Noise-cancelling headphones are one of those rare gadgets that are equally essential both on the go and at home. As more and more of us spend ever-more hours working from home rather than commuting into the office, it becomes abundantly clear that your house or apartment is a noisy place to work. Noise-cancelling headphones are the antidote, eliminating all sorts of common background noises and letting you work undisturbed. That’s just as true in the office or while traveling on a plane, train, bus or car. Noise-cancelling headphones are indispensable.
The best noise-cancelling headphones combine the ability to dampen or eliminate background noise with excellent overall sound quality, all-day comfort, and (at least in some cases) creature-comfort extras like voice assistance or auto-pause when you take them off. And while there was a time when noise canceling could only be found on a few high-end headphones, now the technology is everywhere. How do you choose the right one for you? That’s where this roundup of the best noise-cancelling headphones comes in. Let me help you decide which is right for you.
What Are the Best Noise Canceling Headphones For Sale in 2020?
1. AKG N60NC
- 15 hours battery life
- Great audio quality
- Earcups pivot
- Controls clustered too close together
- No auto-off to conserve the battery
Earcup design: On-ear | Weight: 7 ounces | Battery life: 15 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 4.0, AptX | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: Micro-USB
Good noise-canceling headphones are typically pretty pricey, so it’s always good to encounter a high-quality set that clocks in around $100. The AKG N60NC wasn’t always priced this high, which shows that it can pay to be patient. They started around $300 three years ago, and have been dropping steadily ever since.
Price notwithstanding, this is an excellent set of headphones with a few design quirks. The good: The cups pivot to fit the side of your head, and there’s a decent amount of padding, but (and this is a matter of taste) they’re on-ear headphones, which means you need to be okay with the clamping pressure landing directly on your ears. I prefer over-the-ear headphones, since on-ear seem to fatigue you faster. The design also means the headphones lie flat and fold up nicely for travel.
All the controls are on one earcup, and they’re spaced perhaps a little too close together; it’s all too easy to accidentally turn off the headphones when what you really want to do is change tracks. You get about 15 hours of battery life on a charge, but you can double that if you turn off the Bluetooth wireless and use them as wired headphones.
They sound great, though, with a well-balanced sound and a decent amount of bass. The noise cancellation is good, but not great — there’s a reason that Bose is the gold standard in ANC, and the N60NC isn’t in the same league as the Bose 700, for example.
2. Anker Soundcore Life Q20
- Over-the-ears design
- 40 hour battery life
- BassUp low-end amp
- ANC can be weak
- Mediocre sound quality
- No AptX
Earcup design: Over-the-ear | Weight: 9 ounces | Battery life: 40 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: Micro-USB
This is a surprising set of headphones. It’s hard to find good headphones with ANC for much under $100 — most models are well above $200 — but the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 may very well do everything you need for little more than half the price of the AKG N60NC. These over-the-ears headphones have generous amounts of memory foam on the cups and pivot to fit your head. Controls are split across the two cups, including a “BassUp” bass-boosting audio enhancement. The headphones even put Siri and Google Assistant at your disposal with the push of a button — not a feature you’d expect at this price point.
It’s probably a good idea that Anker includes the BassUp feature because audio quality — while by no means bad — is noticeably reserved compared to higher-end headphones. Without BassUp, the lower end is weak; with BassUp turned on, it is perhaps just a little too much for some styles of music. Either way, the sound seems to have a narrower range when in wired mode compared to wireless. Noise cancellation is fairly effective, though higher frequency sounds will often bleed through nonetheless.
You’ll get an impressive 40 hours of playback in wireless mode, or 60 hours when plugged into the audio cable. An especially handy feature for frequent travelers: a quick five-minute charge can give you four solid hours of playback, enough for most plane flights.
3. Beats Solo Pro Noise Cancelling Headphones
- Great H1 chip connectivity
- ANC transparency mode
- Lightning port charging
- Need to buy audio adapter for wired listening
- Battery life only 22 hours
- Not as grerat for Android users and iOS
Earcup design: On-ear | Weight: 9.4 ounces | Battery life: 22 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless (with adapter) | Charging port: Lightning
The Beats Solo Pro can be used with both Android devices and iPhones, but it sometimes feels like these headphones are really meant for Apple users, and Android folks are only begrudgingly allowed to attend the party. The Solo Pro is built around Apple’s H1 chip, for example, which has special significance for iPhone users. It enables super-easy, super-fast pairing, for example, and the Bluetooth connection should be stronger and more stable. It also gives you always-on Siri, so voice assistance is always just one “Hey Siri” away, no matter what you’re doing. Something else you get if you’re an iPhone user: Apple’s audio sharing feature that lets you connect two headphones to an iOS device at once, so you can share audio as if you have a virtual Y-connector for your headphones.
