Online and anecdotally, the Orfield Laboratories anechoic chamber is billed as the “quietest room in the world.”
“That’s bullshit,” lab manager David Berg told me a few weeks back while we were standing inside the sound-testing room. It’s much less impressive in person than in the photographs you can find online. What you can’t see in image searches is the dust coating the fiberglass fins that cover the walls and sit below the chicken-wire floor.
Orfield Labs is located in an ivy-covered building near the Longfellow neighborhood southeast of downtown Minneapolis. It wasn’t hard to find, but Berg initially refused to let me in.
“People come in off the street all the time trying to get into the chamber,” he said, “but we’re not a museum. We’re in here working.” He was carrying a Kleenex box and wearing black Chuck Taylors. After a few jokes and some schmoozing, he agreed to let me in.
“You got two minutes. Follow me.”
The door was a little more than a foot thick, and stepping into the cube-like 10x10 room felt a bit like walking onto a trampoline. In fact, Berg explained that the entire room is free-standing, supported by springs below and not attached to the walls around it — “so that structure and vibration can’t affect the sound in there.” When Berg shut the door, I felt a some pressure on my head, which he explained was a lack of sound pressure on my ears. He snapped his fingers, and it sounded sharp, but not particularly loud.
“It’s good to measure things that are super quiet,” Berg said of the anechoic chamber, pulling out his iPhone and powering it up. “The noise that a display on a cellphone makes.” I heard nothing.
Part of the disconnect between what you read online and my trip to the chamber might come from who’s doing the talking. In several stories, Steven Orfield, president of the company, is the source cited as saying the longest anyone has been able to last in the chamber was 45 minutes before hearing the sound of their own blood pumping became too unnerving. Berg also proclaimed Orfield the man to talk to, though he wasn’t at the lab the day I stopped by.
“He’s all for the publicity,” Berg said, “but we’re in here trying to work. This is a laboratory.”
The chamber was originally created by the appliance company Sunbeam Products, but was torn down and rebuilt in the mid ‘90s, Berg said. Orfield Labs also has other rooms, the most interesting of which might be the “reverb room,” which is set up to amplify sound and create massive echoes. I could understand everything Berg was saying inside the reverb room that day, but my recording of the conversation is almost worthless.
“In here the most common test we do is sound transmission through building materials,” Berg explained.
One wall of the room has a hole which is covered up by various materials to test their sound-dampening ability. The day I was there, it was a new drywall prototype. Berg kicked on a robotic device that looked like a bass drum pedal with multiple arms, and it banged against a wooden board with a deafening, machine gun roar. If Orfield is going to bill the anechoic chamber as the quietest room in the world, we might as well call the reverb room the loudest.
Berg, lab manager for the last 22 years, said the claim that no one could last in the anechoic chamber for more than 45 minutes is a result of shoddy journalism.
“From reporters making shit up, I don’t know,” he said. “Some people really don’t like being in here at all, there’s no doubt about that. Some people get irritated right when they get in here, but most people feel it’s kind of pleasant.”
Unfortunately, almost everything about my trip to Orfield Labs that day was anti-climactic. From the chamber itself, to speaking with Berg, to the tissue-stuffed box I assumed was being used as part of some sound-testing experiment.
“Why do you have that box?” I asked Berb.
“Cause I have a really bad cold, and I was going to throw this away and go get a new box of Kleenex,” he said.
Justin Glawe reports on crime for The Pioneer in Bemidji, Minnesota. Without a college education, he has somehow managed to put himself in a position to question those in power. Follow him on Twitter @JustinGlawe.
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