Sound machines mask disruptive noises to give babies a consistent and soothing source of sound that can help them fall, and stay, asleep. What parent doesn’t want that? After thorough research and testing we have chosen a winner for the best sound machine category.
If I were buying a sound machine for my baby today, I’d buy the Marpac Dohm-DS, because it is well-constructed, has consistent high-quality sound, and has a tiny footprint. Don’t let the boring name fool you, the Dohm-DS is a great sound machine that won’t disappoint.
We researched and tested over four dozen products over the course of 25 hours, and the Marpac Dohm-DS came out on top. (We didn’t consider the greatest sound machine of all time, Miami Sound Machine, because they are not currently touring.)
While many people believe that multiple sound options (waves, wind, white noise, storm, etc) are the most important thing to look for in a sound machine, in our opinion the quality of the sound is the feature that makes or breaks a good sound machine.
We tested sound machines from four different manufacturers. In addition to our own real-world testing, we enlisted the help of experts from parenting guides and pediatricians. After all that, Marpac Dohm-DS came out on top.
This article was originally published in October 2015. It has been updated to reflect current products and additional recommendations for the best sound machines in October 2017.
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What is a sound machine?
It’s a device that emits white noise to lull you to sleep while masking other sounds. Typical white noises are: static, womb sound, or a fan, for example. What’s the difference between a sound machine and white noise machine? “It is not uncommon for people to get confused between the two, referring to one as the other and vice versa. A white noise machine will only play a static sound while a sound machine can play numerous melodies, or nature sounds,” according to Jess Miller from Parent.Guide. For the purpose of our testing, we included both sound machines and white noise machines and are using the term sound machine to refer to all noise-making machines for this category.
Not only is there a difference between a sound machine and a noise machine, there are also a variety of types of machines. Some you plug in, others are mobile and use batteries, still others hang on a crib or are inside stuffed animals. Some offer only one sound, while others have multiple sound options. A few are dual function and offer sounds and lights.
All of this is a lot to consider and made testing tough at times. We worked through all the types of machines to determine what features were the most useful.
who should buy this?
Let’s just say it, a sound machine isn’t a necessity. After all, I’m sure we didn’t have one when we were infants and we seemed to sleep at night (then again maybe we didn’t sleep and our parents are saints and never complained).
However, many parents of newborns want to create the most peaceful environment for their babies and children to get a good night’s sleep. Who doesn’t want this? A sound machine is something that can grow with the child. It can be especially helpful if you have a noisy household, noisy neighborhood, or older siblings that go to bed at different times. A sound machine in the nursery can help eliminate external noises and provide a peaceful and consistent environment for your baby to sleep. Sound machines aren’t just for baby’s bedtime either. They can also be useful to drown out the noises of the day such as a lawnmower at your neighbor’s house or construction workers being extra noisy during your child’s naptime.
Dr. Harvey Karp, Pediatrician and author of books including The Happiest Baby on the Block and The Happiest Baby Guide to Great Sleep, says in a CNN article entitled “Sound machines for babies: Too loud? Too close?” says “The white noise is there as a continual presence, just like a teddy bear. It’s like a teddy bear of sounds.”
What Makes a good sound machine?
A good sound machine should have things like volume control, continuous sound, several sound options, and original sound versus a looping recording. Decibel levels are also important, but we’ll get into that later on.
The design of the machine is important so that it’s easy to use as you’re putting your little one to bed. We’re looking for a well-made, sturdy machine that will last for years. Let’s differentiate that “design” is related to construction, while “look” concerns itself with the decor. We’re seeking function over form. And, while looks might be important to some, the Marpac Dohm-DS is more practical than attractive. It’s not ugly, but when new parents start decorating a nursery there is a tendency to buy things that are cute.
Price is a concern as you set up a nursery with all the bells and whistles. In our research, we found that the baseline cost-of-entry to get a solid sound machine was in the $35-$55 range. Anything less didn’t provide quality construction or enough options in sounds. Over $60, though, all you were really getting were things like superfluous sounds, lights, and other features which we think you and your baby can live without.
How Loud Should The Sound Be, and Other Safety Questions
Sound machines produce different types and volumes of sounds. The question is: What decibel level is acceptable for a sound machine in a nursery? Before we share our research, let us remind you that we are not pediatricians or medical professionals. We’ve researched and consulted with professionals, but we stress that it’s also important to discuss these matters with your pediatrician, and to do your own research on device placement for ideal effect.
That being said, here’s what we found in our research:
According to a study in the journal, Pediatrics, “Hospital nurseries and neonatal intensive care units have set a noise equivalent of 50 decibels on average over the course of an hour.” In comparison, “Canadian and U.S. occupational health and safety authorities have recommended a workplace limit of 85 decibels over eight hours for adults.”
