Update, January 1, 2021: This list was updated to address the Apple AirPods Max.
As coronavirus continues its spread, many of us are now working from home more than ever. For those stuck at home, you might find things can get pretty loud! Whether it’s your neighbors, your pets, or your kids — you’ll want to consider getting an active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphone. We’ve put together a quick guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones for any situation.
Best noise-cancelling headphones:
1. Sony WH-1000xM4
The Sony WH-1000XM4 is a top-notch noise-cancelling headset. It looks nearly identical to its predecessor but features modern fixings like artificial intelligence (AI). High-quality Bluetooth codecs and a headphone jack are all present; on top of all that, Bluetooth multipoint has finally arrived. This means you may connect to two devices at once with the WH-1000XM4, but its implementation is limited. You can only use it when streaming over AAC, not LDAC or SBC.
Don’t miss: Sony WH-1000XM4 review
One of the coolest features introduced with the latest flagship headset is spepak to chat functionality. The headset will automatically detect when you’re speaking and pause playback. It works, but may be a little too sensitive for some users’ likings. Fortunately, you can always disable this function in the Headphones Connect app.
How does the Sony WH-1000XM4 noise-cancelling compare to the Sony WH-1000XM3? It has been improved, especially when it comes to low-frequency attenuation (where predictable hums like a jet engine fall). This makes the Sony WH-1000XM4 an even better travel companion than its predecessor.
Sony WH-1000XM4 microphone demo:
Microphone quality is also very good, and among the best in the market. Speech intelligibility was never an issue during testing, and while it can’t compare to a dedicated studio microphone, it can get you through any number of personal and professional calls. If you want a jack-of-all-trades, premium headset, look no further than Sony. Listeners on a tighter budget should consider Sony’s mid-tier offerings: the Sony WH-CH710N and Sony WH-CH700N.
2. Shure AONIC 50
If you want pure performance from your noise-cancelling headphones, get the Shure AONIC 50. They beat out Sony and Bose alike when it comes to filtering out low-end noise. Why didn’t we choose the Shure AONIC 50 as our top noise-cancelling pick? Even though performance and sound quality are excellent, the fact is that Sony’s headset is still the best all-around pick for most listeners.
If you have the budget and view noise cancelling headphones as an investment, the Shure AONIC 50 is a smart choice. The ANC technology effectively blocks out humming A/C units, chatty roommates, and more. In times when many of us are forced to work from home, these noise-cancelling headphones could be your greatest productivity tool. Microphone quality is also great and certainly good enough for any conference call or video chat that you may have marked on your calendar.
Shure AONIC 50 microphone demo (firmware 0.4.9):
Shure equipped these Bluetooth 5.0 ‘phones with every Bluetooth codec you could want (aptX, aptX HD, aptX Low Latency, AAC, and LDAC), so you can enjoy high-quality audio no matter what smartphone you use.
3. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
As is the standard for Bose, the Bose Headphones 700 are supremely comfortable. If you’re taking a long flight and don’t want to worry about potential hot spots forming on your head, these are the best pick. Noise-cancelling performance is some of the best around—though, not quite as effective as Sony’s ANC technology. That said, Bose did make big improvements over the QC 35 II headset, and we appreciate the updated, modern design.
These support both Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, so you can easily make calendar events, set timers, dictate texts, and more without reaching for your phone. Gesture control takes a little getting used to but the touch panel ear cups are great at registering commands. AAC is supported but no aptX here, and Bose went with a weird 2.5mm input rather than the standard 3.5mm input for wired listening.
4. AKG N60NC
Just like the larger AKG headset, the AKG N60NC are well-designed and boast great battery life. Although on-ear headphones with glasses aren’t nearly as comfortable as their over-ear counterparts, these are a unique exception. Most on-ears feel like the Beats Solo Pro, with painful clamping force applied to keep the headset on and block outside noise, but AKG masterfully balances fit and comfort with the N60NC.
The headphones reproduce a neutral-leaning sound, which means they handle virtually all genres of music well. Again, this is wholly dependent on being able to achieve a proper fit. If external noise breaks through the physical and ANC barrier, bass reproduction is the first to go. Generally speaking, the compact, lightweight design makes these a great pick for everyday listening.