Apple-specifics aside, the Beats Solo Pro are very good headphones, delivering superb audio and very good noise cancellation. Beats also includes a transparency mode, which leaves noise cancellation on but let’s outside sounds pass through — a hybrid mode that offers relief from ambient noise but still lets you stay aware of your surroundings.
Unfortunately, the Solo Pro also seems to suffer from a touch of corporate greed. Here’s the deal: It charges via a Lightning port, which is fine, mostly, particularly if you’re an iOS user. But the headphones have neither an audio connector nor a Lightning-to-audio adapter. So if you need to turn off wireless and listen in wired mouse, you need to buy a Lightning-to-audio adapter.
4. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Adjustable noise cancellation
- Voice assistant support
- New stylish design
- Somewhat expensive
- Bose AR hasn’t delivered much yet
- Battery could last longer
Earcup design: Over-ear | Weight: 9 ounces | Battery life: 20 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: USB-C
Bose has a mixed reputation among audiophiles, but there’s no question that the company makes headphones which are the gold standard in noise cancellation. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 is the newest Bose headphone, and reflects 20 years of learnings from the QuietComfort line. You can tell at a glance that it’s a radically different design; the headband is thin and extends up and down through a sliding mechanism on the outside of the earcup — in fact, to adjust them, you slide the cups, you don’t fiddle with the band. It also pivots to lie flat rather than folding like the QuietComfort used to.
There’s a generous amount of memory foam to wrap around your ears, and just a few buttons on both ears — power and pairing on the left and noise cancellation on the right. Media is controlled via a touch panel in the right ear; swipe up and down for volume and side-to-side to change tracks.
The headphones re fully modern in other ways as well. There’s support for voice assistants built-in (Siri, Google Assistant, and even Alexa), and you charge the headphones with a USB-C connection. Speaking of charging, you get about 20 hours out of the battery. A 15-minute quick charge can net you 3.5 hours of runtime.
While the Bose 700 isn’t the hands-down best headphones on the market, they sound very good, and Bose seems to be trying something new with several levels of noise reduction and a transparency mode that lets ambient sound bleed through, so you can stay aware of your surroundings even with noise reduction enabled. The headphones also support Bose AR, an augmented reality platform that will see new capabilities released over time — but for now, it doesn’t do much.
5. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Excellent noise canceling
- Very comfortable
- Alexa is built in
- Generic, aesthetic-free design
- No media controls
- Old-generation Bluetooth
Earcup design: Over-ear | Weight: 10.9 ounces | Battery life: 20 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 4.1 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: micro-USB
In many ways, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II has become the noise-canceling headphones against which virtually any other competitor is judged. These headphones have traditionally offered the best overall combination of ANC, features, and comfort, and while some recent models do better, the QuietComfort 35 II remains an excellent choice overall.
The biggest criticism you can bring to bear on these Bose headphones is that they lack any semblance of style; they’re engineered, not designed and look like what someone might use as a symbol for a generic pair of headphones. If you don’t mind the lack of aesthetics, you’ll find these over-ear headphones easy on your head, despite being among the heavier headphones around. The ear-cups are adequately padded and pivot to fit your head. For travel, they both lie flat and fold up, fitting in a compact low-profile hard-shell case.
These are among the better-sounding headphones you’ll find in this price range, delivering a pleasant sound that favors music with a lot of bass. You can choose from among three levels of noise cancellation, and the maximum level effectively blocks pretty much everything. One nice feature is that you can hear yourself talking, so you’re less likely to shout like a weirdo when using them.
While less impressive today than it was three years ago when Bose introduced them, the QuietComfort 35 II includes an Action button that lets you launch Alexa. On the other hand, you’ll find these headphones are minimalist when it comes to controls. You’ll find a power button, ANC switch, volume, and access to Alexa — but that’s it, so you can’t play, pause, or switch tracks from the headphones. You’ll get about 20 hours from these headphones between charges, and you can use them in wired mode if you lose the battery.
