Sleep

These white-noise apps have great reviews—but are they worth it?

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Credit: App Store

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Drowning out sounds that can disrupt your sleep is a great way to maximize your night, without having to keep asking whomever you live with—partner, roommate, kids—to quiet down. Plus, while working from home, white noise as a steady background sound can help you focus throughout the day.

Many people rely on dedicated sound machines to create a soothing, low-distraction environment. Those machines are great and arguably the best option for this purpose. But some smartphone apps claim to turn your phone into a portable, customizable—and effective—sound machine, particularly if you pair your phone with a Bluetooth speaker or smart speaker, which improves the sound quality dramatically.

I tried the free and paid versions of three popular sound machine apps available on the Apple App Store: White Noise Lite and White Noise, Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds, and Sleep Orbit on my iPhone 7 Plus (these are all available for Android on Google Play as well). I listened to each via my phone’s built-in speakers, a pair of Beats Solo 3 over-ear headphones, as well as on a JBL Flip 3 Bluetooth Speaker, and an Amazon Echo Dot.

Each of the apps offers background play, meaning the app doesn’t need to be open for sound to continue playing; timers that you can set to turn off the sound after a designated period, from minutes to hours; and the ability to create custom mixes by layering various sounds, like frogs croaking while a stream babbles on. For those who use their phone as their daily alarm, two of the apps have internal alarm features, and the iPhone’s native alarm and clock app can override sound playing from all three. Despite the uniformity of some features, each app had pros and cons, whether it be sheer budget-friendliness, the breadth of sounds available, or a more intuitive interface for finding and blending sounds together.

A clear favorite—and a close second—emerged after I used them all, though each one has points where it shines, as well as its own drawbacks. Below, my findings, from my top pick on down.

Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds

Relax Melodies Sound Screen
Credit: Ipnos Software Inc.

The sound library on Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds doesn't allow you to sort free sounds from the ones that are only available on the paid version.

Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds has the most aesthetically pleasing interface of the apps I tried, and is also more intuitive than the others. The free version of the app has a lot to offer—more than any of the other free apps I tried, and even than one of the paid versions I checked out. But for users to access the full spread premium features, this app is also the most expensive. For full access (which includes far more than just sound machine features), users have to cough up a steep, recurring annual fee of $59.99 after a week-long free trial.

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The free version: As soon as you open the app, a preset mix—a soothing combination of birds, ocean sounds, and music—starts playing. The track, called “eternity,” was a nice start to my experience with Relax Melodies.

The sound library, with almost 50 free options, seems overwhelming at first, especially when I realized that the list includes all the free and premium sounds (just over 100 in total), and you can’t filter out by this criterion. You have to scroll through all the sounds, even those that are unavailable to people using the free version. There are categories of sounds, like “nature” and “water,” which make it a bit easier to find certain things.

Users can layer up to 12 sounds to create their own mixes on Relax Melodies, more than double the number allowed on the other two applications. The timer function on this app is also noteworthy because it allows users to customize the duration a sound or mix plays—anywhere from one minute to 23 hours. In addition, users can change how long the sounds fade out before going silent (which can be between 30 seconds and 10 minutes), and also specify whether the app should shut down once the timer stops. The other apps don’t have this level of fine tuning, instead only offering a standard sleep timer, which shuts the sounds off but leaves the app running (the benefit of this depends on personal preference, but I like to close my apps ASAP).

The alarm feature on Relax Melodies is also more refined than the same function on the other apps, and I like some of the sounds developers built in for this, such as the “grandfather clock.” Users can fade the alarm in while transitioning the background sounds out (if they’re still playing when the alarm is set to go off). I really liked the alarm feature on Relax Melodies, and it was consistent with my experience with the rest of the app: easy to use, clear, and generally well done.

One minor downside of Relax Melodies is that the sounds it plays can’t be changed or managed in the iPhone’s Control Center. To pause a sound, you have to open the app. In addition, sounds don’t automatically pause when headphones disconnect. I unpaired mine and switched to listening to something on my computer, only to realize—nearly three hours later—that my phone was playing the sound at a low volume the whole time.

What you get when you pay: The paid version provides around 50 additional sounds, which users can see, but not listen to, on the basic version before they decide to upgrade. I think the main perk of the paid version is the 160-plus guided meditation sessions, and additional meditation content that’s added on a weekly basis. For users who are looking primarily for a white-noise or sound-machine function, the free version of this app is adequate.

