Acoustic Panels vs. Soundproofing: 5 Differences

Soundproofing can improve sound quality and promote a more peaceful environment in a recording studio, bedroom, office, or garage. However, to properly tackle a soundproofing project, you must first learn the difference between soundproofing and acoustic panels. 

Acoustic panels absorb sound and reduce reverberation in a space. They’re made of porous, spongy material. By contrast, soundproofing panels are made of solid, sturdy material and block off any incoming or outgoing sound from a space. 

In addition to these critical differences, there are several features of acoustic and soundproofing panels that can help you tell them apart. This article will explore all their differences and similarities, as well as how they work together.

Acoustic Panels vs. Soundproofing 5 Differences

1. Sound Absorption vs. Sound Blocking

Acoustic panels were invented to flatten reverberation in a room. They don’t get rid of noise; they just absorb or diffuse it so that sound inside a space is balanced and not muddied by echoes. 

Because of this, people frequently use acoustic panels in recording studios, shared office spaces, and public places where people conduct meetings (in person or virtually). 

They improve the clarity of sound and enhance the quality of the music and sound production experience. 

This is why acoustic panels are porous. They absorb and soften certain frequencies simply by being cut in specific shapes and placed in particular areas in a room. They don’t have sound-blocking qualities and can’t stop sound from exiting or entering a space. 

The science behind this is quite simple. Acoustic panels are porous, and when sound hits that porous material, it loses momentum. The material’s density and shape determine which frequencies get absorbed, pass through, or diffuse.

Low-frequency sound waves can pass through if the foam’s density is too high. Acoustic foam is generally better at managing high frequencies. 

Soundproofing panels block sound from exiting or entering a space as much as possible by separating surfaces from each other, a process known as decoupling, creating more barriers and making it harder for sound to penetrate. 

Soundproofing panels are often used in office buildings, schools, and apartment blocks. These spaces need to block noise from adjacent rooms or outside activities like traffic. 

Soundproofing panels isolate and filter out noise but don’t do anything for echoes and reverberations. So, although they keep noise out, the sounds they keep won’t be studio-quality, and ambient noise may still cause problems. 

The science behind soundproofing panels is basically the opposite of acoustic foam. For instance, polyurethane foam is excellent for dampening high frequencies but does little to stop low-frequency sound waves. 

The thicker or more dense the material used in soundproofing, the more effective it tends to be. Fiberglass is also used in soundproofing, and the denser it is, the better it is at blocking sound. 

Take a look at these acoustic and soundproofing materials to understand how porousness and density affect different frequencies. 

2. Acoustic Panels Are Spongy, Soundproof Panels Are Solid

Acoustic panels are usually made with a combination of fabric and acoustic foam. Acoustic foam is a porous, lightweight material. They come in various shapes to accommodate the needs of a space and how much wall space is available.

  • Flat and beveled are the least absorbent and are more for added reduction.
  • Wedge and pyramid are best suited to small spaces.
  • Egg-crate is the most effective, versatile, and cost-effective. 
  • Strip offers a subtle design and better absorption than the flat design. 
  • Metro consists of uneven shapes and diffuses sound very effectively.
  • Mushroom redirects and absorbs sound, and it’s aesthetically pleasing. 

Fstop Labs Acoustic Foam Panels (available on Amazon.com) are mushroom-shaped and come in various colors and pack sizes, so you can customize them however you like. This variation is perfect for absorbing noise in small spaces like a living room or office.

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Last update on 2022-10-05 / Affiliate links / Images from Amazon Product Advertising API

It’s important to note that foam acoustic or polyurethane, cannot be used in industrial settings because they’re highly flammable. 

Soundproofing panels are the complete opposite. They’re made of a range of different materials:

  • Mass-loaded vinyl
  • Drywall
  • Fiberglass
  • Cork
  • Polyurethane foam
  • Aluminum
  • Plaster
  • Felt
  • Epoxy
  • Tiles

These are all materials that are flat, solid, and rigid. They create a host of layers inside a wall, separated by air pockets, meaning that noise will have a more challenging time penetrating a room from inside and out.

