Acoustics
Sound absorption
Wellbeing
Soundproofing

Sound absorption—your key to speech intelligibility, speech privacy, and reducing distraction distance

Gary Madaras, Acoustic Specialist, Rockfon North America
Gary Madaras
29 November 2019

A best practices guide on how to sound-deaden a room and or building to deliver improved comfort, productivity, and well-being for occupants

Female student taking notes from a book at library. Young asian woman sitting at table doing assignments in college library. People, school, acoustics.
Sound absorption is a key component of a comprehensive acoustics plan. It works differently from, but in tandem with, sound blocking to control noise and achieve an ideal acoustics experience in the built environment. In general, for commercial spaces, sound absorption is achieved through ceiling systems with sound absorptive tiles, whereas acoustic wall assemblies provide the necessary blocking with mass. There are other strategies for adding absorption properties to a room - particularly when it comes to open-concept spaces - to support speech privacy and intelligibility. Determining the unique needs of your space will help you find the right balance of sound absorption and blocking for a comfortable indoor environment—where occupants benefit from less stress, improved productivity and communication, and better overall health.

Getting started with sound absorption

When it comes to noise control and creating the ideal indoor acoustic environment there is no magic bullet. A comprehensive acoustics plan includes several strategies to manage sound. So far, we’ve addressed the role of blocking interior sound and blocking exterior noise sources. But blocking alone is not enough.

The partner to blocking is sound absorption. It serves an important and necessary function to ensure spaces meet the unique acoustic needs of occupants. At its most basic level, the relationship between the two can be described like this: ceilings are most effective at absorbing noise; walls are best at blocking noise.

There’s obviously a lot more to it which we’ll cover. In the meantime, the important thing to remember is that good acoustics planning should include using sound absorption and noise blocking together to create comfortable spaces.

Let’s jump right in.

What happens to sound in a room?

Sound. It’s one of the universal and ever-present components of our daily environment. We rely on it frequently to communicate with one another.

However, when it’s in the form of noise, sound can cause many undesirable effects on the physiological and psychological health of those who are exposed. We cover more of the basics of sound in our article on the fundamentals of architectural acoustics.

When sound within a space strikes one of the surfaces in a room—be it the wall, ceiling, or another obstruction such as a chair—one of three things can happen:

  • The sound can be reflected, bouncing off the walls and being redirected (you may think here about a gymnasium),
  • A portion of the sound energy may be transmitted through the surface (e.g. when you can hear conversations from the office next to you), or,
  • The sound can be absorbed (when the noise is trapped within the material of the surface).

You can see from above that the materials, acoustic wall insulation, and other everyday items in a room are what absorbs sound in a room. You can make a room sound absorbing by including the right combination of building materials and even looking at sound-absorbing fabrics… but we’ll save that for a separate discussion.

Another important but often overlooked part of your noise control plan are the flanking paths. These are the open routes a sound can travel around acoustic wall and ceiling assemblies. For example, these “noise leaks” can be created by small openings from light fixtures and electrical sockets, air vents, etc., and minimize the effectiveness of blocking materials.

The repercussions can be significant; in addition to irritation to the room occupants from the noise coming into a space, speech from adjoining spaces will suddenly become intelligible, meaning privacy for those in the adjacent space, is lost.

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How can you sound deaden a room?

One of the ways to create a well-rounded, high-performance interior space is to consider the role of sound deadening, or absorption. When it comes to sound absorption within a space, not all materials are created equal. There are measurements that help to quantify and evaluate sound attenuation materials for their ability to absorb sound energy within a space.

The first is NRC or Noise Reduction Coefficient. What makes NRC important is that it is used as the rating to indicate the ability of a material to absorb sound. NRC ratings use a scale of 0.00 to 1.00; 0.00 = least absorptive and 1.00 = highly absorptive. Materials with low NRC ratings are considered reflective, the opposite of absorptive.

Related to NRC is CAC or Ceiling Attenuation Class. The CAC rating specifically measures a ceiling panel’s ability to block noise from traveling between rooms when the wall does not extend full height to the underside of the floor or roof above.

Don’t make the mistake of sacrificing acoustic absorption (NRC) for CAC. In fact, you should know that CAC is no longer compliant with most acoustic standards, guidelines and rating systems. This is in response to the increased understanding that ceiling materials are generally ineffective at blocking, and that they should instead be used for sound absorption in a space.

NRC is a rating of the average of the sound absorption coefficients of material at frequencies of 250, 500, 1,000, and 2,000 Hz, rounded to the nearest .05. These evaluations are determined using the ASTM Standard C423: Standard Test Method for Sound Absorption and Sound Absorption Coefficients by the Reverberation Room Method.

