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Anyone experiencing difficulty falling asleep — or staying asleep — has likely heard of the increasing popularity of white noise machines to help with that nightly struggle. While you can use a white noise machine’s background noise to drown out otherwise jarring sounds, some of the models available right now target sounds specifically to promote sleep — and some add in some spiffy features otherwise.
SKIP AHEAD Best white noise machines
What is white noise and what is a white noise machine?
The actual white noise that white noise machines emit accomplishes multiple things, explained Harvey Karp, MD, a pediatrician, sleep expert, author and inventor of the popular SNOO Smart Sleeper:
- It helps reduce outside distractions, such as a passing ambulance or truck.
- It helps mask "inside" distractions like a little hunger or racing thoughts.
- It soothes you by tapping into a very ancient calming reflex that is related to the sound babies hear in the womb. “That’s why we are all calmed by the sound of the wind and ocean,” Karp said. “It’s also why most peoples around the world say ‘shhhh’ to mean ‘be quiet.’”
Shoppers might come across machines designed to distribute other types of color noises in addition to white: pink and brown. But these color names typically really just refer to pitch, explained Lynelle Schneeberg, PsyD, a fellow at American Academy of Sleep Medicine and an assistant professor at Yale School of Medicine. “White noise has a higher pitch than brown noise while brown noise reminds some people of ocean waves,” she said. “The sound a person chooses is really just a matter of personal preference.”
“The main way that they help with sleep is that they can mask other noises, absorbing wayward sounds that might otherwise disturb sleep — it’s like a blanket of sound that prevents other noises from getting through,” said Michael Grandner, PhD, FAASM, who serves as director for both the Sleep and Health Research Program and the Behavioral Sleep Medicine Clinic.
White noise machine features to consider
Amanda Stein, an editor at Tool Digest — whose handywomen and handymen review tools and gadgets — shared key features to look out for depending on your needs:
- Sound options. Some offer both mechanically-generated white noise and pre-recorded sound options like wind, rain or ocean waves depending on your personal preference.
- Long looping times. If the white noise machine’s tracks are pre-recorded, you'll want to consider how long the recording is and whether the stopgap is noticeable. “Machines with longer looping times offer a more seamless experience,” she said.
- Timers. Many white noise machines have either an automatic shut-off or programmable timers depending on how long you want the sounds playing. “This is an ideal option if you only need sounds to fall asleep, not stay asleep,” she said.
- Display. Some white noise machines equip displays doubling up as clocks or night lights. However, if you're getting a white noise machine primarily for sleep, Stein advised looking for one with either no display or one that turns off so that the light doesn’t disturb you.
- Portability. “Some options are more lightweight or smaller than others and some offer USB charging so you don't have to worry about finding an outlet in each location,” she added.
- Smart features. Many modern white noise machines use “smart” technology to sync with other devices. Smart features often allow you to control the device from a distance, which is useful if you're using it to focus at your desk or don't want to go into your child’s room.
- Bells and whistles. Headphone jacks aren't common, but are ideal if you have a partner who needs silence to sleep. USB ports allow you to charge your phone, smartwatch or other electronics by plugging them into your machine.
Best white noise machines to shop 2021
According to the experts we consulted, there’s no objectively best white noise machine. “Get one that is in your budget— no particular one has been shown to independently improve sleep,” said Abhinav Singh, MD, MPH, FAASM, the facility director of the Indiana Sleep Center. Having said that, there are certainly differentiating factors among your many choices. We asked the pros to recommend the best white noise machines on the market at different price points.
Best white noise machine overall : Adaptive Sound Technologies
With a few more options than the no frills option from Adaptive Sound Technologies, this white noise machine is. This LectroFan White Noise Sound Machine offers ten white, pink and brown sounds, ten fan sounds and two ocean sounds — "calm" and "surf" — all of which are non-looping, explained Stein. “It includes a connector for headphones or a portable speaker and has an optional timer,” she added. “Since it can be powered by AC or USB, you can also easily use it anywhere.”
