These days, noise-canceling headphones are a near necessity. Whether you’re trying to tune out the kids to finish a project or simply looking for some serenity, they can be a godsend for filtering out the many distractions in your life. While no pair of noise-canceling headphones can eliminate all of the noise around you, a pair with effective active noise cancellation (ANC) can drastically reduce it—just add music!
After testing countless pairs of headphones in our labs and real-world environments, we’re confident the Sony WH-1000XM4(available at Amazon for $348.00) are the best noise-canceling headphones right now. They offer a bounty of features, great sound, and top-notch noise canceling.
You might not even realize that Sony's recently released WH-1000XM4 over-ear headphones are great noise cancelers—what with everyone gabbing about how comfortable they are, and how great they sound, and what not. But despite the XM4 seeming to excel at everything, the noise-canceling shouldn't be overshadowed or overstated: it's some of the best we've ever tested.
Like our previous top canceler, the Sony XM3, the XM4 don't just cancel noise: they adapt to both your environment (read: changes in barometric pressure) and your movement/activity (sitting, walking, running, etc.) to intelligently and effectively block noise. Sony is so confident in the XM4's noise canceling abilities, the company sent a huge, noise-making box alongside our review sample as a kind of "stress test" for them. And that confidence is well-placed: the XM4 eliminate a ton of ambient noise, alongside being luxuriously comfortable and marvelously lightweight.
We're not saying these headphones are a "magic bullet," but really, they do kick a serious amount of butt. Even if you're a die-hard Bose fan, we'd encourage you to check these out if you get the chance. If they're a little too expensive for your budget, you'll be glad to know our previous #1, the Sony WH-1000XM3, is available at a much friendlier price these days.
I’m Nicole Carpenter, a freelance reporter, and reviewer who specializes in the tech and gaming industry. Before entering journalism, I worked in an open office, and I came to understand the real importance of noise-canceling headphones. I work from home now, but often find myself in crowded coffee shops, and noise-canceling headphones are still an important work tool. I’ve tried out a lot in my search for a perfect pair of headphones, and I’d love to help you find peace and quiet in any setting.
Other contributors to this article include Reviewed's Home Theater Editor, Lee Neikirk, and our Electronics Managing Editor, Ryan Waniata.
Using our head and torso simulator (HATS), Reviewed's Senior Scientist, Julia MacDougall, put the headphones featured in this guide through a battery of tests: frequency response, distortion, tracking, leakage, and both active and passive noise attenuation.
Headphone manufacturers are typically aiming for either a flat or a curved sound profile. A curved profile is most common and can be used to try to replicate the Equal Loudness Curve (ELC). The human ear hears higher tones more easily than it hears the bass tones, so for a human to perceive highs and lows at a similar volume, the headphones boost the volume of the lows, and moderate the volume of the highs. Other headphones boost frequencies at different levels to create a distinctive sound signature, such as bass-forward headphones.
A flat profile is usually found in "studio" headphones; the treble, midrange, and bass tones are presented at similar volume levels. Studio headphones are designed to reproduce music exactly as it was recorded and, as the name implies, they're most commonly used in studio control rooms to help mixers figure out which frequencies they should boost or reduce.
In addition to the more scientific lab testing, we also wear each pair of headphones around town to get a sense of their features (like noise cancellation and transparency mode), sound quality, as well as short-and long-term comfort.
Active Noise Cancellation vs. Passive Noise Cancellation
With headphones, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a process that minimizes exterior sound by using small microphones to analyze the frequencies and then flip their polarity to "cancel" them out. Passive Noise Cancellation (PNC), on the other hand, uses materials built into the headphones to muffle outside sound. A strong mix of both is generally preferred to create the most effective noise cancellation.
Because active noise cancellation may introduce additional sound when engaged, it can affect the sound quality of what you’re listening to (though this is becoming less of an issue with many newer models). Most noise cancellation headphones have an option to turn ANC on or off, while more advanced models allow for different levels of cancellation to adjust for the scenario and environment.
