At first, noise canceling headphones were primarily enjoyed by frequent travelers or those who worked in loud spaces. There’s something soothing and magical about a quiet journey in a plane without needing to use the uncomfortable earplugs provided by the airline. And with noise canceling headphones, you can listen to music or an audiobook clearly and peacefully without needing to turn up the volume to drown out what’s going on around you. Nowadays, in our busy connected world, they are a must-have addition to your list of digital devices. If you travel a lot, use public transport frequently or work in a noisy office, you will find that noise canceling headphones can keep the world blocked out while you enjoy your own music or audiobook.
What is noise-canceling?
There are a lot of misconceptions about noise canceling, so before you consider this type of headphone, there are some important things you need to know.
First of all, active noise canceling (ANC) and noise blocking are two different things. Active noise canceling headphones can cancel out annoying low-frequency noises and bring you a quiet environment. It can filter the ambient low-frequency noise and generate a negative sound wave to cancel the ambient noise. The result is you can hear silence, and when you play music, you’ll hear pure music. Most noise-canceling headphones can cancel up to 80-95% ambient noise. Noise blocking, on the other hand, blocks all noise (not just low-frequency noise). One example of that is ear muffs used in shooting. Over-ear headphones are great noise blockers.
Noise canceling headphones use microphones to identify if ambient noise is present. That signal is then set to dedicated electronics that create direct opposite soundwaves that go through the headphones and then to your ears. Opposite soundwaves or frequencies cancel out each other, thus negating the original noise.
What to expect from noise canceling headphones
Noise canceling is perfect if you find yourself in many situations when you want a quieter environment. But you have to remember that there come inevitable disadvantages to this type of headphones. Here are some of them:
1. Comes at a higher price
Noise-canceling (NC) headphones tend to cost more than regular headphones. Since it is equipped with noise-canceling technology and microphones, it cost more money, especially if you choose the higher-end ones. A decent NC headphone comes with a price to pay, so you can also get better build quality, better comfort and of course, better sound.
2. Needs power
Unlike typical plug and play headphones, noise canceling headphones use rechargeable batteries and for some, changeable ones. NC technology won’t work without power.
3. Has lower sound quality
Overall, noise canceling headphones have lower sound quality compared to ordinary headphones. The technology produces counter frequencies to negate noise, but you can’t expect that it will be 100% accurate all the time. Sometimes, the frequencies of the original music can get canceled, distorting the overall sound quality. Audiophiles have accepted the fact that noise canceling reduces the sound quality of any headphones, even the most expensive ones. So, if your primary concern is to be able to listen to music clearly and more powerfully, you may need to think twice if you really want a noise canceling option.
4. Gives pressure to the ears
Noise-canceling headphones can make you feel like your ears are under pressure. It can feel uncomfortable as you wear the headphones for a long time. Find a decent pair that you will feel most comfortable with.
5. Sensitive to wind
The enemy of a noise canceling headphone is strong winds. If it’s blowing outside and making sounds, the microphone can pick up the sounds of the wind and make a whole mess of the sound you are listening to on the headphones. This is why NC headphones are not advisable for outdoor use.
Features to look for in noise canceling headphones
These are some of the features that matter most in choosing noise-canceling headphones:
1. Wired or wireless
Wireless noise canceling headphones usually operate via Bluetooth to play music wirelessly. This feature just adds up to the price tag. If you can live with a cable connected to your phone, you can save some bucks by choosing wired headphones.
2. Battery life
Remember, noise canceling headphones work on batteries and can be recharged. Consider the listed battery life. Most NC headphone models today offer at least 25 hours of noise cancellation in one full charge. There are models that allow you to listen with the noise canceling feature turned off, so you can save battery power. You can use this feature if you’re already in a quiet place.
Most noise-canceling headphones have an over-ear design with a plush fit and tight seal to keep out noise, and this design is ideal for office use. Before buying out a headphone, make sure it fits your head and ears perfectly and comfortably.
4. Adjustable noise cancellation
One latest innovation when it comes to noise-canceling headphones is the ability to tailor the noise canceling a performance to the surroundings. For instance, there are headphones that don’t only consider the level of external sound, but also the altitude.
5. Quick access to the outside world
Noise canceling is great, but there are times when you needed to be more aware of your surroundings. Some noise-canceling headphones come with features like automatic pausing when you lift an earcup, or simply double-tapping earcup to turn off noise canceling and pick up an environmental sound.
Best noise-canceling headphones
There is plenty of noise canceling headphones out there, but these are some of the best performing pieces:
Bose QuietComfort 35 II is positively reviewed by most sites, naming it the best noise-canceling headphone overall. Coming from the pioneer of noise-canceling technology, this model is top of the line. It offers three levels of class-leading noise cancellation Bose is known for, combined with good sound quality and balanced audio with the broad and clear soundstage. It’s a smart headphone that works with Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant. These are light and comfy and can be enjoyed for 20 hours of playtime on a full charge. It can be connected to your device via Bluetooth and you can set it up using the Bose Connect app. These headphones are available in black, silver and triple midnight.