Best affordable white noise machine: Yogasleep
For those looking for a simple, affordable, “no-nonsense” white noise machine, Stein suggests the Yogasleep Dohm UNO. It comes with a one-year limited warranty and a single-dial mode that adjusts tone and volume to create a more personalized sound environment for sleep. “It offers an incredibly simple interface — just plug it in, flip the switch and turn the dial until you find the perfect setting for you,” she said. “Its fan-based white noise has been beloved since 1962 and its minimalist, modern design will fit into nearly any bedroom aesthetic.”
Best high-end white noise machine: Hatch
The Hatch Restore Sound Machine is a smart white noise machine that also serves as a sunrise alarm clock. It mimics natural light, gradually growing brighter to allow you to wake up gently, explained Stein. “Its most impressive smart feature is its ability to program sleep routines through its app: These routines feature steps designed to lull you to sleep, including meditations, sleep stories, light adjustments and soundscapes,” she said. “It's a single device that can handle nearly all your sleep needs, from the moment you start to wind down until you wake up.”
Mysore agrees that this is a top choice for someone looking for more comprehensive features and noted that the sunrise light can be helpful on those dark winter days. “It’s more expensive but has a good amount of options and you can do a meditation before going to bed using it,” she added.
Best white noise machine without frills: Adaptive Sound Technologies
If you’re looking for a standard white noise machine that won’t overwhelm with features, Mysore recommended this compact machine. The design offers 10 fan sounds and 10 ambient noise variations (including white, pink and brown noise) and is powered by either AC or USB. It also works to prevent startling disruptions with non-repeating sounds. “It’s classic, simple white noise,” she said.
Best smart white noise machine: Brookstone
The sound soother offers eight relaxing choices to lull you to sleep, from white noise to rain, ocean and a babbling brook. There’s also a built-in timer that allows you to set a shut-off time for after you drift to sleep, a Bluetooth speaker and rechargeable battery so you can play music or relaxing sounds wirelessly when you aren’t near an outlet. “It also has a phone charger on the top which is convenient to have by your bed,” Mysore added.
Best white noise machine for for babies and kids: Hatch
Mysore uses this machine for her own child and she’s been nothing but impressed with it — more than 16,400 reviewers on Amazon who have given it a 4.8-star average rating. This is a multi-functional white noise machine that grows with your baby by working as a nightlight, sound machine and time-to-rise alert all in one. It can be controlled from your phone via the Hatch Baby Rest app or manually tapped. “The light and sound options are varied and nothing is too jarring,” she added. “There are also a few lullaby sounds that have worked great for my son's naps.”
Best white noise earbuds: Bose
For a truly portable and private white noise machine, nothing tops Bose Sleepbuds for Stein. Although they may look like headphones, these aren’t for listening to podcasts or music. Instead, they’re created specifically to deliver white noise as you sleep with a battery of up to ten hours per charge. “These earbuds are designed to fit comfortably in your ears while you sleep and they connect to an app that allows you to stream multiple types of white noise, including waves, a waterfall and forest sounds,” she said. “These are also a perfect option to mask unwanted noise in areas where a standard white noise machine isn't practical — like at the office on public transport.”
Pros and cons of white noise machines
Sound machines can help in a variety of ways but they aren’t for everyone, explained Schneeberg, who wrote “Become Your Child's Sleep Coach.”
White noise machine benefits
- They can mask sounds for anyone who lives in a noisier environment.
- They may help keep someone asleep if other household members are making noise. “For example, they may help babies and children stay asleep more reliably if others in the household are still up and awake,” she explained.
- They may eventually become a reliable ‘cue’ for sleep and help someone fall asleep more easily.
White noise machine limitations
- If you share a bed, your partner might not like the noise.
- The sound machine may become such a strong cue for sleep that it has to be taken everywhere, from hotels to a relative’s home. “Having said that, this is easier than ever with smartphone apps, which can provide all types of sounds,” she added.
Pros and cons aside, there’s only so much a white noise machine can do for you.
“If you are in frequent need of a noise machine to help you sleep,” Singh noted, “then it may be time to seek the help of a sleep professional to figure out the reason for your sleep complaints.”