White Noise Machines Are A Sleep Game Changer: These Are Our Favorites

White Noise Machines Are A Sleep Game Changer: These Are Our Favorites

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This article is a part of CNN Underscored’s Guide to Sleep, a weeklong focus on everything you need to sleep better. We’ll be featuring new products and exclusive deals all week, so check in every morning to see what’s new and be sure to subscribe to the CNN Underscored newsletter to see it all.

Noise can affect sleep for better or worse. White noise machines that emit just that — consistent noise — fall squarely in the “better” category. Constant white noise, like the kind produced by a white noise machine, has been shown to improve sleep quality because it helps mask sudden bursts of noise that may help some people more easily fall and stay asleep.

“White noise machine” is a blanket term that consists of basic machines that do the bare minimum (that is, emit white noise at varying volumes) to high-end pieces of tech that feature lights, automations and more. We tested 12 top-rated white noise machines (and four white noise apps), aiming for solutions with a variety of sound options and great volume control for heavy and light sleepers alike. After several months, four stood above the rest:

Best white noise machine overall

The Sound+Sleep Mini white noise machine contains 48 different sounds like rain, brooks, fans, ocean sounds and white noise. The other devices we tested feature some of these sounds, but the Mini is one of the only ones that has them all.

Best upgrade white noise machine

While our overall pick is a classic sound machine, the Hatch Restore white noise machine packs extra features like a color-changing light on the front, a digital clock display and routines to help you wind down and fall asleep easier.

Best white noise app overall

We liked the White Noise app for its ease of use, handy timers and alarms, and large selection of various types of sounds. You can download additional sounds in its marketplaces.

Best upgrade white noise app

The Calm app offers white noise and other sounds, and also meditation and breathing exercises, daily movement videos, music, motivational talks and tons of sleep options. The app also offers a free trial period.

Benjamin Levin/CNN

If you’re looking for a plethora of sounds to soothe you into sleep, the Sound+Sleep Mini will fit the bill with more than 48 tracks across 12 categories that range from the standard (white and pink noise) to the environmental (rain or ocean).

It would be a lot to list out 48 individual sounds, but here are a few highlights: Fireplace inspired the same warm, cozy vibe you get from a nearby crackling fireplace. Crickets with light rain filled the space with a medley of natural sounds, transporting us to a relaxing night outdoors (without any of the actual bugs and rain). All of the soundscapes under the “Crowd” category reminded us of when we could go out to a café with a laptop. With such an array of sounds — more than any other we tested — it prevented the mundanity that we experienced hearing the same sounds over and over with most of the other machines.

Speaking of mundanity, some sound machines, such as the SoundSpa Portable and the Hatch Restore, have somewhat short soundtracks where you can recognize where the loop restarts. Sometimes hearing that tiny glitch when a soundscape has restarted made it more difficult for us to relax. With the Sound+Sleep Mini, we never recognized those repeats.

Of course, if you can’t set the volume just right, you’ll be adjusting it all night. And few devices offered as many gradations between whisper quiet and booming loud as the Mini. You can thank the high-fidelity 2.5-inch speakers for the latter. It’s not necessarily room-filling, but it does pack a punch on the audio scale and can sound bigger than it appears — helping to better mask ambient noises that could disturb sleep. The Sound+Sleep Mini features an upfiring speaker on the top, so it’s directionally pushing the sound upward. Thanks to its comparatively wider volume gradient, we were easily able to pick out a precise volume that we preferred.

The device also features an adaptive sound mode, wherein a built-in microphone detects environmental sounds and increases the volume in an attempt to cover them up. We tested this by clapping near the machine, then farther away and finally while having people converse loudly in the next room. We only noticed a significant volume change when the sounds originated in the same room as the machine. So if you have a noisy roommate, it could help, but with loud neighbors, you may have to change the volume yourself.

The sound quality is decent. The Mini is more than capable of reaching high and low notes, which greatly helped our immersion once we closed our eyes and listened to each track. It handled the tracks better than most of the others we tested, and there wasn’t a tinny quality to the sound, even when the pitches rose. Still, the Hatch Restore, which is nearly double the price, bested the Sound+Sleep Mini in this regard. The sound it puts out has more depth, and is produced with a much higher level of clarity, whereas the Sound+Sleep Mini is less crisp overall.

