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 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 list of the best noise cancelling headphones was updated on August 16, 2021, to remove the Shure AONIC 50 and add the Monoprice BT-600ANC as a budget option.
For the best all-around noise cancelling headphones, get the Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony has finally released the update to its flagship noise cancelling headphones: the Sony WH-1000XM4. At first glance, it seems that the company has opted for the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” approach, sporting virtually the same design as the Sony WH-1000XM3. However, Sony pushed the boundaries with its latest product, with improvements to its sound quality and active noise cancellation.
Sony WH-1000XM4Full Review
Most listeners will enjoy a consumer-friendly sound, but to those who want a little less head-rattling 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 great out of the box, at least it’s easy enough to navigate.
Sony has been regarded for having the best active noise cancelling headphones on the market, and that legacy continues with the WH-1000XM4. The newer headset attenuates low-frequency noises much better than its predecessor, cancelling out sounds such as the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine—perfect for travelers and commuters.
Additional features that make the Sony WH-1000XM4 our top pick include Bluetooth multipoint connectivity via AAC, automatic ear detection, support for multiple audio codecs (SBC, AAC, and Sony’s LDAC), great microphone quality, 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 cancelling headphones, and are willing to pay a pretty penny for the best experience, look no further than the Sony WH-1000XM4.
For pure noise cancelling, get the Apple AirPods Max
There’s no getting around it, Apple’s first set of headphones is the best pure noise cancellers you can buy. However, the AirPods Max may not be the right thing 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 better sound quality.
Apple AirPods MaxFull Review
As with other top-tier noise cancelling headsets, the AirPods Max uses hybrid active noise cancelling for optimal noise cancellation. As we’ve seen from the Apple AirPods Pro, the AirPods Max supports Adaptive EQ, which adjusts the frequency response in real-time, according to your environment and how the headset fits. Apple’s taking a big gamble with this headset, and it’s bound to pay off as loyal Apple fans, and those beholden to the brand will appreciate the convenience and smart features.
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 high-bitrate codecs like LDAC.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have the best build quality
Bose has made a name for itself in the consumer space by making more premium headsets for frequent flyers and those with deeper pockets. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are the new flagship product for the Massachusetts-based company, and it has a lot of really good features. It has somewhat poorer ANC than the Bose QC35 II, but it offers a more premium build than the older headphones. It also features integrated voice assistant support, including Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700Full Review
As far as sound quality goes, these aren’t going to satisfy bassheads. However, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 align with our targets really well, and should satisfy most people right out of the box. Sometimes the best things in life are the boring things that work without much fuss, and that’s very true here.
Besides the ANC, these have playback controls in the form of a touchpad on the right ear cup. Whether you’re rocking an Android or iOS device, the playback controls should function exactly the same when you’re connected via Bluetooth.
Battery life is somewhat disappointing as far as ANC headphones go—but that’s still miles ahead of true wireless earphones. A single charge will last you about 21 hours, 25 minutes of battery life with ANC and Bluetooth turned on, so at most you’ll only be plugging them in to charge maybe twice a week. you shouldn’t have to worry much about battery longevity with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, as they sport much larger cells than true wireless earphones do.
Some people have reported that updating the firmware on their Bose products led to poor ANC performance, but that hasn’t been our experience. If this happens to you, be sure that your updates install successfully, as that’s a common culprit of poorer performance.
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II is a great mid-range pick
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II is lightweight and portable with a plastic build. It offers one-touch access to your smart assistant of choice and has a slew of gesture controls that can be difficult to remember. Their firmware can be updated via the Sennheiser app, and you can adjust the EQ with the app.
Sennheiser PXC-550 IIFull Review
The PXC 550-II supports SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency for high-quality streaming, but you can also use the headphones with the 2.5mm cable for lossless playback. The very neutral-leaning frequency response allows vocals and various midrange frequencies to resonate clearly through nearly all recordings. Individuals who prefer a bass-heavy frequency response may find these headphones underwhelming, but they certainly are accurate.
Battery life is good: you get 21 hours, 58 minutes hours from a single charge and it takes 3 hours to complete a full charge cycle. While this may seem long, it’s reasonable relative to how much playback time you get out of them. Unfortunately, it does not offer any fast charging capabilities. For $200, though, this is exceptionally good.
What about the Sennheiser HD 450BT?
If you’re able to get a comfortable fit with the Sennheiser HD 450BT, it’s a great choice because of sound quality. However, if you have anything larger than tiny ears, the ear cups probably fit more like on-ear headphones than over-ears. This is a bit more affordable than the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, but the active noise cancelling isn’t quite as good.