5. Sennheiser PXC 550-II
For the best pair of noise-cancelling headphones under $200, get the Sennheiser PXC 550-II. These compact headphones fold up and rotate inward, so they may easily stow away in your carry-on or at your desk. Its plastic construction may be off-putting to some, but it’s a feature: it keeps the headset lightweight, and more comfortable for all-day wear.
Noise cancellation doesn’t outperform Sony or Shure, but it is more effective than Bose’s headphones when it comes to very low-frequency sounds. While the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are feature-packed and a versatile pair of headphones, the PXC 550-II may be a better option for commuters and frequent flyers.
Sennheiser PXC 550-II microphone demo:
Microphone quality is ok, but we expect that to improve with firmware updates; this is something we’ve seen with other headsets like the Shure AONIC 50. Arguably the biggest drawback of the headset is its microUSB charging input. This is annoying but forgivable considering the accessible price point. Battery life is very good and SoundGuys tested nearly 22 hours of playtime on a single charge.
Best noise-cancelling headphones: Honorable mentions
- Beats Solo Pro: These on-ear headphones are for anyone who’s constantly out and about, and doesn’t have the space for over-ear headphones.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: The Bose QC 35 II are a classic, and remain one of the most popular ANC headphones years after their release. If you value comfort and sound quality, get these headphones.
- Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3.0: Anyone who appreciates the finer things in life should save up for these luxurious noise-cancelling headphones.
- Sony WH-1000xM3: Sony’s at the top of its ANC headset game, and the XM3 reigned as noise-cancelling king before the WH-1000XM4 came around.
What about the Apple AirPods Max?
The Apple AirPods Max is Apple’s first over-ear headset, and it’s jam-packed with advanced technologies, including active noise-cancelling capabilities. Each headphone houses the H1 chip to maximize processing power required for tasks like ANC, Transparency mode, Spatial Audio, hands-free Siri commands and more. Apple’s advanced DSP is akin to the one found in the AirPods Pro, and the headset uses Adaptive EQ to adjust the sound profile to the fit and seal of the ear pads.
We’re still conducting tests on the headset, and will add more information once the AirPods Max has undergone all of our rigors.
What you should know about the best noise-cancelling headphones
There is a lot of technology packed into active noise-cancelling headphones, which is why they usually cost a lot of money. Let’s go over what you should know before buy a pair.
How does noise cancellation work?
Noise-cancelling headphones actively filter out external noise by way of destructive interference. There are also some more premium headsets that use hybrid noise-cancelling technology. This combines feedfoward and feedback noise-cancelling techniques to greatly reduce low-frequency sounds. Not only does this improve audio clarity, but it may prevent noise-induced hearing loss since you’re less likely to increase the volume to unsafe levels.
Become an expert: How noise-cancelling headphones work (SoundGuys)
Since these picks are so effective at blocking out your surroundings, you’ll want to keep an eye out for options with some variant of ambient aware mode if you spend a lot of time outside. This feature relays surrounding noise through the headset, keeping you aware when you need it.
What is a Bluetooth codec?
Bluetooth headphones all rely on Bluetooth codecs to properly transmit and receive audio signals. SBC is the default codec that all wireless headsets must support, think of it as a bare minimum requirement. When you get into more premium Bluetooth headsets, you’ll find options with AAC, aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC support.
Not all high-quality Bluetooth codecs perform equally well on all devices. Unfortunately, AAC streaming is volatile on the Android operating system and a consistent streaming rate is hard to maintain. This isn’t the case for iOS devices: iPhones handle the AAC codec well, and users benefit from high-quality audio without perceptible audio-visual lag.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
SoundGuys is our sister site that focuses solely on all things audio. The team has a broad understanding of audio and respects that certain aspects are objective and quantifiable without disregarding the importance of subjective enjoyment. When it comes to consumer audio, SoundGuys strives to cut through the muck, granting readers more time to enjoy their music. Ultimately, the team hopes to educate readers with each post and pique the interest of fellow audio geeks.