Noise-cancelling headphones aren't just for travel, they will isolate you from all sorts of audio distractions so you can concentrate on your music. We'll guide you to the best models.
By TechHive staff and Theo Nicolakis
Rob Schultz / IDG
Noise-cancelling headphones are one of the most popular types of cans, and for good reason. They block out ambient noise that can distract from you enjoying your favorite tunes. While they’re particularly useful for air travel and daily commutes—especially via mass transit—they’re also great at isolating you from at-home noise pollution, whether that be the whoosh of your HVAC system, the whir of your computer’s cooling fans, or your neighbor’s lawn mower.
Updated on December 20, 2021 to add our Marshall Motif ANC true wireless headphone review. These in-ear headphones evoke the spirit of the rock-industry pioneer’s guitar amplifiers, but the homage is no mere gimmick. These headphones sound great and they’re comfortable to wear for long listening sessions—and that’s coming from a musician who typically doesn’t like earbuds.
Noise cancellation can be accomplished in two ways: Through active or passive measures. Our focus here is on the former. The latter isn’t isn’t a technology per se; rather, it refers to how much ambient noise a headphone will physically block. Closed-back over-ear headphones and in-ear headphones with memory-foam tips offer the best passive noise cancellation. You’ll find our reviews of all types of headphones here.
Headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) identify sound waves associated with noise and electronically generate an inverse sound wave that cancels it out. Here’s what we mean: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond, then introduce ripples of the opposite pattern, and you’ll smooth the pond’s surface. Active noise cancellation (ANC) works in a similar manner. Microphones mounted on the headphone analyze ambient sound waves and then produce inverse sound waves that will cancel them out.
As you might expect, the ANC technologies from some manufacturers are incredibly effective; others, less so. We’ve tested models from AKG, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, Libratone, and Sony and found them to be very good.
Adaptive noise cancellation is the most sophisticated type of ANC. It operates on the same principles, but adapts to your surroundings to apply more or less of the effect and to even bring in sounds from the outside world.
Some adaptive noise-cancelling solutions even take into account how fast you’re moving, the air pressure around you, and whether you’re likely in a plane, taking a walk, or holding a conversation. Many operate in conjunction with a mobile app on your smartphone.
Some individuals find that ANC headphones exert pressure on their ears, creating a similar sensation to being under water. If you find ANC headphones to be uncomfortable, you’ll prefer a model with good passive noise cancellation. That type of headphone deliver other benefits, too: They’re the least likely to color the music you’re listening to, and they don’t need batteries. On the other hand, not all headphones with passive noise cancellation are wireless.
Sony didn’t do a lot to change its approach to noise-cancelling headphones—because it didn’t need to. Its earlier WH-1000XM3 headphones are fantastic, and these next-generation can are even better. If noise cancellation is an important feature for you, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the absolute best headphone you can buy.
Bowers & Wilkins introduced its PX7 noise-cancelling headphone in 2019, but this Carbon Edition is brand new this year and features a new finish and an even prettier design. Sonically accurate active noise-cancelling headphones might sound like an oxymoron, but leave it to the engineers at B&W to pull it off. All that said, plenty of buyers will stick with Sony’s WH-1000XM4—and not just because they cost less.
It’s hard to believe how inexpensive these noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones are, but that’s par for the course for Wyze Labs, a company that never seems to fail to package the most bang for the buck in every product they make. While their audio quality doesn’t compete with the higher-end models, and they might not be as durable as some of the more expensive brands, you won’t be too upset if they break and need to be replaced after a few years.
Sony and Bose might win in terms of their active noise cancelling tech, but Bang & Olufsen comes close while blending stupendous audio performance with technology that gamers—especially Xbox and Windows gamers—won’t find anywhere else. And they wrap it all in an exquisite package of leather, lambskin, and aluminum.
We’re adding coverage of true wireless headphones to our repertoire and starting off with a bang: Bowers & Wilkins’ PI7 in-ear headphones deliver phenomenal performance, they support Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive audio codec, and their charging case can act as a Bluetooth transmitter, so you can listen to music from almost any source, including a NAS box on your network. We tested it using a Roon Nucleus and a MacBook Pro, among other devices.
Our latest active noise-cancelling headphone reviews
We’ll update this list as new models arrive for evaluation.