Some become more flexible and yielding when heat is applied, which is the case with vinyl and polyurethane foam. This has its merits, but mainly it can lower the material’s ability to block lower frequencies. 

Mass-loaded vinyl is an industry favorite, as it’s accessible, affordable, and versatile. The mass and density of mass-loaded vinyl are invaluable where soundproofing is concerned and can be layered for added effect. 

This SoundproofingMLV Noise Grabber Mass Loaded Vinyl (available on Amazon.com) is a perfect addition to your soundproofing project at a reasonable price and super easy installation. 

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Drywall is also one of the more commonly used options for the same reasons. It can be stacked repeatedly for a more effective soundproofing setup; it’s affordable and widely accessible. 

The same goes for cork: it’s lightweight, porous, cheap, and can stack to create a more dense barrier. Cork consists of honeycomb shapes which give it sound absorbing qualities. 

Soundproofing tiles are a different story. They have more similarities to acoustic paneling in that they’re placed on top of a surface (like a floor, ceiling, or wall). They’re lightweight and not the most effective soundproofing method, though they have their merits. 

3. Soundproofing Panels Go Inside Walls

Acoustic panels function as cushions for surfaces like walls and ceilings. This means they’re installed on top of these as a soft inner wall. Some acoustic paneling is quite aesthetically pleasing and can serve as decor in its own right.

However, acoustic paneling is handy because it’s easy to cover up wallpaper, curtains, and dividers. You don’t need to cover an entire wall in acoustic paneling; one focus area is enough to diffuse sound. 

Soundproofing can take numerous shapes, extending so far as soundproofing sprays and paints that cover walls and ceilings. However, soundproof paneling is more efficient beneath the floor or inside the walls. 

Soundproofing works through decoupling, a process that isolates sound on one side of a wall, making it extremely difficult for the sound to travel beyond the barriers. When layers of a wall are connected directly ( as most walls are), sound can easily travel through both layers.

However, by adding space between the layers of drywall and the stud, the sound gets dampened significantly before reaching the opposite side of the barrier. This effect is increased if there’s insulation material placed in this space. 

The stud is a vertical piece of metal or wood and makes up part of a stud wall. Typically, buildings have a single stud construction, which means that both layers of drywall are attached to the same stud, and pass vibrations through both sides.

By decoupling one of the sides of a wall from the stud, vibrations cannot pass through both of them, creating a soundproof barrier. 

Decoupling isn’t without its limitations. Some frequencies tend to be left to seep through, specifically very low frequencies. 

You can find more information about the relationship between soundproofing, decoupling, frequencies, and resonance here

Decoupling isn’t the only way to deafen sound, but it’s the most popular and effective. The other methods include: 

  • Creating density and mass in the walls, ceilings, and floors. 
  • Connecting sheets of drywall using Green Glue is a process known as dampening. 

For a step-by-step look at how soundproofing works, including more information about the stud wall, watch the below video.

There’s a stark difference in the acoustic and soundproofing panel installation processes, making acoustic paneling much easier and budget-friendly to install. 

Acoustic panels require no installation costs; the most significant expense is the panels themselves, which aren’t that pricey. Soundproofing can cost anywhere from $1000 to $4000, depending on the size of your space and the exact materials used. 

Look at this cost breakdown for more detailed information on the cost of labor and materials. 

4. You Can’t (Easily) DIY Soundproof Paneling

While acoustic paneling has a straightforward installation process that involves attaching these panels to the surface of a wall, you may still want to research and use the video below for guidance.

Soundproofing panels are much bigger, so DIY enthusiasts should consult a professional. A considerable risk is involved in installing soundproofing panels because you essentially need to remove, alter, and reinstall walls and floors.

If you do this incorrectly, it could result in irreparable damage to the framework of your space and cause more harm (and financial loss) than good. 

