Les Blomberg hears a lot about what people hear in their homes. As director of the nonprofit Noise Pollution Clearinghouse, he fields hundreds of distress calls a week. It's the highway, it's the industrial rumble, it's the guy upstairs with heavy heels and bad TV.

"It is," Blomberg says, "a hostile acoustical world."

At its worst, noise (from the Latin nausea) stalks us in our own homes, thanks to -- roll credits -- the neighbors. About 100 million Americans share walls with strangers, many in acoustical slums. In U.S. Census Bureau surveys, people consistently rate noise ahead of crime, traffic and other social ills as a primary reason they want to move.

It's beyond frustrating. All this thumping, rockin' and screaming that barges uninvited into our bedrooms is a known stressor (think torture techniques). Noise makes us ineffective and cranky, raises our blood pressure and robs us of decent sleep.

And now for the bad news: Much of what we've been doing to block the noise doesn't work. The carpet on the wall, the blankets, the chic corkboard and rows of egg cartons? No, no, no and no. These materials do line makeshift music studios, but that's because they absorb sound already in the room, improving the quality. Exterior noise still gets in. It just bounces around for a bit less time.

"(Lining the walls with these materials) does make a little bit of a difference. And I want to stress it's a little bit of a difference," says Bob Astrom, an acoustical consultant with Metropolitan Acoustics in Philadelphia.

In other words, say the experts, if the noise is enough to bother you, it will still bother you after stapling egg cartons to your ceiling. Even some products advertised as cure-alls on the Internet are far from it. Worse, some construction contractors, unversed in the complex details of soundproofing, have been known to choose or install ineffective soundproofing products, leaving the client with a bill but no relief.

But don't give up hope for peace just yet. It is possible to engage in a little "acoustical self-defense," as Blomberg calls it, so long as you understand how sound travels, can identify the source of the problem and know to hunt for the right combination of products.

Know the enemy
Sound is a vibration: the quiver of a violin string under a bow; the rattle of vocal cords; the impact of a shoe against the floor. The vibration excites molecules -- in air, liquid or solid -- that in turn excite the molecules beside them, and so on, forming a radiating wave of pressure. This pressure wave, received as sound, continues until it naturally dissipates or until it is:

  • Blocked. This requires mass -- very high-density materials -- to act as a barrier. Lead works; foam doesn't.
  • Absorbed. Uses insulation materials to absorb vibrations that would otherwise bounce around -- and echo -- in an air cavity like a drum.
  • Dampened. Uses chemically engineered paste or strips to transform the energy of sound into heat.
  • Isolated. Uses nonconductive materials, in wall clips or pads, to isolate the transmission of vibrations between objects.

This last technique could have saved one Washington, D.C., woman nearly $100,000. Unfortunately, that's how much she'd already spent trying to block noise coming into her town house before calling Mason Wyatt, owner of Manhattan-based City Soundproofing, for professional help. He quickly located the source: a neighbor's pool motor bolted to a concrete pad attached to both houses that was sending vibrations throughout her home.

"If she had just gone next door and asked if they could isolate the motors from her house she probably could have fixed that problem for two or three thousand, or maybe a couple hundred (dollars)," Wyatt says.

Start small
Sound will find a way in, just like air or water, through the smallest of spaces. Ever opened a small door to a big concert hall? What comes out belies the size of the opening.

For that reason, Wyatt advises people to start small:

  • Check for any openings where air can seep in.
  • Caulk and seal the edges of windows, outlets and light fixtures that face the noise.

You can do a lot for $20. For $130 you can order a door bottom and perimeter door seals. If you live in an apartment, ask the building manager about installing duct silencers in common ventilation chutes.

"If you filled up the apartment next door with water, would it leak into your apartment?" Wyatt says. "That's another way for people to start identifying where their problems are."