In-Ear vs. On-Ear vs. Over-ear
You've probably seen a bunch of different headphones in your everyday life, but what you may not realize is that headphones, while they have a number of different selling points, are primarily categorized into three types: in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear. These types include everything from bulky over-ear models to tiny true wireless earbuds that easily fit in the palm of your hand. While still available, on-ear headphones, which utilize earcups that sit atop your ears rather than over them, are becoming less common in today's market.
Other Top Noise-Canceling Headphones We Tested
Sony’s WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones have perhaps been replaced in spirit by the newer WH-1000XM4, but they're still an excellent choice for noise canceling. The active noise-cancellation technology blocks out a variety of sounds at varying decibel levels, and you can customize the level of noise-cancellation you experience. This lets you hear as much—or as little—of the world around you as you desire. And, just as importantly, the sound quality is also superb.
The level of aural tweaking that the WH-1000XM3 allow for is impressive. By playing with the WH-1000XM3’s ambient sound and adaptive sound control features, it’s possible to, for example, block out the wall of sound experienced when riding on public transit, but still be able to pick out enough an announcement for the next stop. All of this tweaking is done via Sony’s Headphones Connect app, available from the iTunes App Store Google Play. Basic control over the headphones—turning the volume up or down or pausing or playing music—is done through touch controls on the WH-1000XM3’s earcups. Despite being so feature-rich, these headphones are still incredibly user-friendly.
The WH-1000XM3 are a great pair of all-around headphones that meet every need: they sound great, fit well and provide a number of luxury features that you never knew you wanted until you put a pair of them on for the first time. And now that they've been "dethroned," they're more affordable than they've ever been. If you don't want to drop hundreds on the XM4, these are a snap pick.
Bose has a devoted following, and with a pair of headphones like the QuietComfort 35 Series II, that's not surprising. The active noise cancellation (ANC), for which Bose is renowned, cuts out a wide range of noises from deep train rumbling to higher-pitched A/C humming. The headphones are light and comfortable enough that they can be worn for hours at a time, although you may notice some heat or sweat build up from where the cushy leather pads meet the sides of your head. The 20-hour battery life is also a huge selling point.
One tricky point is that, should you decide you don't want to use the ANC (for safety reasons or otherwise), you'll have to plug in and use them as wired headphones, since the Bluetooth switch doubles as the ANC on/off switch.
While Bose has since launched a new set of ANC-equipped cans, the Bose 700s, our review units exhibited a number of Bluetooth connectivity issues that made them hard to recommend over the still-available (and more affordable) QC 35 II.
Apple's AirPods Pro offer everything we love about the original AirPods, and a whole lot more. Their sound quality is better than any pair of Apple earbuds before them, they offer proper water-resistance, and their noise-canceling is surprisingly good. These are also the first Apple-brand earbuds with swappable silicone tips for a better fit, including a convenient, snap-away design.
At 4.5 to 5 hours per charge, battery life is one of the few knocks against these headphones (some competitors offer 10 hours or more per charge). That said, their tiny case holds multiple recharges for 24 hours of total listening time, and its quick-charging feature serves up an hour of listening in just five minutes, so you'll rarely need to worry about dead earbuds.
In our testing, the AirPods Pro’s noise cancellation stood up well when compared to pricier noise-canceling headphones, while their Transparency Mode sounds extremely natural, allowing you to comfortably filter in sounds around you when needed. They also offer impressive call quality, even in windy situations, thanks to advanced digital signal processing.
The AirPods Pro aren’t cheap, but their improved sound and impressive noise-canceling—along with their ultra-convenient design–makes them worth it for those who appreciate a great experience (and are willing to pay for it). Whether you’re working from home or hitting the road, these earbuds are a great companion for all your sonic adventures.
