The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones
All noise-canceling headphones will block out sound. But the best should outperform the competition, feel comfortable, and be easy to use. To find our top picks, we consulted audio engineers and audiologists then tested 13 highly respected headphones ourselves.
A comfortable 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.
Bose QuietComfort 35
The Bose offer better music quality but are noticeably looser, which means they don't block out sound as well.
A lightweight, Bluetooth option that doesn't sound as natural as the Sony, but still outperforms all other in-ear headphones.
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
Noise-canceling headphones pick up background noise and produce competing sound waves to cancel them out. The very best should cancel the most sound, but like standard headphones, they should also 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.
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 block out sound without making our ears sore or falling out. 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. A clunky module that holds the noise-canceling technology (imagine a mini laptop charger) made them harder to carry and filled up our pockets. But if you don't mind the weight, they're approximately $50 cheaper.
How We Found the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones
At their core, noise-canceling headphones are designed to cancel out distracting sounds so that you can focus or simply relax. But not all noise-canceling headphones are created equal. A lot of headphones advertise the latest noise cancellation technology, the best sound quality, and comfort that lasts for hours. Dan Wiggins, audio engineer and acoustics expert, told us that headphones can use similar technology but still make misleading claims about quality. He explained that “what matters most is how good parts are implemented.” Advanced technology doesn’t mean much unless the headphones are constructed well.
His advice: Look at hobbyist websites for headphones that had the best reputations for being well-crafted. So, we scoured audiophile sites like InnerFidelity and tech sites like TechRadar to see which headphones were consistently celebrated for superior noise-canceling, sound quality, and useful features. We also looked at reviews on Amazon to find which headphones were the most popular for average listeners in terms of comfort and portability. A good pair of headphones are an investment that you’ll wear for hours, and we made sure our picks were reliable companions.
We looked for headphones that use active noise cancellation, not passive.
There are two types of noise cancellation: active and passive. We learned from Wiggins that passive noise cancellation is more of a marketing term for noise isolation — the ability to reduce noise by blocking off your ears, like ear plugs. In other words, all headphones offer some noise isolation. Pairs that only advertise passive noise cancellation are just regular headphones.
According to Wiggins, “noise cancellation means you measure incoming noise and emit anti-noise to cancel out the sound.” In basic terms, active noise cancellation uses microphones and speakers to fight soundwave with soundwave. We limited our list to active noise cancelers, because they’re the only headphones that actually cancel noises rather than only blocking them out.
And they needed to form a tight seal around our ears.
Noise isolation is still important. Headphones that fit snugly over or in your ears are better at sealing out high frequency noises including music and crying babies. The technology for active noise cancellation is designed to mainly reduce low frequency sounds such as the hum of an office air vent or plane cabin. Wiggins explained that “it’s very difficult to do active high frequency cancellation, because implementing the parts correctly is tough.”
With this in mind, we narrowed our search to over-ear and in-ear headphones. Because they create a tight seal, these styles are best at noise isolation. There are on-ear noise-canceling headphones too, but since they don’t surround the ear or sit inside the ear canal, they aren’t as good at sealing out environmental noises. That left us with 13 finalists that received accolades for their noise cancellation and listening experience.
- 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
- Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS
- B&O E4 Beoplay
- Bose QuietComfort 20
- Bose QuietControl 30
- Phiaton BT 100 NC
Then we put our headphones to the test.
Before we came up with a game plan, we turned to our experts. Did we need to test the difference between analog or digital sound processing headphones? What about feedforward, feedback, or hybrid noise-canceling? It turns out that technical specs like these don’t really matter for the average listener. They all agreed, the best way to find a good pair of headphones, it to try them yourself, with four basic criteria in mind.
First and foremost — the best should block out every kind of noise.
We wanted to find headphones that we could use anywhere, so we had our testers wear each pair in as many places as possible. Not just around the office but in busy grocery stores and rumbling buses, too. Turns out, not all headphones were up to the challenge.
