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Best noise canceling headphones
Sometimes, listening to the sounds of nature or the sounds of the people around you can be an enlightening experience, but sometimes, you just need a vacation from the world. 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 canceling can be a much-needed feature.
- This article was updated on November 23, 2023, to add the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones to our Top Picks.
- If you are interested in other product recommendations, check out our list of the best headphones and the best noise canceling earbuds.
Everyone can benefit from noise canceling headphones. Besides sound quality, a good pair of noise canceling headphones does 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 are quite expensive), we decided to make a list of the best noise canceling headphones you can get.
Why is the Sony WH-1000XM5 the best set of active noise canceling headphones?
Sony brought a big update to its flagship noise canceling headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM5. This new model features a redesign from its predecessor, the Sony WH-1000XM4, and an improvement to the already best-in-class active noise canceling.
Most listeners will enjoy a consumer-friendly sound, but for those who want a little less bass, use the Sony Headphones Connect app to boost mids and drop highs a bit. While it’s a little annoying to need to equalize headphones instead of having them sound perfect out of the box, at least it’s easy enough to navigate.
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Sony has been regarded as having the best active noise canceling headphones on the market, and that legacy continues with the WH-1000XM5. The newer headset attenuates noise even better than its predecessor, canceling out sounds such as the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine—perfect for travelers and commuters. Passive isolation is also better, so it blocks out more high-pitched noises than the Sony WH-1000XM4 as well.
Additional features that make the Sony WH-1000XM5 our top pick include Bluetooth multipoint connectivity, automatic ear detection, support for multiple audio codecs (SBC, AAC, and Sony’s LDAC), fantastic microphone quality that makes it our favorite ANC work headset, intuitive touch controls, Sony 360 Reality Audio, and great in-app control. If you’re looking to go all-in for a pair of active noise canceling headphones and are willing to pay a pretty penny for the best experience, look no further than the Sony WH-1000XM5.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 has a highly advanced noise canceling microphone system that effectively blocks out background noise.
Sony WH-1000XM5 microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Sony WH-1000XM5 microphone demo (Office conditions):
How does the microphone sound to you?
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is still a great headset and compares well against the WH-1000XM5. If you don’t want to spend $400 USD on the latest model, you will still enjoy very good ANC from the XM4 headset. Sound quality isn’t nearly as good out of the box on the fourth-generation model compared to the newest one, but you can equalize some of the XM4’s heavy treble away.
Neither pair of headphones is water-resistant, but you should still be able to skate by with some sweat so long as you clean them regularly. As far as software features go, you still get 360 Reality Audio and ANC optimization with the WH-1000XM4, along with the option to prioritize connection stability or sound quality. Unless you absolutely need the best ANC around, you’ll still be happy with the WH-1000XM4 and the extra cash in your wallet.
Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones bring features for the future
If you have deep pockets and want high-performing active noise canceling (ANC) headphones that will stay relevant for the next few years, look no further than the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Despite the lack of waterproofing, the QuietComfort Ultra stands out for its effective noise cancelation, reducing noises like bus engines and airplane whines by approximately 87%. This is complemented by an impressive Aware Mode, which allows ambient sounds to pass through without aggressive band-limiting, making it suitable for street or café environments.
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Connectivity-wise, they come with Bluetooth 5.3 and support Snapdragon Sound and aptX Lossless, offering high-quality wireless audio. However, this is currently limited to devices with a Qualcomm Snapdragon 888 or newer. Apple users, unfortunately, miss out on this feature. Additionally, they provide a substantial 27 hours and 37 minutes of battery life, with fast charging capabilities that offer 2.5 hours of listening time with just a 15-minute charge.
Sound quality is another strong point for the QuietComfort Ultra, featuring CustomTune technology that adjusts sound to the individual’s ear anatomy, providing a personalized audio experience. Users can also customize their experience further using the Bose Music app. Overall, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are a top pick for those seeking cutting-edge noise canceling capabilities, comfortable design, and advanced wireless audio technology, albeit at a premium price point.
The Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless has great sound quality
Sennheiser flagship, the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless, continues the lineage of the MOMENTUM series with excellent sound quality,with a frequency response that closely reflects our headphone preference curve. What’s more, it uses SBC, AAC, aptX, aptX HD, or aptX Adaptive codecs or an optional 3.5mm headphone jack to check off all your boxes.
