Whether you’re taking a cross-country flight or spending your day working out of a cubicle, being able to block unwanted noise has a massive benefit on how your music sounds. Earbuds that fit your ears well can work wonders, but sometimes you need a little extra isolation which is where active noise cancelling (ANC) comes into play.
The problem is that all of the best noise-cancelling headphones aren’t only expensive, they’re also not the most portable or discreet. If you want to be able to stow your headphones away when you don’t need them, then earbuds are the way to go. Surprisingly, there aren’t many ANC earbuds available as they’re fairly hard to make (and even harder to get right). So with that said, what are the best noise-cancelling earbuds? Most people should just play it safe and go with the Bose QC20 earbuds. However, there are a few other great options available as well.
For a more in-depth look at each product listed here as well as some other useful information, make sure to check out the full article over on our sister site SoundGuys.
Best noise-cancelling earbuds:
Editor’s note: We will update this article as more noise-cancelling earbuds are released.
1. Bose QuietComfort 20
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.
2. Sony WI-1000X
Sony’s neckband noise-cancelling ‘buds are unique and allow users to listen wirelessly or by wire, thanks to the convertible 3.5mm to microUSB 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 also includes integrated Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant support, 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.
3. Apple AirPods Pro
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.
4. Sony WF-1000XM3
Sony has taken the crown away from Bose when it comes to the king of active noise cancelling, and that has spread to their earbuds as well. While the Sony WF-1000XM3 aren’t going to be as good at cancelling noise as a pair of over-ears, they’re great for a pair of earbuds. The touch-sensitive sides of the earbuds make controlling playback a breeze and they even have an ambient mode that lets you hear what’s going on around you if you want to. Of course, these top of the line features does come at a price. While they’re definitely a splurge, they’re also a really good piece of tech.
5. Plantronics Backbeat Go 410
Plantronics has a long history of making quality Bluetooth products, and it used that experience to make the Backbeat Go 410, which are one of the best values around. To keep them from flying all over the place while you move around, the earbuds magnetically snap together to stay in place, which is nice for anyone planning to use these on a commute or even at the gym. They also feature variable active noise cancelling, meaning that the strength changes depending on your surroundings. They have a solid sweat-resistant build so you can exercise with them if you want, plus they have Bluetooth 5.0 built-in. For the price, these are a solid choice.
What you should know about noise-cancelling earbuds
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 something like in the picture below.
Of course, this is a simplified 2D way of looking at it and sound waves are more complicated, but this is the general principle. What makes active noise cancelling earbuds so cool is that the good ones are able to use this method to cancel noise before they even reach your eardrum. 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. Still, some are good enough that we have no problem recommending them.
When it comes to earbuds, the most important thing you should worry about it how well they fit your ears. You could have the best active noise cancelling earbuds in the world, but if you have crappy eartips then it doesn’t matter as sound will still get in around the earbud. If the sound gets around the earbud and into your ear, then you have to deal with a phenomenon called auditory masking. This occurs when you hear two different sounds at similar frequencies. 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.
This is why plenty of earbuds give a bit of extra emphasis to the lower notes in your music, making the bass seem louder than it should be. It isn’t because manufacturers don’t care about the sound quality of your music, it’s because they’re 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!