How to Block Out the Sounds of Summer

Slowly but surely, my corner of New York City is coming alive again. New neighbors will be moving into the long-vacant apartment across the hall, and from the sound of it, they’re giving it a real face-lift. The building’s sidewalk replacement project, long delayed, is back in action. People are having rooftop parties on my block again — or maybe it just sounds like it’s on my block.

I tried a hodgepodge of noise-fighting devices — white-noise machines, ear plugs, noise-canceling headphones — but nothing seemed to work. So I turned to audio experts and my colleagues at Wirecutter, where I’m a senior staff writer. It turns out, I’d been using these devices all wrong. Successfully managing everyday city noise requires a balance of physics and psychology — part of what makes noise annoying is our lack of power over it. Here’s how to optimize your noise-fighting devices and take control of common noise problems.

For extremely loud noises like building or street construction, you want to start by lowering the decibels. When jackhammers and electric saws make your ears hurt, feel full or ring, then the noise is too loud and could be damaging your hearing. Start by getting a pair of good-quality foam ear plugs, which can lower the intensity of noise entering your ears by as much as 15 to 30 decibels. Mack’s Slim Fit Soft Foam Earplugs (about $10 for 50 pairs) were the top performers in most of Wirecutter’s objective measurement tests, and they had the most fans on our four-person test panel. If you can’t get a snug fit with Mack’s — crucial with any earplug — Wirecutter also recommends 3M’s E-A-Rsoft OCS1135 for people with wider ear canals.

Earplugs will take care of safety, but even at lower volumes, noises can be annoying. Add a second layer of defense with white noise, either from an app or a dedicated machine. For very loud noises like construction, you can combine both ear protection and masking noise “so you don’t need to crank the sound up to painful levels for it to work,” said Stéphane Pigeon, an audio engineer and the developer of Wirecutter’s favorite white-noise app, myNoise.

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