If you’ve seen our guides on how acoustic panels work and how effective they can be, it’s clear that they’re a valuable tool when it comes to managing the sound in a space. But they are also a tool that is really meant to solve specific problems. You should know when and how to use acoustic panels, in the same way that you know when to use other tools like a saw or a drill: to accomplish specific, unique goals.
If you’re managing a powerful multi-channel stereo system, trying to control sound in a public restaurant or office space that is too loud, or producing high-quality audio or music recordings, you should be using acoustic panels.
There are a few other edge cases in which you may need acoustic panels, and even in the broad examples above, there are different ways that acoustic panels should be deployed to get the best results. Let’s dive in, so that you can have some confidence you’re deploying acoustic panels in the right way.
Different Scenarios when Acoustic Panels are Useful
Acoustic treatment comes in many sizes and shapes. From smaller 1 foot by 1 foot square foam panels like the TANDD Blue and Black Studio Panels (on Amazon), to 2 foot by 4 foot wall panels like these ATS Acoustic Panels in Ivory (also on Amazon), there is a lot of variation. And the variations exist because there are tons of ways people use acoustic panels.
And be sure to pay attention to what you’re looking at, and think about if it’s an acoustic panel that you want, or acoustic foam. Here’s a separate write-up on the difference if you need it. And these differences in sizes can be really serious, leading to different problems or solutions for you. In fact, we have a whole separate article on acoustic panel sizing.
Depending on your situation, you’ll want different sizes and shapes of panels, and you may even want to go fully custom and build panels to fit your unique needs. If that’s the case, you’ll want to check out our guides on the best fabrics and best fill materials for custom acoustic panels. But first, you should understand what your needs are.
Managing a Multi-Channel Stereo System
One of the situations in which acoustic panels can be critical to sound quality is when managing a multi-channel stereo system. You might have a system like this that is designed for enjoying audio, like a record player and hi-fi system. Or, you could have something with many more channels like a system that is supporting a home theater, in which it’s especially important to use acoustic panels (our guide).
Either way, you’re going to need to think about the various sound channels and how your space can influence them. Sounds will keep going after you hear it, and the soundwaves that travel through your space will bounce off the walls and even the ceiling. This can complicate speaker systems because the sound is usually generated at a high volume.
So, these high powered sound waves bounce off the walls, then they keep bouncing. They stay in the space ricocheting around and influencing other waves in the air, interfering with the overall sound quality. In this situation, even a simple two-channel audio system, with stereo (left and right) can be too much for the space.
And especially in the case of a home theater with a large multi-channel system, the sound waves very quickly overwhelm the sound quality. A 7.1 channel system has seven speakers all pointed in different directions, bouncing waves around the space. Not to mention the subwoofer.
All of these waves need to be managed with acoustic panels to get the audio quality that you’re paying for with a system that big. This can be a complicated problem to solve, so much so that we have a separate article explaining acoustic placement for home theater systems. It goes into more detail on how many, where, and explains why some prefer to mount acoustic panels on their ceiling too (our writeup).
Controlling Sound in a Public Space
If you’ve ever been to a restaurant or office-space in which you noticed it was loud, then you know the type of public space I’m talking about here. Sound waves bounce, and that includes the sounds that people make talking to each other in person or on the phone.
In offices and restaurants especially, but also in larger meeting spaces, the sound waves from everyone talking to each other can start to get overwhelming. And then a feedback loop occurs where everyone starts to talk a little louder so they can be better heard, and those more powerful, higher volume sound waves bounce around just as much.
The problem gets worse and worse as everyone speaks up to be heard. In this case, acoustic panels are one of the best options to address this sound spillover. In an office place, panels can be placed around the perimeter of the room, at roughly head-hight, to try and absorb sounds as they’re created, before they bounce.
In larger spaces, or where there is just a lot of space between the walls, suspending panels from the ceiling is a viable solution as well. Start to look up when you’re in large restaurants and you’ll probably start seeing panels that are dropped like this, with designs and custom fabric coverings to camouflage them in the environment. A space like this might require more panels, depending on its’ size (more on the number of panels you’ll need is in a separate article).
Increasing Sound Quality in a Recording Studio
There are a couple of different cases in which you might want to control audio quality for recordings. On the quiet end, you may be recording a podcast or other audio content at basically low volume. The low volume prevents sound waves from bouncing around a lot, but you may still need to spot treat the space.
If you’re recording at a desk, for instance, you may want the wall directly opposite the speaker, or walls nearby if you’re in a corner, to be acoustically treated to prevent sound bouncing back from the nearest walls.
If you’re making recordings on the louder end of the spectrum though, like when recording musical instruments, then the situation is a little more complex. The high volume and enclosed space mean that you’re going to have to treat much, much more of the flat surfaces.
Typically, if you’re recording high-quality music fails, you’ll want to be in a space that is as acoustically treated as possible. This means that the walls, ceiling, and even the floor should be treated to absorb all sounds, giving you the highest control over audio in the space.
When to Not Use Acoustic Panels
Acoustic panels seem so simple to use, that you may be on the other end of the spectrum: not asking how few panels you can get away with, but asking what other cases can I use acoustic panels in? Should you just be putting them around my house to make it quieter? Will that have any effect?
Although “more” almost always equals “better” with acoustic panels, that’s really only when you’re addressing a specific concern. If you have a high-end audio system that needs management, sure, use panels, but if you have a quieter speaker system that doesn’t have problems with audio quality, you don’t need to put a bunch of panels in.
In a very large space, especially one with high ceilings that allow sound waves to dissipate before bouncing around too much, you may not need acoustic panels. And when it comes to just placing them around the house willy-nilly, you don’t really need to do that. Your wall insulation will already be capturing some sound, especially if it’s acoustically sensitive wall insulation like Audimute eco-C-tex Acoustic Panels (on Amazon).
Basically, you don’t need acoustic panels unless you can hear a problem. If you notice a space is too loud, if you notice the sound waves don’t sound right to your ear, that’s when you need acoustic panels. Not before.