In response to the Pediatrics study, Dr. Merrill Wise, a Pediatric Sleep Specialist and Neurologist with the Methodist Sleep Center in Memphis, TN, and a board member of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine said the following, “This is a very worrisome and concerning paper, and it’s likely to lead to a re-examination of whether these devices are really in baby’s best interest.” Before reviewing the article, Wise said he likely would have told any parents considering a sound machine that he had no strong opinion on the matter, but now “he would be far more cautious.” He continues, “This paper has raised some very significant questions with regard to safety, and there is clearly a need for caution and for gathering more data.”
The Marpac Dohm-DS, according to the company’s website, “has a volume range between 50-75 DB. This masks the majority of the quiet but annoying noises that disrupt our sleep, as well as some louder, more obnoxious tones.”
Should the sound be continuous?
We tested devices that provide continuous (the sound stays on at the same level until turned off) and those where the sound automatically turns off after a set timeframe. There is some debate among experts if the sound would be potentially damaging if kept on all night long, but we spoke to two experts who say it wouldn’t be:
“There just hasn’t been a lot of research into this question of what effect these infant noise machines have,” says Patti Martin, Director of Audiology and Speech Pathology at The Arkansas Children’s Hospital. Her bottom line: The issue with the machines is how loud they are, not the amount of time they are used. She also likes the idea of keeping the machines out of the crib because “closer noises sound louder to the developing auditory system.”
On the comfort provided by sound machines, pediatrician Dr. Harvey Karp says, “The white noise is there as a continual presence, just like a teddy bear. It’s like a teddy bear of sounds.”
How Far should the Sound Machine Be from the Child’s Bed?
Like other nursery items, there should be nothing within reach of the crib. This includes the actual device and the cords or pieces associated with it. While there are varying recommendations, we feel that a secure position a few feet away from the baby, like on a dresser or nightstand, is the best place for it.
how we determined the best sound machine
We narrowed our list to the top four sound machines and put them through a series of tests. We first listened to all sounds and tested the volume of each machine. Next we rated the machines for ease of use and range of sound. Finally we put the machines to real world use by doing all-night runs with each.
We also let older children sleep with the sounds to determine which were most suitable for their sleep environment. We played the sounds machines in multiple bedrooms and took several of them on trips to see about portability and durability.
Our Pick For The best Sound machine
- Two-Speeds-dual speed motor, unique asymmetrical fan, and acoustic housing
- Fully adjustable tone and volume control
- Integrated vibrationdampening rubber feet for improved sound quality
- 50-75 decibel output
- Fourth-generation design
- One year warranty
After rigorous testing, I’m confident to report that the Marpac Dohm-DS is the best sound machine to buy for most parents. The quality of the sound, solid construction, and ability to adjust the volume level all contributed to this recommendation.
It has an authentic (non-recorded) sound that we’ve determined is absolutely critical in a sound machine. In fact, its sound quality is so good that it’s hard to compare with others on the list. It’s that good. The sound is an actual fan inside the machine. This is a quality, consistent hum that is heard from the machine. The Marpac Dohm-DS has slit-like openings on the sides of the machine, and lets you adjust the sides back and forth to achieve a very specific sound and pitch. The level of control and adjustment might sound tedious, but we feel that it yields a better overall sound that can be specifically adjusted for children’s preferences or to best suit the bedroom.
As far as the ability to choose alternate sounds, you won’t be able to do that with the Marpac Dohm-DS. This is the biggest downside. We did find that the variety of sound that can be produced through adjusting the machine as described above will enable most parents to find a pleasant sound for a range of babies. What you really need is one solid sound that will lull your baby to sleep night after night.
The price is right too. Many more expensive models simply don’t offer the reliability, or quality of sound. The Marpac slots right into the middle of the pack for cost.
One other thing that isn’t great about the Marpac Dohm DS? It’s not as cute as some of the alternatives. It’s not the end of the world—-the sound quality and price more than make up the deficit.
A feature we’d like to see is an automatic shut off for people who only want the machine on for a limited amount of time (ex. 45 minutes.) This was an issue we heavily considered when choosing the products, but ultimately decided it’s better to have the ability to have it on continually throughout the night.
Who Else Likes It?
A reviewer on the Marpac website, Catherine McMahon says: “18+ years and still going strong! I travel with my Marpac everywhere, cannot sleep without one! Just decided to get new ones for home in white and take my older ones to a vacation home.”
