Acoustic Treatment vs. Soundproofing: What's the Difference?

Acoustic treatment and soundproofing are two parts of a strategy many workplaces use to manage noise. Sound strategies often focus on topics such as how to deliver optimal sounds in virtual meetings or ensure seamless, professional sound during large events. Yet for employees working in open-floor environments or businesses trying to cope with busy cityscapes just outside the door, finding solutions to lower the noise and control the environment is crucial.

It can also be important to control sound to ensure secure spaces exist and protect highly confidential conversations or discussions from leaking to outside spaces. Let's take a closer look at what acoustical treatment and soundproofing are and best practices for implementing them in your workspaces.

Understanding Environmental Sound

Every office has an environmental soundscape made up of what's happening inside the room and what's happening beyond it. How effective is the room at highlighting important sounds, such as the conference call everyone's on, or amplifying the impact of a person speaking? At the same time, does the room effectively muffle the sound of talking nearby, cars driving by, and other external sounds, or are occupants left distracted?

According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), an estimated 22 million workers are exposed to noise pollution at work every year. That said, organizations can employ a simple three-step approach to develop an effective response to managing environmental sound.

Both acoustic treatment and soundproofing play an important role in managing environmental sound, and often, they are used synonymously. However, they are two distinct concepts and solve different problems. Understanding how each of them operates gives IT and business leaders a wider range of tools to select from when developing solutions to ongoing sound challenges.

Soundproofing 101: The Structure of Privacy

Soundproofing ensures that a room has the physical infrastructure or treatment needed to muffle or block sound from entering or leaving it. For example, if lawyers are conducting sensitive conversations about pending legal issues or HR is having confidential employee discussions, a soundproofed space can be critical to protecting privacy.

In many cases, effective soundproofing begins by looking at how well constructed a space is — and where there are gaps that may be addressed. Typically, soundproofing relies on factors such as:

• Thick walls or floating walls that decouple the sound paths between rooms.
• Floating or heavily insulated and soundproofed floors to keep the noise levels down.
• Ceiling shock mounts that help dull the sounds between floors.
• Sealing gaps and thoroughly sealing doors and windows.

When developing soundproofing strategies, it's important to assess the sounds you're working to manage and develop a holistic plan that addresses both the larger structure of a space as well as windows, doors, and even electrical outlets. Soundproofing is easiest to address during the construction phase, although it's also possible to implement these types of changes on a more limited basis or through targeted renovations.

Acoustic Treatments: Control Even More Sound

Acoustic treatments improve sound quality and further limit sound bleed into other areas by focusing on how sound is reflected or absorbed by walls, furniture, and other aspects of the interior environment. It's all about controlling echo and reverberation. Hard, flat surfaces, such as walls, can be made to absorb sound more effectively, while curved diffusers can effectively scatter sound.

Getting this balance right can keep sounds in and unwanted sounds out without creating a dead zone or negative repercussions such as echoing and reverberation. And while soundproofing and acoustic treatments are quite different, acoustic treatments may be an option to better control the flow of sound in a room when full soundproofing isn't an option due to time or budget considerations.

Common acoustical treatments include:

• Sound panels made out of materials such as fabric, fiberglass, and cellulose that help block sound transmission and limit reverberation and echo.
• Foam panels designed to absorb sound, which can be most effective when strategically placed to align with a room's architecture.
• Ceiling treatments that help manage absorption and diffusion of sound from above.
• Diffusers that help scatter sound and direct where it flows.

A Word About Sound Cancellation

When a space has environmental sound challenges or needs to be as soundproofed as possible, there are many options to consider. Soundproofing and acoustic treatment highlight the first steps for managing this on a strategic level.

Another option is to focus on sound cancellation, which is often referred to as the third prong of the environmental sound management strategy. Sound cancellation uses sound to cancel out audio so conversations can remain within a space to ensure both privacy and the ability to concentrate in an open-floor office space. Noise cancelling headsets are one of the most affordable and flexible solutions that allow teams or individual employees to tune in or out and get more done regardless of their environment.

Next Steps

If your organization is facing environmental noise challenges, you're not alone. Investing in solutions to better manage the flow of sound can help minimize distractions, improve focus, and preserve sound quality in the spaces where conversations and meetings are happening.

By taking a multi-layered approach that involves soundproofing, acoustic treatment, and sound cancelling headsets, leaders will be positioned to implement solutions that are right for their unique needs, budget, and workplace culture.

A person measuring a wall with a ruler.

Soundproofing and acoustic treatment can help reduce noise in the environment.