In addition to the premium build of the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless, it also has one of the longest battery lives we’ve tested, with an impressive 56 hours and 21 minutes (with ANC activated). Long battery life tends to mean the headphones will last longer, too, by necessitating fewer recharges.
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While the ANC performance of the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless does not quite beat out the Sony WH-1000XM5, for example, it gets close. For the better codec selection and slightly better frequency response of the Sennheiser cans, it may be the preferred choice for some. The free Sennheiser app also has a nice user interface and overall supports the elevated feeling experience of the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless.
The Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless is a great headset, providing a good representation of your voice. It struggles a little with complete noise rejection, as demonstrated in the example below with street noise.
Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless microphone demo (Street conditions):
How does the microphone sound to you?
The Apple AirPods Max offers the best noise canceling for iPhone owners
There’s no getting around it: Apple’s first set of over ear headphones are the best pure noise cancellers you can buy, with only the Sony WH-1000XM5 really giving the AirPods Max a run for its money. However, the AirPods Max may not be the ones to buy owing to their high cost and relatively poor flexibility. Unless you own an iPhone and have a large budget, there are too many competing models out there that offer a similar level of ANC performance and comparable sound quality.
As top-tier noise canceling headphones, the AirPods Max use hybrid active noise canceling for optimal noise cancelation. As we’ve seen from the Apple AirPods Pro (1st generation), the AirPods Max supports Adaptive EQ, which adjusts the frequency response in real-time, adjusting for how the headset fits.
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Audio performance is right where you’d expect it to be for an Apple product, with much better performance than some of the cheaper options on this list. However, the headphones use only SBC and AAC — meaning no higher-bitrate codecs like LDAC.
Maybe. Only iPhone users will truly enjoy all the benefits the AirPods Max has to offer. As an Android user, you’ll miss out on call quality, firmware updates, Spatial Audio, and more. Hence, if you’re choosing between the Apple AirPods Max and the Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 or the Sony WH-1000XM5, pick one of the latter two or get an iPhone.
The microphone performance is very good, but you may notice better performance when you pair the headphones to an Apple device.
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Ideal conditions):
Apple AirPods Max microphone demo (Office conditions):
How does the mic sound to you?
The best bang for your buck noise canceling headphones is the Monoprice BT-600ANC
While it’s not exactly a household name, Monoprice makes a decent set of low-cost ANC headphones. The Monoprice BT-600ANC ($84.99 at Amazon) provide respectable noise canceling performance for the money. Typically, this is a category that requires an entry fee of $200 to get ANC headphones worth their salt, but these are an outlier.
Sure, they don’t sound the greatest (consider a third-party EQ app), and you could probably get better headphones for $100—but you can’t get better ANC headphones for the price. With the feature enabled, you can reliably see a reduction between 20-30dB of droning outside noise in the range where most music sounds live. That’s pretty good, considering that most cheap ANC headphones struggle here. It’s just gravy that these headphones also isolate noise well, meaning they physically block high pitched sound from reaching your ear too.
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We will point out, however, that there is no companion app, and these headphones are very spartan by their nature. Monoprice, as a company, often goes the barebones route, and for those looking for a simple headset, that’s great. However, if you really want things like equalization and voice assistant support, you’ll have to look elsewhere.
Monoprice BT-600ANC microphone demo (Non-standardized):
How does the microphone sound to you?
The Bose QuietComfort Headphones have great noise canceling but an odd frequency response
In terms of sound quality, the QuietComfort headphones present a mixed bag. The sub-bass is noticeably over-emphasized, overshadowing the mid frequencies and creating an unbalanced sound profile. This heavy bass can distort the perception of mid-range sounds, making them appear weaker. The headphones do align well with our preferred headphone curve above 60Hz, but the irregularities in the high frequencies (notably around 6-8kHz) can lead to an unusual listening experience. Compared to its predecessor, the Bose QuietComfort 45, the new model falls short in delivering a well-rounded audio experience. Despite the availability of the Bose app, it doesn’t rectify these sound issues fully.
In summary, while the Bose QuietComfort Headphones excel in noise cancelation, their peculiar frequency response in the sub-bass and high frequencies, may not appeal to all users, especially those sensitive to tonal balance and treble clarity.