Another reviewer Greg said, “We’ve been using one of these for the past 30 + years. The first one lasted over 20 years and we’re still using the second one today. Best noise maker on the market in our opinion.”
On Amazon, the Marpac Dohm has a score of 4.3 out of 5 over nearly 12,000 reviews. One customer says, “I purchased this item for our 11 month old who is a VERY light sleeper …The white noise it generates is wonderful – it’s not a pre-recorded CD-sounding noise … I used it the first day we got it and my daughter slept wonderfully! We’ve used it for every nap and every night since and have had great success with it.”
The Lectrofan is a solid sound machine and is pleasantly small in size (much smaller than it appears in photos). From the sound machines we tested, it’s the most similar in sound quality and sturdiness to our pick, the Marpac Dohm-DS. The Lectrofan has multiple fan and white noise options to choose from (although this isn’t intuitive on the machine).
When we tested the “fan” option, it emitted an airplane-like noise that we felt was not soothing, and unsuitable for a newborn's room. When we tested it my children asked me to turn it off! However, the white noise options are smoother and would be appropriate for a baby or child. Ultimately, we think the Marpac Dohm-DS sound is superior. One feature on the Lectrofan that’s better than the Marpac Dohm-DS is the ability to set a shut-off time, which is lacking on the Marpac.
best for portability
While we ultimately landed on the Marpac Dohm-DS for its sound and stable construction, we’d be remiss if we didn’t acknowledge how good it’s sister product: The Marpac Hussh Portable Machine.
This is a smaller, portable version of the MarPac Dohm-DS. We took this version on several trips and we’re pleasantly surprised by the sound quality coming from such a small device. It’s built to be positioned flat so the sound can swell upward to fill a room. It comes with a clip that would suggest putting it on the car seat, or stroller, but we recommend you use it upright (it has a rubber base and the sound emits with great quality from the speaker). My only complaint with this device is that it needs to be fully charged. We had a full charge last one night, but the second night it runs out of battery). Otherwise a blinking light will come on, which ended up waking our testers. Once we knew what to expect from the battery, we were able to plan around it and avoid the blinking light.
We considered these alternatives from manufacturers, but can’t recommend them.
- The Cloud B Sleep Sheep–It’s a stuffed animal and certainly the most adorable sound machine we researched and tested, but it couldn’t be considered for a nursery because our research determined sound machines shouldn’t be connected to a crib and should be placed away from an infant. The sleep sheep has a Velcro handle that suggests being attached to the crib. There are multiple sound options including lullabies, which are well-liked, but we feel the sound is not in the same realm as our pick.
- Summer Infant Green Elephant–This was high on our list, but didn’t make it to the testing phase because there were both cuter and better-sounding options available.
- SkipHop Moonlight & Melodies Nightlight Soother–We found that this model was better suited for toddlers, given the nightlight and melodies that come onboard. The sound has a distant quality, that doesn’t compare to our pick.
- Baby Square Alilo A2 Buddy Bunny Children’s Digital Player and Baby Soothing Machine—This sound machine is too expensive and offers features you don’t need, like an MP3 player.
Care, Use, Maintenance, and Repair
Based on our research, the Marpac Dohm-DS should be used at a lower volume at or around 50 decibels. Placement varies based on your room and what flat surfaces are available. Experiment with your room to find the best spot, while keeping the device and the cords out of reach of the crib.
The Pediatrics Report that we’ve mentioned throughout this article offers these additional recommendations for families to encourage safer Infant Sleep Machines (ISM) use:
- Place the ISM as far away as possible from the infant and never in the crib or on a crib rail.
- Play the ISM at a low volume.
- Operate the ISM for a short duration of time.
- Jess Miller, How to choose the best sound machine for your baby, Parent.Guide
- Elizabeth Landau, Sound machines for babies: Too loud? Too close?, CNN.com, 3/3/14
- Amanda Gardner, Hands-off approaches OK for sleepless infants, study says, CNN, 9/12/10
- Sarah C. Hugh, Nikolaus E. Wolter, Evan J. Propst, Karen A. Gordon, Sharon L. Cushing, Blake C. Papsin, Infant Sleep Machines and Hazardous Sound Pressure Levels, Pediatrics, 4/14
- Kalli Anderson, White noise machines: Safe for babies?, Today's Parent, 9/24/15
- Catherine Saint Louis, Infant sleep machines at maximum volume reported as hearing risk, The New York Times, 3/3/14
- Marpac, Frequently asked questions
- Marpac, Dohm DS Overview
- Amazon.com, Product Page Marpac Dohm-DS
- Catherine Pearson, Popular Infant Sound Machines May Be Hazardous To Babies’ Hearing, Study Says, Huffington Post, 3/3/14