Sometimes I have difficulties falling asleep – I can’t seem to shut the mind off. For years I’ve considered purchasing rather high-priced sleep assist devices such as this white noise machine. The idea is to help you fall asleep by distracting the mind with pleasing, relaxing sounds. But they always seemed too expensive and I was concerned they wouldn’t work.
I was delighted to see the 99¢ “White Noise” app on the iPhone’s App Store “Top 25 Paid” list. I thought for 99¢ I couldn’t go wrong. Turns out White Noise wasn’t so useful. So I went on to check out its competitors, Ambiance and aSleep, each of which are also 99¢.
They all provide essentially the same functionality – selectable looping sounds that can be set to turn off after a preset amount of time. But they all suffer from the same two problems:
- Sound Loops That are Way Too Short: Almost all of the sound loops are far too short (5 to 15 seconds) and, for the most part, annoying for someone trying to fall asleep. Because they are so short, with distinct, identifiable sounds, they sound like broken records that begin to grate on your exhausted nerves quickly.
- Jarring Sounds: While many of the sound loops are soothing, most contain at least one sound that is significantly louder or sharper than surrounding ambient sounds. This is jarring for someone trying to fall asleep. For example, if there are 20 quiet lapping waves, a loud 20th wave can jar you awake every 10 to 15 seconds.
Nonetheless, a few of the sound loops in Ambiance and aSleep were relaxing and did help me fall asleep. Since aSleep has slightly more sound loops that met my criteria, I tentatively recommend it over Ambiance and White Noise – but see my note about bugs in version 2.0 of the software. All of these apps can be improved and I make some suggestions below. More than anything else, I would like these apps to provide far fewer, but much longer (10 minutes at least), restful, non-repeating, non-jarring, ambient sound loops.
I do also want to note here that many of the sounds that were not helpful in falling asleep were enjoyable background sounds while working at my computer or doing other things. So, if you are looking for an app for relaxation purposes only, I would recommend White Noise over the other three because it has the most polished interface.
White Noise: v 1.1 (99¢) 19.0 MB – 22 sounds
White Noise, by TMSoft, was the first of the three that I tried. As the small 19.0 MB size belies, each of White Noise’s 22 sound tracks (and those of its competitors) are only about 10 seconds long before they repeat. While the interface is the nicest of the three, far from southing me to sleep, every one of the looping sound snippets either grated on my nerves or contained jarring sounds that kept waking me up. Rather than being soothed, my mind focused on the jarring or repetitious nature of the sounds. The clock sound, for example, has only four tic-tocs before it repeats. Each fourth, eighth etc. tic has the same jarring “click click” sound between that tic and the next toc.
Interface: Despite being the weakest of the three with regard to available sound loops (none met my basic criteria), it did have the best interface. As you can see from the picture, you can choose 8 of your favourite sounds to be featured on the home screen. Unlike Ambiance and aSleep, it remembers your prior volume level, preferred timer length and last playing sound. Unlike the other two, when the app starts up it immediately starts playing your last preferred sound, at your preferred volume for the preferred time. Exactly as you’d expect.
Conclusion: Grr! Great idea. If some of the sounds were even just 5 minute loops, for example, this product would be much improved. For someone with a hyperactive, detailed-oriented mind like mine, this will app, as pretty and functional as it is, will probably not help you fall asleep.
Ambiance: v. 1.4 – (99¢) 144 MB – 44 sounds
Next I tried Ambiance by Matt Coneybeare. It is fundamentally the same application as White Noise with a different interface and slightly better sound quality.
I had hoped that since Ambiance is 8 times the size of White Noise that it would have significantly longer loops. Turns out, for the most part it doesn’t. The larger size mostly reflects a much longer list of sounds – 44 compared to White Noise’s 22.
I’ll describe some of the specific issues I had with some of the loops (I had similar problems with ALL the sound loops in White Noise):
- Birds: was great, but useless, because while the birds were generally really nice and relaxing, every 10 seconds the loop started over and one particularly shrill bird kept waking me up.
- Coast: I loved it too. Waves crashing on a distant shore. Very relaxing – except a darn loud bird pipes in every 15 seconds waking me up.
- Creek: If only they made this one 5 minutes long. It’s a 10 second loop that you can clearly hear repeating over and over – grating on my nerves with each loop.
- Crickets and Frogs: Same thing – repeating 10 second loops. All my mind can focus on is the repeating patterns.