The best noise canceling headphones: Notable mentions
- Anker Soundcore Space Q45 ($149 at Amazon): Although they fall short in terms of frequency response, the Anker Soundcore Space Q45 deliver solid active noise canceling for a low price ($149 at Amazon). They are a decent option for anyone looking for an inexpensive headset that still handles loud environments with a deft touch.
- Bowers & Wilkins PX7 ($99 at Amazon): While this set of headphones is very clearly geared to compete with the high-end cans listed here, it may be too pricy for the sound you get out of it. If they fit well, you’ll enjoy the ANC though.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($374 at Amazon): Though they are outperformed by the headphones on this list, the Bose QC 35 II are still a great pair of noise canceling cans. Even with the latest Bose QuietComfort 45 surpassing them, the QC 35 II’s price is a bit easier to swallow. And, if you want to use them to game, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II Gaming Headset offers everything the regular QC 35 II has, plus a detachable boom microphone for $279 at Amazon.
- Focal Bathys ($699 at Amazon):We have these tested, and they’re great—but they’re also $800 and only cancel noise as well as the Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless, so they’re a tough sell to a general crowd. For an audiophile, however, they’re definitely worth a look.
- Jabra Elite 85h ($190.99 at Best Buy): These headphones offer great sound and good noise canceling for the mid-range market, and also have automatic ear detection and water resistance, amongst other more unusual features.
- Puro Sound Labs PuroQuiet ($139 at Amazon): An affordable and sleek pair of active noise canceling headphones for children. The design fits smaller heads and limits the maximum volume to help protect your kiddo’s hearing.
- Sennheiser ACCENTUM Wireless ($179.95 at Amazon): For a set of ANC headphones that cost roughly half the price of the top-end competitors, these offer exceptional sound quality.
- Sennheiser HD 450BT($129 at Amazon): A great choice because of their sound quality. However, unless you have tiny ears, the ear cups probably fit more like on-ear headphones than over-ears. A bit more affordable than the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, but the active noise canceling isn’t quite as good.
- Shure AONIC 50($298 at Amazon): This is an excellent headset for listeners who want as many options to connect as possible. You get SBC, AAC, aptX HD, and LDAC support, along with a standard wired connection and support for USB-C passthrough audio. We also love this headset for its premium build, extremely comfortable design, and excellent sound quality. If you want something a bit lighter and more affordable from Shure, check out the AONIC 40.
- Sony WH-CH710N ($748 at Amazon): This headset boosts bass a bit more than we like, but can still be pleasant to most peoples’ ears. You get great noise canceling performance and a nice, compact build.
- Sony WH-CH720N ($799 at Amazon): If you’re looking for a decent set of noise canceling cans but don’t want to shell out the top-tier headphones, consider these as a good in-between option. They balance app support, good battery life, and solid functionality.
Hold up! Something’s different:
Some of our picks’ frequency response and isolation charts were measured with our old testing system. We have since purchased a Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test fixture (and the appropriate support equipment) to update our testing and data collection. It will take a while to update our backlog of old test results, but we will update this article (and many others!) once we’re able with improved sound quality measurements and isolation performance plots. These will be made obvious with our new chart aesthetic (black background instead of white).
Thank you for bearing with us, and we hope to see you again once we’ve sorted everything out.
What you should know about the best noise canceling headphones
How do noise canceling headphones work?
Active noise cancellers attempt to increase the quality of your music by using destructive interference to eliminate noise. By using active noise cancelation tech (ANC), you can simultaneously make your music sound better in noisy environments, but you can also reduce how much sound your inner ear is subjected to, staving off hearing loss. Even if you use noise canceling 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 all sound above 85dB SPL if possible.
Can a firmware update make the noise canceling worse on your headphones?
There have been many accounts of ANC performance declining after an update; we’ve seen this with the Bose QuietComfort 35 II and others. When you experience worse noise canceling after an update, try to factory reset the headset. After resetting the headset, try to install the latest firmware again, but only after your source device and headset are fully charged.
Yes, noise canceling can get better after an update, and we’ve seen this with multiple headsets, most notably the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 and Bose QuietComfort 35 II. Let’s look at the Bose NCH 700. Above, you can see the NCH 700 noise canceling improved after Bose released firmware 1.8.2. Bose takes its headphone updates seriously, and the fact that you get improved performance throughout a headset’s lifespan increases the product’s value.
