Helpful Uses for White Noise Machines

April 25, 2011 (Updated Mar 23, 2015) by — Intended Audience: , .

Marpac white noise sound machineThis post is a little unusual in that I don’t typically do product reviews, but I have found myself repeatedly recommending these sound machines to clients for a variety of uses and so it seemed worth while to write about what a helpful addition these appliances can be to your home.1

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I’ll first cover the kinds of situations that a white noise machine can be useful for, and then I’ll cover some particulars about the device itself. Sound machines are typically used to provide privacy (e.g., I use these at my counseling office in the waiting room to provide additional privacy for counseling sessions) and to mask or minimize distracting noises (e.g., to help one sleep better). Here are some example uses:

  • Reducing distractions for an adult or child who is easily distracted (e.g., possible ADHD child trying to do homework) and/or is wanting to concentrate on something important while distracting activities are going on nearby (e.g., adult trying to work on family finances while kids are playing noisily in the next room).
  • Reducing distracting noises to aid in sleep. This could be for an adult who is easily awoken by noises outside the home, or perhaps one who has to go to bed at a different time than the rest of the family due to work constraints (e.g., shift work, getting up early to commute, etc.). This could also be for a child who is being put down for their nap (or bedtime, since kids often go to bed well before their parents).
  • Providing privacy, such as for situations where parents want some privacy from their kids (e.g., being physically intimate, or on much less fun occasions when having an argument).

There are two categories of sound machines (also called, white noise machines, sound conditioners, and sleep conditioners): mechanical units that produce only white noise; and digital units that produce a variety of sounds (usually including white noise and nature sounds). In other areas of technology I am typically a big fan of doing things digitally, but this is one area where I strongly recommend going the mechanical route for several reasons. The idea of nature sounds can seem appealing, but in my experience these devices ultimately end up sounding repetitive, especially if you use them with any regularity. Basically, I think that our brains are smart enough to tell the difference between a recording and something that is more organically (or even mechanically) produced.

The Marpac Sound Screen (or SleepMate as it is also known by)2 does one thing and it does it extremely well: it produces white noise and it does it mechanically. The benefit of it producing noise mechanically is that it makes the sound more organic because unlike digital devices it is not using a recording. You might feel concerned that since it is mechanical it might eventually wear out. This is an understandable concern. However, this particular brand (Marpac) seems to be very well built; I know folks who have been using their Marpac for 15 or more years (they are usually other counselors, so they are using the device a lot). The mechanics are fairly simple, so there is not much in the device to break, and the company seems to pride themselves on making a decently bullet-proof product.

There are two models: the 980A which is dual speed, and the 580A which is single speed. The price difference is typically about $10, so if you can afford it I definitely recommend getting the dual speed 980A since it is more versatile.3 The Marpac creates the white noise sounds by simply drawing air through the device. The sound of the white noise (tone, volume and pitch) can be changed by changing the speed (if you have the 980A), as well as by rotating the top and/or side of the device which changes the amount and position of openings for air to flow through.

Difficulties sleeping and needing more privacy (especially for parents) are two of the common reasons I suggest these sound machines to clients. I think that these well-built devices can be a worthwhile addition to your home.


  1. Image from Links are below. 
  2. Amazon links (note that both are for the same device, just under different names; you also can choose between the single speed and dual speed models on each page): Marpac Sound Screen, Marpac SleepMate
  3. A comment about prices: $50 is a typical price for the dual speed (980A) model. You might occasionally find a lower price (though be sure that it is for the dual speed model and not the single speed), but I wouldn’t spend a ton of time hunting for prices lower than $50 as those tend to be pretty rare. I also would not spend more than $5 over the regular $50 price; some sellers will over-charge on these a lot, but you really shouldn’t have to pay more than $55 at most for the dual speed model. 

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