The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b impressed us at first. It was great at canceling out low frequency sounds like the office AC, but its looser seal couldn't block out the drone of voices at the corner coffee shop. By comparison, the Sony MDR 1000X blocked the low frequency fan in one tester’s home and chatter at the grocery store.
We also compared each pair’s ability to reduce noise without audio playing. The best should cancel noise, not rely on music to drown it out. Pairs with a tighter seal and better noise cancellation, like the Bose QuietControl 30, didn’t need the help of music to silence the construction outside. In contrast, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS only brought relief with a little help from the Beatles at full volume.
Most of the headphones we tested could muffle noise and help us focus, but some were clearly more effective than others. Budget pairs like the Audio-Technicas were better than expected, but didn’t perform as well as our mid-range or high-priced options. With noise cancelers, you get what you pay for.
But they also need to be comfortable enough to wear for hours.
We wanted headphones that were so comfortable, we could forget we were wearing them. To compare how they felt, we asked our testers to wear each pair for at least 30 continuous minutes but took note when they took them off early or wore them longer. Testers agreed that some pairs, like the PSB M4U2, were too heavy and felt bulky on our heads. Others like the Sony MDR 1000X were lighter and had softer ear pads that covered our ears without crushing them.
The best noise-canceling headphones should also seal out environmental noise without needing constant readjustment. Headphones like the Bose QuietControl 30 fit snugly in our ears without slipping out or tugging as we moved. Multiple testers noticed that others, like the B&O E4 Beoplay, “felt like they might fall out during a workout” or increased movement. None of the headphones we tested were painful to wear, but our testers agreed on their favorites.
And include features that are actually useful.
We gave bonus points to any headphones with features that improved our noise-canceling experience. We quickly learned that not all features are worthwhile. The PSB M4U2, for example, have two audio cables with a button to turn off noise-canceling, but you have to continuously hold the button down. Additionally, the second audio cable doesn’t include controls for skipping songs or answering phone calls. Backups are nice, but we were confused by the exclusion. Headphones like the Sony MDR 1000X take a simpler approach and let you adjust noise-canceling with the press of two buttons on the left earcup. Sometimes, less is more.
Should you go wireless? The choice is yours. All noise-canceling headphones require battery power for noise cancellation to work, but wired options let you listen to music even after the battery dies, whereas wireless options remove the hassle of cables.
Easy-to-carry headphones with a long battery life mean you won’t be stranded in loud places without noise cancellation. Intuitive audio controls can help you avoid accidentally skipping your favorite song or hanging up on your friends. The B&O Beoplay H9 have a 14-hour battery life, and the right earcup doubles as a touchpad for controlling all the features such as volume and phone calls. But the complex touch commands are easy to forget, and the touchpad was finicky — we accidentally hung up twice. The Sony touchpad too, but the controls are easier to use and remember. On top of that, they have a 20-hour battery life.
We recognize that some of our testing results sound like nitpicking, but when it comes to the best, small differences matter. Some of our picks took a minimal approach and others were feature packed. Regardless of approach, our tests revealed a few pairs that were the most consistent.
We made sure our top picks sound good too.
We asked our testers to comment on the sound quality of each pair — we were looking for headphones with a balanced bass, clear instruments, and crisp vocals. But all of our headphones are praised for their great audio; most of our testers had a hard time comparing the differences. Our testers disliked the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. When noise canceling was turned off, one tester described the music as if they were hearing it play underwater.
We’re not audio engineers, so we also compared our notes to sound charts from audiophile sites like Rtings and InnerFidelity. These sites use testing rigs designed to objectively measure sound. For the most part, our results lined up with the sound charts. A close listen revealed imperfections like harsh cymbals with the JBL Everest Elite 700, but it took all of our concentration to pick up on it.
Rather than getting lost in details we won’t be able to hear while working or on the go, we focused the rest of our testing on other sound issues. We looked for any lag while watching videos and robotic or spotty voices during phone calls. All of our headphones sounded better than an average pair, but our top contenders from Sony and Bose still lead the pack.
Our Picks for the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones
The Best Over-Ear Headphones
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.