- Fire Big – Fire Small: Again, each of these were lovely sounds, but were ultimately VERY short loops grating on my nerves. Give us at least 5 or 10 minutes guys!
- Sailboat: I so wanted this one to work. One of the most relaxing sounds I know is water gurgling on a boat (reminds me of fishing with my father). But, the jarring sound of the slapping of the sails combined with the short loop repeating, made this one a non-starter.
- Subway and Train: Again each of these are promising and would be nice if the were longer and didn’t have jarring isolated sounds. I’d like a pure, consistent click, clack, click clack … subway or train sound without jarring side noises.
- Swamp: As with Frogs and Crickets, I love this sound. It reminds me of youthful nights at my family’s cottage. The short loop probably would have been OK with me on this one but for the shrill bird that keeps chiming in and waking me up every 10 to 15 seconds.
- Waves: Loved it just like Coast except this time the microphone is too close to the water and ever third or fourth wave is too loud. Sounds like its crashing around me – waking me up.
That’s enough. You get the idea. Otherwise promising sounds are compromised by either: (i) being way too short with repeating patterns; (ii) having jarring sounds mixed in with tranquil sounds; or (iii) both.
One Useful Loop: One sound loop actually worked and helped me fall asleep:
- “Rain – Porch” I found “Rain – Porch” only after a half hour of frustration with most of the other sound loops. It sounds like the name, rain falling while sitting on a porch.
Honourable Mention: Two others deserve honourable mention (but I won’t be using them personally):
- Clock: Unlike the White Noise clock, this clock is just tic’ing and toc’ing, uniformly without annoying and jarring oddities. Though it’s not ‘my type of clock sound’. I can think of more southing clock sounds – like the pendulum from a grand-father clock. That would be nice.
- Stream: Unlike Creek (described above), Stream has a less identifiable loop. It’s on the cusp of usability for falling asleep.
Interface: I liked the scrolly-wheel to select from available sounds. You can pause/stop sounds (something not possible in White Noise). You can permanently delete sounds and customize what sounds appear on the main page. When you start the program, Ambiance remembers what sound you were last using and what your timer and volume settings are. However, Ambiance’s timer and other controls are on separate pages making some of the basic settings functionality a bit more inconvenient than White Noise.
Conclusion: The interface is slightly less nice than White Noise or aSleep. Because it had one useful sound and two honourable mentions, where White Noise had none, I give it a better score than White Noise. But I gave it a lower score than aSleep because aSleep had more useful sound loops for falling asleep.
aSleep: v. 2.0 – (99¢) 172 MB – 50 sounds
Out of the 50 available sounds, aSleep has three loop sounds that I found useful for helping me fall asleep. These sound loops are both soothing and contain no noticeable repetitions or jarring sounds to wake me up. The winning loops are:
The sound quality also seems a bit better than ambiance and definitely better than White Noise. But, this is subjective and I can’t be certain.
There are 47 other sounds useless for falling asleep – at least for me. All the music sounds are, by definition, quickly repetitious and fall into the broken record group – ugh! The scuba and fog horn sounds would/could be great if they were longer, not repetitious, and in the case of the fog horn, sounded more realistic. Even though not useful for falling asleep, several of the sounds would be nice for background sounds while working.
Interface: The aSleep interface is less useful than the other two. You cannot change sounds from the front page. You cannot change the timer from the front page (as you can in White Noise). Version 2.0 of the app is quite buggy, as I discuss next.
Several Software Bugs: For this review I used version 2.0 of the aSleep App which is chock-a-block full of technical interface glitches. The developer’s web site says that version 2.5 (which is supposed to solve many of these problems) has been pending Apple approval for a couple weeks now. My review score assumes these bug fixes are made in version 2.5. If version 2.5 does not solve these glitches, or does not come out soon, I cannot recommend the program. I’ll report back when/if version 2.5 comes out.
The version 2.0 problems include:
- Doesn’t Remember Settings: It does not remember the last settings you used. Every time (each night) you use the app, you need to first find the sound you want from the sample list, set the timer, set the volume and press play. EVERY DARN TIME. It should remember all this for you. Each night it should just start playing with your prior settings when you start.
[Version 2.5 Update: It now remembers the timer length and the last sound played. It does not remember your volume level and it does not automatically start the sound or timer when you start up. You have to manually start each, each time.]
- Sampling Sounds Stop/Start Issue: In White Noise and Ambiance you can jump quickly from sound to sound by tapping on the sound name. In asleep, you have to go to a separate screen, pick the next sound you want to try, stop the currently playing sound, then start the new sound. This is daft. Tapping on a sound should just start playing the sound instantly.
