Whether you’re about to embark on a cross-country flight or spend your day at a cubicle, active noise-cancelling (ANC) can dramatically improve both productivity and sound quality. The problem is that all of the best noise-cancelling headphones aren’t only expensive, they’re also not the most portable or discreet. Most people should just play it safe and go with the Bose QC 20 earbuds.
Buying the right noise-cancelling earbuds for your needs
When you’re looking around at different noise-cancelling earbuds there are a few things to remember: noise-cancelling technology is expensive. If you want a pair of earbuds that can effectively cancel background noise, you should expect to spend a bit more than you would for standard in-ears.
Noise-cancelling technology works best when you have the best fit possible. With earbuds, this means that the earbuds seal to your ear canal completely. Sometimes this can create an uncomfortable suction-like sensation, but most manufacturers mitigate this by adding a pressure-relief vent on each earbud.
Best noise-cancelling earbuds:
- The Bose QuietComfort 20 may be an older headset, but it’s the best option for most people who want a simple wired headset with ANC.
- The Sony WI-1000XM2 wireless neckband earbuds support plenty of high-quality Bluetooth codecs for optimal wireless playback.
- The Apple AirPods Pro are best for iPhone owners; don’t even bother with the standard AirPods.
- The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are the best noise-cancelling true wireless earphones and are durable too.
- The 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro supports wireless and wired playback, and it’s relatively affordable.
Bose QuietComfort 20: The best noise-cancelling earphones for most people
Bose has been the standard in active noise cancelling earbuds for years, and while Sony has its number in the over-ear department, the QC20s are still one of the best options around if you’re looking to block outside noise. The wingtips do a great job at keeping the buds in your ears and while the sound quality isn’t amazing, it’s more than good enough assuming you don’t plan to mix and master your next single with them. Battery life isn’t too bad either with roughly 16 hours of constant playback before needing to be charged up again. That’s enough for most flights and (hopefully) your commutes as well. If you want a wire-free variant, look into the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, the company’s debut ANC true wireless earphones.
Sony WI-1000XM2: The best features
Sony’s neckband noise-cancelling buds are unique and allow users to listen wirelessly or by wire, thanks to the 3.5mm cable. Although it’s not the most ergonomic design, it’s great when you’re in a pinch and can’t charge the headset. It also means you can soak up all the high-resolution quality of your favorite FLAC files from sources like Amazon Music HD and Tidal. When you do use the Bluetooth functionality, you’re afforded aptX HD and LDAC codec support, for high-quality audio.
Sony features its QN1 noise-cancelling processor to power the ANC technology. The headset also supports Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant, so you can have your notifications read aloud to you, set alarms and reminders, and get a glimpse of the day’s weather. For around $200, these are a great value and last up to 10 hours on a single charge.
Apple AirPods Pro: The best for iPhone owners
Whoa, what are AirPods doing on this list? Believe it or not, the AirPods Pro are actually good now. While some of the cooler features like automatic pause when one earbud is removed and the new fit test to make sure that you have a good fit is still iOS only, the best features work perfectly even on Android devices. You’ll still get really good active noise cancelling, the new transparency mode to hear what’s going on around you, and access to all of the playback controls via the new squeezable stem as well.
Of course, these only use the AAC codec so if you were hoping for any kind of higher-quality streaming you’re out of luck, but let’s be honest, you shouldn’t be looking at true wireless earbuds at all if sound quality your main concern. Still, if you don’t feel like spending $249 for something that doesn’t completely work with your device, then check out the next option for a similar (and in some cases better) experience.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2: The best true wireless
Sennheiser stole the crown from Sony when it comes to the king of ANC true wireless earbuds. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 is a refined set of earbuds with a durable IPX4 build, consumer-friendly sound, and feature-rich mobile app. The ear tips create a comfortable seal to the ear and passively block out background noise, which in turn optimizes noise-cancelling.
The earbuds support automatic ear detection for auto-pause/resume functionality. Sennheiser’s earbuds use Bluetooth 5.1 and support a host of Bluetooth codecs for you to choose from. Both Android and iPhone owners will enjoy high-quality audio as the headset can stream over AAC and aptX.