The Sennheiser HD 450BT supports SBC, AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency and also provides the option for wired listening. It also supports Bluetooth multipoint, but just like the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, it has its issues being reliable. The sound quality is just as great as the PXC 550-II and has a very slight bass boost in its frequency response. It’s the more affordable option, and if you can find it on sale, the HD 450BT might just be the headset for you.
Bargain hunters should give Monoprice a chance
While it’s not really a household name, Monoprice makes a decent set of low-cost ANC headphones. The Monoprice BT-600ANC comes in at $99 USD, while also providing a fairly respectable noise cancelling performance for the money. Typically this is a category that requires a minimum of $200 to get ANC headphones worth their salt, but this is a very extreme outlier.
Monoprice BT-600ANCFull Review
Sure, they don’t sound the greatest, and you could probably get better headphones for $100—but you can’t get better ANC headphones for that price. With the feature enabled, you can reliably see a reduction between 20-30dB of droning outside noise, even in the range where most music sounds live. That’s pretty good, considering that most sub-$200 ANC headphones struggle here. It’s just gravy that these headphones also isolate noise well, meaning they physically block sound from reaching your ear a little better than most headphones do.
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 figure something else out.
Best noise cancelling headphones: Notable mentions
- Beats Solo Pro: Beats’ latest take on noise cancelling headphones is an absolute hit. These on-ears feature a more stylish design than the AKG N60 and long 22-hour battery life. They have the H1 chip built-in, so iPhone users will benefit from automatic pairing and hands-free Siri access.
- Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC: This is an expensive pair of ANC headphones that boasts excellent sound and mic quality. It’s not one of our picks for the best noise cancelling headphones because our review unit had reliability issues. Fortunately, Beyerdynamic allows for updates via its desktop app.
- 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.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: Though it’s outperformed by the headphones on this list, the Bose QC 35 II is still a great pair of noise cancelling cans. 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.
- Jabra Elite 85h: These headphones are under $250 but still have very good noise cancelling, which is a relatively rare combination of things. They also have automatic ear detection and water resistance amongst other features.
- Master & Dynamic MW65: You don’t just get great looks when you shell out for these, you also get excellent audio quality thanks to the aptX support. The biggest drawback? Price.
- Puro Sound Labs PuroQuiet: These are an affordable and sleek pair of active noise cancelling headphones for children. They fit smaller heads and limit the maximum volume to help protect your kiddo’s hearing.
- Sennheiser MOMENTUM 3 Wireless: Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless 3 is trying to keep up with Sony and Bose. While noise cancellation is good, it can’t compare to either leading brand. Plus, these are $50 more than the already expensive Bose Headphones 700. If you can’t resist a retro design and need snappy wireless performance, look into these.
- Sony WH-1000XM3: Despite the release of its successor, these are still one of the best active noise cancelling headphones on the market—even better than the Bose QC35 II. Plus, with the new ones out, the WH-1000XM3 is likely to go on sale eventually—perfect if you want great ANC headphones without breaking the bank.
- Shure AONIC 50: While these are excellent headphones, they just barely fell off this list by virtue of the fact that they’re so expensive, and don’t really compete with the other more expensive options on this list.
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 85dB if at all possible. That may be an impossible task on trans- or intercontinental flights, but the best way to listen to music is in a quiet environment—ANC should be the last resort.
Related: Types and signs of hearing loss
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.
How we chose candidates
We’ve been covering the audio industry for some time and 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 test
How well headphones and earphones attenuate noise is actually a fairly easy thing to test. using our Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test head, we can offer much more accurate measurements to what a human would experience than most other outlets would. Basically, the process goes like this:
- Insert testing microphone into a human analog head.
- 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
In cases where the attenuation is better than the ANC, always go with better isolation. 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… you get the idea. Just keep that in mind when you peruse our charts: a higher pink line (isolation) is always better than an equally-high dashed blue one (ANC).
How we choose winners
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 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 don’t use ads or sponsored content on the website at a time when doing so is the norm, and SoundGuys’ survival depends solely on readers enjoying their purchases. 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
Great question! We're actually looking at expanding our current ANC test to include a variety of 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 cancelling options don't perform as well as these higher end choices. That being said, some models like the JBL Live 650BTNC have very good active noise cancelling for their price, but their sound quality is only okay and their mic quality is poor. 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 cancelling 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.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 are available as of August 2020! The new headset features improved noise cancelling and Bluetooth multipoint.