What Are the Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Technology| By Alex Greig | November 17, 2020
We'll help you find the best noise-cancelling headphones, from earbuds like Apple AirPods Pro or an over-ear aural experience like Sony’s WH1000XM4.
The new generation of noise-cancelling headphones are a lot more than glorified earplugs. There are options for serious audiophiles, podcast-loving commuters and everyone in-between. So how are noise-cancelling headphones different from your standard pair of cans? Well, physically blocking out the noise is only part of the equation. The real wizardry comes from the ANC, or active noise cancelling. Some extremely clever technology captures ambient noise and passes the data to a noise-cancelling processor, which then uses an algorithm to cancel the noise in real time by adjusting the in-ear audio. Phew. If you’re in the market for a pair, we're here to help you decide on the best noise-cancelling headphones for you.
Best for the Multitasker
You can go about your day wearing these headphones without ever needing to take them off. Sony's new wireless bluetooth WH1000XM4 Noise Cancelling Headphones are some of the best on the market, with class-leading technology as well as 30 hours of playback. There are lots of other clever features, too. Let’s start with the cushioned cups that encompass the whole ear. And if you’re deeply invested in your podcast when someone asks you a question? The headphones will pause playback when you start talking and resume after a set period of time. If you want to keep listening but you’re worried you’ll miss an important announcement, adjust the ambient noise with the Sony I Headphones Connect app to let through essential sounds.
For the Bass-head
Beats headphones have always been heavy on the bass – it’s kind of their thing. And this set is no different. You'll hear deep, resonant tones, but they’re refined, too. With 22 hours of play on one charge – 40 if you turn off noise cancelling, Beats Studio3 Wireless Over-Ear Headphones won’t conk out when you need them most. No time for a full charge? Just do 10 minutes, which will buy you three hours of playback. They feature active noise-cancelling (it detects and adjusts up to 50,000 times per second), and the padded over-ear cushions encapsulate the whole ear comfortably, physically blocking noise. Pairing and switching devices is a cinch, too, if you're in the Apple ecosystem – the brand is now Apple-owned, and with the press of a button you can go from taking a call on your iPhone to streaming a film on your iPad.
For the 24/7 Listener
Beats Solo Pro Wireless Headphones feature an on-ear design, as opposed to Beats Studio3 over-ear construction (see above). This makes them smaller and less obtrusive, but the memory-foam construction means they are comfy for long periods of wear. While on-ear headphones will never be quite as effective as over-ears at blocking out ambient noise, these ones come pretty close, clamping firmly to the head to passively seal outside noises out and letting the ANC do its thing. You can take calls, skip songs and control volume directly from the ear – handy, because you may not want to take these multi-hued fashion-forward ’phones off. As with the Studio3s, the Solo Pros work best with Apple products but are compatible with other brands devices as well, download the Beats app from Google Play to pair with Android.
For the Audiophile On a Budget
A lot of technological trickery goes into a pair of active noise-cancelling headphones, which is why they often cost more than their traditional counterparts. At roughly half the price of some of their peers, these Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones do a mighty fine job. They offer excellent, well-balanced audio quality, comfortable over-ear cups, on-ear volume, track and ANC controls, and battery life of about 30 hours. There’s also a dedicated button so you can invoke your digital assistant of choice. They’re sleek and foldable, too, so they’re easily stowed in your bag, and unlike some more expensive models, they include a cable for the option of a wired connection.
For the Regular Commuter
If what you want is to “read” audiobooks, listen to music or catch up on podcasts on the daily commute, the JBL Tune Wireless On-ear noise-cancelling headphones 600BTNC are the best for you. Here’s what you’ll get: great sound with booming bass and tinkly top notes, good-quality active noise-cancelling, 12 hours of playback so you’ll have plenty of charge even if your train is delayed, a comfy set of padded on-ear cans, a mic for hands-free calls and the option to use an audio cable. Not bad. Not bad at all.
For the Fitness Buff
If a pair of cans is a little too obtrusive for your aesthetic or they’re just not practical for workouts, you can still have wireless noise-cancelling technology in your ears. Unlike the first two AirPods iterations, the latest Apple AirPods Pro with Wireless Charging Case have active noise-cancelling and silicone ear tips that are comfortable and secure in the ear (there are three different sizes for the right fit). Thanks to automatic connection to your Apple devices, you can head out on a run with these sweat-resistant little earbuds in place. For such a small earbud, they have a great battery life – four-and-a-half hours of listening and three-and-a-half talk-time on a single charge – but their charging case will juice them up with more than 24 hours of additional listening time. The sound is, as you’d expect, rich and vivid.
For the Constant Caller
Samsung has gone with a completely different design for their wireless Samsung Galaxy Buds Live earbud-style earphone in their quest to create the best noise-cancelling headphones. These stylish buds feature a speaker on one end and a little plug that helps keep them in your ear on the other. There are tap controls on each earbud to control play/pause and skip track functions, and a long-press option for volume control, Spotify, and Samsung’s voice assistant Bixby. For calls, Samsung has really gone all out: there are three microphones along with a Voice Pick-up Unit that senses the movement of your jaw as you’re speaking, then converts the kinetic energy into voice signals via “bone conduction”. This makes the caller’s voice loud and clear and helps reduce outside noise. According to Samsung, the Galaxy Buds Live ANC technology can reduce background noise under 700Hz (everyday noises like trains and murmured conversation) while still enabling some sounds, such as announcements, to get through.
For the Music Buff
If you want the effect of a pair of over-ear headphones in the form of an earbud, these are the ticket. Sony’s Truly Wireless Noise Cancelling earbuds are slightly bigger than both Samsung’s Galaxy Buds Live and Apple AirPod Pros – all the better to stuff them chock-full of features. They fit snugly, with a range of foam and silicone covers included in the box. Tap controls on each earphone control ANC, volume and playback, and if you hold your finger over the left earphone, it will instigate Quick Attention mode, pausing your audio for as long as you hold your finger there – handy for announcements or everyday conversations. Here, the ANC is incredibly effective: Sony has put two noise-cancelling microphones in each earphone. You’ll get six hours of playback and enough juice in the charging case for a further 18 hours of life.
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