Whether you travel for work, commute to work, or just like listening to music while you drink your morning coffee, noise cancelling headphones are great, but they can still be bulky. Fortunately, there are quite a few manufacturers that stuff this tech into earbuds. These are the best noise cancelling earbuds you can get right now.
Editor’s note: this list of the best noise cancelling earbuds was updated on August 5, 2020, to include the Panasonic RZ-S500W to the notable mentions section.
The best noise cancelling earbuds are the Bose QuietComfort 20
Bose is one of the leaders in ANC technology. After years on top of the game, its larger noise cancelling headphones have just begun to be challenged by other manufacturers. When it comes to earbuds, though, Bose is still one of the best. Although the QC20 has been updated with a newer wireless version, we’re keeping these at the top spot because you don’t have to worry about battery life. That said, if your phone doesn’t have a headphone jack, the QuietComfort 30 is a good alternative.
Bose QuietComfort 20
The cable ends in a 90-degree connector and a few inches above that you’ll find a slim block of components. Inside is a battery that will give you about 16 hours of noise cancelling and music playback. It houses an Aware Mode button, so you can hear what’s going on around you when you need to. Of course, you’ll also be able to control volume and playback thanks to a small control module on the wire, but make sure to pay attention to which model you get as they’re specific to Android or iOS.
Why you should get ANC earbuds
Hearing loss is a pervasive issue, and noise cancelling technology can help prevent it: it combats the permeation of external noise by way of destructive interference. Anyone who’s been on a subway platform while listening to music knows that as the train comes to a halt to pick up riders, it becomes nearly impossible to hear your music. That’s because our brains only have so much bandwidth to process simultaneous stimuli; our prehistoric brains are programmed for survival.
See also: What is noise-induced hearing loss
Back in the prehistoric days, it was important to register loud noises over all else because they were likely threats (e.g. a prowling leopard). Now, this prioritization of loud sounds is less needed since we don’t typically have run-ins with wild creatures ready to pounce on us. Instead, it impedes music playback in the form of auditory masking: a loud sound makes it difficult to perceive a quieter on. We often reach for the volume rocker to increase music loudness as a way of combating loud external noises, but active noise cancelling earbuds do much of the heavy lifting, making us less compelled to put our hearing at risk.
Enjoy a host of features with the Sony WI-1000X neckband headset
Sony has the noise cancelling market cornered with its flagship over-ear and true wireless models. The little-discussed WI-1000X neckband earphones are a great buy for frequent flyers not yet ready to jump ship to totally wireless earbuds.
Sony’s noise cancelling technology is tuned to adapt to your environment by cycling through three modes: traveling, walking, and waiting. These modes vary in intensity, and walking mode allows the ingress of external noise so you’re aware of what’s happening around you.
The earphones use DSEE HX to upscale compressed music files, restoring data that may have been lost during compression. This is the same technology used in the WF-1000XM3 earbuds. LDAC and aptX HD are both supported for high-quality streaming over Bluetooth, and if the battery dies, you can listen by wire and enjoy full high-resolution audio with the convertible microUSB to 3.5mm cable.
Both Alexa and Google Assistant are supported, with the former being built-in to the headset. By updating the firmware via the Sony | Headphones Connect app, you’re also afforded Google Assistant access. Sony provides a slew of accessories including a carrying pouch, airplane adapter, and charging cable.
iOS users should just go with the Apple AirPods Pro
Apple has finally made the AirPods good with the AirPods Pro, and that’s in no small part due to the better fitting ear tips. Not only does it mean more people can actually wear them, but it also passively isolates outside sound just by the nature of closing off your ear canals to the outside. Throw on the new active noise cancelling that apple put in the AirPods Pro, and these do a pretty great job at blocking outside noise. It isn’t as strong as something like the Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds, but it’s more than good enough for most situations.
Apple AirPods ProFull Review
Besides the active noise cancelling, the AirPods Pro also has a transparency mode that uses the microphones to enhance the sounds around you so you can hear what’s going on. It’s super helpful when you’re trying to hear what the pilot or conductor is saying but don’t want to remove your earbud. The new shorter stem is where you’ll find the pressure-sensitive playback controls that let you skip between tracks and toggle ANC on or off.
Cut the cord with the Sony WF-1000XM3
Sony’s flagship earbuds, the WF-1000XM3, are the best noise cancelling true wireless earbuds currently available. While the company’s over-ear model has better overall ANC performance, these Google Assistant-integrated earbuds do a fantastic job at attenuating low-frequencies sounds.
Sony WF-1000XM3Full Review
An ergonomic design positions the earbuds so they evenly distribute pressure along three contact points. Lily found this design unique and comfortable and was able to wear these for 4.76 hours, the entire duration allotted from a single charge. Popping the earbuds into the case for 10 minutes affords 1.5 hours of playback, and the charging case provides an additional three charges to the earbuds.
Related: Best AirPods Pro alternatives
One of the biggest drawbacks of the Sony WF-1000XM3 is their lack of aptX or LDAC support. They do offer AAC support but performance is dubious across Android devices. The QN1e processor supports 24-bit audio signal processing, which is great for Amazon Music HD subscribers. This paired with DSEE HX technology makes for clear audio reproduction despite the lacking codec support. Like the Sony WH-1000XM3, these earbuds are compatible with Sony’s Headphones | Connect app, which allows for eight preset EQ options and if you want to get really fancy, you can even create your own. What’s more, users can choose to prioritize connectivity or audio quality when streaming. Although we should be able to have our cake and eat it too, true wireless technology isn’t quite there yet, so the option is appreciated.
