Noise cancelling music
February 3, 2007 8:15 PM   Subscribe

Is there a CD of music that's designed to cancel ambient noise when played on an iPod or mp3 player, particularly to block out conversations?

On a recent flight, I sat next to some people who talked (loudly) the entire way. My Creative Zen earbuds did a good job of blocking them out when I played music on my iPod, but I could hear them talking between songs or in lulls. I was thinking there must be a soundtrack or CD that's designed to cancel ambient noise and soothe the soul. I know I should really just go ahead and invest in Bose headphones...
posted by tommassit to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The concept of noise cancellation works on the premise of producing sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase with the noise that you want to cancel. A CD that would cancel out this noise seems very unlikely because for this to happen, the CD would have to contain the exact out of phase sound wave as the conversation which you are trying to block for the noise to be completely cancelled.
posted by cholly at 8:28 PM on February 3, 2007

I doubt it. Noise-cancelling works by creating a sound wave that is opposite of the sound being cancelled. Imagine a sound wave is like a sine wave, up-down-up-down-up-down on a regular frequency. The noise cancelling headphones are just reading that sound and playing the opposite -- down-up-down-up-down-up -- and the result is no vibration.

The closest thing to a pre-recorded piece would probably be something with few breaks in the song or a lot of random noise. If you're looking to something that could be a peaceful soundtrack to sleeping, consider drone or ambient music. Keith Fullerton Whitman's Playthroughs, Fennesz' Endless Summer, and any of the Brian Eno Ambient albums should fit the bill.

Your other best bet would involve in-ear headphones that just block external sound. I use the Etymotic ER-6i, and they work well.
posted by sixacross at 8:29 PM on February 3, 2007

Maybe get a white noise CD? Google comes up with lots of commercial products.
posted by porpoise at 8:34 PM on February 3, 2007

While you could easily get a CD of "white" or "pink" noise to listen to, it wouldn't really be 'canceling' the outside sounds, just drowning them out. They're really no different than listening to a CD of any other music, the only advantage would be if you find listening to neutral noise less distracting than actual music.

Noise 'canceling' devices have a microphone, and listen to the outside noise, invert the signal, and then play that inverted signal into the headphones, where it hopefully combines with the outside sound and sums to zero. It's something that needs to be generated on-the-fly, and couldn't be prerecorded.
posted by Kadin2048 at 8:42 PM on February 3, 2007

you'd be better off getting some etymotic earbuds that seal your ear like earplugs.
posted by rhizome at 8:52 PM on February 3, 2007

Response by poster: Sorry, I misspoke. I do realize that no music or recording will technically be noise-cancelling, but I'm looking for something with that approximate effect. I guess white noise is what I'm looking for, but is there something a little more pleasant and relaxing to listen to?
posted by tommassit at 9:09 PM on February 3, 2007

Water-based stuff like rain, rivers, waterfalls or sea shore waves may do the trick. Alternatively you could try things like rainforest sounds, or crickets. Start with a search on freesound to see if that sort of thing works for you, or there are a lot of ambient noise cds out there to check out.
posted by MetaMonkey at 9:32 PM on February 3, 2007

We just had a thread on how Bose products are overpriced crap (something about surround-sound speakers and a house being sold was the thread's actual topic).
posted by IndigoRain at 9:53 PM on February 3, 2007

There's an excellent program called Aire Freshener that you can install on a laptop to produce ambient noise, with many noises to choose from. The best is "restaurant" which I find is *excellent* at blocking conversation noise.

The looping sound files are not, I understand, available as .mp3 files. But someone with a bit more computer savvy than me might be able to extract the sound files from this program into .mp3 format and load one or more of them up onto an ipod.
posted by washburn at 10:31 PM on February 3, 2007

I have a little program for my Powerbook called Noise that generates pink noise good for blocking out conversation. Sadly, it has to be played louder than the conversation it is blocking, which can be a downer if you're blocking out something loud.

I also own a pair of Sennheiser noise-cancelling headphones. I forget the model number off the top of my head, but they're smaller, over-the-ear phones with the electronics in a little box that hangs off the cord. They fold up and fit in an encluded pouch, and they're quite wonderful for airline flights and blocking out ambient noise when I'm studying/reading/etc in a public place.

I've never tried listening to Noise on my noise cancelling headset, but I bet the combination would be fairly excellent. I'll try that next time I'm out somewhere like that.
posted by Alterscape at 10:32 PM on February 3, 2007

White noise or anything close to it (like glitch/experimental music that's based on white noise) is much more damaging to your hearing than more traditional music played at the same volumes. You don't perceive it (in psychoacoustic terms) as being nearly as 'loud' as it is in functional terms. I would strongly caution against extended listening to white noise at volumes anywhere near loud enough to drown out nearby conversation.
posted by allterrainbrain at 10:53 PM on February 3, 2007

White noise doesn't need to be played very loud to have a reasonable effect at canceling out other noise. Pink noise doesn't do nearly as good a job. But you would be a fool to pay for a CD filled with white-noise; any decent audio editor can generate as much as you like of it.
posted by Jimbob at 11:09 PM on February 3, 2007

Brian Eno's Ambient 1: Music for Airports. Read the liner notes.