Relax Melodies Alarm
Credit: Ipnos Software Inc.

Relax Melodies: Sleep Sounds has more advanced alarm and timer features than either of the other apps I tried.


The bottom line: As a sound machine, the free version of this app works well. Users can layer a far greater number of sounds than on the other apps I tried, and can customize each sound’s prevalence in a mix, which is a major plus. Relax Melodies also comes with some free meditation sessions—just 12 in the free version—but if your primary use is as a sound machine, these are a nice bonus. There’s no need to upgrade, unless you’re really fiending for the premium sounds (which would not be worth it for $60 a year, in my opinion) or you're looking for a meditation app, though I haven't reviewed those offerings yet. The number of sounds available in the free version (50) is on par with White Noise, but Relax Melodies' more intuitive interface was the tipping point for me. That, plus the degree of customization users are given when setting alarms, make this app a winner in my book.

White Noise Lite and White Noise (paid version)

White Noise Control Center and Mixes
Credit: TMSOFT

Ads weren't obnoxious in White Noise Lite (left), and hardly changed user experience in the paid version (right). This app was the only one that could be managed from iPhone's Control Center.

White Noise Lite (and its paid version, White Noise) is fairly easy to navigate, though not as intuitive as Relax Melodies, and has a surprising number of features for a free app. It comes with 50 sounds (on par with Relax Melodies), offering users a decent variety right off the bat.

The free version: When you first open White Noise Lite, it displays an image along with the sound that that’s playing. You can listen to just one sound at a time or make “mixes” of five sounds or fewer. The app comes with a handful of pleasant pre-made mixes, such as “frogs” and “stream.”

One of the major perks of this app is that users can pause and play sounds from an iPhone’s Control Center, a feature that isn’t available in the other apps I tried. This makes it fast and easy for users to pause a sound when needed.

The app description touts that the mix function allows users to create “new soundscapes like a DJ.” The developers claim users can adjust sound position, pitch, and volume individually. However, when I tried to fine-tune my mixes, I couldn’t hear a difference with any of the adjustments through my iPhone’s speakers or via my Beats Solo 3 headphones, which was disappointing.

What you get when you pay: The paid version, called “White Noise,” costs 99 cents, and is another app entirely, not just an upgrade to the one that’s already installed. I didn’t love this aspect—I wish it just updated the initial app, so that I didn’t have to deal with multiple installations.

The only real benefit to the paid White Noise is that it is ad-free, though I didn’t think the ads on the unpaid version were obnoxious. The upgrade has the same 50 sounds (and no more), unlike the other apps I tested, where paid access comes with additional “premium” sounds.

Both versions of the app promote the White Noise Market (yet another app), which I also checked out. The Market is a clever idea, offering a library of “thousands” of user-created sounds for free, which can even be searched by the location they were recorded, and downloaded to both White Noise Lite and White Noise for playing and mixing. The App Store indicated the Market comes with “in-app purchase options,” which I assumed would be the ability to buy individual sounds. Instead, it was a 99-cent monthly subscription, which as far as I can tell, doesn’t offer much, if anything, of real value. Paying disables ads, but only in the Market app (not in the free version of White Noise Lite), and offers a couple other perks, such as unlimited uploads to share your own sounds with the community, that don’t seem at all worthwhile for a casual user.

In both versions of White Noise, you can set up custom alarms to wake up in the morning if you want to run the sound all night. Within the app, you can choose when the sound or mix you’re playing fades out (if at all) before the alarm rings, as well as the sound of the alarm. For most people, the app’s built-in alarm function should be a sufficient wake-up call, and it’s nice to have everything in one place.

White Noise Market Map Feature
Credit: TMSOFT

The White Noise Market app allows users to find new sounds by location through the map tab, and then download them into White Noise Lite or White Noise.


The bottom line: I don’t see a great reason to spare the extra buck for the premium version of White Noise, or to pay the 99-cent monthly subscription to the White Noise Market. The free app is just as good as the paid one (as I didn’t mind the ads in the free version), and I could choose downloads from a bounty of free sounds on the White Noise Market app if I got bored with the 50 that are included. Although downloading both White Noise Lite and White Noise Market is a pain, it’s worth it for the greater selection. And with them, you can get a lot of bang, for no buck.

