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Noise-Cancelling Headphones Review
The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Our top pick for the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones is the Sony MDR-1000X. These headphones had the highest noise-cancellation rate and the best sound quality in our testing, and they have a pillow-soft design. They performed well across all of our noise-cancelling tests and blocked the most decibels without sacrificing sound quality.
Another pair of Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones that stood out in our evaluation is the Sennheiser HD 1 Wireless. We’d expect nothing less than the best from world-renowned Sennheiser, and it delivers with advanced noise cancellation, a lightweight design and stellar sound quality. The HD 1 Wireless headphones were a fan favorite for overall sound quality among our reviewers.
Lastly, the Bose QuietComfort 35 ranked as one best pairs of noise-cancelling headphones across the board. While it was never named the winner in any particular test, it was always in the top three for comfort, quality, noise-cancelling, battery and everything else. The QuietComfort 35 are one of the best all-around pairs of noise-cancelling headphone.
Why Buy Noise-Cancelling Headphones
When all you want to hear is the sound of your own music, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones is an excellent asset. These headphones block out noises like loud traffic, airplane engines and the raucous typing fingers of your coworkers. The best ones enhance your listening experience by doing more than just cancelling noise. Some benefits include better ear health, as you won’t have to play music at high volumes to drown out noise; better sleep quality and less fatigue, especially if you snooze in public while traveling; and improved emotional well-being, as extraneous noises, particularly those in low frequencies, are scientifically proven to be detrimental to your mood.
How We Tested Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Specs tell you very little about how well a particular pair of headphones works or sounds. We tested all the headphones we reviewed in our lab’s sound-proof studio to get a better idea of their quality. A group of expert reviewers, including a film maker, rock musician, audiophile and others, listened to each pair and assessed overall quality and noise-cancelling ability.
Headphone manufacturers are very reluctant to post noise-reduction ratings. Consumers often see skewed ratings from testing performed in the best-of-the-best conditions, and they are not entirely accurate for real-world scenarios. Because of this, we did our own noise-cancellation testing.
Reviewers listened to “Buddy Holly” by Weezer on a loop through the headphones at a comfortable real-world volume of 60 decibels.
Simultaneously, we played four different destructive noises through a sound bar: a lawnmower, a plane taking off, a noisy office space and a crowded restaurant.
We raised the sound bar’s volume, while measuring the output with a decibel reader, until the reviewers indicated they could hear outside noise.
We performed this test with and without Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) and recorded the differences in decibels cancelled.
With ANC on, more noise is cancelled, but what really matters here is by how much. For instance, headphones like the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless cancelled on average 13.5 more decibels with ANC on than with it off, while models like the Parrot Zik 3 cancelled only 2.3 more decibels.
We also found that the design of the ear cups matters, even with ANC turned off, as the headphones that cancelled the most noise with ANC on also cancelled the most without it, namely the Sony MDR-1000X headphones and the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b headphones. The Plantronics BackBeat PRO2 and the Parrot Zik 3 both cancelled the least amount of noise, regardless of whether ANC was on or off.
Secondly, we noted which headphones canceled the most noise overall. The best ones we reviewed cancelled up to 84 decibels. Here’s an idea of how loud that is in the real world:
30 dB – Whisper
50 dB – Office space
70 dB – Dishwasher
80 dB – Alarm clock
90 dB – Lawn mower
100 dB – Rock concert
Keep in mind there was 60 dB of music playing through the headphones, so the noise reduction wasn’t a straight cut. If you plan on wearing your headphones on the subway or while sitting at your desk listening to music, those that performed well in our tests are the best ones for you.
Sound Quality Test
Our panel of reviewers also evaluated the headphones’ sound quality. We played them a playlist comprised of music from a variety of genres. They listened for deep bass and crisp trebles, then scored the headphones for overall performance. If the bass wasn’t sturdy enough in a Beastie Boys song, the headphones scored low. If the overall sound was detailed and textured in a Jonny Cash recording, they scored high. We paid particular attention to how ANC affected sound quality – you can often hear a slight buzzing or white noise, and it can be disruptive between songs or in quiet melodies.
As we listened for differences in sound quality between Bluetooth and wired connections, as well as active and passive noise-cancelling, we found very little variance. This is a surprising testament to how far Bluetooth has advanced the last few years. However, we did notice a volume uptick with ANC turned on versus when it was turned off, which can be annoying when you switch back and forth.
