Freelance contributor, TechHiveSep 21, 2023 7:00 am PDT
Image: Rob Schultz / IDG
When you’re in the market for headphones, you’ll see that noise-cancelling headphones are becoming the most popular variety. There’s a good reason for that: 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.
Many people, on the other hand, don’t like active noise cancellation, believing that it compromises audio reproduction. Indeed, that was a much bigger problem a few years ago, and we’d encourage you to check out a modern set. Still not interested? No worries, you’ll find our top picks in conventional headphones at the preceding link.
Sony didn’t just refine its previous generation of noise-cancelling headphones, they redefined what was possible. The WH-1000XM5 are the finest noise-cancelling headphones Sony has ever made, and they’re the best noise-cancelling headphones we’ve ever reviewed. They’re supremely comfortable to wear for long listening sessions, they deliver unparalleled noise cancellation, and–most importantly–they sound absolutely fantastic. These are the noise-cancelling over-ear headphones to beat.
No support for surround sound formats, including Dolby Atmos
Slightly bulkier than the Sony WH-1000XM5 they compete with
Price When Reviewed:
Sony takes the crown in terms of whizbang features, support for surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and its own 360 Reality Audio, and superior active noise cancellation. But B&W’s cans sound every bit as good, and they’re certainly no slouch when it comes to active noise cancellation.
There’s a lot to love about Apple’s AirPods Max, including the elegant design, the best-in-class physical controls, the solid ANC, and the superb transparency mode. Most importantly, the sound is sublime. Then there’s the quirks, including the silly-looking and minimally protective Smart Case, Lightning instead of USB-C, no out-of-the-box wired listening, and so-so battery life. But if you’re deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem, the AirPods Max will be a thrill for your ears.
If you’ve got it, flaunt it–knowing that the lofty price Mark Levinson expects to fetch for its 5909 noise-cancelling headphones is justified by its performance and exquisite craftsmanship. These headphones sound as luxurious as they feel wrapped around your ears.
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.
Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds bring sonic immersion and engagement to an already solid in-ear audio foundation. To determine which are the be-all, end-all earbuds for you, we heartily recommend you compare them to the equally great Sony WF-1000XM5.
Sony’s new WF-1000XM5 don’t beat Bose in terms of active noise cancellation, and the second-gen Apple Airpods Pro have a better transparency mode, but Sony’s new buds come very close on both of those scores, some would argue that Sony’s audio reproduction is superior to Bose–we definitely think it’s better than Apple’s. And that’s our primary reason for recommending a headphone of any type. These earbuds have a marvelous set of other features, too. To determine which are the be-all, end-all earbuds for you, we heartily recommend you compare them to the equally great Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.
Android users envious of the tight integration that Apple AirPods Pro offer iPhone users will be overjoyed with the flawless integration and solid audio performance that Google delivers with its best in-ear noise-cancelling headphones.
The original AirPods Pro were pretty decent for their time, but the second-generation version tops the original in almost every way, boasting greatly improved sonics and bass response, twice the ANC, a new Transparency mode that blunts excessively loud exterior noises, better battery life, and a MagSafe-enabled carrying case that now works with Apple Watch chargers. Of course, the best AirPods Pro features will only work within the Apple ecosystem, which means Android users would be better off looking elsewhere.
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.