The 30-Second Review

The best noise-canceling headphones should sound great, be comfortable to wear, and offer useful features to help you stay productive or find a moment of bliss during the commotion of your day. To find our top picks, we consulted audio engineers and audiologists, then tested 13 highly respected headphones ourselves. In the end, we found two top picks that outperformed the competition.

Best Over-Ear Headphones

A Bluetooh pair that blocked out the most noise. Testers liked that you can control how much background noise you want to hear with a button on the earcup.

Runner-Up

Bose QuietComfort 35
The Bose offer better music quality but are noticeably looser, which means they don't block out sound as well.

Best In-Ear Headphones

A lightweight, Bluetooth option that doesn't sound as natural as the Sony, but still outperforms all other in-ear headphones.

Runner-Up

Bose QuietComfort 20
They block out a bit more noise, but testers disliked the cumbersome noise-canceling module on its cord.

  • September 28, 2017 - At the time of publish, Bose, Sony, and Beats announced new noise-canceling headphones. Their announcements include updated versions of the headphones we have on our list. We’ll test the latest releases in the coming months and update the review with our findings.

The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Sony MDR 1000X surprised us with noise cancellation that managed to dethrone the once invincible Bose. These headphones excel at sealing out the distraction of environmental noises with a snug fit around the ears that won’t squeeze your head. In addition to hours of comfort, intuitive controls make adjusting noise cancellation a breeze. As over-ears they’ll sound the most natural, but can be a bit bulky — our in-ear pick is better for those who want a lighter pair with more breathing room. At $250, they're on the higher side of average, but still outperformed headphones twice the price.

The Bose QuietComfort 35 are a close runner-up, with crisper sound quality and a looser fit that doesn't put as much pressure on your head. However, they didn’t cancel noise as well as the Sony during our tests and cost $80 more.

The Bose QuietControl 30 are our favorite in-ear pair. The earpieces fit snugly, so they'll block out sound without hurting your ears. While they don’t sound as natural or offer as many features as the Sony, they're wireless, so they're less bulky and easy to carry. Not only do they last up to 10 hours before needing a charge, but the neckband is so lightweight and well-balanced, we often forgot we were wearing them. At $300, they're also the most expensive option.

Its closest competitor is another Bose model, the QuietComfort 20. These wired noise cancelers impressed us with the best noise cancellation of all other in-ear contenders. But they just weren’t as convenient as the wireless Bose QuietControl 30. We dislike the clunky module that holds the noise-canceling technology — imagine stuffing a mini laptop charger in your pocket. But if you don't mind the weight, they're approximately $50 cheaper.

Finalists for Noise-Canceling Headphones

Our Picks for the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Best Over-Ear Headphones

Sony MDR 1000XTop-notch noise cancellation and features that outperformed the rest.

We were surprised to find that the Sony MDR 1000x were the best at blocking out the noisy world around us. We’ll admit that we expected the Bose QuietComfort 35 to take the top spot like they did in our review of the best Bluetooth headphones.

After all, Bose has been the pioneer of noise reduction technology ever since they released the first noise-canceling headphones. It was a close race, but the Sony provide the best experience for those who specifically want noise cancellation. Simply put, the noise-canceling controls on the Sony are easier to use.

Sony for Noise-Canceling Headphones

You can control noise cancellation with two buttons located on the left earcup. Pressing the ambient sound button once turns noise canceling off, and a second press cancels noises except for voices. If you want peace and quiet but don’t want to miss announcements about donuts in the breakroom or gate connections on the plane, the Sony have you covered. To turn noise cancellation back on, just tap the noise-canceling button.

The Bose, on the other hand, require an app to adjust noise canceling. In addition, you may have to update your Bose headphones by hooking them up to your computer in order to gain noise-canceling controls on a separate smartphone app.

Our testers were amazed by the noise isolation of the Sony. The tight fit sealed out high frequency voices of noisy kids and conversations right next to them. When one tester switched to the Bose, the voices got a lot quieter, but the Sony were just more effective. Admittedly, the Bose are more comfortable, because they place less pressure on the head, but that also means they're not as good at blocking out sound. Still, the tight fit of the Sony don’t cause discomfort. The earcups press gently against the sides of the heads and the headphones stay in place for hours of comfortable listening.

With all the focus on canceling noise, we wanted to know if the Sony were any good at producing sound. They are. The vocals and piano of Queen’s “Killer Queen” were crisp and clear and the bass on Run the Jewels’ “Hey Kids Bumaye” was energetic. On top of that, they’re versatile, with features like audio controls, clear phone calls, a 20-hour battery life, and both Bluetooth and wired listening. Plus, at $250 they are $80 cheaper than the Bose.

Runner-Up

Bose QuietComfort 35They put less pressure on the ears, but don't block sound as well as the Sony.

At a starting price of $330, the Bose are more expensive, and they don’t block out voices as well as the Sony or offer built-in noise-canceling controls. The tradeoff is slightly better comfort and sound quality. The seal of the earcups is just a bit looser which means they’ll let in more noise, but won’t squeeze your head as much as the Sony. The bass on the Bose is also more balanced and lead instruments come through clearer.

Bose for Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Bose QuietComfort 35 were, indeed, comfortable to wear, but its reliance on a smartphone app for noise-cancellation features was a turnoff.

The Bose are close competitors when it comes to noise cancellation, but unless you know you prefer a looser pair of headphones, the Sony are your best bet.