6. Bowers & Wilkins PX7
- Large 43.6mm drivers
- Attractive aesthetics
- Auto-pause and auto-play
- No EQ
- Somewhat heavy
Earcup design: Over-ear | Weight: 10.7 ounces | Battery life: 30 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: USB-C
If you’re looking for a mix of style and features, the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 may be exactly what you’re looking for. These headphones are stunners, with gorgeous sculpted, fabric-wrapped earcups and beautiful curvy headband posts that are made from a custom carbon fiber. And if the earcups look a little larger than average, they are; Bowers & Wilkins has incorporated a slightly bigger than average 43.6mm drivers in each ear.
Most controls located in the right ear, with a power slider and a three-button combo for playback controls, call management, and invoking Siri or Google Assistant; the left ear lets you dial in multiple levels of noise cancellation. You can cycle through three levels, or hold the button briefly to enable a transparency mode in which ambient sound is allowed to pass through. There’s even a mode to listen to ambient soundscapes (like a waterfall, for example) rather than your own music. It’s probably a good choice if you meditate or want to work and even music is too much of a background distraction.
You’ll get about 30 hours of battery life between charges, and Bowers & Wilkins includes a modern USB-C connection for topping it off. Those 30 hours should be quite enjoyable; the audio quality is excellent — arguably better than what you get from Bose, those that might be a matter of taste. One thing that’s not up for debate: it supports the newest AptX protocol for high-quality audio on devices that are compatible. And if you’re running low on juice and in a hurry, a 15-minute quick charge can give you a massive six hours of playback.
But this headphone is a lot pricier than many, and for the extra money I’d expect to see some additional amenities, like an EQ control in the mobile app. That said, one thing it does which is welcome is auto-play and and pause your selected music when you put on and take off the headphones.
7. Jabra Elite 85h Noise Cancelling Headphones
- 36 hours battery life
- Excellent ANC
- Auto-play and pause
- Sound quality good but not great
- No aptX support
- Assistants aren’t hands-free
Earcup design: Over-ear | Weight: 10.4 ounces | Battery life: 36 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: USB-C
Jabra is having something of a Renaissance right now, with some best-in-class earbuds (the Jabra Elite 65t and Elite 75t) and these noise-canceling headphones, the Jabra Elite 85h. The Elite 85h is a thoroughly modern set of headphones, with features and capabilities that would probably not have been possible a few years ago. Consider the noise-canceling tech, for example — Jabra says the AI-powered automatic “SmartSound” feature is designed to be able to detect more than 6,000 unique sound characteristics and model a customized noise-canceling response for each, resulting in a smart, auto-adaptive ANC. While it’s true that the noise canceling is excellent, it’s hard to say if it’s better than Bose. But it certainly is playing in the same ballpark, which is quite a compliment for headphones that cost quite a bit less.
In addition to excellent noise canceling, the headphones simply sound wonderful when playing back music as well, with an overall balanced sound that’s perhaps a little too full on the bottom, resulting in some harsh bass with certain kinds of music. Thankfully, that’s easily adjustable with the EQ settings in the mobile app. And I love the fact that these headphones automatically play and pause when you put them on or take them off.
You can count on getting about 36 hours of runtime between charges, and there’s a 15 minutes-for-5-hours quick charge mode as well. You control the headphones from an array of buttons on both cups; there’s noise canceling on the left and a mute/voice assistant button the right — you can invoke the voice assistant from your phone with a tap. You can also control volume and tracks from here.
8. Sony WH-1000XM3
- Excellent sound quality
- Touch control and gestures
- 30 hours battery life
- Very pricey
- Lacks some high-end features for the price
- No EQ controls
Earcup design: Over-ear | Weight: 9 ounces | Battery life: 30 hours | Wireless protocol: Bluetooth 5.0 | Modes: Wired and wireless | Charging port: USB-C
The Sony WH-1000XM3 was the first modern headphones to truly challenge Bose’s dominance in noise-canceling headphones. Sony got an awful lot right here, though at the same time, it seems like the company decided to lean into Bose’s boring design and make them look mundane and plastic. In fact, there’s not a lot to say here about the design — it’s forgettable, though the earcups swivel for a good fit and are well-padded for comfort.
