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 everyday, 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 should have a set of active noise cancelers.
Related: Best Noise Cancelling Earbuds
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 destroys 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.
The best 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 boast 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, sound 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.
When it comes to air or subway travel, we’re hard-pressed to find a better set of cans on the market, 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% 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 MDR-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 microUSB 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 because 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?
The best noise cancelling 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 an amazing battery life, but if you want a slim pair of 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: like 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 QC35 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 hardshell 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.
Sennheiser PXC 550
If you’re not too big a fan of the Sony headphones, they only very narrowly beat out the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless. While Chris liked the Sennheisers quite a lot, they don’t give you the same bang for the buck as the Sony WH-1000XM3. However, the Sennheisers get a lot of the little things right. For example, the microphone is better than the one on the Sony, and the PXC 550 has a feature that prevents sudden volume peaking. If you’ve ever been rudely interrupted by an in-flight announcement, you know what we’re talking about.
While Chris liked the Sennheisers quite a lot, they don't give you the same bang for the buck as the Sony WH-1000X M2.
Performance-wise, the PXC 550s are a little closer to the Bose QC35 II, but without the voice assistant button (and far better sound quality). They attenuate sound quite well, but keep bass a bit more restrained than the Sony WH-1000XM3—audiophiles may find the appeal in Sennheiser’s sound. However, they don’t have a companion app, LDAC support, or voice assistant integration. Like the other top contenders, the PXC 550 claims 30 hours of battery life, A2DP Bluetooth profiles, and deep, comfortable ear cups. It may not have the companion app of the WH-1000XM3, but not everyone needs or wants that. After all, it’s a bit of a luxury that many won’t even touch.
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 Sennheiser models are like 1a and 1b. If the PXC 550 were available for the same price as the Sony WH-1000XM3, it’d be a harder decision, but $50 buys a lot of music; so the WH-1000XM3 won out. That’s really the main deciding factor.
If $200 is way more than you’re willing to pay (and who could blame you), then maybe the CB3 Hush will be more up your alley. They’re an inexpensive pair of noise cancelling headphones that are the definition of bang for your buck with more than a few solid features all packaged into a pretty modern design. Starting with the build and design, these are very comfortable. The padding on the headband and ear pads feels nice to the touch and allows them to rest comfortably on your head for even the longest listening sessions. If you need to pack them in a bag they’re also fairly flexible and can fold at the hinges so you can throw them in a backpack if you need to.
On the right ear cup you’ll find only three buttons, all of which are basically multi-functions. You can turn on the headphones, enter pairing mode, skip tracks, and control volume. The controls do take a little getting used to but they should be committed to memory within 10 minutes of using them. On the left ear cup is the switch that will turn on the ANC and a 3.5mm input jack for when the battery dies out. That said, with Bluetooth and ANC turned on, these should get you a solid 15 hours of playback time which is enough for the average flight or commute.
The two best features about these headphones are arguably the most important when it comes to a pair of noise-cancelling headphones: the ANC and the sound. A lot of times headphones with weak ANC will simply get a little louder in order to block out the outside noise, but that isn’t the case with the Hush. As the name implies, they have solid noise-cancelling considering the price. Voices and dog barks will still slice through, but the low hum of trains and even nearby air conditioners get noticeably less audible when you switch it on. It allows you to focus on what’s important: the sound.
These don’t really have an accurate sound but if you’re into a more fun-sounding pair of headphones that sound good then these might do it for you. The CB3 Hush don’t exactly have premium build materials, but that doesn’t mean they’re not a great pair of headphones. At less than $100 these are a no-brainer if you want your headphones to do a little bit of everything and do it passably.
What about the Bowers & Wilkins PX?
If you’ve been doing your research, you may have come across the 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 canceling performance, and features.
That’s not to say that it’s a bad set of headphones on sale, but let’s temper the hype a little bit. The battery is good, but compared to the rest of the pack something else has got to give. If you do have a pair of these, you can close the gap significantly by updating the firmware. However, even though firmware version 1.80 does improve the experience quite a bit—the bass is still weirdly underemphasized.
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.
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?
— Sound Guys (@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 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 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 list, even though it has fantastic ANC!
*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 Adam and Chris
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 three 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 how to separate wheat from chaff.
What you should know
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 noise 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 a 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 supoprt either AAC, aptX, or LDAC. However, Android phones with Android 8.0 or higher will have these standards by default, so Pixel and Pixel 2 owners will be able to enjoy the best sound quality Bluetooth has to offer.
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.
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