The Best In-Ear Headphones

Bose QuietControl 30Bluetooth noise cancelers with a lightweight and balanced neckband.

With a comfortable and lightweight neckband, excellent sound, and easy-to-use features, the Bose QuietControl 30 are hands-down the best option for in-ear noise cancellation.

In the words of one tester, “When I took these out I was honestly shocked at how well they’d been canceling out the noise.” She explained that after wearing them, normal sounds like the office AC felt deafening. Other pairs weren’t as successful. Another tester told us the B&O E4 Beoplay “blocked out office conversations well, but were useless on my bus ride home. The bumps and vibrations interfered with the noise canceling — it kept cutting in and out. I had to turn it off.” By comparison, the Bose QuietControl 30 earned points for performing consistently in the office, on our commutes, and anywhere in between.

Bose QuietControl 30 for Noise-Cancelation Headphones

The QuietControl 30's noise-cancellation hardware is housed within a sleek neckband.

The wireless neckband of the Bose QuietControl 30 houses the noise cancellation technology without the hassle of wires or a clunky module. One tester even told us “I didn’t even notice the neckband and forgot about it several times. I’ve worn heavier necklaces.” Adjusting noise cancellation is also more intuitive with the QuietControl 30. By comparison, It took some trial and error to figure out the noise-canceling controls on the Bose’s QuietComfort 20 model — the controls are split between a switch on the module and a button on the inline mic piece.

The QuietControl 30 also scored high marks during our testing for their respectable 10-hour battery life and sound quality. The bass and midrange is consistent, which means clear vocals and instruments. As in-ears the QuietControl 30 offer great noise isolation, so outside noises won’t interfere with your listening experience. They’re a little pricy at $300, but the Bose QuietControl 30 are our pick for their well-balanced design and noise cancellation that actually improves sound quality.

Runner-Up

Bose QuietComfort 20They excelled at blocking out sound, but require a clunky cord.

The closest competitor is an older Bose model, the QuietComfort 20. This pair earned higher ratings in our tests for noise cancellation, but usability kept them from our top spot.

The QuietComfort 20 are wired headphones, and a small rectangular block on the wire houses the noise cancellation technology. As a wired version, the Bose QuietComfort 20 need a module that holds and powers the noise-canceling technology. With both a module and wires, walking around with the QuietComfort 20 is more of a hassle.

Bose QuietComfort 20 for Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Bose QuietComfort 20's in-line noise-cancellation module made it more awkward to use compared to its sleeker sibling.

One tester reported that this control module “is a little weighty, and I had to be careful to make sure it wouldn’t fall off of my desk or lap.” Our pockets felt crowded with the module and our phones, and we missed not having to worry about wires getting caught.

The wire has its perks though. If the noise-canceling module runs out of battery, you can still listen to music by keeping the audio cable plugged in. In addition, the battery for noise cancellation lasts 16 hours compared to the 10 hour battery life of the QuietControl 30.

If you don’t mind the added hassle of a wire and noise-canceling module, the QuietComfort 20 are a solid option starting at $250. But we’re happy to pay a little more for the QuietControl 30’s added convenience and still stellar noise cancellation.

Did You Know?

You may feel a little pressure on your ears when using ANC headphones.

In our research, we found a handful of complaints that ANC headphones increase pressure on the ears, similar to the way your ears feel when they need to pop. The sensation usually happens when ANC is active but no audio is playing. We learned from clinical audiologist Dr. Nicole Balliet that “this is because pressure relations may have an effect on the ears.”

Essentially, there are twice as many sound waves entering your ear or interacting with the pinna — the outside of your ear. As noise is being cancelled out, the brain interprets the lack of ambient noise as as your ears needing to pop. For most the feeling goes away as the ears adapt to the headphones, when audio is played, ANC is turned off, or the headphones are taken off.

Some with highly sensitive ears report nausea with extended use of ANC headphones. The balance centers for the body are located in the ears, which means pressure may have an adverse effect. There is no way around this sensation if you have sensitive ears, but most headphones, including the ones on our list, have a return policy. A few of our testers reported pressure, but none felt nausea even after hours of listening. In any case, the pressure is just a feeling and won’t harm your ears.

Noise canceling affects sound quality, for better or worse.

While noise-canceling headphones can reduce noises that distract from your music or podcasts, they won’t be able to produce the same audio quality as regular headphones. The speakers in noise-canceling headphones have to produce audio plus sound waves that reduce ambient noise. Since the speakers have to do two jobs at the same time, the audio quality can drop or get distorted. With focused listening in quiet places, our testers could pick up on a few imperfections with every pair we tested.

Strangely enough, we learned that for average listeners, noise-canceling headphones can also improve the listening experience. Isn’t that a contradiction? Not necessarily. in loud environments, noise-canceling headphones filter out the sounds that interfere with audio. That means headphones like the Sony or Bose can actually sound better in noisy places. Our testers agreed. One even reported that they were able to listen to music clearly while someone else was using a drill in the background. Goodbye noisy buses and grocery stores. Hello clear music and podcasts.

The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones: Summed Up

Noise-Canceling Headphones
The Best
Sony MDR 1000X
Over-Ear
Bose QuietControl 30
In-Ear
Bose QuietComfort 35
Over-Ear Runner-Up
Bose QuietComfort 20
In-Ear Runner-Up