Material is usually considered to be sound absorbing if it has an NRC value greater than 0.70 which makes selecting the right material an important consideration during the planning phase to effectively absorb sound within the indoor environment. Materials used for managing sound will have the following properties:

  • Sound isolation: the ability of a material to reduce sound energy by blocking; this is generally achieved with mass, or
  • Sound-deadening or damping: the ability of a material to reduce sound energy through absorption; typically, these materials are more porous.
JPG - using the right building materials makes a difference when it comes to acoustics and noise or sound control - diagram of optimal vs compromised absorption and blocking

Using the right building materials makes a difference when it comes to acoustics: balancing blocking and absorption during the planning phase of the project will ensure you are proactive in managing sound. While the two rooms below may look exactly the same, they will sound dramatically different due to sound isolation and sound deadening or damping qualities.

This distinction helps explain the confusion that can sometimes be created in the market by more general terms like “soundproofing”. Materials like ceiling tiles or acoustic wall panels are often used for sound blocking but ceiling tiles should only be used for sound deadening (absorption) as part of the acoustical system within a space to reduce unwanted noise. Together, these sound attenuation batts provide soundproofing benefits that limit the echo reverberation within a space, making it easier to concentrate.

Porous materials such as stone wool provide a high-performance option for noise control in a home or commercial building. Think of a sponge: these products are intended to absorb noise and reduce the echo in the space. Working with stone wool products is one way to help to create quiet spaces where they’re needed most by controlling the ambient sound level and increasing speech intelligibility and privacy.

JPG - insulation applications the sound properties of stone wool support speech intelligibility and speech privacy across a variety of applications in new construction and renovation; acoustics blog content

Insulation applications: the sound properties of stone wool support speech intelligibility and speech privacy across a variety of applications in new construction and renovation.

What's driving the need for acoustic sound absorption?

With the trend toward open environments—beyond open offices, this movement also includes residential, commercial and retail environments—there is also increased occupant density (i.e. more people in close proximity to one another) which has a direct impact on their acoustic comfort.

When you open up the room you lose the physical barriers that were previously there to help block sound, or that could have provided vertical surfaces where acoustic treatments could be applied. Once there are too many people in a space, speech privacy becomes difficult if not impossible to achieve and noise levels are hard to control.

As a result, there is a greater need for the remaining acoustic and noise- absorptive surfaces to reduce the sound level in the room. Architects, building owners, and designers will save time and money in the long run by considering sound absorption early in the planning process, especially when building open spaces, to ensure they ultimately meet the acoustic objectives.

Whether you’re building an office, healthcare facility, or school—any project that will provide a workplace for people—remember that noise leads to stress, and over the long term can increase absenteeism and turnover rates for organizations. The initial financial benefit you may gain by increasing the occupant density may be lost later.

There’s now the acoustic occupancy rating for architects, designers, and building owners to think about as a fairly new concept in the industry. It considers how many people can safely be in a space without disruptions to their productivity or worsening their health.

3 myths and facts about building acoustics

Myth 1: It’s acceptable to sacrifice absorption in the ceiling for higher levels of blocking.
Fact 1: An ideal noise control strategy should begin with optimal NRC ratings (for sound absorption) in ceiling panels; they absorb noise to stop it from bouncing around in open spaces and keep it from spreading through flanking paths, open areas or down corridors.

Myth 2: Ceilings are ideal solutions for blocking noise between rooms.
Truth 2: To block noise transfer between rooms you need mass - use walls and slabs to get the blocking you need. Suspended acoustic ceiling tiles will never be sufficient in that capacity, but their porous material is well suited for sound absorption—and as a result, improving the NRC—within a room.

Myth 3: Blocking abilities from ceilings and walls don’t need to be equal.
Truth 3: If the wall construction and insulation stop at the ceiling level, this leaves an open plenum above the ceiling. Depending on the sound insulation requirements of your project, you could increase the STC rating (Sound Transmission Class) to create greater privacy between rooms by building full-height acoustic walls (walls that contain sound deadening insulation options such as stone wool) or using plenum barriers.

For more insight on these three myths and truths of sound absorption and blocking, read this article.

JPG - the problem with noise in open-plan offices is that without the right acoustics plan in place noise pollution can be costly to worker prodcutivity and satisfaction; building acoustics sound control

The problem with noise in open office plans: without the right acoustics plan in place the cost of noise pollution can be alarming. According to a study by Oxford Economics 63 percent of employees state that they lack quiet space for work which has a negative effect on their productivity, satisfaction, and well-being.

How to use absorption to reduce the noise in a room

Sound absorption is an important tool for designing good acoustic spaces because it helps reduce airborne sound. That’s the sound generated from conversations, radio, or that person eating lunch next to you, transmitted by air and atmosphere.

When we’re looking to achieve speech privacy in open offices, waiting rooms, or other sensitive areas of a building, consider distraction distance. When sounds are created in open spaces they will radiate out and distract people within a certain distance; consequently, an increase in distraction distance predicts an increase in disturbance by noise.

