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Destination: Orfield Labs' Anechoic Chamber

The peculiar thing about the quietest place on Earth, is that it is not, in fact, quiet at all. Stay there long enough and, like the protagonist in Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart, you'll begin to hear all things in heaven--and many in hell. Not to worry, though. The sounds are all coming from you. 

Stepping into the room within a room within a room that is the anechoic chamber at Orfield Labs in south Minneapolis means your every sound is dampened. The swish of Levis and the creak of loafers are barely audible. After a few minutes with the door closed, however--surrounded by a foot of concrete on every side, enveloped by three-foot fiberglass acoustic wedges and suspended on chicken wire--things become cacophonous. 

Your ear's strain to pick up sound and, feeling nothing, begin to buzz. But that's only until your heartbeat becomes louder. Now you can hear the blood pulsing through your veins, and if you listen closely enough, the whoosh of your own lungs. What appear to be aural hallucinations are actual sounds that could be recorded with the right equipment. 

Also known as "the quiet room," the anechoic chamber is absent of reflected sound and reverberation, and was measured at a negative 9.4 decibels by engineers for the Guinness Book of World Records in 2004. How quiet is that? The low threshold for human hearing is considered zero decibels. 

At one point, Orfield Labs Founder and President Steve Orfield offered a six-pack of Guinness to anyone who stayed in the room for longer than 45 minutes. Only three individuals have endured the quiet room's discomforting environment for an extended period of time. Beer is no longer used as incentive these days, but Steve still invites people to try to bear the silent space, which is used to analyze the design and sound quality of products ranging from heart valves to motorcycles (psychoacoustic research is Orfield's bread and butter). 

The quiet room isn't the company's only draw, however. The same building houses Sound 80, the studio where Bob Dylan recorded his album Blood on the Tracks. Prince and Cat Stevens have also laid down work here. And if that weren't enough, Sound 80 put Orfield Labs on the map as the first multi-track digital recording studio (also a Guinness World Record). 

Steve is happy to show guests--and even impromptu visitors--around his domain free of charge. At the front desk, don't even bother mentioning you only want to "peek around." You'll want to spend an afternoon at Orfield Labs, as there's a lot to see (did we mention there's a modern art gallery, too?) and not much to hear. —Kate Smith

METRO Magazine | August 2010