Less hiss and eardrum pressure than competition. Detailed, transparent sound quality for audiophiles, even with ANC on. Solid aluminum construction. Memory foam mesh was a welcome feature in our testing.
Expensive. Heavy. Limited formats. Doesn't accept analog signals.
On-ear design feels lightweight and comfortable on ears, even with glasses. Some owners find them good for airplanes or offices. Fold nicely for carrying or storing. Long battery life.
May not reduce all ambient noise. Sound quality is average.
Eliminates constant background noise and muffles intermittent loud noises as well. User-selectable levels of noise cancellation with onboard touch control. Has 5 noise filtering mics for excellent call quality.
Were not super portable in our testing. Tight bass.
Nearly eliminates background noise and deadens loud voices. User-selectable 7 levels of cancellation controlled via smartphone app. Users think its sound is warm.
Somewhat bulky. Needs app for ANC control. High bass.
After going through an intensive research process to narrow down our short list of top products in this space, we tested most of our top five—including the Apple AirPods Max and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700—to be sure that these products are worth your time. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter and test to verify manufacturer claims.
If you’re looking for isolated music listening or just a moment of quiet, noise-cancelling headphones are a great way to block out the world. Designs vary in their noise-cancelling method and headphone style, so it’s important to know your needs before making a purchase.
Passive noise-cancelling headphones use padding to dull the noise of your surroundings. Comparatively, active noise-cancelling headphones have a microphone that listens to surrounding sounds and target them for a truly isolating experience. The latter is more expensive but may offer the performance you need. You should also consider what style of headphones you prefer and whether you want wireless connectivity.
Noise-cancelling headphones can be an investment, and they can last for years, so you should know what features and style you are looking for before buying a new pair of headphones.
Just about anyone can appreciate the isolation provided by a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. But with the higher price tag, they may not be the best option for everyone.
Casual listeners might find noise-cancellation unnecessary and be fine with a decent pair of traditional headphones or earbuds. But if you’re an audiophile who wants to hear nothing but the music, noise-cancelling headphones will give you the best sound when you’re away from home.
For those who work in a loud environment, nothing else can create privacy as effectively. Some models are designed specifically for extremely noisy environments, such as construction sites. If you do opt to use a pair at work, make sure the noise reduction rating (NRR) meets your needs and the standards of your workplace.
There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones: passive and active.
Passive: These headphones use materials like high-density foam to physically block and muffle sound. Over-ear headphones tend to be best at this, but some on-ear headphones and earbuds offer passive noise cancellation as well. These headphones work for lower-volume environments and won’t provide the dynamic noise cancellation offered by active models. However, they are almost always less expensive.
Active: These noise-cancelling headphones use a microphone to “listen” to outside sounds. Using this information, the headphones create sound that eliminates the outside noise through a process called destructive interference. This is a superior way of blocking sound that allows you to enjoy your music in an artificial bubble. Some people find that they hear a slight rumble with active noise-cancelling headphones, which can be distracting and disturb their listening experience. Active noise cancellation also needs extra power. Even wired headphones will need another power source – usually a battery – for noise cancellation. These headphones are generally more expensive than passive models.
Construction and design
Headphones vary in weight, shape, and style. Heavier headphones are often bulkier and can be uncomfortable for some people to wear, but they can work well for shorter commutes. If you plan to wear your headphones for several hours, look for a lightweight model with good reviews for comfort. Take note of the materials used, too, particularly in the headband and ear cushions. Leather and synthetic leather tend to be the most comfortable when it comes to padding. And durability is another important factor, particularly if you plan to carry your headphones with you.
You have three choices: earbuds, on-ear, and over-ear headphones.
Earbuds will almost always offer lower sound quality and isolation than traditional noise-cancelling headphones, but they’re highly portable and generally less expensive. However, there are some elite options if you want the very best, like Apple's AirPods Pro.
On-ear: These headphones are lighter and generally more portable than over-ear models, but they don’t usually block out sound as effectively.
