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We bought a two-story house with a fairly open-plan staircase. See below:

Staircase diagram

My desk sits right by the top of the stairs, and a lot of sounds echo up the stairs from the kitchen. Since we are work-from-home, this means there's a lot of sounds going on, including meetings or just watching videos downstairs.

We got stair runners that helped a little bit to dampen sound, but I can still hear downstairs conversations clearly upstairs (although not vice versa). So, I am thinking about putting up a few sound-absorbing panels (e.g. here) to insulate upstairs from downstairs a bit more.

What would be the most efficient way to place these on the stairs to absorb the most sound?

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    try this as a test ... pin large towels or blankets to the staircase walls
    – jsotola
    Dec 13 '20 at 18:37
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The "most efficient" way would probably be best determined by a full acoustical analysis of your house. Since that would take time and money you probably don't want to spend...

As a way to temporarily test it out:

  • lay a 2x4 flat on the upstairs floor, along the bottom of the railing.
  • Use string to attach the panels to the 2x4 and hang them along the walls.
  • Move them around until you find an arrangement that seems to provide the best noise attenuation.
  • Permanently attach panels at these locations.

Since those panels are a bit... unattractive (unless you're into the whole "recording studio" vibe), consider hanging paintings, artwork and tapestries on the walls of the stairwell. Anything that has depth (paintings with chunky frames, artwork), or softness (the tapestries) will interfere with the reflection of sound waves coming up the stairs and help attenuate the sounds. A thick carpet on the stairs will help, too.

As noted in other answers, though, your best bet is going to be blocking the sounds from getting into this space in the first place. Since you have an open staircase that you can't install a permanent door on, consider a temporary door made of heavy fabric (like a blanket) that can be hung from upstairs (consider the 2x4 on the floor trick again), dropped down when you're working, and raised back up to regain the look when not needed.

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  • Thanks, I actually don't hate the look of some of the panels. The upper entrance is also wide open with a railing, so the blanket trick isn't as easy as it sounds, but I'll keep it in mind. Dec 14 '20 at 14:43
  • @AzorAhai-him- Add blankets as necessary... May not be easy, but if it's the only thing that saves your sanity/job, it's probably worth it.
    – FreeMan
    Dec 14 '20 at 15:05
  • Well, fortunately, she's not in meetings that much, so that's why I was looking for a $20-50 solution that would help without being too much. I guess I was hoping for an answer like "Yeah, place them across from each other" or "place them on the left wall" but ah well. Dec 14 '20 at 15:10
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Dampening works to help eliminate the reverberations; the sound waves making other solid hard surfaces re-transmit the waves. Sound waves themselves travels in air. If the staircase is open to the other living areas, sound dampening on the walls will do little. Block the air and you block the sound. Can you put a door on one end or the other?

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Have you tried a white noise machine? The problem is our brains have evolved to listen to noise to protect against predators and even if you reduce the sound volume you will just end up straining to hear the words. A white noise machine (plays an endless loop of ocean waves, or rain, or some such) gives your brain something to pay attention to. Since it is closer your brain assumes it's more important to focus on the closer sounds from the closer predators than the far away sounds

Otherwise if you can't door it off, and you don't want to go the white noise route, use noise cancelling headphones and listen to soft background music. Those will work as long as they can seal against your ears.

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  • So, I am personally very sensitive to voices, so I find it really hard to ignore them if I can hear them. I was hoping to find a solution that worked for more things besides just working at my desk. Dec 14 '20 at 14:45
  • My sympathies our second home is an open floor plan and there is not anywhere you can go in the second and 3rd floors that you cannot clearly hear others talking. And no they aren't yelling they are talking in normal voices. These floor plans almost amplify the sound. Fortunately the basement is doored off. If you have a yard a small shed and a portable heater might save your sanity. But seriously a good set of noise cancelling headphones will work wonders. Dec 15 '20 at 6:37
  • I live in Minnesota, haha Dec 15 '20 at 14:19
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As you've got a layout that doesn't lend itself to exactly blocking the sound, you'll need to look into several layers of attenuation.

The first is close to the source - blocking the direct line from the TV to the bottom of the stairs. Upholstered wooden panels are good, like office cubicle screens (though hopefully nicer looking), or bookshelves with backs. As well as reducing the sound heading towards the stairs, this may also allow the person watching (or meeting online or whatever) to turn the volume down a little by blocking sounds they can hear. If it's a conversation, it may be quieter.

FreeMan's answer covers the stairwell itself (step 2) better than I could.

Step 3 is around your desk. A panel between the desk and stairwell will help a lot. Again, suitable DIY-able material would bewood with an upholstered cover or perhaps covered in cork tiles as a pinboard. This should also extend round the sides of the desk, where closed-back shelving may be useful.

All these should extend as close to the ceiling as possible. Soft stuff is much more sound-absorbing than hard, so carpets and curtains/wall-hangings are all good.

When it comes to watching videos, the multiple speakers of a surround-sound system complicate matters. They tend to be used louder, and to deliver more bass, that travels through the house. Isolating any speakers from the floor and walls will help, especially subwoofers. On the other hand a well-tuned system can lend itself to being turned down a little - you may want to adjust settings depending on the type of noise that comes through strongest.

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  • Thanks, although there is no TV downstairs. Dec 14 '20 at 14:45
  • So do you mean they're watching videos on a tablet? laptop? All but the last paragraph would still be relevant in that case
    – Chris H
    Dec 14 '20 at 15:10
  • Sure, or phone. Or just talking (when we could have had people over), so there's not a consistent path to block. Dec 14 '20 at 15:11

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