Sometimes listening to the sounds of nature or the sounds of the people around you can be an enlightening experience, but sometimes it isn’t. As people who ride subways every day, we know how necessary it is to block out the world sometimes just to keep your sanity—and hearing—intact. Whether you’re always in crowded areas, working at your desk, or a frequent commuter noise cancelling can be a much-needed feature. Everyone can benefit from any of the best noise cancelling headphones.
Besides sound quality, a good pair of noise cancelling headphones do two things: provide a comfortable fit for extended use and also accurately cancel out unwanted outside noise. Without getting too technical, Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) is achieved by using built-in microphones that pick up what is going on around you. The headphones then produce their own out-of-phase sound waves that destroy outside noise. With so many options out there (and a lot of them quite expensive), we decided to make a list of the best noise cancelling headphones you can get.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on May 10, 2019, to replace the Sennheiser PXC 550 with the AKG N700NC.
The best all-around noise cancelling headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM3
Sony WH-1000XM3Full Review
Bose may have the brand recognition, but there is no reason we can come up with to recommend the QC35 II over the Sony WH-1000XM3. That’s a very rare thing for us to say, but Sony’s latest headphones are really that good.
In our testing, the WH-1000XM3 not only boasts impressive active noise cancelling, but it offers among the best sound quality out there for ANC wireless headsets. They’re comfortable, have decent battery life, offer an insanely well-featured app, sound fantastic for Bluetooth headphones, and cost $50 less than their main competitor. If you’re keeping score, Sony runs the table against Bose on this one. Though the touch controls and active noise cancelling are enough, the app is what sets these cans apart. With it, you can tailor the WH-1000XM3 sound however you please. You can tune down the bass, make your music sound like you’re at a concert hall, and adjust a more granular equalizer. Unfortunately, these features can only be used with SBC, so if you want to use the high-bitrate LDAC available to phones running Android 8 and Sony handsets: you’ll need to be okay with the default profile.
That said, the WH-1000X M3 sounds great, albeit a quite bassy, and should win over people who’ve used Bose cans up until this point. The WH-1000XM3’s predecessor, the MDR-1000XM2, sounds good enough to us that it won out over the original Bose QC35, and nothing’s really changed much here. As far as wireless headphones go, these are among Chris’ favorites, as they offer high-bitrate listening, have great range, excellent features, decent battery life, and are comfortable to boot. In our minds, there’s no contest for this year’s crown.
Related: Best noise cancelling earbuds
When it comes to air or subway travel, the only option to outperform these cans are AKG’s N700NC. Otherwise, we’re hard-pressed to find anything else to crown as the best noise cancelling headphones, as these block out a lot of low-end noise. Many people think that the “attenuation” spec of XdB tells you the whole story, but that’s very far from the truth. The WH-1000X M3’s attenuation performance can be seen below, with the results color-coded from pink to blue: pink is poor ANC, green and blue are commendable. Every 10dB reduction in noise is a reduction of half the loudness, so 20dB on this chart means outside noise is 25 percent as loud as it’d be without the headphones on (and so on).
These headphones are very adept at killing outside noise that could potentially mask out the bulk of your music’s vocals, low notes, and most instruments. That’s not only impressive but what you’d expect out of a set of rockstar noise cancelling headphones.
If $350 is too much to spend
You may also be interested in the model the WH-1000XM3 replaces: the Sony WH-1000XM2. These offer many of the same features as the WH-1000XM3 for a little less money, but these have thinner ear pads and a micro USB charging port. They’ve been our pick as the best noise cancelling headphones for a long time now, and the only reason why they’re not this time around is that their successor exists. These should go on clearance very soon, so if you want 90% of the features of our current top pick for a little less money, definitely pick up the Sony WH-1000XM2.
I caution you not to buy the Bose QC35 series I because its price is $329. You read that correctly: you’d only save a Hamilton over getting the best headphones on this list. Not worth the time when other, better headphones exist, right?
For pure noise cancelling capabilities, get the AKG N700NC
AKG N700NCFull Review
If you want the best performance when it comes to noise cancelling, get the AKG N700NC. These headphones outperform the Sony WH-1000XM3 when it comes to mitigating external bass frequencies. They’re not the best all-around headphones, though, because they use microUSB charging, aren’t as comfortable, and have a shorter battery life than Sony’s cans.
Even though the N700NC has its shortcomings, it gets a lot right. The design is exceptional and matches the premium price. What’s more, it includes Ambient Aware technology. This lets you hear your surroundings while music plays.
AKG ensures that the headset is up to date by pushing out firmware updates via the free app. Generally speaking, the app isn’t supremely useful, but it does allow for remapping of the multifunction button and EQ customization.
AKG N700NC microphone demo:
Sound quality is excellent. Bass freqeuncies are slightly emphasized without masking midrange frequencies like vocals. Audio is relayed clearly. What’s even more impressive is the microphone quality, which handles nearly all vocal registers well. To get an idea of this, listen to the above example.
