Danielle writes in-depth articles about sleep solutions and holds a psychology degree from the University of British Columbia.
It can be almost impossible to fall asleep when your partner is snoring, or when your upstairs neighbor decides to rearrange the furniture at midnight. Not only does noise wake you up, but it can also affect your sleep quality once you do fall asleep. Thus, as part of your ideal bedroom setup, it’s a good idea to factor in some way to reduce unwanted disturbances.
If you’re unable to ensure a completely quiet bedroom environment, one way to minimize the impact from outside sounds is by using white noise. Originally used to describe the staticky noise of a sound that includes all of the frequencies, the term white noise is often used to more generally refer to any steady background hum, such as the sound of an air conditioner, falling rain, or crashing waves. Many people find that listening to a constant soothing sound helps them relax and lessens the disruption from unexpected noises.
For those who don’t want to invest in a white noise machine, there are plenty of smartphone apps that provide a range of background sounds for sleep. We’ll discuss five of the best white noise apps available today, based on our testing.
The app Sleep Sounds by Sleep Pillow contains a variety of soothing sounds to help you fall asleep. This app has a simple interface, and each sound option has its own image. Once you tap the image, the sound plays until you stop it. You may also set up a timer that shuts off the sound after a certain amount of time, ranging from one minute to an hour and 15 minutes. The sounds continue playing when the app is minimized, so you can listen while scrolling through other apps.
The free version of Sleep Sounds by Sleep Pillow comes with the following sound options:
I found the rain, ocean waves, and cracking fireplace to be the most relaxing of the available free sounds. They sounded realistic, and I couldn’t tell when they looped. Although the bird and frog sounds were interesting, I think they would keep me awake if I listened to them while trying to sleep. Of course, some nature lovers might disagree.
In addition to the individual sounds, you can also create sound mixes within the app. A mix consists of up to three existing sounds. You have the ability to adjust the volume levels of each element of your mix, then save the mix to listen to at any time. The free version of the app allows you to save one mix, but if you upgrade, you can save unlimited mixes.
Sleep Sounds by Sleep Pillow offers multiple upgrade options. To upgrade, you must choose a package of sounds to extend your available sound options. With any upgrade also comes premium features, such as an alarm clock, extended sleep timer options, unlimited mixes, and the removal of ads.
To upgrade Sleep Sounds by Sleep Pillow, you may choose from the following sound package options, which cost between $10 and $20 each:
All 280 sounds are also available through a single purchase. The app lists their value at $126, but there’s a discount if you purchase all sounds at once.
Sleep Sounds by Sleep Pillow is offered for free in the Apple app store, but isn’t currently available for Android devices.
White Noise Lite is a free white noise app that offers 50 free pre-programmed sounds. Sounds aren’t formally sorted into categories, but general types of sounds include:
The White Noise Lite app also offers the full gamut of colored sounds, including white, gray, brown, pink, blue, and violet, so you can choose the frequency that you find most relaxing. I found the brown noise to be the most relaxing, thanks to its lower tones.
Timers and alarms offer full flexibility to program sounds to play for a set amount of time, fade, or repeat. The sounds also continue playing in the background while you are using other apps. The app’s interface is dark, which is convenient for sleep. You can scroll through sounds by swiping, or you can view a full list.
White Noise Lite comes pre-programmed with suggested mixes, such as fire, water, and wind together. You can also layer sounds to create your own mixes, or record sounds yourself to add to your playlist. By making an account, you can download more sounds from the online market, including sounds recorded by other users.
I found it a little inconvenient that some sounds are much quieter than others, so when you’re scrolling through different sounds, you have to keep adjusting the volume. Most of the sounds are quite realistic, although they’re on a fairly short loop. When falling asleep, I personally preferred listening to the boat swaying in water sound, complete with a comforting creak of the wood as the boat bobbed up and down on the waves.
The free White Noise Lite app is fully usable, but if you don’t like the banner ads, you can upgrade to the full White Noise app for one dollar. Or, for an additional charge, you can upgrade to the pro version and get access to even more sounds.
White Noise Lite is available for iOS and Android, and the full White Noise app is also available for Apple TV, Apple Watch, and Android TV.
White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds has a simple interface that is available in light or dark mode. Categories of ambient sleep sounds include:
A good number of the sounds are available for free, and the free account allows you to mix two sounds together and set a timer for as long as you want. Sounds keep playing while you use other apps.