Over-ear headphones create a seal against your head that physically blocks outside noise. Many people find them more comfortable than other types, but they are bulkier, less portable, and often more expensive than other types. But when it comes to over-ear versus on-ear designs, there is no right answer. It mostly comes down to personal preference.
Wired vs. wireless
Wired: These headphones are the classic choice for a reason. They’re easy to use and produce the best sound. By plugging into a digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), you can get the best possible quality. If you’re using your headphones with your phone, you might need to use a cable converter (newer iPhone and Pixel phones lack a headphone jack). Additionally, you’ll still need batteries with most models to power the active noise-cancelling technology.
Wireless: If you regularly listen on the go or need mobility while you enjoy your music, wireless headphones might be your best option. By connecting to your device via Bluetooth, wireless headphones offer comfort and convenience, and the batteries can usually last for several hours. However, you’ll need to recharge the headphones regularly, and the battery may eventually wear out. Wireless headphones often produce lower-quality sound than wired models, and there’s also the risk of losing your connection.
With wireless noise-cancelling headphones, it’s crucial that you ensure your devices are compatible. Most headphones will indicate which operating systems they can connect to.
Though the main functions of noise-cancelling headphones are generally similar, there are a handful of additional features that may suit your needs. If you’re on a budget, there’s no need to pay for features you won’t use.
Volume control: Many headphones have built-in volume control, usually in the form of a button on the cable or one of the ear cups. While not necessary, it’s a handy feature to have, especially for commuters who would rather keep their phones in their pocket.
Microphone: If you plan to use your headphones for video calls or phone calls, you’ll need a good built-in microphone with clear output. In addition, it’s useful to find a pair of headphones that allow for multiple audio sources, in case you want to use Bluetooth to pair with more than one device to listen to music and make a call at the same time.
Smart assistant compatibility: If you regularly rely on a smart assistant, there’s no guarantee your headphones will be compatible even if they have a microphone. If this is a dealbreaker for you, check for smart assistant compatibility before you buy.
Variable noise cancellation: This might sound counterintuitive, but it can be great to have in offices or other social environments. Variable noise cancellation allows you to change the settings to let in some outside noise. This feature can only be found in active noise-cancelling headphones.
Carrying case: Some headphones may include a carrying case, offering a way to store your headphones and carry things like charging cables and batteries. The extra bulk may not appeal to some, but the extra protection might be worth it.
Noise-cancelling headphones range greatly in price, but they’re generally more expensive than traditional headphones.
For $20 to $50, you can get earbuds with passive noise cancellation and some active noise-cancellation headphones. Products in this range offer lower sound quality and passable noise cancellation.
Models costing $60 to $150 offer passive or active noise cancellation and may be wired or wireless. These usually have sound quality that will please most but underwhelm audiophiles.
In the $160 to $300 range are high-quality headphones that offer excellent sound and sometimes different noise-cancelling settings.
Headphones that cost more than $300 generally produce sound that will disappoint no one and offer the best noise cancellation available.
Keep batteries or the charging cable with you, especially if you’re travelling. You don’t want to lose access to the noise-cancelling capabilities while on a plane or at the office.
Care for your headphones. Use a cloth or paper towel dampened with rubbing alcohol or dish detergent and water. Gently wipe down the padding of the ear cups, and dry gently. Care may vary for delicate materials like leather.
Q. Can noise-cancelling headphones protect your hearing?
A. Absolutely. Most active models can block up to 20 decibels. While this doesn’t come close to the maximum volume levels of subways or busy streets, it’s that much less noise that your eardrums have to endure.
Q. What happens if the battery dies in wired headphones?
A. You won’t get any more noise cancellation, but you can continue listening to your music. But since this turns your noise-cancelling headphones into traditional headphones, you’ll want to replace the battery when you can.
Q. Can an amplifier improve the sound quality of my headphones?
A. If you have a pair of passive noise-cancelling headphones, an amplifier can be a worthwhile investment for high-quality sound. Active models effectively have built-in amplifiers, so an external amplifier won’t make a significant difference.