Quietest Place on Earth.
This is what quiet looks like.

Quietest Place on Earth

Field review by the editors.

Minneapolis, Minnesota

In a world filled with people yelling at each other, how much would you pay for a little peace and quiet?

Quietest Place on Earth.
Steve Orfield readies a test dummy in the anechoic chamber.

You can have it, in a special soundproof room in Minneapolis -- but be careful what you wish for.

The room is an anechoic chamber, part of Orfield Labs, which, as Steve Orfield told us, is "the only multidisciplinary lab in North America in all the areas of sensation." One of Steve's many interests is the way in which sound, and particularly quietness, can make people feel more comfortable.

Anechoic chambers, also called "dead rooms," were first built during World War II to test military communications equipment. Bell Laboratories' 30-foot-high chamber in Murray Hill, New Jersey held the title, "Quietest Room in the World," for years.

Steve said that "fairly exotic kinds of testing" go on in his chamber, but it's testing of devices, not people. For example, one of Steve's regular clients claimed to make America's quietest refrigerator. Every year the latest model fridge would be brought into the chamber, measured for loudness, then tweaked to make it quieter and quieter. Eventually, Steve's chamber was the only one in the country quiet enough to test it.

Quietest Place on Earth.
Wedges surround the chamber, suck up all the noise -- and then you start hearing things.

The chamber at Orfield Labs is lined with sound-deadening wedges on the ceiling, walls, and floor. Every sound made in the chamber vanishes into the wedges. No sound penetrates from outside. "Our chamber is a room within a room within a room that sits in a pit on springs," said Steve. The doors are sealed, and visitors have to step across gaps to get from the outer lab -- with foot-thick solid concrete walls and ceiling -- to the double-walled outer chamber to the inner chamber. No part of the nested rooms touch each other.

Steve said that anechoic chambers are often rated at around 30 decibels because most don't need to be any quieter (0.1 decibels is the quietest sound detectable to the perfect human ear). Orfield Labs, with its special testing needs, had its chamber evaluated in 2004; it was -9.4 decibels. The chamber was improved and tested again in 2013; it was down to -13 decibels. Steve submitted it to Guinness World Records as the "world's quietest acoustic chamber." Guinness had a better idea. "They said, 'We've never heard of a place with negative decibels,'" Steve recalled. "Why don't we call it the 'Quietest Place on Earth'?"

Quietest Place on Earth.
Testing underway for private jet interiors.

(In 2015 Microsoft announced that its Redmond, Washington, chamber was -20.4 decibels, but Microsoft has an uneven history of big claims. Remember when Bing was going to topple Google?)

Orfield Labs hosts visitor tours of its facility (including the chamber) as a public service, but they aren't cheap. A 90-minute tour with 20 minutes in the chamber, minimum of two people, costs $200 per person, and tours have to be scheduled weeks in advance. Still, people come. "It's an extreme experience for visitors," said Steve, "something they've never done and probably will never do again." The tour, said Steve, is popular with couples, often purchased by one for their partner as a surprise gift.

What happens in the chamber? Unexpectedly, the longer you're in it the louder it gets, because as you adapt to non-noise you start to hear the sounds made by your own body. "Your ears start to produce auto-emissive noises," said Steve. "Then you start to hear your heart, your lungs, the joints in your arms and legs." Some people, said Steve, expect a quiet, meditative experience. "They're shocked when they become the noise source." And if the lights are turned off (an option for tour-goers) your eyes see shifting colors and fields of light. "You watch your system try to react to not being stimulated," said Steve.

It's not for everyone. Steve recalled an Italian journalist who came to visit. "We closed the door, turned out the lights, and about five seconds later he was out," Steve said. "It just scared the devil out of him."

Steve describes a tour of Orfield Labs, and the chamber, as an "experiential science education," where visitors learn through their perceptions and senses (It's also the world's first digital recording studio, where Funkytown was recorded in 1980). "Visitors usually think the chamber is going to be it, but a huge amount of interesting things happen in the Labs," said Steve. "We show them that the world's a lot more fascinating than they thought."

And a lot more noisy.

Quietest Place on Earth

Orfield Laboratories

Address:
2709 E. 25th St., Minneapolis, MN
Directions:
Orfield Laboratories. Southeast side of the city. On the southeast corner of E. 25th St. and 27th Ave. S.
Hours:
Tours M-F by appt only, subject to availability. Schedule tour by request: info@orfieldlabs.com (Call to verify)
Phone:
612-721-2455
Admission:
$200 per person, minimum two people
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
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