There are ways that you can soundproof a room by yourself, but you should do extensive research and planning beforehand, starting with this comprehensive video:

Here’s how you can soundproof a room:

  1. Fill any holes and gaps, such as cracks in window panes or skirting board, with Green Glue or caulk. 
  2. Add an extra layer of drywall onto the existing drywall using Green Glue. Be sure to use a different kind of drywall from the current sheet. 
  3. Add a layer of mass-loaded vinyl in between your layers of drywall. 
  4. Install a resilient channel, a metal beam that aids in decoupling a wall. 
  5. Alternatively, hang soundproof blankets. This works well in situations where you cannot make any physical changes to the walls in your space.

Soundproofing blankets are a simple, cost-effective way to enhance the soundproof qualities of a space without any of the major construction or DIY work that altering the walls’ structure would require. 

The US Cargo Control Econo Saver Moving Blankets (available on Amazon.com) are 80 by 72 inches (203.2 x 182.88 cm) and come in packs of six. They’re lightweight, versatile, easy to install, and great value for money.

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Below are some mistakes to avoid in your soundproofing DIY project:

  • Buying the wrong soundproofing materials. Knowing precisely how you plan to reduce noise and what materials can do this best is essential. 
  • Leaving gaps and cracks. Leaving small cracks and crevices where sound can leak through seem insignificant, but they make a huge difference. 
  • Not researching precisely what’s causing your noise problem. If it’s unclear where the noise is coming from, you won’t know how to fix it. 
  • Failing to distinguish soundproofing and sound absorption. Mixing these two up can ultimately defeat the purpose of your project; you won’t end up with a successful result. 
  • Cutting corners and buying cheaper materials than you should. To do a project as complex as soundproofing, it needs to be done right, without cutting corners. 

5. Sound Quality vs. Sound Control

Any sound-related job requires a space with as little “noise” as possible. Acoustic paneling eliminates echoes, reverberation, and noise to create a crisp, clean sound quality. 

By diffusing and absorbing sounds they don’t want and enhancing the ones they do, producers reach their required quality. This functions within a space, so whatever sound is generated in one room can be separated into valuable sounds and noises you want to eliminate. 

This is also exceptionally effective in office environments: by directing different decibels and wavelengths, you can “select” which sounds you’d like to hear. Acoustic panels don’t alter the sound from the source, but they “turn down the volume” on ambient noise at a specific frequency. 

Read this example of reducing ambient noise in a restaurant to get a better idea of the science behind acoustic panels.  

Soundproofing works very differently. The point of soundproofing isn’t to cancel out sounds you don’t want and improve the ones you do, but instead to block out as much sound as possible from an external source. 

Soundproofing focuses on keeping inside sounds inside and outside sounds outside. There’s no way to “select” particular wavelengths or decibels to cancel out. It simply isolates and controls sound within a space. 

Unlike acoustic panels, which manage the existing sound in a space and don’t actually deal with external noise, soundproofing panels don’t affect the ambient noise or reduce reverberation. They simply stop local noise from exiting and external noise from entering. 

Putting all of this information together, it becomes abundantly clear that acoustic and soundproofing panels solve different problems entirely through what are basically opposing methods.

Despite their opposing uses, or perhaps because of them, they actually need to be combined to create a space that genuinely utilizes sound to the best of its ability. 

Without acoustic panels, soundproofing won’t eliminate ambient noise within a space, leaving a muddied sound even though no external noise can come through. Acoustic panels reduce internal reverberations without soundproofing panels, but external noise can seep through. 

These two methods must be used together to achieve professional noise control in a space that leads to crisp sound and minimal interruptions. 

Conclusion

Despite the fact that acoustic and soundproofing panels are sometimes used interchangeably in the context of sound control, they’re far from the same thing. These panels serve different functions, come with varying costs, and require contrasting installation efforts. For this reason, if you want to achieve peak-quality sound, you’ll have to integrate both of these types of panels within a space.

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Vinnie

I'm Vinnie, and I'm here to support you to create your own studio at home, whether it’s for photography, recording audio, podcasts, or videos!

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