Sleep Orbit

Sleep Orbit Controls and Themes
Credit: SMB Studio LLC

Sleep Orbit free (left) doesn't feature specialized adjustments, like loop time (center). The paid version comes with additional backgrounds, but they don't drastically improve user experience.

Despite having 4.8 stars and 3,000 reviews on the App Store, Sleep Orbit irked me right off the bat when it suggested I wear headphones for the best experience. While you’re working and throughout the day, that’s fine, but if you’re trying to sleep, headphones can be a real pain unless you have a pair specifically designed for the task.

One of the big selling points of this app is that it creates a “binaural” experience, meaning that sounds are played in a way that makes listeners feel as if they’re in a 3D soundscape. “Orbit” is likely part of the app’s name because when heard through a pair of headphones, the sounds seem to rotate around your head—but the effect is lost through the phone's speakers and on the Bluetooth speaker I used for testing.

The free version: Sleep Orbit was my least favorite of the apps I tested, with a mixed bag of results. Most importantly, I was unimpressed with the quality and accuracy of numerous sounds in the free version. Some weren’t realistic and others were downright unpleasant. For example, the “campfire” track evokes a weird combination of wind, ocean, and what I imagine Pop Rocks candy would sound like if you listened to someone else eat them, and the “concentration beats” came across to me almost like low-pitch tinnitus, or that ringing in the ears that happens after you’ve gone to a loud concert. My favorites were the Vibraphone, which is unsuitable for sleep because its musicality is stimulating, and "Deep Ocean Bubbles," which could be better for snoozing because it’s more similar to a steady, background noise, like rain.

This app also doesn’t have a search function. Like the other apps, this one permits sound mixing, but I hunted for quite a while for “stream” audio to layer with “frogs.” Eventually I found it under the nature category, but it could be missed by people quickly skimming the library (guilty as charged) because the title is “mountain stream.” After creating the mix, I spent another five minutes trying to figure out how to save it, which was frustrating. All in all, I thought the interface was difficult to navigate and unintuitive.

The app has some unique features, like recordings of whispering or talking, including “positive affirmations,” which could trigger ASMR or “autonomous sensory meridian response”—a sensory experience some people claim to feel after, or while, listening to certain sounds. There are eight different recordings under the “whispering” category, some featuring continual whispers of phrases, like “I am confident,” and the word “eleven” (for some reason?). Others in this category include breathing and “mouth sounds," which sounded almost like dripping water to me.

I found the ability to adjust the individual sound level and direction (where a sound seems to be coming from, best heard through headphones) on this app worked well, so in terms of sound customization, it performs better than the other two apps.

One of the biggest downsides of this app is that it lacks a built-in alarm function, unlike the others I tried. You can set a timer to turn the sound off, but there isn’t any way to set sounds to wake you up in the morning. In addition, the maximum time you can set a sound to run for, unless you want it playing indefinitely, is three hours.

What you get when you pay: The premium version of Sleep Orbit gives users access to 60 additional sounds, the ability to import your own audio tracks, and more audio-modification options to customize mixes. The cost is $5.99, which sets a high bar when you figure that you get access to "thousands" of sounds and can upload your own for free through White Noise Market. The advanced audio controls—such as setting the length of a certain sound in a mix (you can fade one sound out a sound before another ends) and changing the “loop duration,” or how long the sound runs—are somewhat impressive and unlike what other apps offer, but wouldn’t convince me to cough up $6.

The pro version of the app also touts additional background themes that display on the phone’s screen while the sounds play, but only six in total (the free version comes with a solid white and black background, in addition to the preset Night Sky). Plus, one of the premium backdrops is just another solid: purple. But keeping your screen on while the sounds play drains battery and doesn’t add much (if anything) to the sound-machine experience.

The bottom line: In addition to all my quibbles above, I occasionally had trouble getting the sounds to play at all, from both the free and paid version of the app. It looked like they were playing, but my phone speakers and headphones remained silent. Whenever this happened, I had to shut down the app and restart it, which would be frustrating for a routine user.

For users looking to change or control the direction of a sound, and for some free ASMR tracks, this app is a good option, because it’s the only of the three that offer this functionality. Otherwise, hard pass.

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