Acoustic Panels vs Acoustic Foam: What’s the Difference?

There are multiple ways of optimizing the acoustic properties of your room and turning the bare walls into sonically pleasant surroundings. Once you’ve decided on acoustically treating your space, next comes the challenge of choice! It often boils down to acoustic panels vs. acoustic foam, and we tend to go at it hammer and tongs, trying to decide which is better. 

Generally, acoustic panels tend to boost sound quality in a room at a much faster pace than foam and are more cosmetically appealing in a room. Acoustic foam is more of a fix for people who’re not looking for a heavy-duty solution to their minimal sound issues. Both acoustic foam and panels acoustically treat spaces and fulfill different sets of requirements.

This is why it’s a premature discussion if you haven’t figured out exactly what you desire to achieve sound-wise in your space. You probably will be better off with one of these options than the other, but your goals will ultimately influence your decision to go with either foam or panels. And to decide, you need to understand the difference between acoustic panels and foam, what each of these solutions offers, and which one is the better fit for your space. 

What are Acoustic Panels

Acoustic panels are soft-furnished, huge panels that are placed across the walls of a room to improve the sound quality by removing residual sound in any space. They are used to diffuse or absorb sound from the first point of reflection. 

These panels only serve their purpose if they’re installed the right way, which means they need to be placed at certain positions where they can “catch” or absorb maximum sound waves and prevent them from reflecting off of the walls. 

You can achieve a noise-free area by installing the right number of acoustic panels to mitigate background noise and attenuate echo in the room. Offices, reception halls, restaurants, etc., use acoustic panels to tackle noise pollution and maintain a good environment within. 

Acoustic panels, however, won’t entirely block the noise out because they’re not equipped to provide insulation against low-frequency sound waves. Bass and these low-frequency sound waves are rather difficult to control, as they have long wavelengths, and these long wavelengths are unable to diffract around dense surfaces. 

Thicker panels, ideally around 3 inches, provide better absorption for low frequencies whereas to effectively absorb the mid and high range of frequencies, a thinner acoustic panel should be used. You can get between 1” or 2” of thickness for better absorption.

Pros: Acoustic Panels

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  • Aesthetic Appeal

Are acoustic panels better than foam? Aesthetically, yes! Although acoustic panels are made from denser core material and are heavier than foam, they still come in various versions to maintain a presentable face of the room. You can go for art fabric-covered acoustic panels to liven up the space or simply neutrals covering the walls can never go wrong.  

  • Incredible Sound Quality

Acoustic panels reduce or completely prevent the bouncing of sound waves in a room by taking in all the noise and unnecessary distortion. This results in balanced, grounded, and overall great sound quality in the treated space.

  • Easy DIY 

You can easily make a sufficiently working acoustic wall panel on your own. Especially when using the fabric-covered ones, you can choose the kind, style, height, front face, colors and save tons of money as well. 

Cons: Acoustic Panels

  • Fixed Sizes

Acoustic panels come in fixed standard sizes and would need additional fitting (brass, metal, or wood) around them if the space is too big or too small for them. This means more cost and time investment on the panel that you could’ve saved if it was more customizable. 

  • Heavy

If it’s not a standing unit in your room, an acoustic panel would need to be hung to the wall or the ceiling. Sometimes they fall off of the wall due to their heavy weight. Being huge, acoustic panels are more difficult to move or transport.

  • Not Effective When Placement is wrong

Another con of acoustic panels is their tricky placement, these panels need to be placed at the right angles around the space to face the direction where sound is coming from. With acoustic panels, covering all the gaps or openings is not enough and, just like that, incorrectly placed acoustic panels won’t absorb much sound and let sound waves bounce back from hard wall surfaces. 

What is Acoustic Foam

Acoustic foam is porous and allows some sound to pass through it, making it partially soundproof. Acoustic foams reduce the bouncing of loose frequencies around the space and allow the sound inside to be cleaner and more defined. 

Acoustical foam is drawn up to a firmness that gives ultimate absorption across almost all frequencies, as a higher ILD will absorb more low-frequency sounds and a lower ILD, relatively softer foam, absorbs high-frequencies better. But ideally, foams work best when the noise is coming from a bass or low-frequencies of sound. 