Upgrading to the full account removes banner ads and gives you access to 60 premium sounds. The paid app also offers the ability to create more mixes and incorporate an extra-long fade-out of up to an hour, perfect for falling asleep.
Since the free account only allows one mix with a maximum of two sounds, the paid version is necessary if you want to personalize your soundscape. If you’re on the fence, the app offers a 7-day free trial before you commit to the annual subscription, which costs $50 on Android and $40 on Apple devices. Monthly and weekly rates are also available.
In my opinion, some of the free sounds sounded like they were looping every ten seconds or so, which rendered some sounds less realistic. That said, there were a few free sounds that I loved, including the plastic bag and the cat purring. Surprisingly, the womb sound was the one that ended up lulling me to sleep.
White Noise Deep Sleep Sounds is available for iOS, Apple TV, and Android.
Although Headspace is primarily a meditation app, it also offers a generous selection of sounds to help you sleep. There are very few free options, but Headspace offers a one-week or two-week trial so you can try them out and decide if you wish to purchase the rest. A subscription costs $13 per month or $70 for a year, which is a little steep but you also get access to the meditation features.
Within the sleep category you’ll find relaxing music, guided meditation, and ambient sounds. For white noise, navigate to the options titled Soundscapes, Sleepcasts, or Sleep Radio. Headspace offers more than 40 Soundscapes that fall into six categories:
Each Soundscape is recorded in 3D sound and the sound ebbs and flows quite realistically, which makes it feel more like a narrative and less like it’s playing on a loop. I liked the In Motion options, which included a boat engine, a laundromat, and a car journey that starts with the key in the ignition and includes random traffic noises. Soundscapes last 45 minutes, and some are also available in 500-minute options. You can also download the Soundscapes, but the files are quite large, about 800 megabytes. Unlike in other apps, there’s no option in Headspace to layer sounds yourself.
The Sleepcasts category is meant to help you fall asleep using guided imagery, but Headspace offers the option to turn off the narration and only listen to the ambient noise. You can choose from more than 50 Sleepcasts with intriguing names like “Raindrop Soaps,” “Vineyard Sunset,” and “Pooch Palace.” On nights when my mind was racing, I found the Sleepcasts were the most effective tool for transporting me to another place. Sleepcasts are 45 minutes long, which is more than enough time to lull most people to sleep.
Finally, within the Sleep Radio category, Ocean Time offers steady white noise with lapping waves and no narration.
Headspace has a nice interface, with darker colors for the sleep section and gorgeous little doodles. This might be splitting hairs, but I found it a little annoying that for each sound, you have to select it, then press begin, and then press play. The sounds also take a second to buffer at first, and you can’t run Headspace in the background while you’re using other apps. That said, being unable to use other apps does encourage you to put your phone down and go to sleep.
Headspace is available for Android, iOS, and Apple Watch.
The official white noise section only has seven sounds: white, brown, pink, and green noise, as well as air conditioner, spaceship, and airplane. That said, the water, nature, city, and animal sections also have options for background ambient noise such as heavy rain or winds, which work well for drowning out traffic noises. The app also offers the option to download pre-made mixes. Some of my favorite sounds were “Immersed,” which makes it sound like you’re underwater and “Toskana,” which transports you to a very calm forest.
The sounds are laid out in tiles, and clicking a sound instantly adds it to your currently playing mix. I didn’t find the sounds to be as realistic as those in some of the other white noise apps, but I like how easy it is to layer your own sounds and create a soundscape that’s fully yours. You can even adjust the volume on each individual sound if you’d like one sound to stand out against the others, and then save your mix to use it again the next night.
Relax Melodies has a dark interface that doesn’t jolt you awake when using the app in bed. The sleep sounds continue playing in the background while you use other apps, and you can set sounds to play on a timer so they subtly fade out while you are asleep.
The free version of Relax Melodies contains banner ads and grants access to about a quarter of the sleep sounds. It is feasible to stick with the basic version of the app, but if you have your heart set on a specific sound, or if you find the ads annoying, you might prefer to buy the full version. Relax Melodies offers a 7-day free trial period, after which an annual subscription costs $40 on Android and $60 on Apple devices.
Relax Melodies is available for Android, iOS, Apple Watch, and Apple TV.