2016-09-19 Poor man’s Bose – Open Office and On The Go Noise Control

This is a note that I will point people to when they ask me about my solution to the problem of noisy office environments and also public transit noise (train/subway/bus). TLDR:
When I started working at the one and only startup I’ve been involved with everyone was young and eager to try the latest and greatest ideas to make things work as effectively as possible. One of the ideas we adopted was the open plan office. This is the plan where all the employees desks are sitting next to each other so everyone can see and hear everyone else which improves communication and strengthens teamwork. Of course I read Peoplewear and was aware of how difficult it will be to stay in the zone in such an environment but in the great scheme of trade-offs the open office plan came ahead. Did I mention I was the lead software developer at the company and had to be able to stay in the zone for solid chunks of time to deliver the promised code. Oh well… how did I deal with it?

First everyone went through the standard headphones plus music stage. It didn’t work very well for me. Music after a while gets tiring – especially when I’m in my 8th hour of listening through emotionally taxing soundtracks like Two Steps from Hell. It also needs to be cranked up pretty high to overpower the people talking around me – and that damages my hearing. As I like my hearing to be “not damaged” – no music for me. Then a couple of us went through the white noise generator stage – which I would say was somewhat successful but also needed to be quite loud to drown out surrounding conversations.

Then there was the white noise generator plus bandana stage. That didn’t improve on the solution by much. The bandana was used as a signal – every time someone had it on we would try to keep quiet as we knew they need to stay focused and work hard. Then came the Bose noise-canceling headphones stage.

Let me tell you about Bose headphones – I have two pairs of their QC20s. I’ve bought my first pair in March 2009 and the second about 3 years ago – (it is so that an electronic piano can be played in the middle of the night). Bose are great headphones for looking like you are an audiophile. As far as I can tell – from talking to friends who are recording music in studios – nobody uses them professionally. The first pair I bought was $270 and as far as their “noise-canceling” technology goes they need to increase the canceling to 11. They do a pretty good job with steady constant droning noises (like the HVAC fans) but any higher frequency sound – like people talking – is left uncancelled. On top of their lack of cancelling in the frequency band that matters they are designed for obsolescence (i.e. they break apart within a few months of daily use) so you need to purchase expensive replacement parts for them. I’ve replaced the ear cups on them twice so far and for the last pair I’ve been very careful not to damage them. The problem is they come undone even if I barely use them and at $30 a pair they are expensive!!! When I noticed the head band is starting to peel off I realized these headphones are not for me. All in all the Bose are maybe worth 1/4 the money they charge for them. Though there was a silver lining that hopefully made my Bose experience worth it – I noticed that most of their “noise-cancelling” was actually passive and consisted of good noise suppression from the good seal created by the headphone ear cups.

damaged Bose QC20 ear cups noise cancelling
Fig. 1 Damaged Bose QC20 ear cups.

So with the expensive lesson learned from my Bose affair I started down on the path of finding something else that was good at suppressing sound passively. I got lucky that one of my coworkers – who had previously worked on construction sites – lent me his earmuffs that I noticed he wore in our open office. They were rugged and cheap and after trying them out I considered them a solid starting point for my next attempt at office noise control. I got myself a pair of Leightning L3s for $30 and combined with some ear plugs I found myself in possession of an amazing solution at blocking out noise. But this solution was not feasible for office life as it took forever to take off and put on my noise-cancelling contraption every time someone needed to talk to me. What I wanted to get was a pair of L3s with headphones in them so I can play white noise at low volume to drown out conversations and not need to use the ear plugs.

Sometimes in the last couple of years I noticed that Leight was offering their Leight Sync earmuffs. These were very close to what I needed. I purchased a pair and yes combined with a white noise generator they were very close to a final solution for my office noise problems. Though they did have trait I disliked – they needed a wire that would connect them to my computer. I cannot count how many times I rolled my chair away from my desk to test some hardware to have my headphone wire drag me back like a dog in a leash. And then I found the MPOW bluetooth receiver – which transformed the Leight Sync into wireless noise cancelling headphones and made my final solution complete. The final sticker price for this wireless office noise control solution I use and promote to others to adopt comes to about $46.

Leight Sync front view MPOW bluetooth receiver Leight Sync side view MPOW bluetooth receiver
Fig. 2 Leight Sync with MPOW bluetooth receiver front and side view.

At around the same time as getting the Leightning L3s I got a pair of Leight L0F portable earmuffs to use with my LG HBS-750 bluetooth earbuds while traveling on noisy buses and trains (price for the combo was around $60 in Nov 2012). The L0Fs and LG750 have been for the last 4 years my go to audio solution when traveling anywhere (be it commuting to work or going around the world on an airplane). I’m no big audiophile – I just want to listen to audiobooks and news articles while protecting my hearing. Before getting the L0Fs I had to crank the volume up to 90% which in the long term was going to damage my ears. After adding the earmuffs the volume on the headphones stays below 50%. The one problem I have with the earbuds is that if I wear them for more than a few hours my ears kind of hurt – so this combo solution doesn’t work for my long stints at the office.

Leight L0F LG HBS-750 bluetooth headphones
Fig. 3 Leight L0F and LG HBS-750 bluetooth headphones.

A note on noise generators

There are many white noise generators out there. I use the very popular Simply Noise. And even though I say I listen to white noise I find that brown noise to be somewhat more effective at silencing voices around me. I think this is because brown noise focuses most of its power over the lower frequencies – where the ear muffs have the hardest time suppressing sound.

Leight Sync noise attenuation pink noise brown 
Fig. 4 Leight Sync noise attenuation profile with brown noise or pink noise complementation.

Also a few notes on earmuffs

  • The first two weeks of wearing earmuffs they seemed to press on my head in a strange way that made my ears, jaw and head hurt. After a while of me stretching the earmuffs and my head getting used to them they became much more comfortable.
  • Depending on the shape of your head the head band of the earmuffs can make the crown of your head hurt – though this is not limited to earmuffs as may headphones have this undesirable feature.
  • Howard Leight earmuffs seem to be of two types the Honeywell and the Sperian – I guess Leight licensed their products to both of these companies to produce. I’ve only had a couple from both – so I might not have a statistically significant N here – but it seems to me Sperian is slightly better quality than Honeywell.
  • If you would like a high end audiophile solution to replace the Leight Sync check out the UltraPhones – which combine the same 29db hearing protection with the SONY 7506 Professional Studio Monitor Headphones).