When we ranked the top headphones, they were a lot closer than this list may imply. If the Bose QC35 II is the clear #2, the Sony and AKG models are like 1a and 1b. When choosing between the Sony WH-1000XM3 and AKG N700NC it comes down to your design preference and how important battery life, as opposed to noise cancelling performance, is to you.
The on-ear model is the AKG N60 NC
Noise cancelling headphones are only as good as their battery. If the battery gives halfway through a flight or after minimal use, then what’s the point? Obviously, you can pack a giant battery into a large pair of headphones and get amazing battery life, but if you want a slim pair of the best noise cancelling headphones that optimizes its battery life-to-size ratio take a look at the AKG N60 NC.
While they’re not going to make you forget our pick for best ANC headphones, these on-ears are surprisingly comfortable and decent at killing outside noise. You’ll always get a little bit of bass noise going in through the back of your ear, but the thick padding and light weight combine to maximize the potential performance of long listening sessions. You know: as you’d need on a transcontinental flight. Chris used these on several trips from Boston to San Francisco and back, and never lost power or ran into other issues worth mentioning.
AKG N60NCFull Review
If you want a pair of headphones that will last you all day and then some, the N60 NCs by AKG won’t disappoint. That said, at $249 they may be cheap for active noise cancelers—but they’re an investment for sure. But if you value portability and battery life: these are the right choice. If you want even more information on these before sealing the deal, check out our full review.
There are other good models, so check these out if they go on sale
The Bose QC35s were on everyone’s shortlist if you wanted one of the best noise cancelling headphones out there. They were extremely good at what they did, and though the new Bose QC35 II doesn’t improve upon many of the specs of the previous model they did do one thing that makes these a more compelling buy: they added voice assistant support.
As far as quality goes, you might have to look elsewhere if you’re looking for super-heavy bass or an accurate sound. Besides the ANC, these have playback controls built into the ear cup which lets you control volume, change tracks, pause/play music, and access Siri or Google Now. They also have a built-in dual-microphone system with “noise-rejecting technology so they can even work when it’s windy.” There are a few new welcome changes to these headphones too.
Bose QuietComfort 35 IIFull Review
Whether you’re rocking an Android or iOS device, the playback controls should function exactly the same when you’re connected via Bluetooth. They also threw in a built-in rechargeable battery, ditching the AAA batteries required by the QC 25; you can plug in and recharge them just like you would any other device. This is both good and bad because most people (myself included) aren’t too fond of plugging in multiple devices to charge every night. But on the bright side, these now have a solid 20 hours of battery life with ANC and Bluetooth turned on, so at most you’ll only be plugging them in to charge two or three times a week. Thankfully Bose didn’t get rid of the hard shell carrying case so you can still keep your investment protected if you need to stuff them in a bag.
But are they worth the $349? Maybe. There are better headphones available for the same price, so these are the cans you buy when you find them on sale. If you don’t care about voice assistant support, you can grab their predecessors for about $20 less than the Sony WH-1000X M3. They’re virtually the same in almost every way, just without that slick voice assistant button.
Jabra Elite 85hFull Review
If you want a durable and water-resistant pair of ANC headphones, the Jabra Elite 85h is it. The internal components are treated with a water-resistant nano-coating, which means the headphones can withstand minor spring showers. Rather than having a matte plastic or metal finish, the Elite 85h headphones are covered in a textured fabric that makes them easy to grip.
It’s quite unfortunate that only SBC is supported, rather than AAC or aptX, but the headphones manage to sound good regardless. The slightly underemphasized bass response allows vocals and various midrange frequencies to resonate clearly through nearly all recordings. What’s more, treble frequencies avoid sibilance as they’re slightly attenuated, too.
Battery life is fantastic: you get 34.58 hours from a single charge and it takes just 2.5 hours to complete a full charge cycle. While this may seem long, it’s more than reasonable relative to how much playback time you get out of them. And if you’re in that much of a time crunch, 15 minutes of charging affords about five hours of playback. For $50 less than its direct competition, the Jabra Elite 85h stands out with its comprehensive feature set and water-resistant build.
- Bowers & Wilkins PX: While this set of headphones is very clearly geared to compete with the high-end cans listed here, they’re a bit of a work in progress. All the hardware is quite nice, but it falls behind the pack here in sound quality, price, noise cancelling performance, and features.
- Edifier W860NB: These cans retail for around $170 and provide excellent noise cancelling performance. Unfortunately, build quality and touch controls are dubious especially compared to the Sony WH-1000XM3.
- Sennheiser PXC 550: These don’t quite give the same bang for your buck as the Sony or AKG cans but perform extremely well and have a more accurate bass response than Sony’s cans.
What you should know about the best noise cancelling headphones
Active noise cancelers attempt to increase the quality of your music by using destructive interference to prevent auditory masking. In simpler terms, outside noise (a “masker”) can drown out notes that are similar in frequency, making them completely inaudible. By using Active noise cancellation tech (ANC), you can simultaneously make your music sound better in noisy environments, but you can also reduce how much pressure your inner ear is subjected to, staving off hearing loss.
