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ByPhilip Palermo Lead Senior Editor - For the Home

Philip leads the For the Home section, guiding home security and smart home content. His writing and photos have been featured on Engadget and several local Washington newspapers.

The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones

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.

The 13 headphones we tested

Over-ear:

  • Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b
  • B&O Beoplay H9
  • Bose QuietComfort 35
  • JBL Everest Elite 700
  • Plantronics Backbeat Pro2
  • PSB M4U2
  • Sennheiser HD-1 M2 AEBT
  • Sony MDR-1000X

In-ear:

  • Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS
  • B&O E4 Beoplay
  • Bose QuietComfort 20
  • Bose QuietControl 30
  • Phiaton BT 100 NC

The 4 Best Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Best
Over-Ear Headphones

Sony MDR 1000X
Sony MDR 1000x
Top-notch noise cancellation and features that outperformed the rest.
Pros
Top-notch noise canceling
Useful features
Great sound
Cons
Not the most comfortable

Why we chose it

Top-notch noise canceling

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 in noise-reduction technology ever since it 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. Both have impressive active noise cancellation, but our testers were amazed by the noise isolation of the Sony.

The tighter fit of the Sonys 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.

Useful features

The noise-canceling controls on the Sony are hands-down the easiest to use. 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.

Great sound

With all the focus on canceling noise, we wanted to know if the Sony were any good at producing sound. We’re happy to report that 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.

Points to consider

Not the most comfortable

Admittedly, the Bose are more comfortable than the Sonys, 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.

Runner-Up
Over-Ear Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 35 ii
Bose QuietComfort 35 ii
They put less pressure on the ears, but don’t block sound as well as the Sony.
Pros
Comfort
Great sound
Great noise-cancellation
Cons
High price

Why we chose it

Comfort

While the Bose don’t block out voices as well as the Sony, the trade-off is better comfort. The seal of the earcups is a little looser, which means they’ll let in more noise, but won’t squeeze your head as much as the Sony. In fact, our testers felt the fit was near perfect. But unless you know you prefer a looser pair of headphones, the Sony are your best bet.

Great sound

Full disclosure: the sound quality of the Bose are just a touch better than our top pick. Sound charts from Rtings and Inner Fidelity reveal that the bass on the Bose is also more balanced and lead instruments come through clearer. For those who prioritize sound quality over noise-cancellation, the Bose are likely the better option.

Great noise-cancellation

The Bose headphones are no slouch in terms of noise-cancellation. The active noise cancellation successfully blocked out the low hum of the office AC and the rumbles of our daily commutes—so much so that some of us would grab them even when our testing was over. That said, they just aren’t as good as Sony when it came to sealing out higher frequency sounds such as voices.

Points to consider

High price

At $350, the Quiet Comfort 35 headphones are Bose's most expensive model. But if you're looking for the most comfortable, best-sounding noise-cancelers, there's no comparison.

The Best
In-Ear Headpones

Bose QuietControl 30
Bose QuietControl 30
Bluetooth noise cancelers with a lightweight and balanced neckband.
Pros
Top notch noise-cancellation
Sound quality
Comfort
Cons
High price

Why we chose it

Top-notch noise-cancellation

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.

In addition, other headphones’ noise-cancellation wasn’t as consistent. A common problem was that noise cancellation would cut out due to bumps and vibrations on the bus. By comparison, the Bose QuietControl 30 earned points for performing consistently in the office, on our commutes, and anywhere in between.

Sound quality

The QuietControl 30 also scored high marks during our testing for their respectable sound quality. The bass and midrange are 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. Our testers were pleasantly surprised by the well-balanced design that allowed the noise cancellation to actually improve sound quality.

Comfort

The wireless neckband of the Bose QuietControl 30 houses the noise-cancellation technology without the hassle of wires or a clunky module. The earpieces also fit snugly in the ears for comfortable listening. 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.

Points to consider

High Price

The Bose QuietControl 30 are a little pricey at $300. Over-ear headphones will cost nearly the same and provide a better sound-stage — the sense that music is coming from multiple directions. For music lovers, the larger sound-stage will improve your listening experience. That said, the QuietControl 30 still provide great sound quality and noise-cancellation that is difficult to beat.

Runner-Up
In-Ear Headphones

Bose QuietComfort 20
Bose QuietComfort 20
They excelled at blocking out sound but require a clunky cord.
Pros
Top-notch noise cancellation
Great sound
Wired perks
Cons
Clunky cord

Why we chose it

Top-notch noise cancellation

An older Bose model, the QuietComfort 20 earned higher ratings in our tests for noise cancellation than our top pick. As in-ear headphones with an earplug design, the pair excelled at sealing out high-frequency noises and the lower frequency distractions. But even though they were the most effective in-ear noise-cancellers we tested usability kept them from our top spot (more on this later).

Sound quality

Like the other Bose headphones, the QuietComfort 20 produced great sound quality. Vocals came through crisp and the bass was surprisingly impressive. That said, the QuietControl 30 sounded a bit better overall and only cost $50 more. When we asked ourselves if the extra cost was worth the better sound quality, our honest answer was yes.

Wire perks

The Bose QuietComfort 20 is not wireless which may sound like an inconvenience. 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 — something the QuietControl 30 can’t match. In addition, the battery for noise cancellation lasts 16 hours compared to the 10-hour battery life of the QuietControl 30.

Points to consider

Clunky cord

While the wire has its perks, it also has its flaws. A small rectangular block on the wire houses the noise-cancellation technology, and with both a module and wires, walking around with the QuietComfort 20 is more of a hassle. 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.

How to Find the Right Noise-Canceling Headphones for You

Consider the fit

As Dan Wiggins explained, it’s important to find noise-canceling headphones with a good seal. The seal prevents high-frequency noises from leaking in. A good way to check if over-ear headphones have a good seal is to slightly lift the edge of an earcup. If you notice a dramatic increase in ambient noise, the headphones provide a great seal. If you don’t notice much difference, the headphones aren’t sealing out noise. The idea is the same with in-ear headphones, and to test, just barely pull an earpiece.

Test the headphones

Testing the headphones can give you a good idea of whether or not a pair is canceling noise. Many stores have samples on display, and most headphones have return policies (including our top picks), so don’t be afraid to try out multiple pairs. Noise-canceling headphones are a lifestyle choice and investment, so it pays to make sure they are reliable companions.

Noise-Canceling Headphones FAQ

Will noise-canceling headphones damage my ears?

No, but you might feel a little discomfort. 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.”

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.

Do noise-canceling headphones make music sound better?

Yes and no. 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

Sony MDR 1000X
Bose QuietComfort 35 ii
Bose QuietControl 30
Bose QuietComfort 20
The Best
Over-Ear Headphones
On-Ear Runner-Up
In-Ear Headphones
In-Ear Runner-Up
Price
$348
$350
$300
$250
Battery Life
20 hours
20 hours
10 hours
16 hours
Bluetooth
Wired Listening Option
Built-In Noise Canceling Controls

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