[Version 2.5 Update: Issue remains in version 2.5.]
- Volume Issue: As I switch from sound to sound, my volume level changes back to the default volume level – even if I just changed the volume. Daft.
[Version 2.5 Update: Issue remains in version 2.5.]
- Scrolly Wheel Screen Bug: If I access the sound selection screen after starting the timer (ie: if I want to change the sound midway through), the scrolly wheel with the sounds doesn’t appear. I have to restart the program to make it work.
[Version 2.5 Update: This bug remains in version 2.5.]
- Timer Bug: If you set the timer just once, it seems to work OK. If, in any given use, you change the timer count down, it often won’t accept the change. The only solution, reboot and start again.
[Version 2.5 Update: Resolved in version 2.5.]
- English as a Second Language: This is a tiny detail but you quickly learn that English is not the native language of the developers. They should at least run the app by a native English speaker to clean up the obvious typos and grammar mistakes.
[Version 2.5 Update: Issue remains in version 2.5. Plus the fine print on the main screen is impossible to read with my aging eyes. Even with glasses on its almost impossible to read. But this is no big deal. The controls are pretty obvious.]
Conclusion: It is only because this app has the highest number of useful sound loops for falling asleep and my perceived notion that the sound quality is slightly better than Ambiance (and much better than White Noise) that I give it a higher score than the other two similar apps. If, however, version 2.5 of the aSleep App isn’t out soon, my score would be a tie (at 2.5/5) between aSleep and Ambiance.
Suggestions for Future Updates
Here are a few suggestions for features I’d like to see implemented in future releases of these apps:
- Longer Loops: All of these apps need longer sound loops to get rid of my number one problem with all three of these apps – repeating sound patterns in short sound loops sounding like broken records. At a minimum the loops should be 5 minutes or so – and certainly not 5 or 10 seconds like most of them are.
- Even-Keeled Sounds: Too many sound loops that were otherwise wonderful were ruined by the occasional jarring sound of a bird, or a crashing wave etc. amidst an otherwise calm track. Each jarring sound wakes me back up.
- Pause: Only Ambiance has a button to pause/stop sounds on the main screen. You’d think this would be a basic function in any sound-related app.
- Play through iTunes: It would be nice if these applications would work with iTunes somehow so I could play the ambiance through my PC speakers. It would be nice to have ocean-surf sounds playing as I work. The repetitive nature of many of the sound loops don’t seem to bother me when awake as they do when trying to fall asleep.
- Playback while using iPhone: Just like iTunes, I’d like to have the ability to have the sound loops playing while doing other things on the iPhone. As it is, all three apps shut off as soon as you try doing something else on the iPhone (this may, however, be an Apple-imposed limitation).
- Use My Own Tracks: I have some very nice nature music and ambient sound mp3s that I’ve collected over the years. Hour long .mp3s of ocean surf, for example. Since these mp3s are already on my iPhone, I’d like to be able to play them back through these apps and have the timers slowly lower the volume on them as they finish. (This too may be an Apple-imposed limitation).
- Ability to Delete Unwanted Sounds: If I don’t like a sound, I should be able to delete it from the list so I’m left with just the sounds I like. Ambiance is the only one of the three that has this functionality. This will be even more important over time as the number of sounds, most of which are useless to me, grow.
- Shut off for SMS, Email and iPhone Ringers: There’s nothing more frustrating than to be drifting off to sleep and to have an SMS or email notifier sound or the iPhone ring blasting in your ears. Each of these apps should have a toggle switch or other option to turn SMS, email and iPhone notifiers/ringers off! But, Apple may also not permit this.
Now I Need Bedside iPhone Recharger-Speakers
While ear-buds work for 15 minutes or so, they get painful when crushed between the ear and the pillow. I’ve tried larger head-sets in the past but can’t fall asleep when my head is forced to stay in the upward position. I’m now looking for an iPhone beside recharging stand with an alarm clock and quality speakers built in. I looked at some at Best Buy and none seemed exactly what I’m after. If you have a recommendation, please leave it in the comments.
Of these three, asleep (assuming its technical difficulties are fixed in version 2.5) is my favourite because it has the largest number of sound loops that I found soothing enough to help me fall asleep. As noted, each of them has significant room for improvement. Over the last few months they have all come out with newer versions so it seems likely that improvements will continue to be made. It’s nice to see that competition is strong in the iPhone relaxation/sleep app market!