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 are essentially the true wireless earbuds version of the top-rated WH-1000XM3 headphones, and the apple didn't fall far from the tree. While pricey, the WF-1000XM3 offer whisper-quiet active noise cancellation, clear and detailed sound, and impressive features to boot.
Their battery life outdoes the AirPods Pro, offering 6 hours per charge with noise cancellation on, and 8 hours without it. In addition, their accompanying app provides granular control over their noise cancellation and transparency mode, helping you dial in exactly what you want to hear–and what you don't. Downsides of these earbuds include a somewhat obtrusive design (they stick out a fair bit from your ears) and a lack of any real water resistance. The charging case is also a lot bulkier than Apple's.
That said, a robust collection of features and brilliant sound quality easily place the WF-1000XM3 among our favorite true wireless earbuds on the market. If you’re looking for the premium experience offered by Sony's stellar over-ear model, but in a tiny, wireless design, these are the earbuds you need.
Panasonic finally jumped into the true wireless earbuds game with three new offerings, including the budget-friendly RZ-300W, and the Posh EAH-AZ70W, which bears the Technics name adored by audiophiles. But it’s the middle child, the RZ-S500W, that won our hearts thanks to great sound and top-notch noise canceling at a price that easily undercuts Sony and Apple.
True wireless earbuds (those without any wires) are increasingly adding active noise cancellation (ANC), but most flavors we've tried serve as an afterthought at best. Not so with the RZ-S500W. While no earbuds can kill all the noise around you, these beauties provide powerful noise cancellation across frequencies to whisk your sonic troubles away, whether they're barking dogs, screaming kids, or buzzing fans.
And that’s not all we love about the RZ-S500W. As mentioned, sound is impressive, with a clear and relatively flat sound signature that gives music of all genres its due. Plus, panasonic’s loaded app lets you adjust everything from EQ to noise cancellation and transparency mode (AKA ambient sound mode) so you can choose exactly how much environmental sound you let in or keep out. Just about the only feature the S500W don’t have is auto-pause, which is pretty handy for moments when you want to take a quick break, but definitely not a deal breaker.
With around 6 hours of playback per charge, the RZ-S500W sit right between their two biggest competitors in the ANC earbuds space, the AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3, but their charging case only holds two charges, meaning you’ll have to top it off more frequently than their rivals. In addition, while the RZ-S500W are quite comfortable, fit can be tricky due to their somewhat bulky design. Even when we got them properly sealed, they continued to jostle during jogging or other rigorous activities, making them much better for the office (home or otherwise) than the gym.
On the bright side, unlike Sony’s WF-1000XM3, the RZ-S500W offer solid water resistance (IPX4) to combat the elements. Add that to the fact that their sound quality and noise canceling are on par with the best in the business, and the Panasonic RZ-S500W earbuds may be the ANC steal of the year.
New for 2020, the Sony WH-CH710N are kind of like a more affordable set of our top-rated WH-1000XM3. They're considerably less expensive, but still deliver a lot of the same great features.
With the WH-CH710N, you're still getting decent noise-canceling, good sound, wireless/Bluetooth, and a comfortable over-ear form factor. These are billed as "travel headphones," and their 35-hour battery life suggests that billing is accurate.
They're not quite as premium and downright awesome as the pricier WH-1000XM3s, but for what you're paying, you could do a lot worse. They cancel enough noise to be reliable commuting headphones, and with battery life like that you won't have to charge them more than once every week or two.
Like their heavier sibling, the Phiaton BT150, the BT120 NC are designed as a sports product. The BT120 are flexible and light enough to easily forget about while in your ears.
Volume and power controls are set on the headset’s neckband, making them easy to access. The earbuds ship with a number of sizes of ear tips, allowing for a tight seal to aid in noise cancelation and a precise fit.
These are a great option for general music or podcast listening while commuting or working out, but serious audiophiles will likely be a bit disappointed in the treble. Additionally, while their active noise cancelation is an improvement over what might be reproduced while using them passively, it doesn’t compare to the silence our higher picks offer.
