine if they feel it’ll benefit them, only those who have trouble falling—or staying—asleep at night really need them. Whether it’s something you struggle with every night or just on occasion when your surroundings are loud (think: loud neighbors, barking dogs, or heavy traffic), white noise machines can cancel out these noises and play random-generated sounds that help your brain let go and relax.
These machines are typically purchased for use at night, but some can be used in other settings to help you focus on work or studying for school, especially if they can play pink noise or other sound hues. Pink noise has more energy in the lower sound registers (read: it’s louder and more powerful on the lower end), with more bass rumbles, like thunderstorms, wind, or flowing rivers. It’s relaxing, too, like white noise, but is better for focusing and sharpening your memory, making it ideal for working and studying.
You can also use most white noise machines for babies to help them sleep more soundly. If this is what you’re wanting to do, though, be sure to turn that volume down! Most machines can put out sound as loud as 80dB, which is the maximum your ears can sustain for long periods of time without taking any damage. Babies, however, and especially newborns, have ears that are more sensitive than adults, so noise for them should not exceed 45dB during the day and 35dB at night. Also consider purchasing a machine with a built-in timer so it’ll shut off after an hour or so to protect their hearing even more.
If you’re unsure whether you want to spend money on a gadget with such a singular focus, you might want to try your luck with a white noise app. Typically these apps—like myNoise, our favorite—offer far more extensive sound and customization options than dedicated machines do and are much cheaper than them as well, usually just a few bucks or so. If you want to kit things out further, you can always play the audio from your phone over Bluetooth to a portable Bluetooth speaker.
We’ve got good news: It’s entirely possible that you already own a white noise machine. If you have a smart home speaker like Google Home, Amazon Echo, or Apple Homepod, you’re good to go. All you need to do now is ask them to play white noise with a voice command.
These will work just fine on their own and are a great place to start. If you want to have more control over noise settings and other customization features, though, you’ll still want to grab a dedicated white noise machine with plenty of options.
Ready to pick up a white noise machine for your home? We’ve listed out a few of our favorite recommendations below, spanning all budgets and feature ranges.
We love the LectroFan by Adaptive Sound Technologies, as it produces electronically generated non-repeating sound. Its wide volume range should easily cover all kinds of distracting noises, plus it provides you with 10 fan sounds and 10 ambient noise variations (including both white noise and pink noise). The machine even has a 60-minute timer that’ll give you plenty of time to fall asleep if you don’t want to leave it running all night
The LectroFan has a small footprint, measuring just 4.4 x 4.4 x 2.2 inches, so it won’t take up much space on your nightstand. Its clearly labeled buttons give you straightforward access to its myriad power, volume, and noise controls. Plus, it’s all electronic, which means you won’t hear any mechanical moving parts. USB or AC power means you won’t have to rely on draining batteries, either, though it would be nice to have the option in case of a power outage.
The Sound+Sleep High Fidelity Sleep Sound Machine costs more than our other picks, but we think it’s absolutely worthwhile, which is why it’s our premium pick. In addition to having 30 immersive and non-repeating sound environments for you to relax with, it also boasts 10 unique sound profiles, including rainfall, city, train, waterfall, meadows, ocean, fireplace, meditation, brook, and (of course) plain old white noise. It measures 7.5 x 5.5 x 4.5 inches, so it’s a little bigger than the other machines on our list, but it’ll still leave plenty of room on a nightstand.
The machine has another impressive feature as well: adaptive sound. This means it listens to your environment and actively compensates for disruptive ambient noises by remixing the sounds it plays, adjusting the volume, and tweaking playback to maximize noise masking. Plus, it has built-in sleep timer options to reduce volume after 30, 60, 90, or 120 minutes to help you drift off to sleep in a gentle manner. The front panel light automatically dims, so it won’t keep you awake, and it also has a 3.5mm jack for those who don’t want to wake their partner.
For those on a budget, or who don’t want to deal with a full array of complicated options, the Big Red Rooster 6 Sound Machine is the one to beat. With large, clearly labeled buttons on the top of the device, the machine is easy enough for anyone to use. It measures 4 x 4.4 x 2.6 inches, so it’s one of the smallest options available.
You’ve got six dedicated buttons for different sounds—with options like rain, thunder, ocean, and summer night. There are additional buttons for power and volume, along with a timer (with 15-, 30-, and 60-minute increments) for those who don’t want it to run all night. The machine can be powered by either an AC adapter or three AA batteries, so it’s great for taking on vacations.
Out of all the sound machines we’re recommending, the Pure Enrichment Wave Premium Sleep Therapy Sound Machine has the simplest interface. A short strip at the bottom of the machine has a volume knob, a timer button, and six buttons for different soundscapes—like ocean, fan, and rain—all labeled by a picture symbol. It does have a little bit of repetition, however, but there’s no audible break.
It features an optional timer that’ll shut off the machine after 15, 30, or 60 minutes if you don’t want it to run all night long. The included chrome stand also features a built-in USB port, which you can use to charge your devices overnight. It measures 5.5 x 5.5 x 3.3 and is tilted upright, so it has a really small footprint.