These cans and earbuds create some much-needed peace and quiet for you to focus or relax.
You might see noise-canceling headphones most often on the domes of frequent travelers, shielding their ears as they try to tune out the many other sounds on the plane or train. But they certainly aren’t the only ones who can benefit from tuning out ambient noise. Many people who work in open offices turn to noise-canceling headphones when they need to focus. And if you still find yourself working from home, a good pair may be essential to drown out your housemates’ chatter and get to work. Here, we’ve rounded up some of the best, as well as provided some background on the tech.
How Noise Cancelation Works
More headphones than ever come equipped with noise-cancelation features, including regular over-ear models and compact, wireless earbuds. They do more than simply physically block sounds from entering your ear canal—active noise cancellation (ANC) actually uses a microphone to process the ambient sound, and then the circuitry produces “opposite” sound waves to reduce the unwanted vibrations. While this doesn’t necessarily eliminate all external sound, it can block about 70 percent of ambient noise, effectively dulling lower-frequency tones like the roar of an airplane or traffic or the bustling of a coffee shop.
For many people who just want to play music or podcasts to block sound, a pair of regular headphones or earbuds may do the trick for simply drowning out the babble. But, according to The Guardian, exposure to too much background noise for several hours a day can raise stress levels and even cause permanent hearing damage over time. So many travelers and big-city commuters may find the extra cost of ANC worthwhile for their general health and wellness.
In addition to ANC technology, finding the right seal with your headphones or earbuds is essential to blocking noise. In-ear buds will typically come with multiple sizes of tips for you to dial in the right balance of sealing and comfort, while over-ear headphones will seal with cushioned earcups, which may be more comfortable for some people for longer use. Whether you value portability, comfort, wireless, or wired options, we’ve included plenty of different types of headphones for all kinds of situations.
How We Selected These Headphones
Our team of test editors has evaluated and vetted every pair of headphones on this list. We survey the market, research expert and user reviews, and test many ourselves. For the models we weren’t able to test, we relied on expert sources like Wirecutter, Tech Radar, and CNET, as well as consumer reviews from retailers like Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart. We evaluated these headphones and earbuds on their noise-cancelation efficacy as well as their battery life, portability, design, comfort, and price.
Bose Noise-Cancelling Headphones 700
We tested the Bose 700 against Apple’s AirPods Pro on a cross-country flight (in the Before Times). The verdict: Even the best wireless earbuds can’t match the 700’s noise isolation and run time. The latest version is equipped with Alexa compatibility, intuitive touch controls, a 20-hour battery life, and an impressive quick charge time of just 15 minutes for 3.5 hours of tunes. Though the wireless connection is seamless, there’s also a reliable old cord for a headphone jack. Perhaps most importantly, these headphones boast an impressive 11 levels of noise-cancellation and a four-microphone system, which makes the 700 great at isolating your voice from ambient sounds while you take phone calls. Bose also offers an augmented reality feature and new music app.
Beyond the impressive sound, noise cancellation, and battery life, you’ll also want your over-ear headphones to be as slim and comfortable as possible. The 700 delivers here too, with a lightweight construction at just half a pound. These come with an especially compact carrying case—compared to other over-ear options—at about 7 x 2 inches. And they’re available in black, white, or silver.
Sony’s WH-1000XM3 are the only other headphones able to rival Bose’s noise-cancelation tech. They also come with an industry-leading 30 hours of playback between charges via USB-C. Even if you forget to charge, a quick ten minutes on the cord will grant you an extra five hours of listening time. The WH-1000XM3 are exceptionally lightweight—since they’re made of plastic—and have comfortable padding for your ears. The gesture controls are as good as any model’s, and they include changing tracks and volume, answering calls, and activating voice assistant. Though we find that it’s often easier to just skip songs by pushing a button the old-fashioned way.
