Acoustic Panels vs. Foam: Differences & Which to Choose
Both acoustic panels and foam improve the acoustics within a room, but they both modify sound differently and which one is best for your space will depend on several factors such as: the purpose of the room, aesthetics required, budget and frequency needs.
Acoustic panels are preferred where sound clarity is essential, aesthetics are important and treatment of a broad range of frequencies is required. This makes them ideal for bigger spaces like classrooms, offices, restaurants, conference rooms, hospitals, public spaces and home theatres.
Acoustic foam, on the other hand, is preferred where precise sound control is important making it ideal for recording studios and smaller spaces requiring detailed sound isolation. Foam is preferred when functionality is more important than aesthetics and budget is a concern.
Let’s explore the differences between these two acoustic treatment products so you can select the right one for your needs.
Understanding Acoustic Treatment & Acoustic Challenges
Acoustic treatment is the process of modifying elements within a room to control echoes, reverberations and other acoustic issues.
Understanding common acoustic issues will help you make an informed decision about the type of acoustic treatment required for a specific space and whether you should use acoustic panels or foam to treat it.
Untreated spaces can lead to the following acoustic challenges:
- Echoes: When sound waves bounce off hard surfaces like a bare wall or concrete floor, they can create repeated reflections known as echoes. In excess, echoes create a loud and negative sound experience. Acoustic treatment for echoes involves adding sound absorbing materials, at distances as short as 2 inches (5 cm approx) from the reflecting surface, like curtains, carpets or acoustic panels that absorb sound waves
- Reverberations: Unlike echoes, reverberations are a collection of multiple reflected sounds, all occurring within 0.1 seconds of the original sound that blur the clarity of speech or music, leading to a muffled sound and making it hard to understand people when they speak. To manage reverberations effectively, acoustic panels often need to cover reflection points, with treatment areas around 4 feet by 2 feet (or 120 cm by 60 cm) for each reflection point.
- Frequency Imbalances: these will be custom to every room as different frequencies can behave unpredictably in untreated spaces. Low frequencies (below 100 Hz) might become overemphasised in a small room, while high frequencies (above 4000 Hz) may be absorbed too quickly, leading to an imbalanced sound profile. Acoustic foam, particularly 1-square-foot sections (929 square cm), is commonly used to manage these imbalances.
- Noise Leakage: Unwanted sound leaking into or out of a room can be a significant issue, especially in recording studios or quiet environments. Treatment to prevent noise leakage may include soundproofing walls and ceilings with materials that have thicknesses varying from 1 inch to 4 inches (2.5 cm to 10 cm approx). Acoustic panels and acoustic foam treatments are usually not enough to prevent noise leakage or fully soundproofing a room.
- Standing Waves: These are resonant frequencies formed between parallel surfaces that create “dead spots” or areas where certain frequencies are exaggerated. Managing these usually requires bass traps of a specific foam shape positioned strategically at distances ranging from 3 feet to 5 feet (90 cm to 150 cm approx) from the problem areas.
Acoustic Treatment Using Acoustic Panels vs Foam
Acoustic panels are sound-absorbing materials designed to absorb sound reflections and reduce reverberation and echo in a room. They’re typically made from a core material like fibreglass wrapped in fabric or recycled polyester fibre (PET), and come in various shapes and sizes. The thickness of the panels generally ranges from 1 to 4 inches (2.54 to 10.16 cm), and they can be mounted on walls, ceilings, or floors.
Understanding their applications and frequency range helps you decide whether you should choose acoustic panels over acoustic foam for the desired acoustic environment.
Acoustic panels are chosen as an acoustic treatment option over acoustic foam for:
- Classrooms: to improve sound clarity and reduce noise
- Offices: Reducing noise distractions and improving speech intelligibility
- Home Theaters: Enhancing sound clarity and quality.
- Conference Halls: to improve speech intelligibility and echo.
- Restaurants: to reduce the overall sound volume, echoes and reverberations of a large crowd and kitchen noise.