The Acoustical Society of America published an article in 2017 on the topic of distraction distance which proved the need to look at room acoustic design using absorption, blocking, and masking together to reach good working conditions in open-plan environments.

It’s also important to remember that when sound from the interior or exterior passes through a wall or roof assembly with ROCKWOOL stone wool insulation inside the cavity, you are already gaining a level of sound absorption. This is called cavity absorption. So when you think about it, you absorb noise just by insulating your interior walls to break the path of the sound.

What happens inside the room when sound is present—from either interior or exterior sources that hasn’t been controlled by the building envelope—is called room acoustics absorption. Here, either ceiling tiles or other materials with absorption properties are controlling the sound.

Overhead sound absorption demands can vary for the room, but the ROCKWOOL/Rockfon approach uses a “good, better, best” scale. Good = an NRC of 0.70, Better = an NRC of 0.80 and Best = NRC of 0.90 as outlined below, to create a good acoustic design, in particular for open environments.

This is because the ceiling is a critical element in open offices as well as meeting rooms, patient operating rooms, and classrooms. Adding to that, reaching the required sound absorption also shouldn’t limit your ability to develop a contemporary design. The NRC can be provided by any combination of baffles, islands, banners, acoustic metal decks, deck treatments. But based on our experience, ensure that you uniformly distribute the absorption across the space.

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Why are ceilings so effective for sound absorption? Sound waves that rise above 5 ft. (roughly the space above chairs, desks, equipment and other surfaces that impact the path of noise) have to interact with the overhead surface before coming back down.

When the surface of that ceiling is absorptive, it is able to capture a significant portion of the energy. Stone wool acoustic ceiling tiles are especially effective at absorbing the reverberating sounds.

For more information about the factors and challenges presented by open-office-space designs, including what works and doesn’t work for occupants and how to address the acoustics, check out this podcast with Commercial Architect.

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Physical barriers are another option for reducing noise in open spaces. This is not an argument in support of cubicles! Rather, consider using acoustic treatments on walls separating two spaces or interior zones.

This could include sound-damping panels (sound panels for walls that are installed after the room is finished to provide additional sound absorption) to reduce speech from traveling across the space. Or, when space is limited, using free-standing acoustic screens, furniture, or other sound-absorbing products that complement the room design might be a better choice.

Also, remember that to meet the criteria established for some high-performance settings, you’ll also need to consider how every structure, surface, fixture, material, and flanking path plays a role in the way noise is experienced. For the best results, this means thinking beyond walls for blocking sound and focusing on the true strength of ceiling panels—noise absorption.

What questions should you consider for your next project?

As with other construction projects, it’s important to begin the planning process for an acoustics design by asking key questions about the space and how it will be used. When it comes to interior acoustics, and incorporating the right mix of blocking and absorption attributes, there are specific points to consider:
  1. Noise Sensitivity: Is there potential for occupants to experience noise sensitivity? Do you require certain levels of speech privacy or intelligibility or both?
  2. Noise Potential: Is noise from inside or outside the room expected to be a concern? What about adjoining rooms?
  3. Requirements: What are the requirements and standards that will apply? Building codes should be viewed as the bare minimum and often fall short of meeting the specific needs of the occupants using a space. As such, it is always recommended that when planning you consider any higher standards that have been developed for various applications.  In addition, evaluate the specific needs of your project to ensure you’re getting the best solution that fits.

Improved acoustics can positively impact your bottom line

Now that you know the potential impact that positive acoustics can have on a business’s bottom line, prove your case to the design and construction teams with the help of the ROI calculator from the Ceilings and Interior Systems Construction Association (CISCA). This tool highlights the financial benefits that come with optimal office acoustics and the negative impact when acoustics are not prioritized during the planning and budgeting of construction projects.

ROI Calculator

JPG - building acoustics sound control, acoustics planning questions for your next project are based on noise sensitivity, noise potential, and requirements to meet the building codes or acoustics guidelines

Acoustics planning questions for your next project: the right mix of blocking and absorption attributes will ensure you deliver acoustic comfort for occupants. Make sure you understand the noise sensitivity, noise potential, and any applicable code requirements.

Look to Rockfon for direction on sound-absorbing ceiling solutions

As part of a complete acoustics strategy, sound deadening—or acoustic absorption—is an important factor that shouldn’t be overlooked. It has practical applications in both rooms and hallways.

When designing your acoustics solution, don’t forget to look up. Selecting the right ceiling will have a significant impact on the acoustic environment. Use a ceiling system that will deliver high NRC-rated levels of absorption to complement the blocking properties of other materials and assemblies in the space.

Systems that include stone wool insulation, like the ones offered by Rockfon, are ideally suited for this purpose.