The Sound+Sleep Mini, as the name may suggest, is a compact device, with an asymmetrical teardrop shape and a flat top upon which the speaker resides. Like most of the sound machines we tested, it’s a cinch to set up. All you have to do is plug the included power cable into the bottom of the Mini, then plug that into the wall. Alternatively, you can insert 4 AA batteries beneath a bottom panel.

The device’s controls are laid over a flat surface on the side. They may look complex, but they’re not. A central circular button cycles through each category, while another button, labeled “selection,” controls which track is playing within that category. LED lights inside this panel intuitively indicate exactly which selection is currently playing. There’s even a snooze timer with 30-, 60- and 90-minute options. This particular timer is unique, lowering the volume gradually as it nears its end. It’s not a feature we often noticed, as we were asleep before it kicked in. The LED lights fade out too, so as not to distract you — although, they didn’t distract us at their full brightness either.

On the side near the controls are two audio ports: one is for audio input if you want to use the Mini as a speaker; the other is a headphone jack, a feature we wish more machines included. Using this option, you can become even more immersed in your selection of choice. The sound quality is even a little better with headphones on if you have a half-decent pair.

Overall, the Sound+Sleep Mini has everything you’d want in a sound machine. It comes with a multitude of soundtracks, expansive volume control and a timer for dozing off. In terms of design, it’s a sleek piece that will go well on your nightstand with controls that you’ll learn in a flash. At $64.95, it isn’t the cheapest option out there, but its multitude of features can appease any sleeper.

Benjamin Levin/CNN

Boasting a companion app, class-leading soundscapes, routines that help you fall asleep and wake up easier, along with several lighting options (to, again, lull you to sleep or gently wake you up), the Hatch Restore is the ultimate sleep gadget. It also comes at a premium price: $129.99. But when you put all its functionalities together, that cost is justified.

We were blown away by the Restore’s 31 sound choices, consisting of soundscapes, music and narrated selections for meditation and rest. The tracks are high-quality in both fidelity and composition. Ocean Sounds in Maine, for example, consists of waves that you can hear splashing underfoot, with overtones of oceanic bird calls and an implacable yet soothing hum. If you close your eyes, then any one of the Restore’s soundscapes can whisk you away to another place. Even better, the tracks were long enough for us to fall asleep to before they ended and started over the loop, lasting longer than those of any other machine we tested. Oceans of Maine is a whopping 45 minutes in duration.

And while its maximum volume is a smidge lower than that of the Sound+Sleep Mini, the volume control is even more precise with 100 levels of volume to choose from, which is easily adjusted in the app or on the side of the device.

The Hatch Restore has a very pleasing design, resembling a semicircular dome with a woven strip along the bottom to house an LED dot display and a sizable light above. Then there’s the large light on the front of the Hatch Restore. Using the companion app, you can change this light to any color or brightness you want. You can go for a bright light for reading before bed, a dull warm light to simulate a sunrise or anywhere in between. The color can’t be controlled on-device (only through the app), but the brightness can.

In addition to sounds of rain, waterfalls, whale calls and other beautiful soundscapes, you can also select relaxing music and narrations. The music is primarily composed to induce feelings, and the tracks are named accordingly. Acceptance contains hopeful string instruments and synth notes, making you feel like you’re floating on a cloud. A Stormy Cabin, on the other hand, has a lower, more somber tone with a deep violin. The narrated segments have mindfulness training on being aware of your breathing and muscles as well as techniques for clearing your head after the day and many more options. You can even listen to stories, such as readings from famous novels or calming tales about fictional events. We, for one, enjoyed one about taking a vacation to a warmer place; it helped us escape the winter under some cozy sheets.

To tie it all together, there are what the app calls Routines. These are customizable sequences that can be activated with a tap or scheduled for a specific time. For example, we relied on a built-in sequence called Bedtime to relax us before bedtime. With that, when you tap a touch control on the top of the Restore, a warm white light comes on for reading. When you tap it again, a 10-minute track called Meeting Sleep With Ease plays, wherein a narrator helps you calm your mind with visualization meditation before bed. Lastly, a track called Light Rain rings out with the pitter-patter of rain until you tap again the next morning, or until your morning routine begins. You can have any number of steps happen in any order you’d like for as long as you’d like. And you can schedule them to occur on specific days of the week too. It’s a feature that we found endlessly useful, helping us keep our sleep regular and allowing us to wake up feeling refreshed.