Hey, my 3000th answer.
posted by ikkyu2 at 2:20 AM on February 4, 2007 [2 favorites]

Seconding the Etymotics, I just got a pair of the 6is and their isolation is wonderful. Mind you they fit right into the ear canal so they get a bit... er... yukky
posted by hardcode at 5:00 AM on February 4, 2007

Thirding the Etymotics or any in-the-ear buds. They do so such a good job blocking outside noise (by plugging your ears, not any voodoo noise-cancellation) that if anything they're a bit dangerous for walking around a city. hardcode is right about them getting yucky. I used to have a pair of Sony EX-71's that were constantly getting clogged with earwax. I now have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-CK7's that have better build, more fidelity (though less bass), and don't have a problem at all with getting clogged by my gross ears.
posted by alidarbac at 5:59 AM on February 4, 2007

Fourthing earbuds. I love my Shure E3cs. Especially with the optional triple-flanged silicone buds. I can rave about them for hours. You do need to learn how to put them in properly, pulling your ear up and away from your head and slightly opening your jaw.

They will block out most of the noise - I can't hear people walking up behind me when I have them on and music is playing. Unless people are talking loudly, you won't be able to distinguish what they're saying.

Music? Godspeed, You Black Emperor.
posted by stereo at 6:28 AM on February 4, 2007

(Can't you just listen to CDs without pauses between the tracks?)
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:43 AM on February 4, 2007

I tend to live with ear buds in whenever I'm outside home/work as I can't stand the noise of the city. I swear by the Shure Triple Flange Sleeves. Cut out almost all noise. Use them on flights successfully on a regular basis. They do a better job than my Sennheiser noise cancelling earphones on flights.

As for music, I'd suggest:
  1. the above mentioned Noise OSX application
  2. Pzizz - whether or not you feel it sooths/energizes (my jury is still out... just got it), it's nice to auto gen some background tracks to specified duration
I often just leave my in-ear-monitors jammed in without anything playing... they eliminate most noise and, more importantly on a plane, discourage conversation.
posted by i blame your mother at 9:23 AM on February 4, 2007

I can vouch for Noise, too. I usually mix it with something that expresses my deep annoyance at the loud talkers, such as Fugazi or Big Black. Seems to miss the point, but it works for me.

Now a friend of mine, who is an amazing audio engineer (has written text books on digital signal processing, holds some patents) swears custom-molded canalphones. This work on the same principle as the Shure Flange Sleeves mention by "i blame your mother" (blame my disturbed uncle, btw). He says they work better than noise-cancellation. The flesh-colored ones, however, are hideous, Cronenberg-type devices. Try for something a little more fun and conspicuous.

These are not cheap.
But maybe if you poke around.
posted by kingfisher, his musclebound cat at 9:58 AM on February 4, 2007

I have 42 minutes of rainfall on my iPod. I have no idea where I got it...but it is just rain on leaves, ground, perhaps a porch. No dogs barking, no sirens, no cars passing by. Coupled with in-ear headphones (I have a pair of $15 Koss plugs, cheap but OK when I need to block noise), they're good for blocking noise as well as for inducing naps.
posted by lhauser at 10:47 PM on February 4, 2007

fifthing the IEM (in-ear-monitors, earbuds, canalphones, etc). I have the shure E4 and they're great for planes & just listening to music. You do have to be careful though, because you really will not hear anything besides the music (like at work i can't wear them because people can come up behind me and start talking and i won't hear them).

They're also good for two other reasons: they have great sound quality, and they're better on your ears because you don't have to blast your music to hear it over the noise of the airplane.

The only complaint i have is that the only tips that are comfortable to me are the "foamies" and they wear out/dirty up quickly.

Custom molded ones are nice, but are very expensive. The comfort may be worth it, but since i don't own them i'm not sure. I have trouble spending $500 on a set of earbuds. I had a hard enough time spending $150 on my E4's.
posted by escher at 10:19 AM on February 5, 2007

No, white noise is dangerous. The issue is that because of its wide spectrum, even "not very loud" white noise actually delivers a huge amount of noise relative to how loud it seems to you. Seriously, please either be very careful to keep the volume as low as you can stand or (better) look for solutions that don't use white noise delivered via headphones, if you value your hearing.
posted by allterrainbrain at 11:13 AM on February 5, 2007

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