When it comes to outstanding noise cancellation, Sony comes so close to Bose, with the two brands leading the NC game. Sony WH-1000XM3 has been also named as the best noise canceling headphone due to its advanced technology combined with intelligent sound optimization features and premium sound quality. This model has improved neutralization and audio processing to achieve the high-fidelity sound. It has an incredible battery life of 30 hours, paired with a USB-C charging that allows users to use the headphones for an extra 5 hours on a 10-minute charge. It’s ergonomically designed to increase wearability and ensure all-day comfort. It has touch sensor controls to easily pause, play or skip tracks, control volume, answer phone calls or activate your voice assistant.
With its amazing features and a price less than $200, the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC becomes a definite contender for the best noise canceling headphone. It’s more affordable, lightweight and offers great value for money. Design-wise, it has a minimalistic, slimmed-down design that is lighter and more comfortable to the ears compared with bulky models. The audio quality of this headphone is clean and precise, thanks to the Noise Gard active noise cancellation technology. Controls for changing tracks and making calls via the integrated mic are mounted on the earcup. This headphone can last up to 19 hours, and it comes with a connecting cable for wired operation if you want to save battery.
The greatest strength of Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless is its audio quality. Other noises canceling headphones excel at an interface, noise cancellation technology or design, but this headphone outshines them all when it comes to sound quality. It delivers full range, balanced sounds that doesn’t exaggerate bass too much. It has an active noise canceling features that can be turned on with a simple switch. You can connect this wireless headphone with your devices via Bluetooth, NFC or aptX support. It features a touchpad for multi-function control on the right earcup. This device is also fully compatible with the CapTune app so you can adjust settings and personal preferences. It also comes with triple microphone array allows calls with high-quality vocal clarity. If you want to play it wired, it comes with 3.5 mm to 2.5 mm audio cable.
If you’re looking for a headphone that works great at everything, the Sony H.ear On WH-H900N is your best option. This bad boy is a solid performer when it comes to noise cancellation, comfort, sound quality, and phone call quality. It may not beat other leading headphones at noise reduction, this model delivers impressive sounds and audio. It has 28-hour battery life on a full charge with the noise canceling function on, but it can play longer with this off. The ambient awareness control feature can allow you to hear your surroundings without taking off your headphones. It comes with a touch sensor control panel for easy operation, and you can also tweak your sounds using the companion app. The headphones come with a connection cable (if you want to use it wired), USB cable for charging and a carrying pouch. The WH-H900N is available in three colors: black, blue and red.
Bowers and Wilkins PX is the company’s first foray into Bluetooth noise cancellation technology, and the result is an impressive material. The best feature of these headphones is the smart sensors for automatic pause and play. It automatically pauses whatever you’re listening to whenever you need to lift the headphones, and then automatically continues playing once you wear it again. It offers 22 hours of battery life and features a USB-C charging dock. You can adjust settings as to how much ambient noise you want to let in through its companion app. The sound quality is great, but it’s not as deep as the flagship offerings from Bose and other brands.
Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 is a great travel companion. The comfort level of this headphone is high, with very soft and luxurious-feeling earcups. It even comes with a rigid travel case for protection. These headphones give you bang for your buck (especially if you’re not willing to spend a lot on brands like Bose or Sony) as this device is packed with incredible features. This headphone allows 24 hours of quiet time before you choose to use cable or charge it. You can stream audio via Bluetooth up to 10 meters away from your smartphone or device, plus it allows multi-point Bluetooth access. It delivers amiable and rich sounds with crisp trebles and warm bass. However, the ANC functionality will not blow you away, and it’s noticeably less effective than other models. But for the price, it’s already impressive enough.
Sony H.ear on Wireless MDR100ABN/B brings a balance between active noise canceling performance and sound quality. It does a great job at canceling out the lows and mid-tones while allowing voice information to pass through just slightly reduced. When it comes to sounds, these headphones produce warm and full sounds that are impressive. It’s wireless and you can connect and stream music with Bluetooth. Making hands-free calls with MDR100ABN/B is smooth and professional sounding. Its battery can last for up to 20 hours with the noise canceling function on, and even longer when it’s off. Besides all these, this set of headphones are worthy to consider because of its affordable price and availability in fun colors such as black, blue, pink, yellow and red.
Bose QuietComfort 25 was the best noise canceling headphones a few years back before later models have been created. If you aren’t particular with getting the latest technology and looking for something great for a more affordable price, this headphone from Bose is a good choice. Expect stunning noise cancellation and full, robust sounds with deep and powerful bass. The lows, mids, and highs are clear and don’t step over each other. These headphones are wired and can provide over 35 hours of noise-canceling performance with one AAA battery (yes, it comes with a replaceable battery). It’s lightweight and comfy, and you can wear it all day.
Perhaps the cheapest item on this list, Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B performs well when it comes to noise canceling and sound production. It’s not best at anything, but with a price almost thrice as less as Bose headphones, you can get around 70-80% of its effectiveness when it comes to noise cancellation. It’s hardly negligible, considering the affordability. These wired headphones are powered by one AAA batteries that can last up to 40 hours with noise canceling function on. It has the typical on/off ANC switch button and in-line microphone. The sound it produces is balanced, with clear treble and mids, and strong bass. Overall, it’s a competent noise-canceller at a great value.