Beating office din with noise

Static: An entrepreneur hopes his work-space speakers will restore quiet to cramped offices.

September 10, 2001|By Michael James | Michael James,SUN STAFF

Thoreau once observed that "the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation." But in this age of noisy, open-office environments, the desperation just isn't quiet enough.

At least that's the view of 60-year-old Jack Heine, a Cambridge, Mass., entrepreneur who hopes his new "sound masking" invention will become the talk of the town by drowning out the talk with white noise.

His Sonet Acoustic Privacy System combines two speakers with a power supply and volume control. I have the system set up around my office computer right now. With a touch of a button, the speakers generate a whooshing noise that sounds like a cross between an air conditioner and the static from a TV set after "The Star-Spangled Banner" plays at 3 a.m.

The idea is that there's just enough noise hitting my ears so that I won't hear my neighbors' conversations.

The trick, of course, is to make sure white noise isn't more annoying than your neighbor - and that it doesn't annoy your neighbor. After trying it out, I decided I'd rather hear voices in the background than whooshing. But Heine is banking on the notion that people like me are in the minority.

"Today's open offices tend to be way too quiet, and as a result, the quiet office ends up being a very noisy office because you end up hearing so much of what your neighbor is saying," says Heine, who has a doctoral degree in acoustics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Sound masking is basically acoustical perfume. It's just something that makes your environment a little more comfortable to acclimate to."

Heine's system, which sells for $100, was created in response to complaints that have cropped up over the past decade as corporations bought into the notion that open offices promote more interaction, creativity and camaraderie. Companies also discovered that open workplaces would be cheaper to operate because more people could be packed into less space. So walls came down, and offices became storage closets.

But Don Brandes, a municipal water manager in northeast Florida who has lived through the open-office process, said the noise level just kept getting more annoying. Brandes is testing the Sonet system at his office and says he's likely to order one for any of his employees who want it.

"Those of us who had offices in the old days have now been thrust into cubicles, and the talking drives you nuts," says Brandes, manager of the St. John's River Water Management District. "We have a lot of professional people who are used to working in a walled office. It's a downgraded environment with a lot of distractions, and that's hard, because we do things that require thought and focus and concentration."

Brandes says Sonet has made things better. He's surrounded by 10 cubicles and says Sonet's white noise blocks the voices that emanate from them - for the most part.

"There's a cube right next to me with a guy who is rather loud. I've got everybody pretty well drowned out except him," Brandes says. "So I bought this sheet of inch-and-a-half thick Styrofoam, covered it with cloth, and put it up between our cubes. It's eight-feet long, so that's worked pretty well."

For now, Heine is sticking with his original, high-tech solution.

High goal

He estimates that for the Sonet system to reach critical mass, his company, Cambridge Sound Management, will have to sell about 100,000 units.

He has a way to go. Cambridge has sold about 4,000 Sonet systems since it introduced the device a year ago.

Most of the sales have come from businesses that bought them in large lots - both Verizon in Dallas and IBM in Burlington, Vt., bought 300 each - but Heine says 20 to 30 individuals buy the system each month.

"The pitch we're making to businesses is that you can't afford to not have one of these in your cubicle," Heine says. "Nobody's paneling system can completely solve the problem of unwanted noise. Sound is like water - it has a way of sliding around things."

Sound masking, as it is commonly called, has been around since the early 1970s, although it may just start to hit its stride in the open-office age. Allen Shiner, who runs an acoustic design and consulting firm in Chicago, says he's seeing more businesses interested in the concept.

Some office workers, however, view sound-cloaking gadgets with a healthy grain of paranoia.

In his talks with companies, Shiner says, a handful of workers have told him they're worried that the devices will be used to send subliminal messages from management.

"Open-office environments have brought a little bit of worry from people who feel their privacy has been eroded because they don't have the perceived freedoms they once had in a closed office," Shiner says. "They see these things as strange oddities. They don't know what they're getting into. Their attitude is, `What is Big Brother trying to indoctrinate me into?' "

For his part, Heine mentions studies showing that up to 75 percent of workers in open-space offices are distracted by out-of-cubicle conversations.

Not for everyone

I'd have to put myself in the other 25 percent.

For the record, I wrote this story while more than 20 people paraded noisily by my desk over a two-hour period during a company-sponsored, golf-putting contest to raise money for the United Way.

And I didn't have the Sonet system turned on.

Information: www.cambridge soundmgt.com or 877-656-8090.

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