A Room in Midtown Is Quietly Preventing the Battle Towards Metropolis Noise

A Room in Midtown Is Quietly Fighting the Battle Against City Noise

People like to tell me all the ways that New York is too loud. They send emails to my Ask Real Estate column complaining about the noises that torment them during the day and keep them up at night. There are the usual suspects — barking dogs, crying babies, outdoor diners, jackhammers and sirens. But even seemingly pleasant sounds — wind chimes, children playing, opera singing — can induce rage, given the right circumstances.

So when I stepped into the PinDrop, a space billed as “one of the quietest rooms in the world,” inside a nondescript Midtown office building, I thought about all those unhappy New Yorkers and wondered if maybe I’d entered acoustical nirvana.

Or maybe not. The room was so quiet it hurt.

It felt like my ears were popping. Dan Abatemarco, an acoustical consultant for AKRF, the environmental-engineering and consulting firm that designed this room, told me my reaction was common. City-dwellers are so unaccustomed to silence that they often associate the sensation with clogged ears. It also makes people uncomfortable, which explains why “A Quiet Place” is such a creepy movie and why so many New Yorkers pack white-noise machines when they travel. Too much quiet is suspicious.

“It’s almost a primal instinct that something is wrong,” said Mr. Abatemarco, as he sat down on a recent afternoon to operate the sound equipment.

About the size of a typical conference room, the PinDrop has no windows and two giant flat-screen televisions against one wall, giving it serious Situation Room vibes. And it is, quite literally, suspended in space. The floor floats, set atop isolation blocks. The Sheetrock ceiling is hung from springs. The walls have double rows of studs on isolation pads, along with multiple layers of Sheetrock and insulation. There are no parallel walls, making it harder for sound waves to bounce around. Acoustic panels hang from the walls and ceiling. And it’s all shut in by a soundproof door. The result is a space so quiet that a low-noise microphone only picks up 13 decibels. (A whisper registers at around 30 decibels.)

Homeowners, developers, designers and architects hire AKRF to help them figure out how to make their brownstones, condos, new and renovated buildings sound a little bit more like this room. Soundproofing is about keeping unwanted noises out, and acoustics is about improving the quality of the sound around you by controlling how it echoes and reverberates in a space. AKRF consultants visit construction sites and properties, taking measurements and offering suggestions for how to address both issues.

Earlier this month, the company opened the room as a space to turn up the volume on its acoustical advice — so clients can actually hear what the advice sounds like.

Raise the ceiling on the living room, and how much louder will it be? Would acoustical windows cut down on street noise enough to be worth the cost? How quiet would the nursery be with another layer of insulation? Play a recording of, say, the subway rumbling by, and the engineers can try it again with double-pane windows, then acoustical ones. Layer in the noise from an HVAC system, and you inch closer to what your bedroom might sound like under those conditions.

“If they could just hear it, they would know what the right choice is,” Benjamin Sachwald, an acoustical consultant at AKRF, said of his clients.

Mr. Sachwald, who plays drums, says he likes to listen to music in the room through the enormous speakers and subwoofers because, well, music sounds pretty amazing when nothing else competes with it. (He uses the phrase “sonic bliss” a lot.) “Music, when you listen to it in a room like this, you’re transported to another world.”

I visited the PinDrop to sample all the noises that taunt New Yorkers, looking for the breaking point where a noise goes from merely annoying to deserving of a call to 311. And New Yorkers are not shy about calling 311 to vent about noise. Perusing NYC OpenData, I found that more than half of the 5.2 million noise complaints logged by 311 since 2010 were for residential noise — further proof that hell is, in fact, other people.

Of all the noises that New Yorkers love to hate, the AKRF crew was especially enamored with the sound of elevated trains, which rumble through parts of Queens and Brooklyn. So I gave it a go. The volume was set to what you’d hear with the windows open if your apartment looked out at the tracks. “Why you’d open your windows, I don’t know,” Mr. Abatemarco said as he cranked up the dial.

At 94 decibels, my jaw rattled. Then, mercifully, he created the effect of a shut single-pane window, and the din dropped to 75 decibels — not quite mind-numbing, but definitely miserable. Double-paned glass protected my ears a little more. But with a set of acoustical noise-reducing windows, the volume plummeted to around 46 decibels — about as loud as a public library.

I had a similar experience when we sampled the jarring thud of pile-driving, which can make jackhammers sound quaint by comparison. Layer enough insulation into the walls and throw in some high-performance windows, and the sound of pure misery felt more like a dull heartbeat in the background.

Drowning out the noise between apartment walls was actually a lot easier. With the right insulation, the sound of a crying baby or a house party next door was muted enough for life to peacefully roll along.

But here’s the rub with this exercise: Odds are, you’re not living in new construction. And there’s a pretty good chance your building went up before 1968, the year New York’s building code added acoustic requirements. That means whoever erected your building was probably not concerned about whether you would hear the children upstairs catapulting off their bunk beds. So how do you make your life more tolerable when the windows and walls are already in place?

The AKRF consultants had some suggestions for those of us without the budget or ability to call in the experts and rip out the windows and insulation. If the sound is coming from outside, you can add acoustic curtains or noise-reducing window inserts. Drafty windows are a culprit — if air can get through, so too can noise. Same with light: If you can see it coming through the door frame, it may be time to clean or replace door seals.

After experiencing nearly every annoying sound I could imagine in possibly the quietest room in the city, I stepped back outside to Park Avenue South just as a heavy spring storm set in. I rushed to catch my train, hardly registering the cacophony around me.

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