This is a celled foam and is most effective when cut in a cone or a triangular shape. Sound waves bounce back and forth from the zig-zags, jagged, wavy edges created from these triangles, and dampen down along the way, resultantly improving the quality of sound inside the room.

Acoustic foams are not greatly favored because they don’t ideally beautify your room, for some their characteristic appearance rather makes the room ugly-looking. The only real downside is that you need tons of foam to keep the loud noises in or out of the room. 

Pros: Acoustic Foams

  • Great for Reducing Noise Pollution

Acoustic foams in studios, workshops, and home theatres reduce the amount of noise travelling in through the walls to a decent amount. They offer a cheap, yet effective solution to improve sound quality in your room. 

  • Flexible Shapes and Sizes

Acoustic foam is lightweight and thin, thus making it more flexible to use around the room. The standard design of acoustic foams is a versatile plug-and-play one that can be used to treat any kind of space. Where acoustic panels take the edge with design and aesthetics, acoustic foams allow users to cover more areas with greater flexibility and ease. 

  • Increased Customization

Bending, folding, cutting, or layering foam is very easy and feasible. And when you’re acoustically treating your room with acoustic foam, you can customize the space as much as you like without having to spend tons of money doing so.

  • Less Expensive

Acoustic Foams are way cheaper than panels and can be a good option for those who just want to try acoustic treatment for the first time. 

Cons: Acoustic Foams

  • Low Aesthetic Appeal

Acoustic foams have jagged edges or egg crate-type appearances that might go in the background of a casual YouTube video but won’t look good anywhere else. Most of them are dark in color, have protruded mismatched angles to trap more air, and need to be stacked one above the other. The ultimate visual effect created is not aesthetically pleasing.

  • Not DIY-able

Unlike acoustic panels which can easily be hung/placed in your room, using acoustic foams is not as easy. The final fixture requires pumping the air out from underneath and cutting shapes for proper fitting. This assembling and managing is a professional’s job and should not be done on your own. 

Acoustic Panels vs Acoustic Foam: Which One To Get?

If you’re aiming at reducing or eliminating reverberations and echoes from your room and don’t have soundproofing as your main priority, you need acoustic panels to be placed strategically around the room. This is usually preferred by people who are looking to increase the sound quality right away. 

On the other hand, if you’re looking to soundproof your space completely, you would need acoustic foams more than acoustic panels. For instance, those who play musical instruments would certainly need foam insulation. Although foam is lighter and easier to work with, it is much harder to soundproof a room with it, than to acoustically treat it in the right spots. 

Egg crate foam, foam ceiling tiles, corner bass traps, or foam strips for corners and windows are many options you have when working with acoustic foams. You get more options for how you eventually want your room to look, but acoustic foams won’t stack up exactly as acoustic panels do. They will absorb sounds from going in and out of the room only, you’d need acoustic panels to treat echoes, sound diffusion, and reverberations. 

Thus, the purpose you’re aiming to treat your room for will define whether you need acoustic foam or acoustic panels in place. 

What Differentiates Acoustic Panels From Acoustic Foam In Working?

Acoustic panels work by absorbing or “sipping in” sound waves in order to prevent them from hitting hard surfaces (walls and ceiling) and bouncing back and forth. They are used to enhance the sound quality in a closed space as they absorb unnecessary noise, echoes, and distortion. 

Different room sizes have different sound requirements. A test called RT60 (Reverberation Time) measures the amount of echo from the time an impulse sound takes to decay by 60 decibels. Usually, smaller rooms require lower RT60 time, such as your bedroom or a vocal recording studio where a very low RT60 time of 0.2 to 0.4 seconds is perfect for premium sound quality. 

The more acoustic panels you place in a room, the lesser RT60 time will be due to more surfaces for absorption. With acoustic panels, it’s more of a spot-treatment approach, where you cover the walls or ceiling space as per your needs. 