Read more: Best Sennheiser headphones (SoundGuys)
Battery life is fine for a pair of noise-cancelling earbuds, and you can enjoy about 4 hours of consecutive playback before the need to be charged. The case fast charges the earbuds: 10 minutes of charge yields 90 minutes of listening. Sennheiser knows how to make quality products, and the Momentum True Wireless 2 is no exception. If you want something a bit more affordable, and even more durable, consider the Samsung Galaxy Buds Pro.
1More Dual Driver ANC Pro: Best versatility
These neckband earbuds feature an accurate frequency response with LDAC, AAC, and SBC Bluetooth codec support. You can even listen by wire with these IPX5 earbuds, which is great if you have a library full of lossless audio files or the battery depletes unexpectedly.
The magnetic housings make it easy to manage the earbud cables when you’re not listening to music. Microphone quality isn’t anything special, but it will get you through a call when you’re in a pinch. If you just want a pair of do-it-all earphones that don’t cost a ton, you should get the 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro.
Best noise-cancelling earbuds: Honorable mentions
- Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: These true wireless earbuds are as comfortable as they come, and the winged ear tips are designed to accommodate nearly any ear shape. Bose’s ANC technology is top-notch, as it sound quality.
- Huawei FreeBuds Pro: While it’s true that this headset limits certain features to Huawei handsets, it’s still a great pair of noise-cancelling earbuds with a good, consumer-friendly sound profile.
- Razer Hammerhead USB-C ANC: The active noise-cancelling is quite good for the price, and Razer includes Comply memory foam ear tips to ensure a comfortable fit for nearly anyone.
What you should know about noise-cancelling earbuds
Noise-cancelling earbuds are a niche category of headphones, and often cost much more than their non-noise cancelling counterparts. Here are a few things to know before you sink a good chunk of change into a pair of ANC earphones.
How does active noise-cancelling work?
Noise-cancelling is one of those things that when you try a good pair of headphones for the first time might seem like magic. Unfortunately, it has nothing to do with spells and fancy wandwork. Like all things having to do with audio, it all comes down to physics.
We have a full explainer on the topic so you can read all about it if you’re interested, but the gist of it is that it all comes down to waves. When you add two waves that are lined up perfectly, the amplitude of the wave doubles. This is called “in-phase,” and wouldn’t really be too helpful in trying to cancel noise. Instead, ANC headphones rely on something called destructive interference. This means that instead of the soundwaves being lined up perfectly so that the amplitude doubles, they are misaligned so that the peak of one wave lines up with the bottom of another. When this happens, the two waves cancel each other out and you’re left with little external noise.
What makes active noise-cancelling earbuds so cool is that the good ones use this method to cancel noise before it reaches your eardrums. They do this with tiny microphones that pick up outside sounds and then creating the opposite soundwave to cancel it out. As you can imagine, this is a difficult thing to do and even the best noise-cancelling earbuds don’t completely cancel everything.
A good fit improves noise-cancelling
When it comes to earbuds, the most important thing you should worry about is how well they fit your ears. You could have the best ANC earbuds in the world, but if you have shoddy ear tips, it doesn’t matter: sound will still get in around the earbud. In that case, you have to deal with a phenomenon called auditory masking. This occurs when a loud sound makes it hard for you to hear a relatively quiet one. The human brain has evolved to focus on whichever noise is louder, as it is most likely to be a bigger threat. So instead of hearing that jazzy bassline in your favorite piece, you’re going to hear the roaring bus pass you buy.
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This is why plenty of earbuds emphasize bass notes; manufacturers are trying to offset the fact that it might get drowned out by the noises around you. So how do you solve this? With a good pair of ear tips.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
SoundGuys is the sibling site to Android Authority, and the team there have made it their goal to bring objective reviews and information to help educate people before they make a purchase they may end up regretting. How you listen to music and enjoy sound is subjective, but the technical aspects of a pair of headphones or a Bluetooth speaker can be measured objectively. That’s where we come in. Make sure to check it out if you have any interest in all things audio!