We loved the ability to control all of this — from volume to the light color to soundscapes — through the app. But there is a catch: You only get six months of the app for free, after which you’ll have to add $49.99 annually (or $4.99 monthly) on to the already high price tag to keep the full library of ever-changing sounds and features. If you opt not to subscribe, you’ll keep fewer than 10 free options, so your library will be greatly limited.

The Hatch Restore truly modernizes the sound machine, with excellent sound quality, a customizable light, a digital clock and an app that upgrades the experience. The only setback is the $129.99 price tag. However, we think you get what you pay for — and more — with the Hatch Restore.

If you’re looking for an app that has a large selection of sounds and is easy to use, we liked the White Noise app. It has a variety of different color noises, including white, pink and brown. It also has varying water sounds, from light rain to extreme rain, campfires and different fans like box, oscillating or bathroom. We also liked that we couldn’t tell where the loop is in the sounds we tried, so there’s no sound disruption.

The app also lets you set timers to stop sounds and set alarms to wake up in the morning. While it doesn’t include meditation features like some of the other apps we tried, it does offer quite a bit for a white noise app that costs $.99. It has over 50 sounds that you can listen to individually or mix together, and if that isn’t enough, you can also download additional sounds in its marketplaces.

Unlike some other white noise apps, the Calm app offers more than just white noise and soundscapes. According to Calm, its goal is to “help you improve your health and happiness.” The app offers meditation, breathing exercises, daily movement videos, music for work, motivational and mindset talks, a section for kids and a ton of sleep options.

The options for color noises are limited to white and pink noise, but there are numerous other sleep options, including sleep stories, nature sounds, sleep soundscapes, relaxing music and sleep meditations. There are also celebrities narrating sleep stories, including Harry Styles, Black Pink’s Rosé, Matthew McConaughey, LeBron James and more.

Calm and Headspace are extremely similar, both in terms of offerings and price. However, Calm edged out Headspace since Calm was the only one that had white and pink noise. It also worked equally well on an iPhone and Samsung phone, whereas Headspace had trouble on the Samsung.

What is white noise? White noise is a type of noise that contains noise of all frequencies equally and sounds similar to static. Because it contains all frequencies, it is said that it will mask out other sounds, which is where white noise machines come in.

How white noise works. Rather than being woken up by a noisy neighbor or partner snoring, white noise machines are able to mask sudden noises with its continuous sound so you’re not suddenly jolted awake and you stay asleep. If you’ve ever had a friend who swears they can only sleep with a fan on, it’s the same concept as white noise: that the continuous sound of the fan can mask other sounds. This lull of constant noise may also help you fall asleep.

Not for everyone. That being said, white noise machines may not work for everyone. Some may find the sound of white noise irritating, which is why you’ll often find other sound options with white noise machines. Also keep in mind, some may find white noise machines work well, some may prefer other soundscapes and some may need total silence. It varies person to person and may take some experimenting to find which noises, if any, work for you.

Try different color noises. For some, white noise may sound irritating rather than soothing. If that’s the case, then you may want to experiment with different color noises, such as pink or brown, which sound deeper than white noise. It may take some experimenting to find which color noise works best for you.

Variety of sound. If you already know your preferred sleeping sound, then you may want to purchase a machine that has only that specific sound or just a few sounds. This way, you’re not scrolling through endless options to get to your favorite sound. However, if you’re new to sleeping with white noise, then consider purchasing a device with numerous options so you can figure out which works best for you. While white noise is a popular option, not everyone finds they can sleep with it; you may want to try different soundscapes instead.

White noise apps. If you’re unsure about sleeping with white noise or don’t want to invest in a device just yet, then apps are a good place to start. Many offer an assortment of sounds and are low cost compared to white noise machines. Just keep in mind that the sound quality is only as good as your phone’s speaker, and you may need to keep your phone charging at night since it will drain the battery.

To really get a grip on each machine’s capabilities, we took notes on setup, listened to every soundtrack, pressed every button and control, examined the overall design, noted and tested additional features and researched warranties. We then compared and contrasted these features to find the best of the best.

Naturally, our first step was setup. Out of the box, we wanted to know just how easy or hard it was to get each machine up and running. This included cable management, battery insertion and setting up apps.

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White noise machines are a sleep game changer: These are our favorites

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