What should you get if you don’t want noise canceling headphones?
Active noise cancelation 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 cancelation and go for passive isolators. Really, the best way to do that is to get some in-ears. You may find them uncomfortable, but we’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.
Do Bluetooth codecs matter for noise canceling 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.
What about ANC headphones in the office?
The truth of the matter is that what makes a set of ANC headphones good in general will make them good for the office. We cover this topic in another article, but it shouldn’t surprise you that our picks for that category look suspiciously similar to the ones listed here.
In general, the level of ANC isn’t as important to an office setting as it is commuting, so don’t get too hung up on the headphones with the most attenuated noise. Instead, you want a good balance of battery performance, sound quality, and microphone performance. It’s probably no surprise then that the Sony WH-1000XM5, with its impressive mic array, does so well in this setting. You can compare how well each headset does in reviews by playing the appropriate office simulation, like so:
Audio-Technica ATH-M20XBT: Office conditions
Sony WH-1000XM5: Office conditions
How SoundGuys tests headphones
How well headphones and earphones attenuate noise is simple to test. Using our Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test head, we can offer accurate measurements of what a human would experience. Basically, we measure how much the headset under test attenuates our test signal (shaped noise) with and without ANC enabled.
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While ANC is certainly getting a lot better, it won’t always be perfect at getting rid of incidental noise like people talking, people dropping things, crashes, kids banging pots and pans. In those instances, passive acoustic isolation will serve you better (shown as a solid pink line on our charts)
How SoundGuys chooses candidates and winners
We’ve been covering the consumer audio industry for some time, and we’re aware of what’s happening in the market. 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 canceling 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:
So, with that in mind, we set off to assess each candidate’s product in the order of importance established by the poll.
After using all of our candidates, we hashed out which headphones are the most comfortable, best sounding, etc. From there, we went down the list of the 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!
Why you should trust SoundGuys
The writers at SoundGuys have accumulated years of experience reporting on the consumer audio market, testing audio products, and helping consumers find the right audio product for them. Our staff adheres to a strict ethics policy, and no writer will gain anything from recommending one brand over another.
We pride ourselves on transparently outlining objective facts and measurements while accounting for the subjective experience to contextualize an audio product’s performance. When we do misspeak, we correct and own up to it.
Frequently asked questions about the best noise canceling headphones
Although the ATH-M50xBT2 is a great headset, it doesn’t have noise canceling. You get decent isolation though, and very good sound quality that works well for daily listening and studio work. We love the Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2 for its uniquely long battery life and various connection options too.
Great question! We’re actually looking at expanding our current ANC test to include various noise types you’d commonly encounter and assess headphones on their ability to cancel out each one separately. Stay tuned.
JBL makes decent budget-friendly headphones, but their active noise canceling options don’t perform as well as these higher-end choices. That being said, some models, like the JBL Live 650BTNC, have decent active noise canceling for the price, but the sound quality is only okay. If you’re willing to fork over a bit more money, you can get better-quality headphones in the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.
Active noise canceling headphones work by detecting the sound going on around them and then creating a sound wave exactly opposite to the detected sound wave. If a sudden sound occurs, it’s difficult for this technology to detect it and cancel it on time.
For those looking for a solid all-rounder, you’ll probably dig the Sony WH-1000XM5. They tick all the boxes — from fab noise cancelation to slick sound quality. But remember, “best” can be pretty personal. It all depends on what you’re after.
They sure do! It’s all about that Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) magic. Put simply, these headphones listen to the outside world, and then they create their own sound waves to cancel out the noise. But, just to set the record straight, they won’t turn your surroundings into a zen-like silence. It’s quieter, not mute.
If the quiet life is what you’re chasing, the Apple AirPods Max has got your back. They’re top-notch when it comes to turning the volume down on the world.
Both over-ear and in-ear headphones have their perks. If you’re not big on battery life, in-ear headphones, especially with those squishy memory foam tips, can block out noise without the tech. But, if it’s the best ANC capabilities you’re after, over-ear headphones are usually where it’s at.
So, while we’re all for jamming out, sometimes you gotta unplug and stay alert. Think walking on a bustling street, cycling, or when you’re behind the wheel. Sometimes, it’s cool to just vibe with the world around you.