There are a couple of buttons on the ears for power, voice assistance and noise canceling, though the media controls (such as volume and tracks) are handled with gestures — the right cup has a touch control. Swipe up and down or left and right. The WH-1000XM3 has one other cool trick up its sleeves: Hold your hand over the right ear to mute your music and enter transparent mode, so you can hear what’s happening in the real world or have a conversation. When you take your hand away, the music automatically resumes with noise-canceling back to normal.
Speaking of noise canceling, these headphones definitely give Bose a run for their money, offering among the best ANC you can buy today at any price. When you look at models like the Bose 700, the Sony WH-1000XM3, and the Jabra Elite 85h, it can be hard to declare a winner, but clearly you will not be disappointed with the Sony. These headphones also hit it out of the park on overall audio quality, though weirdly it doesn’t support aptX Bluetooth for high-fidelity music.
Finally, Sony packs in 30 hours of runtime on a charge, and the USB-C connector lets you get 5 hours of music from a fast 10-minute charge.
How noise cancelling headphones work
While passive noise-canceling headphones — headphones which block or muffle outside noise through the use of materials that absorb noise before they can reach your ears — have been around for many years, active noise cancellation is a more modern phenomenon. Bose popularized the technology, introducing the first headphones with noise-canceling tech in 2000, but now there are dozens of headsets that all work more or less the same way.
Sometimes called ANC (active noise cancellation), it relies on tiny microphones to measure ambient sound. The headphones invert the waveform and feed it into the headphone’s speakers, which results in silence.
Actually, there are two main versions of ANC in use today: “Feedforward” and “feedback.” Feedforward uses microphones outside the headphones to measure sound around you and then inverts that signal to essentially make it disappear. The alternative, called feedback, assumes that most of the sound is blocked passively, and only tries to measure and reverse the remaining ambient sound that’s inside the earcup. Often low-intensity noise-canceling uses the feedback system, and if you dial it up to its higher setting, it switches to feed forward.
What to look for in noise-cancelling headphones
There was a time when the best noise-canceling headphones were wired. These days, due to improvements in wireless technology and evolution in the Bluetooth protocol, wired ANC headphones have largely disappeared. In this roundup of the best 11 noise-canceling headphones, exactly zero of them are wired. Nonetheless, virtually any wireless headset can also be used in wired mode, such as if the battery dies or you’re trying to plug it in on a plane. So the wired vs. wireless question is largely irrelevant these days.
A more important criteria: Are the headphones on-ear or over-ear? That’s what it sounds like; on-ear headphones have smaller earcups and rest on your ears, while over-ear completely envelop your ear. That seals your sound from the outside more effectively and can be a lot more comfortable.
Newer ANC headphones are generally a smarter buy than older models since they’ll feature newer Bluetooth versions, support for high-fidelity aptX protocol, and USB-C charging. Most headphones that can charge from USB-C can also quick-charge — in just a few minutes, they’ll give you hours of playback time. Older micro-USB headphones can’t move electric current fast enough fore that. Also keep an eye open for other features, like sensors that pause the music or put the headphones to sleep automatically when you take them off.
The Best Value in Noise-Canceling Headphones
Just a few years ago, the answer to “which noise-canceling headphones should I buy” would have been “Bose. Buy Bose. Next question?” But the world has changed a lot, and ironically, Bose gets a lot of the credit. By popularizing noise canceling tech and making high quality ANC headphones available to consumers, it has opened the floodgates for others.
Let’s start with budget-priced headphones. Yes, you can get quality noise-canceling headphones for under $100, and while TaoTronics and Anker have some cheaper alternatives, I would highly recommend committing $100 to the cause and getting the AKG N60NC, which has the best combination of sound quality and features. If you can’t live with on-ear headphones, though, go for the Anker Soundcare Life Q20.
If you want to split the difference between budget pricing and premium sound quality, there’s only one choice: the Jabra Elite 85h. It sounds wonderful, has an excellent array of features, and gives long-time champion Bose a run for its money.
If money is no object, the Sony WH-1000XM3 has surpassed Bose in most ways (albeit only by a little), with a real stunner of a headset. But it’s worth closely comparing it to the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which is a real contender as well.