What Is A White Noise Machine Used For? How Do They Work?

Outside sounds can really mess up your peace & quiet. White noise machines can be a great option for many people.

But what is a white noise machine used for? How do they work, and what is white noise? I’ll cover all this and much more!

Read on to learn:

  • What white noise machines are & how they work
  • White noise basics
  • Sound machines vs box fan pros & cons

What is a white noise machine? What does a white noise machine do?

Image of LectroFan white noise machine in bedroom

Simply put, white noise machines are devices designed to mask, or cover up, sounds so we can’t hear them. They generate “white noise” patterns (a general name, sometimes used incorrectly) to make this possible.

As long as the volume of the sounds you want to block are equal to or less than the volume of the white noise, you’ll be prevented from hearing them. This makes it possible to focus & study, sleep, concentrate on relaxing, or to keep your privacy in professional work or therapy offices.

They’re even helpful for keeping things “hush-hush” when you’re in the bathroom!

White noise machine uses

Believe me when I say I understand how it can feel when you’re in the bathroom – sometimes it’s a really awkward situation. Many times I wish I had a keep people from hearing the sounds that naturally come with having to use the restroom or when you’re not feeling well.

Sound machines are used in a very wide range of circumstances to block sounds, avoid distractions, and create a calm, focused, and relaxed environment.

Here’s a list of some of the most helpful white noise machine uses:

  • In businesses (cubicle or office privacy)
  • Study rooms
  • Therapist offices
  • Helping babies sleep
  • Stress relief or meditation
  • Blocking outdoor noise at work
  • Improving your mood
  • Increasing focus & concentration
  • For improving productivity & work quality
  • Bathroom privacy & a relaxing restroom environment
  • For travel and helping you rest in a new environment

Our brains are naturally distracted by sound. It can grab our attention and not let go, causing us to lose focus and get stressed out quickly. Unless we’re expecting outside sounds – like when we’re outdoors at an event or listening to music we enjoy – they can be incredibly distracting and even cause stress and sleep problems.

While electric fans like box fans are one option for making white noise, they’re not efficient and aren’t portable. Because they’re easy to take with you, don’t use much electricity, and are easy to use, white noise machines are a popular way to improve your quality of life personally or professionally.

What does a white noise machine look like?

what does a white noise machine look like examples image

Here are some examples of what white noise machines look like. There are two basic types: electromechanical and electronic (solid-state). Solid-state sound machines don’t use moving parts to generate the white noise but instead electronics to generate noise patterns.

White noise machines generally have a square or cube shape or a round/cylindrical-type shape. The round models are generally electromechanical as they use a motor to spin a fan as they work. Electronic models generally have a flat top with pushbutton controls on top (or something similar).

Additionally, some models are available in different colors:

  • White, gray, light gray, or tan
  • Black or a charcoal (dark gray) color

Electronic versions have a speaker grill that covers the speaker inside. Traditional (electromechanical) models have small air vents that help control the sound tone for the white noise produced.

Big Red Rooster BRRC107 sound machine image 2

The top mounted control panel on a Big Red Rooster electronic white noise machine. Pushbutton controls allow you to change sound patterns, set the timer or power mode on or off, and adjust the volume.

How do white noise machines work?

Image of electromechanical vs electronic sound machines compared

Left: Electro-mechanical sound machines use an older design that physically moves air to create noise. Right: Electronic models, also called “solid-state”, don’t use moving parts but instead create sound from digitally stored patterns by driving a small speaker.

The two types of white noise machines

You’ll find two types to choose from when looking for one of your own.

1. Electronic models

LectroFan Evo internal parts closeup image

Electronic models use integrated circuit chips (ICs) to create noise patterns either generated like a continuous pattern or stored as an audio file much like .MP3 music. Predetermined sounds are generated and adjustable volume control is standard.

Some models have more options than others, offering special audio sounds like those of nature and rain, electric fans, and other versions of white noise to best suit your taste.

2. Electromechanical

This type uses an older kind of noise-generating technology. They’re simpler to use, too. Although less popular now they’re still widely used and a good choice for many people.

Electromechanical white noise machines use an electric motor to spin a small fan creating a constant soft airflow that moves through the small vents, producing a soft tone. Some allow for volume and some sound tone adjustment as well, although they’re not anywhere as near as versatile as electronic models.

On the other hand, while they don’t have the options that solid-state models do, they’re super easy to use and still preferred by some people because of their sound.

How white noise blocks sound

How to block outside sounds white noise diagram

White noise machines create sound across a wide range of common sound frequencies. The end result is that many bothersome sounds are masked (covered up) and are no longer a bother.

