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 list of the best noise cancelling headphones was updated on November 1, 2020, to address an FAQ about sudden, loud noises.
The best all-around noise cancelling headphones are the Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony has finally released the update to their 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 has pushed the boundaries with their latest product, with improvements to its sound quality and active noise cancellation.
Sony WH-1000XM4Full Review
The sound quality of the WH-1000XM4 is tuned with a balanced frequency response. The lack of emphasis on specific frequencies helps the headphones reproduce audio more accurately, providing clarity in the low-end without masking sounds like vocals or acoustic guitars. While most consumers prefer a sound profile with a slight emphasis in the low-end, you could always tune the headphone’s sound profile by adjusting the EQ settings in the Sony Headphones Connect app.
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 headphones are able to attenuate low frequency noises much better than its predecessor, cancelling out sounds such as the hums 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 capabilities, get the Shure AONIC 50
If you’re looking for raw noise cancelling performance, get the Shure AONIC 50. These headphones handily outperform the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, Bose Headphones 700, and Sony WH-1000XM4. They even support USB-C passthrough audio, making them the best USB-C headphones which is admittedly a relatively defunct category. Shure ensures that other features are top-notch, too, like build and sound quality.
Shure Aonic 50Full Review
If you’re trying to concentrate, these ‘phones are the closest thing we have to a real-life mute button. Take a look at this attenuation chart: the AONIC 50 actively combats nearly all frequencies well, making it the perfect headset for working from home. They’re also great for anyone who plans to jet-set around the globe. Yes, they’re exorbitantly priced but the powerful noise cancelling technology combats low-frequency noises like plane engines, train rumbles, and A/C units.
Shure equipped the Bluetooth 5.0 headset with every Bluetooth codec you could want or need: aptX, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency, AAC, and LDAC are all supported. No matter what operating system you use, you’ll enjoy high-quality audio from anywhere. The headset also supports multipoint connectivity; you can connect to two devices at once.
Microphone quality is great, excellent even when you’re in a quiet environment. The microphone system attenuates low frequencies not because it’s a poor mic, but rather to pre-empt the proximity effect. This is when low frequencies are distorted and amplified if a speaker is too close to the microphone. Higher frequency sounds are needed for speech intelligibility, and the microphone array handles this well. Don’t take our word for it though, check out the demo below. Note that this mic demo was recorded with the firmware version 0.4.9.
Shure AONIC 50 microphone demo:
The default sound signature is excellent with a slight bump to upper-bass and low-midrange frequencies for vocal emphasis. Midrange reproduction tightly hugs the line of platonic ideal, meaning all genres of music are accurately rendered. Shure even accounts for pesky, naturally occurring inner-ear resonances that could be irritating, hence the dip from 3-4.5kHz. Again, you’re paying a premium but it’s what we’ve come to expect from top-notch headsets like Bose and Sony… and now Shure.
ANC headphones like the AONIC 50 are an excellent tool for anyone who works from home.
When we ranked the top headphones, they were a lot closer than this list may imply. If the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are the clear #2, the Sony and Shure models are like 1a and 1b. When choosing between the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Shure AONIC 50, it comes down to your budget and how important ANC performance is to you.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have the best features
Bose has made a name for itself in the consumer space. It’s known for its comfortable, premium quality headsets and its noise cancelling technology is some of the best in the business. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have better ANC than the Bose QC35 II. And they feature integrated voice assistant support, whether it’s Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, or Apple’s Siri.
As far as quality goes, you might have to look elsewhere if you’re looking for super-heavy bass or an accurate sound. They do have a slight bass boost, but compared to the Bose QC35 II, the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700’s bass doesn’t shroud the rest of the frequencies. Besides the ANC, these have playback controls in the form of a touchpad on the right ear cup. Their microphone is good, but cuts off low frequencies, so people with deep voices may come across quieter than they want.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700Full Review
Whether you’re rocking an Android or iOS device, the playback controls should function exactly the same when you’re connected via Bluetooth. You can plug in and recharge the headphones via USB-C. The Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have a solid 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 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.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 mic demo:
Some people have reported that updating the firmware on their Bose products led to poor ANC performance. Just make sure that your updates install successfully.
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.
AKG N60NCFull Review
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 lightweight 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.
If you want a pair of headphones that will last you all day and then some, the N60 NCs by AKG won’t disappoint. They’re an investment, but if you value portability and battery life: these are the right choice. If you want ANC on-ears with a bit more style, check out the Beats Solo Pro.
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are incredible for such a low price
The Sennheiser PXC 550-II are lightweight and portable with a plastic build. They offer one-touch access to your smart assistant of choice, and have 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-II ReviewFull Review
The PXC 550-II support 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.
Sennheiser PXC 550-II mic demo:
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, they do not offer any fast charging capabilities. For $200, though, these are exceptionally good.
What about the Sennheiser HD 450BT?
If you’re able to get a comfortable fit with the Sennheiser HD 450BT, they’re a great choice because of sound quality. However, if you have anything larger than tiny ears, they’ll probably fit more like on-ear headphones than over-ears. They’re a bit more affordable than the Sennheiser PXC 550-II, but their active noise cancelling isn’t quite as good, especially if the small ear cups prevent you from creating a seal. That being said, the active noise cancelling is decent and attenuates low frequency sounds to about half their original volume.
The Sennheiser HD 450BT support AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency and also provide 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. They’re definitely the more affordable option, and if you can find them on sale, they might just be the headset for you.
- AKG N700NC: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3.0: 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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 inter-continental 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 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 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, 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
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.