If you’ve just scratched the surface on acoustic panels, one of the first things you’ll notice is the sheer abundance of options. There are big and small panels, and once you know both how sound panels work (our guide) and how effective they can be (also our guide), your next question is which of these size options to pick? What’s the difference?
While acoustic panels typically come in fixed, large sizes designed for cosmetic appeal as much as functionality, acoustic foam is usually sold in 1-square-foot sections more suitable for acoustic isolation of recording spaces.
What this means is that you will almost certainly be better off with one of these options as compared to the other, but that you first need to understand the goals you have for acoustically treating your space first, and when to use acoustic panels at all (our article). Let’s dive in and look at what factors may weigh in on your decision to go with either panels or foam.
It’s hard to give an “in general” answer to this question because so much of that answer depends on what you’re doing. If you have a home theater system with 7 channels of sound, all of it bouncing around a small-ish space, well, I can say for certain that acoustic panels are a better general solution for that. In fact, we have a whole separate article about how important acoustic panels are for a home theater.
And what about a recording studio? If you’re using a space to play instruments, record that music, and mix it into a song, well, acoustic panels aren’t going to cut it.
You need clarity, and a more iron-grip on the acoustics of the space, which means you need to cover as much of the walls and floor as you can. And Although panels could technically be used here, the acoustic foam will be much easier for you to work with and fill the space with. That said, some do choose to put acoustic panels on their ceiling, and we have a guide on doing just that if you're interested in seeing how it works.
And what about other situations? What if you’re making recordings, but it’s just audio...you don’t need all the high-end equipment and fidelity that music requires. What about if you’re trying to manage the sound in a busy office or crowded restaurant?
All of these situations have their own unique requirements, and acoustic panels and foam can address all of them. Reading through a few pros and cons may give you a good idea of which option is better for you.
While both options are easy to physically get on the wall, acoustic panels are what most people picture when you say anything about acoustic treatment. They’re common in offices, busy restaurants, and even residential home theaters. Although you can’t usually see them, they’re in real theaters as well. If you’re considering acoustic panels, have a quick glance through these pros and cons.
Acoustic panels are designed to be large and to cover a lot of wall space. And they’re typically designed to do it in one of the main rooms of your house, or in a chic or otherwise well-designed public space. Make no mistake: your purpose for the room will set the size of panels you need (our guide), and acoustic panels will be on the larger side of that spectrum.
That means panels are much more likely to be aesthetically pleasing, to be available in white or other pleasing patterns. If you’re working in a home theater or filling in a public workspace, the cosmetics of acoustic panels are probably more what you’re looking for.
Maybe you’ve seen our other articles on making your own acoustic panels already (how to select the best fabric and fill materials), but the long and short of it is that if you get a few key elements right, you can make your own acoustic panels to suit your needs.
This is a really powerful option not just because it allows you to save some money, but also because it allows you to customize panels to look how you want and to be shaped how you want.
Because acoustic panels are designed to take up more space on the wall, they’re usually pretty large. A typical entry into this category, like the Acoustimac Sound Absorbing Acoustic Panel (on Amazon) is sized at 2 feet by 4 feet, for instance. This is great for a home theater or a small restaurant, but what about when you’re doing the recording?
For low-volume audio recordings, you can spot-treat the space as needed. But a 2 foot by 4-foot panel doesn’t really lend itself to this kind of spot-treated approach. And on the other hand, when recording high-quality audio, you’ll really want to acoustically treat the entire space...all 100% of the flat surfaces sound could bounce off of. Reference our acoustic panel placement guide for more on this.
This tactic - soundproofing - is what we talk about when we say “covering 100% of the surface sound can bounce off of.” And you can’t do it very easily with acoustic panels because of their large size - if your wall is 7 feet across, for instance, a 3 2 foot wide panel will only cover 6 of that.
Acoustic panels come in a few standard sizes, and you should know that that size is set when you buy the panel. This may seem like a silly thing to point out, but it can really be an issue if your space has some specific requirements of where panels need to go.
They can be too big for a space, and you can’t easily resize them since there is (typically) a wooden or metal frame around the border. And this large size can strongly influence how many panels you need overall (our guide).
Acoustic foam is a little more niche. People don’t exactly want to put them out in the open when treating a space that also has to appeal aesthetically, which is not to say acoustic foam is ugly or anything, it’s just has a very characteristic look that you can’t camouflage.
This is because the jagged, or sometimes wavy edges, are what make the acoustic foam work in the first place. If you didn’t have those, you wouldn’t have the sound control!
There’s no denying that acoustic foam has larger foam panels beat when it comes to size flexibility. While standard sizes for acoustic panels may offer nice aesthetic options like larger panels that blend in or octagonal panels that can serve as design elements, the standard plug-and-play design of most acoustic foam products makes them much more flexible for treating a space.
Simply put, where acoustic panels may have several options that solve design or aesthetic problems, acoustic foam sets strive to allow you to do one thing very easily: to cover all of a given space. For that reason, the industry standard is a 1-foot-square panel that makes it both easier and cheaper to cover large areas.
One of the best features of acoustic foam panels is that they’re made of foam! It’s not hard to fold, bend, or cut, which means you can really customize a space without feeling like you’re destroying an expensive piece of equipment. Do you have one stubborn corner you can't fit any square panels into? Cut one to shape? This isn’t something you can do with a hefty acoustic panel.
There are places where acoustic foam panels blend in. Recording studios. The background of Youtube videos. Maybe in a co-workspace calling booth. It’s hard to mistake the jagged-edged foam panel for anything else. And that look, especially when it’s dark foam, is not really something you would consider a design element.
That’s OK - especially because it’s just these sorts of jagged edges and mismatched angles that allow the foam panels to do their job and trap sound.
But if you’re trying to control the look of a space with a little more fidelity, your options with foam panels are limited to black jagged-edged squares or (maybe better or worse depending on your taste) brightly colored ones like the Foamily Red/Charcoal Acoustic Panels (on Amazon).
Although panels can be assembled from a few simple parts, acoustic foam has to be produced en masse with a machine that can manage the materials, pump it full of air, and cut it into the characteristic shapes required for the acoustic foam to work.
They’re typically cheaper than panels for this reason, but you’re not going to be able to make custom acoustic foam.
Maybe now you're a little closer to know which of these options is right for you. The cosmetic advantage goes to acoustic panels, so if you're deploying sound treatment in a space that looks pretty and needs ti keep looking pretty, then you should consider panels first.
But if your'e starting a podcast in your close or trying to produce high quality recordings, then you can probably skip right to acoustic foam. And for everything in between, just be sure to pause and consider your needs, and the goals you have for your space. With a little planning, you can't go wrong.