- Public Spaces: Managing sound in large areas like restaurants or conference halls.
The pros of using acoustic panels vs acoustic foam are:
- Aesthetics: Acoustic panels are designed to blend with the room’s décor and are available in various colours and patterns. Aesthetically pleasing designs are one of the biggest advantages of acoustic panels over acoustic foam.
- Customizable: Acoustic panels can be tailored to specific sizes and shapes to fit different spaces.
- Good for General Sound Absorption: Efficient in absorbing mid-range and high range frequencies, usually between 500 Hz to 4000 Hz.
- Better for Large Spaces: where a wide range of sound waves need to be absorbed
The cons of using acoustic panels over foam are:
- Cost: acoustic panels are generally more expensive than acoustic foam
- Bad for sound isolation: acoustic panels are good to absorb overall sound across a range of frequencies but are not ideal to target a narrow and specific range of frequencies that might be causing issues.
Acoustic Treatment Using Acoustic Foam vs Acoustic Panels
Acoustic foam is a specially designed material made of open-cell polyurethane foam that’s used to absorb sound. It typically has a jagged or wavy appearance especially designed to trap and attenuate sound waves. Thickness varies, with common ranges between 1 to 4 inches (2.5 to 10 cm approx), and the foam’s density, shape and pattern directly influence its sound-absorbing capabilities. Acoustic foam panels are the go-to choice for professionals in the music and audio industry because their specific frequency absorption profile allows for targeted sound control.
Acoustic foam is chosen over panels primarily in environments where sound isolation is crucial like:
- Recording Studios: For clear sound capture without external noise.
- Sound-Critical Environments: In rooms where precision in sound is essential, such as mixing rooms or podcasting studios.
The pros of using acoustic foam over panels are:
- Greater Sound Isolation: Excellent for damping and controlling specific frequencies.
- Flexibility in Size and Shape: Can be easily cut and shaped to fit any room or surface.
- Cost-Effective: Generally less expensive than acoustic panels, providing a budget-friendly option.
The cons of using acoustic foam over panels are:
- Less Aesthetic: not available in a wide range of colours and finishes. The wavy appearance is not aesthetically pleasing or suitable for all environments.
- Not Suitable for DIY Creation: Requires specific machinery for production, unlike some acoustic panels that can be handmade.
- Struggles with Low Frequencies: special shapes and densities need to be considered to damp low frequencies below 1000 Hz. Bass traps can be made with materials similar to acoustic foam for low-frequency control.
Choosing Between Acoustic Panels and Acoustic Foam
Choosing between acoustic panels and acoustic foam involves balancing multiple factors that contribute to the sound performance and appearance of the space to be treated such as: the functional sound requirements, aesthetics, budget, and specific frequency needs.
Careful consideration of these factors for your specific case will guide you in selecting the best solution for you.
When choosing between acoustic panels vs acoustic foam, these are the variables to consider:
- Purpose of the space: is it a general listening area where general sound improvement is needed like an office, restaurant or classroom or is it a recording studio where sound isolation is critical.
- Aesthetic requirements: is the appearance important or the space. Do you need attractive designs and custom colours to match or add to the interior decoration.
- Budget constraints: how much area do you have to cover with acoustic panels or foam.
- Frequency targeting needs: are there specific frequencies you need to treat or will you benefit from overall sound improvement.
Considering the above, our recommendations for when to choose acoustic panels or acoustic foam are:
- General Sound Improvement: If the goal is to enhance overall sound quality without particular emphasis on aesthetics or isolation, either option may be suitable, with panels offering a more refined look.
- Spaces With Aesthetic Concerns: Choose acoustic panels if appearance and aesthetics is a primary consideration (offices, restaurants, classrooms, theatres, etc)
- Recording Environments: Choose acoustic foam for better sound isolation and specific frequency targeting.
- Budget-Conscious Projects: Acoustic foam is usually cheaper for budget-limited scenarios.