Anker Soundcore Life Q20
While most noise-canceling headphones will cost north of $200, this pair from Anker Soundcore provides decent quality for well under $100. CNET describes the sound as “fairly well balanced with a reasonable amount of clarity and plump bass that’s not bloated or muddy.” They also have a bass boost mode, four ANC microphones, and don’t skimp on battery life, with a play time of 40 hours in noise-cancelation mode at 60 percent volume. The Life Q20 don’t come with a carrying case, rather a simple pouch for storage. For a slightly more premium pair, check out the upgraded Soundcore Life Q30 for just $80.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II may not be the newest out there, but they provide similar great noise cancelation to the company’s 700. Though the appearance is slightly less sleek and compact, their ample ear padding is designed more with comfort in mind. The 20-hour run time can hold up to the longest international flight, and an audio cable comes included if you want to listen without worrying about using up the battery. The QuietComfort have similar features to the 700, like Alexa and Google Assistant built in, NFC pairing, and compatibility with the Bose Connect App, though the noise-canceling system uses two microphones instead of four. We also actually preferred the manual—rather than touch-based—controls, such as the slide on/off button that makes it easy to tell if the headphones are powered up.
Master & Dynamic MW65
Like all Master & Dynamic headphones, the MW65 look beautiful. They run a pretty penny, but the added cost is due to the more premium feel of the durable leather and metal construction. Even the ear cups are padded with a lambskin-wrapped memory foam. The noise cancelation is solid, but high and low are the only two ANC settings, so we wouldn’t reach for these first for a flight or train ride. They do have a decent battery life of 24 hours (and build up 12 hours worth of play time in just 15 minutes of charging). Plus, we like the hard on/off buttons that easily show what mode you’re in.
Sennheiser Momentum 3
The Momentum 3 cost a hair less than the Master & Dynamic MW65, but also feature leather ear cups for excellent comfort and durability. Tech Radar wrote that the sound is “brilliant, with high levels of detail, warm bass, and natural-sounding highs,” though the noise cancelation doesn’t beat Sony’s or Bose’s technology. There are still three levels of ANC, along with a transparent hearing feature, making these a good choice in a variety of listening environments. They also have a 17-hour battery life and three buttons for manual controls.
Jabra Elite 85H
Jabra is especially known for providing great audio gear like headsets for taking calls, and its latest Elite 85H pack in the most microphones ever, with a whooping total of eight. They may also appeal to commuters for the ability to automatically detect when you’re on a train or a subway platform to switch between Active Noise Cancelation and Hear Through modes. One reviewer for Wired noted that the Elite 85H excel due to the “water-resistant coating, replaceable ear pads ($20), and a robust, understated design that holds up to my abuse.” Though the 85H are priced a bit lower than class-leading Bose and Sony options, they boast an impressive 36-hour battery life, voice commands, and can connect via Bluetooth or an audio cable.
Wireless earbuds aren’t known as the best option for noise cancelation, but these from Sony combine some of the impressive tuning out prowess of the WH-1000XM3 with compact convenience. It’s rare to find earbuds with true noise cancelation, and these deliver, despite not providing the same sound isolation that ear cups can. At north of $200, they aren’t the cheapest earbuds on the market now, but you’re paying for features such as the HD Noise-Canceling Processor, dual microphones, and a wide variety of earbud tips to help you find the right fit. Like most in-ear headphones, the buds themselves only hold about six hours of charge, though the case provides another 18; if you use them with noise canceling turn off, they’ll even last up to eight hours, or 32 total with the case.
Apple AirPods Max
When Apple revealed its AirPods Max last year, many were skeptical of the $550 price tag, higher than top competitors from Bose and Sony. However, reviews from CNET, Wired, and others have indicated that the premium sound quality—not just the Apple name or design—may justify the cost for many Apple users and music lovers. Apple added great noise-canceling tech to its AirPods Pro, so it’s no surprise that the Max offer adaptive noise-canceling that also relieves pressure. Despite being on the heavier side, the AirPods Max have a comfortable mesh canopy and memory foam earcups. Though the battery life is decent at 20 hours, unfortunately these headphones never actually turn off—only to a low power mode—which means you’ll be tethered to the strange Smart Case for wireless charging.
With the Solo Pro, Beats essentially took the top sound quality of the Solo3 Wireless and added active noise cancelation. Just a tap of a button can turn off the ANC or switch to a transparency mode to let ambient noise in. Like other Beats headphones, these deliver a bass-forward sound that many music lovers may prefer over having best-in-class noise cancelation with a Bose or Sony. The Solo Pro offer decent battery life of 22 hours, or up to 40 with ANC turned off. You may also want to consider the Beats for the sleek design and variety of bright color options, which stand out from the crowd of black and silver.