The best wireless noise-cancelling headphones for overall sound quality are the Sony MDR-1000X, as the soundscape is balanced and has great bass, and you can’t hear the common buzz when ANC is turned on. By comparison, the Beats Studio Wireless headphones had way too much bass and the loudest ANC feedback.
Battery Life Test
To determine which noise-cancelling headphones are best for travel, we stress-tested each battery. We turned on Bluetooth and ANC and cranked the volume all the way up on a shuffled playlist. For headphones without Bluetooth, we just tested for ANC lifespan. A GoPro caught all the action as the headphones died and the battery indicators turned off.
The Parrot Zik 3 headphones died about two hours under the manufacturer estimate. Longer-lasting headphones, such as the Sony h.ear on Wireless NC, which lasted over 26 hours, are much better suited to travel and commuting as well as for those of us who have too many devices to charge already.
If a pair of headphones sound great and work great but don’t feel great, you’re not going to enjoy them. Part of the noise-cancelling headphone experience is drowning out the world around you, and you can’t do that with a headband-induced splitting headache. The best headphones are the lightest ones, and if they must be heavy, at least look for a pair with ultra-soft padding and ear cups.
We found the older Bose QuietComfort 25s were some of the most comfortable headphones. They weight just 69 ounces and have large ear cups, supple padding and a well-padded adjustable headband. Reviewers with large heads and those with small heads found that the Beats were significantly tighter and pinned down their ears, and all 12-plus pounds of the Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2s weighed down heavily on the crowns of their heads.
Our hands-on testing is designed to simulate typical, real-world experiences with noise-cancelling headphones. We received headphones either on loan or by purchasing them. The manufacturers have no input on our testing methodology, and our rankings are not shared with them prior to publication.
What Is Active Noise-Cancelling?
The best noise-cancelling headphones use Active Noise-Cancelling (ANC) technology to detect and eliminate sounds outside their ear cups. ANC uses many tiny sensors and electronics inside your headphones, all powered by battery.
How Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work:
- A microphone on the ear cup detects outside noise and calculates its frequency.
- Technology inside the headphones generate a counter frequency to cancel out the outside noise.
- This counter frequency plays through the headphone speakers into your ears and sounds like a gentle hum.
- Your music is then piped through the headphone speakers like normal.
Our noise-cancelling headphone review only features battery-powered models with active noise cancellation. This means they are not passive or noise-isolating headphones, which simply block noise based on the design and cushioning of the ear cups. We didn’t test noise-isolation or noise-cancelling headphones for kids, as those use mostly padding and materials to block noise instead of a battery.
If you’re looking for a pair of sound-cancelling headphones but aren’t ready to commit to active noise cancellation, there are a few other types that may work better for you. Bluetooth headphones have many of the same features, minus the actual noise cancelling. Their larger ear cups do help isolate noise, and wearing them around town or while traveling is extremely convenient because they’re wireless. The batteries in Bluetooth headphones last slightly longer than those in pairs with active noise cancellation technology but not quite as long as traditional wired headphones.
Another option, wireless earbuds, are a lighter alternative to noise-cancellation headphones. The in-ear design helps block some noise, and in many cases, they’re much cheaper than over-ear headphones. If you want to block out distractions while working out or at the gym, wireless earbuds are a better choice.
If you’re looking for more information about headphones in general or are interested in active noise-cancellation technology, check out our latest noise-cancelling headphone articles.
Key Headphone Features
In addition to ANC and sound quality, noise-cancelling headphones have other features to consider before you make a purchase. It’s extremely rare to find a pair of plain stereo headphones anymore since so many offer convenient design features and wireless capabilities.
Bluetooth Noise-Cancelling Headphones
The majority of headphones allow you to choose between wired + ANC, Bluetooth + ANC, wired without ANC or Bluetooth without ANC. A select few require you listen with Bluetooth + ANC at all times, even while plugged in, which really drains the battery.
Especially if you have an iPhone 7, you want the best noise-cancelling wireless headphones. That way, you won’t have to deal with a dongle or tangles and cords.
Weight & Design
Don’t pick a pair of headphones that weighs more than 12 ounces – they’ll hurt after just a few minutes of playback. Also, keep in mind cord length and consider whether you need an on-ear or inline remote. How and where you plan to use your headphones plays a big role in determining which are best for you. Different design elements matter more than others depending on if you will primarily use them on a plane, on a train or in the back of the campus library. Keep your listening environment in mind to help you choose headphones with design features that best allow you to listen to your music or audiobook for hours on end.