Acoustic foams create a barrier and reduce the level of sound leaving your space as well as cut down the noise from outside to a great extent simply by hindering the passage of sound waves. Air is one of the mediums through which sound travels and as it gets trapped in the porous foam, the sound stays inside the room. Acoustic foams are thin and can be “stacked up” or layered one above the other to achieve the desired level of soundproofing.

What’s Safer Inside A House: Acoustic Foam Or Acoustic Panels?

As discussed before, acoustically treating your house is a common practice nowadays. Many people work from their home offices and are rightly concerned about their family’s safety when installing acoustic panels or foams. 

Acoustic foams include toxins and are highly flammable. They produce thick, highly dangerous smoke if burned. This is because acoustic foams are mainly composed of polyurethane which not only is a fire hazard but also has drastic aftereffects if it catches fire. 

On the other hand, acoustic panels are heavy and can cause serious damage if they happen to fall. They can fall due to their heavy weights or improper installation. Fabric-covered acoustic wall panels or painted art ones are prone to catching fire as well. 

Hence, both options come with a certain degree of risk and need care in their specific ways. This is why it is highly advised to take a professional onboard during the planning and installation of acoustic panels or acoustic foam at your house. 

What’s Better For Soundproofing? 

Acoustic foam vs. acoustic panel for soundproofing? Technically, none of these treatments are made to completely soundproof your space. Both acoustic foams as well as panels work reasonably well at improving the standard of sound quality in a room, but won’t necessarily stop or block out noise.

Acoustic panels alone are only meant for deadening, dampening, and absorbing sound waves coming in their direction. This treatment style will only prevent echoes and control higher frequency reverberations. They haven’t been linked or proven to be soundproof.

On the other hand, acoustic foam is relatively more successful at creating a barrier of air between the enclosed space and the outside world and thus preventing sound leakage from either side. This makes them somewhat closer to soundproofing. 

However, a combination of the two along with bass traps will surely create a perfect soundproof environment. Getting a room acoustically treated for good sound quality and soundproofing are two different, but often interchanged/confused, things. Proper construction techniques and a professional’s help are still required.

What’s Better Generally?

In the acoustic foam vs panels war, it’s hard to pin one down as the winner/answer depends on why and to what extent you want to control sound in your space. If you’re building a home theatre with 7 channel sound bouncing around in every direction possible, acoustic panels certainly are the better choice here! 

However, if the space is utilized for high and heavy sounding activities like creating, mixing, recording, or playing music or for operating noisy equipment, acoustic panels aren’t going to cut it here. Acoustic foams are perfect for such spaces and even more perfect for people who aren’t too concerned about the aesthetics of a place. 

Generally, acoustic panels take the lead in this war due to their ability to not only improve sound quality in a room but also look pleasing to the eyes of the onlooker.

FAQs

What’s the ideal thickness for acoustic panels?

The answer depends on two factors; purpose and preference. If you’re aiming for bass absorption, 4” panels at 125Hz are the best option. However, 2” thickness can perform equally well at 500Hz or above. Then, some people like to keep lighter and thinner panels in their rooms and some like to take what’s best. 

When should acoustic panels be used?

When the sound resonance and echo in a space is too strong to ignore and messes with the occupant’s daily life, work, and concentration levels. 

How many acoustic panels do I need?

It’s recommended to cover at least 15-20% of the room’s walls. You need to measure the length, width, and ceiling height and consult an acoustician for it.

Is an acoustically treated room affected by weather changes?

Highly humid weather can leave the fabric-covered panels damp. Your room should be reasonably ventilated to allow the fabric on panels and foam to dry out in such weather. 

Summing it Up

Acoustic panels and acoustic foam, both help in refining the value and condition of sound in a space. The choice between the two can be a little tricky and, frankly, confusing. It’s easier to mix what each offers and looks like. 

Overall, acoustic panels help a little more than acoustic foam because good sound results are what matters at the end of the day. They sure are on the pricier side, but they guarantee a worthy range of solutions to all your sound problems. It’s always worth consulting a professional acoustician regarding your space and what you’re planning to achieve there. 

Blending acoustic panels with foams is perhaps the best way to tackle high, mid, and low-frequency sound waves. Both of their capabilities help to maintain echoes and a stable environment away from the noise outside.