If you’re a one-bag flyer, these ‘buds make the most sense: they’re compact, comfortable, have great noise cancelling, and support quick charging. While $230 is a lot of spend on a pair of earbuds, it’s worth it for frequent commuters.
The highest value when it comes to noise cancelling earbuds is the Plantronics Backbeat Go 410
The Plantronics BackBeat Go 410 is the company’s answer to consumer-friendly noise cancelling earbuds. The neckband design is reminiscent of the Beats Powerbeats. For ~$100 listeners get impressive noise cancelling capabilities, a comfortable fit, and sweat-resistant build.
Plantronics BackBeat Go 410Full Review
Noise cancelling automatically enters Low Noise or High Noise mode, depending on the context of your current environment. This works so well that I wouldn’t recommend them when walking down the street or running outdoors. They do, however, hold their own in a crowded coffee shop or on the subway.
Related: What is Bluetooth multipoint?
One of the most intriguing aspects of the earbuds, though, is that they give listeners the option for wired listening via an included dual-purpose microUSB cable, which sheathes a 3.5mm plug. Of course, in order to reap the benefits of this design, your smartphone needs to feature a headphone jack.
What you should know about the best noise cancelling earbuds
How does noise cancellation work?
We have a full breakdown of how noise cancelling technology works, but the shortened version is that it uses destructive interference. Each sound has its own waveform, and the microphones in ANC headsets record your surroundings and emit an inverted waveform to combat ambient noise. In a perfect world, it would be as simple and neat and 1-1=0. However, the technology isn’t there yet and may never be. Environmental noise still permeates the barrier created by noise cancelling headphones. Generally speaking, though, the technology has advanced quite a bit: AKG and Sony have impeccable performers while Bose is promising all-new AR tech in its upcoming ANC headphones.
This technology is complicated, and to get an effective pair of headphones or earbuds with ANC, you should expect to pay at least $150. This is pricy, but has proven well worth the investment for daily commuters and readers with loud neighbors.
Take the time to find a proper fit
Just like standard earbuds, noise cancelling earbuds greatly benefit from a proper seal. No matter how good the ANC tech inside the earbud is, if the nozzles aren’t physically blocking external noise out, auditory masking will occur. It’s worth the effort to take a moment and test out the included ear tips. Shake your head around a bit and take note of your comfort level. Usually one of the sizes works but on the off chance that they don’t, you may want to invest in third-party ear tips.
How we chose the best noise cancelling earbuds
When it comes to noise cancelling earbuds, we performed our due diligence by researching the ones we’ve yet to get our hands-on. Bose, recognized as the brand to get when looking for noise cancelling headphones, is awarded as our top contender. However, we made sure to include other, less ubiquitous options that will still suit a wide array of listener profiles. While the Bose QuietComfort 20 still reigns as our pick for the best noise cancelling earbuds, you’re bound to enjoy any of the above.
Noise cancelling earbuds: notable mentions
- Bose QuietControl 30: If you’re looking to ditch the wires while retaining good audio quality, this Bose option is a great but pricey pick.
- Panasonic RZ-S500W: Anyone in search of the most effective, portable noise cancelling solution should stop here with the Panasonic RZ-S500W. These earphones render sounds ¼ to ⅙ as loud as they’d sound without the earbuds in. Water-resistance is also in the cards, as these merit an IPX4 rating. You may use them in mono mode, but they’re less feature-dense than Sony’s earbuds.
- Plantronics Voyager 6200 UC: Listeners who want to rule the office and roam freely should check these earbuds out. Class 1 Bluetooth and multipoint connectivity make using these a breeze. It’s one of the best headsets for conference calls, and is a great tool to have for anyone working remotely or at the office.
- 1More Dual-Driver ANC Pro: These earbuds are difficult to find but they’re a great deal for anyone interested in ANC tech without the hefty price tag and size that accompanies full-fledged headphones. A dual-driver system divvies up frequency response reproduction, so you can enjoy clear bass notes and vocals simultaneously.
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Frequently Asked Questions
We recommend the Bose Sleepbuds: these aren't designed to play music, and are only compatible with the Bose Sleep app. You can use said app to select a number of ambient recordings to help you catch some Z's. It's a miniature white noise machine that won't keep your partner awake.
For the most optimized experience, get the Apple AirPods Pro; these earbuds use Apple's H1 chip which allows for hands-free access to Siri, improves power efficiency, and enables seamless device switching with iOS and macOS products. The H1 chip is compatible with macOS 10.14.4 or later and iOS 12.2 or later. We've yet to review the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and are unable to speak to its ANC capabilities, but even so, the AirPods Pro will yield a more streamlined experience.
Both Bose and Sony make great noise cancelling earbuds. If you're already invested in the Bose ecosystem, you may find yourself more at home with Bose's ANC earbuds. Bose has made a name for itself when it comes to noise cancellation and comfort, be it with its earbud or headphone audio solutions. Sony's noise cancelling earbuds are no slouch, and it has a tight grip on the noise cancelling true wireless market. We recommend the Sony WI-1000X to anyone who wants a convertible pair of Bluetooth earbuds, since you can quickly switch from wired to wireless audio. Ultimately, though, both brands make great products and it may very well boil down to what headset is on promotion at the time of purchase.