You should also know that noise cancelling doesn’t mean the noise goes away, or that it can’t reach your ear. Even if you use noise cancelling headphones, you’re still at risk for noise-induced hearing loss because it doesn’t block out all noise. Be sure to limit your exposure to junk sound above 75dB if at all possible. That may be an impossible task on trans- or inter-continental flights, but the best way to listen to music is in a quiet environment—ANC should be the last resort.
If you’re still set on ANC headphones, there’s nothing wrong with that! But it’s always good to explore your options. Other considerations you should keep in mind are that Bluetooth is messy and your audio quality will almost always sound better with wired headphones.
Additionally, you may find that you may need to upgrade your phone if you haven’t in the last few years to get the most out of your audio. Remember how I just said Bluetooth is messy? Well, that’s because its great irony is that despite its namesake, it’s a fractious and varied set of standards that don’t play well together. Unless you have a flagship phone like an iPhone, Galaxy, or V20, chances are good that you’ll be stuck on an older, crappier codec. When studying spec sheets, you’re going to want to make sure that both the headphones and the phones support either AAC, aptX, or LDAC. However, Android phones with Android 8.0 or higher will have these standards by default.
Active noise cancellation requires the use of batteries, and that’s a pain for many people. There’s really no way around it unless you ditch the active noise cancellation and go for passive isolators. Really, the best way to do that is to get some in-ears. You may find them uncomfortable, but I’ve had good luck with Comply memory foam tips. They conform perfectly to your ear canal every time, which not only means super-good isolation with whatever earbuds you want but also they’re as comfortable as it gets with that type of audio device.
Related: Expensive headphones are worth it
How we chose candidates
Being that we’ve been covering the audio industry for some time, we’re acutely aware of what the top of the market is. It’s not exactly a huge mystery which companies are great at this sort of thing, and which ones aren’t as much. However, we give everyone their fair shot because we’re not all-knowing gods of consumer audio or anything, and there are always some surprises out there; yes, even for this best noise cancelling headphones list.
It’s also important to check our ideas about what people want at the door because we’re not the ones buying: you are. So from time to time, we take to Twitter to see just how people are actually buying these headphones. Like good journalists, we posted the question, and the results were a little surprising:
Hey commuters! What's the most important thing to you when buying Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones?
— SoundGuys (@realsoundguys) October 25, 2017
So with that in mind, we set off to assess each of our candidate products in the order of importance established by the poll.
How we tested
These best lists are living documents, so we do refresh them from time to time. This one, in particular, saw a pretty dramatic overhaul, as it had been a while since it was updated. To that end, we needed both Adam and Chris working on the update.
Even though we had to rely on our first-hand experience with them to assess sound quality, comfort, and features—isolation is actually a fairly easy thing to test. Basically, the process goes like this:
- Insert testing microphone into a human analog head, with diaphragm where the entrance to the ear canal would be*
- Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones OFF (control curve)
- Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones ON (variable 1 curve)
- Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones ACTIVATED (variable 2 curve)
- Subtract variable curve from the control curve
While we don’t show the variable 1 curve, it does help us figure out how well a product isolates instead of merely how it attenuates noise. I say this because ANC only works on droning sound, not incidental noise: you’ll still be able to hear people talking, people dropping things, crashes, kids banging pots and pans… you get the idea. A set of headphones that isolates more noise will always be better than one that has great ANC, but bad isolation. It’s why the AKG N60NC is so far down on our best noise cancelling headphones list.
*Note: without an accurate way to simulate an ear canal, measuring at the estimated eardrum position would be problematic.
How we chose winners
After using all of our candidates, we hashed out which headphones were the most comfortable, best sounding, etc. From there, we went down the list of most important factors and averaged the ranks based on a system of weighting that rewarded categories in order of performance. If we ever encountered two headphones that were roughly “the same” as each other in any one metric, we didn’t split hairs, they got the same sub-rank. Once we got our new number, it was easy to pick our winners!
Some categories like “Best on-ears” exist because not everybody likes the same thing in their ANC headphones, and while our list is dominated by over-ear headphones: it’s nice to have options if that’s not your cup of tea. I made a couple alterations to what we included to reflect this.
Why you should trust us
Chris is an audio industry expert, having covered the segment for the better part of a decade. Earning his stripes at a subsidiary of USAToday, he’s been around the block more than a few times—spending over 1,000 hours in audio test labs. For years, he objectively tested headphones and then contextualized the resulting data for mass-market relevance.
Adam has been with SoundGuys for about four years now and has covered all segments of the industry in his time here. On top of that, he’s spent time in the trenches of Best Buy, helping customers figure out what the best products for them are. An audio enthusiast, he’s bathed in the best—and worst—the market has to offer, and knows understands exactly what makes a great pair of headphones from a consumer perspective, including the best noise cancelling headphones.
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