Some headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) have difficulty reproducing high-quality audio, since, to some extent, your music has to compete with the noise-cancellation algorithm. The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 headphones do a surprisingly good job maintaining that balance, especially for their price point. The bass notes are definitely boosted, but not at the expense of the upper register for good balance. However, when the ANC is activated, you may notice that detail is muted slightly.
On the other hand, the active noise cancellation does a really solid job blocking out the lower frequencies, which is helpful when you don't want to hear trains rumbling or planes humming while you're in transit, or fans and air conditioners humming while you're at home. If you're curious about ANC, these are a good pair to try out; they'll give you a taste of active noise cancellation without breaking the bank.
Beats is one of the most (in)famous headphone brands around. The Studio 3 Wireless try (mostly successfully) to offer a compromise between the notable bass-forward sound signature for which the brand is known and balanced frequencies above. The active noise cancellation makes a significant dent in both train rumbling and A/C hums alike. The W1 chip also makes pairing nearly instantaneous with any Apple or iOS device.
The Studio 3 Wireless headphones are very comfortable in the short term but can squeeze your head and cause immense heat/sweat build-up in the long run.
Between the 22-hour battery life, solid noise cancellation, and sleek aesthetic, it's understandable why some people are willing to drop a lot of cash on these headphones, which serve a dual purpose as a pair of headphones and a fashion statement.
Sennheiser’s PXC-550 noise-canceling headphones offer a slightly lower price than some of the other higher-end headphones on the list without sacrificing quality. What we liked most about these is the sound quality and sleek, light feel. When it comes to sound, the headphones are clear and sharp, even with noise cancelation switched on. When noise cancelation is on, these do a pretty good job of blocking out human sounds, but traffic noise came through, still.
But where these really stand out is in comfort. They fit nicely on the head—they fit close, but they’re not tight. With glasses, the cups don’t put too much pressure on frames, something that’s often a big complaint with over-ear headphones.
Like their predecessor, Plantronics' Backbeat Pro 2 get kudos for their clear sound, comfy fit, and impressively low price point. Noise cancellation that's just so-so keeps them out of our top-ranked choices, but otherwise they're a great budget option. Get the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 at Amazon.
Sennheiser's Momentum Wireless 2.0 may be getting long in the tooth, but these headphones still offer gorgeous sound, a stylish design, up to 20+ hours of battery life, and decent-not-amazing noise cancellation for their reduced price. Get the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 at Amazon.
The Blue Satellite are among the most unique headphones you'll find, providing rich and zesty performance and solid noise cancellation. The Satellite's main issue is hard clamping force, which can make them difficult to wear for long periods, but there's no denying the gorgeous sound they serve up. Get the Blue Satellite headphones at Amazon.
The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC900BT provide flagship-level sound quality and impressive noise cancellation to go along with a comfy ride and understated style. While pricey, if you can find them on sale, they're definitely worthy of consideration. Get the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC900BT at Amazon.
The Skullcandy Venue Wireless ANC impress with their business-like design and above-average sound quality. Though noise cancellation is lacking and they feel a bit cheap, if you can get them on sale, they're worth checking out. Get the Skullcandy Venue Wireless ANC at Amazon.
The Reviewed staff is based in the heart of Cambridge, MA. Backed by our knowledgeable writers and rigorous test labs, we're working hard to make sure you can make the right decisions about what to buy.
Nicole Carpenter is a reporter and reviewer based out of Massachusetts. For the past few years, she’s specialized in the technology and gaming sectors, reviewing a number of different headphones with a specialty in gaming gear.
We use standardized and scientific testing methods to scrutinize every product and provide you with objectively accurate results. If you’ve found different results in your own research, email us and we’ll compare notes. If it looks substantial, we’ll gladly re-test a product to try and reproduce these results. After all, peer reviews are a critical part of any scientific process.