Those smart speakers you’ve allowed into your home can do more than look up the weather forecast and set timers for your eggs—they’re growing increasingly capable of taking on a host of other tasks, including becoming an ambient or white noise generator. If you need help focusing or falling to sleep, a path to peaceful slumber awaits.
Being able to pipe ambient sounds through your HomePod is a feature only recently added to Apple’s minimalist smart speaker, so if you’ve been waiting for the functionality to arrive, wait no longer. Make sure you’re running the latest software on your HomePod and your iPhone to be sure you’ve got the update.
Siri is your way into the sounds on offer, as you would expect. Just say, “Hey Siri, play sounds,” and the sounds that it picks will be ambient, relaxing ones—you’ll get a voice notification that tells you the sound (such as fireplace) that Siri has picked.
So far, so chill. But if you don’t like the selection that’s been made for you, say, “Hey Siri, play the next one,” and the HomePod will jump to the next track in the random ambient noise queue. At the moment, the choices seem to be fireplace, ocean, forest, rain, night, stream, and white noise.
If you want one of those in particular, then say it by name: “Hey Siri, play rain from ambient sounds,” for example. Your room will be bathed in the gentle sounds of a rainstorm, whatever the weather outside.
By default, these sounds will keep on playing indefinitely, but you can use them as a sleep timer, if you’d like. Get the track you want playing, then say, “Hey Siri, make a sleep timer” and say how long you want it to last when prompted.
Of course, you can also use your iPhone to beam ambient or white noise sounds over to your HomePod, whether it’s tracks from your local iTunes library or something you’ve found on the Apple Music catalogue. If you subscribe to Apple Music, there’s a suitable Pure Ambient playlist curated by Apple—just FYI.
If you’ve got Google Home (now Google Nest) speakers dotted around the house, you’ve got a few choices when it comes to playing white noise or ambient sounds. You can just say, “OK Google, help me relax” or “OK Google, play ambient noise,” and you’ll get something picked at random.
Each of the ambient noise sounds built into the Google Home brain lasts for an hour. Once that hour is over, it’ll repeat again unless you ask for something else or ask for it to stop. You can also ask for something specific if you prefer, as in, “OK Google, play…” followed by your request.
At the moment, there are 14 ambient sounds to pick from: relaxing sounds, nature sounds, water sounds, running water sounds, outdoor sounds, babbling brook sounds, oscillating fan sounds, fireplace sounds, forest sounds, country night sounds, ocean sounds, rain sounds, river sounds, and thunderstorm sounds—so take your pick.
White noise is included as a bonus ambient sound, so it might pop up at random alongside the other 14. If you specifically want white noise, just say, “OK Google, play white noise.” Again the track lasts for an hour before repeating (not that you can really tell).
If you’ve got a Google smart speaker with a display, then you can pause playback with a push on the touchscreen, and you get a token image alongside your sounds. If you’re trying to fall asleep to certain noises, say, “OK Google, stop playing in…” and the sound will shut off after the time period specified.
All Google Home and Google Nest speakers have Chromecast-like functionality, of course, so you can send any ambient sound or white noise track you like over to the speaker using your phone. Search for “ambient” on YouTube Music, for instance, and you get a number of premade playlists covering piano, bass, post rock and more.
For those of you who are friendliest with Amazon Alexa and the Amazon Echo speakers, there isn’t an ‘official’ ambient or white noise generator built into these devices—but there are plenty of third-party skills to pick from that do the same job.
One of the best that we’ve come across is Alexa Sounds, which has a total of 40 different sounds to pick from—everything from wind chimes to the sounds of the city. You need to say “Alexa, open…” followed by the name, as each sound is a specific skill. To check out the full list of commands, see here.
These sounds can be looped if needed: For example, say, “Alexa, ask fan sounds to loop.” (Replace “fan sounds” with whatever ambient noise you want to hear.) You can also say, “Alexa, set a sleep timer for 30 minutes” to have the speaker turn itself off after the specified time.
Dive into the Alexa skills library on the web, and you’ll find several more to try, including Ambient Visuals Rainfall, which adds some rainfall footage on an Amazon Echo Show. Other skills are specifically focused on white noise rather than any identifiable sound.
Amazon Music comes built into Amazon Echo speakers, if you’ve got an active Prime subscription, and you can queue up sounds via this service too: “Alexa, play ambient sounds” will launch a chilled-out playlist from Amazon Music, for example. Search through the catalogue and you’ll find specific albums based around thunderstorms, nature sounds, and so on as well.
Thanks to the wonders of Bluetooth and Spotify Connect, you can play just about anything else from your phone, too. (And most music apps will have a built-in timer you can take advantage of if you’re drifting off to sleep.) Like the other music apps we’ve mentioned here, Spotify has several curated ambient playlists, including Sounds of the Ocean and Nature Sounds.