White noise machines produce a fairly wide range of sound frequencies that spreads across the range of many common sounds that bother us. As long as the volume of any inside or outside sound is equal to or less than the volume of noise made by the machine it can be effectively blocked and go unnoticed.

With a few exceptions, nearly all nearby sounds with low or moderate volume – traffic, conversations, coworkers – all the frequencies that we can hear can be blocked.

It’s all about your brain

Our brains can’t process a lot of audio information at once. Ever been in a situation where everyone’s talking at the same time? It’s almost impossible to pick out any one person speaking because it’s all mixed together.

That’s the principle behind how sound machines work: The frequencies we can hear are masked by white noise and we don’t hear it. Whether it’s outside traffic, the radio or TV, or your neighbor’s conversation in a nearby apartment, it all works the same way.

Because our brains can’t separate sounds that arrive at our ears mixed together, it’s effectively the same as never hearing them – sounds masked by white noise are essentially blocked and disappear since we can’t tell they’re there anymore.

Are white noise machines effective?

Image of a white noise machine on table in apartment living room

Yes, white noise machines are effective for many types of distractions or privacy needs but are not the “end-all” solution. For example, they work well in typical situations where sounds you need to block out or cover (for privacy needs) are moderate in volume.

For louder sounds like bass from music outside, from neighbors, or construction sounds, for example, they can’t mask out everything. In cases like that, you may need more than one sound machine or look into louder devices like box fans.

You can also use brown noise played on stereo speakers to help as well as good noise-canceling headphones.

Do white noise machines help you sleep?

White noise machine bedroom clip art

This is actually one of the single most popular reasons people buy them – for better sleep and rest especially when traveling. Yes, white noise machines can help you sleep more soundly & also relax more, offering a better quality of sleep and less stress. It’s often ideal to put one on a nearby table or stand.

For example, for better sleep there are some common reasons they’re helpful:

  • When traveling, trying to sleep in a hotel or other place can be uncomfortable due to sounds you’re not used to.
  • Blocking the sound of street noise or people walking in hallways, using an elevator, pipes with water flowing, and more.
  • Keeping distractions out of your mind so you can focus on relaxing and happier thoughts.

Additionally, white noise helps put your brain in a better state that allows it to enter a better sleep depth. They’re great for babies, too, sort of like how babies sleep very well with a hair dryer or washing machine working nearby.

What does a white noise machine sound like?

Here’s a video I put together to demonstrate what a good white noise machine sounds like. As I scroll through the settings, you’ll hear all 10 simulated electric fan sounds the unit offers. (I start with the first (Large Fan) and go through the remaining additional 9 sounds before returning back to the first.)

Typical white noise machine sounds

Below is a list of some of the more common sounds you can expect to hear depending on the brand and model you buy. Note that electromechanical types are usually limited to one type of white noise but with adjustable tones.

Example fan sounds Example noise sounds
Large fan White noise
Industrial fan Brown noise
Mellow fan-low Pink noise
Mellow fan-high Ocean waves
Exhaust fan Beach show (surf)
Oscillating fan Rain
Box fan Thunderstorm & rain

Not all will be good for all people, and the quality of the sound (how realistic it is) depends a lot on the particular design of the product you buy. I will say, however, that ocean and beach sounds are often pretty good along with box fan and other fans sounds.

If you’re a big fan of box fans and the soothing sound they produce, it may be hard to match that distinct sound they create. On the other hand, they use quite a bit more electricity than white noise machines do.

Grant Williams

About the author

Grant is a professional engineer by trade and has experience with both maintenance and do-it-yourself home projects. He enjoys sharing his expertise & ideas with others to help them improve their comfort and quality of life. Read more »

Your comments are welcome!

  1. This is very good information as l need to get the white notice machine for my daughter aged 32years with hearing impairments, who complaint lack of sleep due to thunderbolt sound in her ear

  2. Thank you for putting this together in one place! I am looking for something to help block out the noise from our social neighbors. They are about 100 feet from our house – there is no music, just loud talking that carries into our bedroom. Would a white noise machine help cover voices?

    • Hi Janet. They *can* help, but voices can be especially annoying and sometimes hard to block. I speak from experience.

      If it’s not overly loud, a white noise machine near to where you sleep can help, yes. However, if their voices are a bit louder than average or have a deeper voice, you may need to use something like a box fan with a deep hum to do the job.

      However, a good noise machine with some different sound patterns to choose from more than likely will be fine. I hope that helps!

      • Grant, thank you so much for the response and guidance, I really do appreciate it. The voices are female and I was thinking of placing it by my bed anyway! So fingers crossed! Thank you again for putting all this information together and for taking the time to respond. Janet


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