We've recently tested 13 new pairs of noise-canceling headphones, and while we still love the Bose QuietComfort 35 II, we have named the Sony WH-1000XM3 as our new favorite. We'll be updating this guide in the coming days with additional headphone reviews.
Nothing ruins a commute, flight, or quiet evening at home quite like the sounds of trains, jet engines, and noisy roommates. Fortunately, noise-canceling headphones are here to save the day: They use microphones and clever software to silence much of the world around you.
You’ll pay a premium price for noise-canceling headphones, but in return for your hard-earned money is nothing short of amazing: While they can’t eliminate all of the noises, the decibel level of whatever aural assault is being thrown at you is diminished to a bare minimum—letting you instead focus and enjoy your favorite music, audiobooks, or podcast. Wearing a pair, even if it’s only for a few minutes a day, is a great way to carve out a little bit of privacy for yourself in this loud, bustling world.
After weeks of research and testing in a laboratory environment and under real-world conditions, we discovered the Sony WH-1000XM3 (available at Amazon for $348.00) are the best noise-canceling headphones out there. That said, if noise cancellation isn't a top priority for you, we've also tested and reviewed many other of the best headphones, focusing on in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear models.
Among the 22 noise-canceling headphones we reviewed for this guide, here's how the top 10 scored, in order:
Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II
Phiaton BT 150NC
Phiaton BT 120NC
JLab Audio Flex ANC
Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2
Anker Soundcore Space NC
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0
Beats Studio 3 Wireless
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Sony’s WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Headphones are expensive, but you won’t be disappointed with your purchase. The active noise-cancellation technology blocks out a variety of sounds at varying decibel levels. Sony allows the headphones’ users to customize the level of noise-cancellation they experience: This lets you hear as much—or as little—of the world around you as you desire.
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 ambient sound to walk down the street with a modicum of situational awareness or hear an announcement on a train platform. All of this tweaking is done via Sony’s Headphones Connect app, available from the iTunes App Store or, for Android device users, Google Play. Basic control over the headphones—turning the volume up or down or pausing or playing music—is conducted through touch controls embedded in the WH-1000XM3’s ear cups. 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.
Headphone manufacturers are typically aiming for either a flat or a curved sound profile. A curved profile is most common, and most curved profiles are trying 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.
A flat profile is usually found in "studio" headphones; the highs, mids, and bass tones have the same volume. However, as I just mentioned, we don't hear all tones at the same volume, so the bass notes sound softer, and the highs sound louder. Some people prefer studio headphones because of their audio fidelity—they are hearing the music exactly as the producers intended them to hear it. Also, as implied by the name, studio headphones are used in studio recordings to help mixers figure out what, if any frequencies, they should boost or reduce.
In addition to the more scientific testing, we also had our tester for this guide, Nicole Carpenter, wear each pair of headphones around town to get a sense for their features (like extra amps or noise cancellation) as well as short-and long-term comfort.
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, and I’d love to help you find peace and quiet in any setting.
Active Noise Cancelation vs. Passive Noise Cancelation
With headphones, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a process that minimizes outside sound by introducing a second sound that’s designed to cancel out unwanted outside noise. Passive Noise Cancellation (PNC), on the other hand, uses materials built into the headphones to muffle outside sound. Typically, PNC doesn’t work as well as ANC.
You should know that because active noise cancellation introduces additional sound into your headphones in order to eliminate outside audio, it can affect the sound quality of what you’re listening to. (When you turn on active noise cancellation without anything else playing, you can definitely hear the second sound.) Most noise cancellation headphones have an option to turn ANC on or off. So, if there’s a situation where you need the highest quality audio, you can have it.
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.
Other Noise-Canceling Headphones We Tested
Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II
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. We tested the Bose QC35 Series I; really the only difference between the series I and series II is that with the series II, you can also activate and command the Google Assistant.
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. Additionally, The price is steep. Read the full review of the QC35 Series II.
Like the Phiaton BT 120NC headphones, the BT 150NCs are a comfortable, clear-sounding option for in-ear headphone aficionados. They’re a bit heavier than the 120NCs, but still offer a minimal, sleek design that doesn’t feel heavy on the neck. That they ship with multiple ear cap options ensures a tight seal inside of the ear and a comfortable fit that didn’t cause discomfort after wearing them for a few hours. The tight seal helps with noise cancellation: say goodbye to office noise.
However, I found that the battery drains fairly quickly with active noise cancellation turned on. I got about five hours of use out of them with noise cancellation turned on. The good news, If you do lose power during the day, you can plug them into your audio source (provided it has a headphone jack) and continue using them, but without noise cancellation engaged.
Like their heavier sibling, the Phiaton BT150, the BT120 NC are designed as a sports product. While worn, I found that the BT120 were flexible and light enough to easily forget about. Volume and power controls are set on the headset’s neckband, making them easy to access. These in-ear style buds are ship with a number of sizes of ear caps, 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 highs the BT120 NC produce. Additionally, while their active noise cancelation is an improvement over what might be produced while using them passively, it doesn’t compare to the silence that our main pick offers up.
JLab Audio is a relatively new player in the headphones game, but they really impressed me with the JLab Audio Flex ANC Wireless. The flat sound profile will please audiophiles who want true music fidelity. Like the Bose QC35, the active noise cancellation on these headphones is unreal. When turned on, it sounds like all of the noise has been sucked out of the room. If I hadn't had my eyes open, I wouldn't have known that a train had arrived at my local train station. Walking on a quiet street with the ANC on feels like floating in outer space, for the amount of ambient noise that reaches your ears. Their 30-hour battery life is great for both long days of travel and shorter, more casual use throughout the week.
The headphones themselves are very comfortable, but are a bit heavier than the Bose QC35, and have an angled cushion at the top of the headband that tends to dig into the top of your skull after a few hours. Additionally, there have been reports of design flaws in the ear pads, which tear and break off easily. When they unfold, the cups snap out crisply, so be sure to watch your fingers so they don't get pinched.
The Flex ANC Wireless has a relatively low price for wireless headphones; you're getting a lot of bang for your buck.
We really liked the previous Plantronics Backbeat Pro, so it's probably not surprising that the next edition gets a big thumbs up as well. Like the QC35 and the Flex ANC, the Backbeat Pro 2 also has ANC, but it's less robust than the ANC on those headphones. It minimizes lower-pitched train rumbling, but other sounds are still audible. To some extent, this effect is intentional, since the Backbeat Pro 2 boasts an open-back setting that allows you to easily hear ambient noise, in addition to your tunes.
Another unusual feature is sensors that detect when the headphones are being worn, and when they've been taken off. In the latter case, the headphones "auto-pause", and turn back on once the headphones have been returned to your head. I noticed this myself; every time I put the headphones back on, I could hear the ANC turn back on. Some users were unlucky, however, and had defective units that would auto-pause when the headphones were still on their heads.
The sound profile is pretty flat, making it possible to hear your tunes without an extra emphasis on certain tones. I thought the call quality was great, but other users had trouble with the mute button (which would never un-mute).
The Backbeat Pro 2 are ridiculously comfortable; I had no issues with them after hours of use. If you like comfy headphones, a 24-hour battery life, and tech-y features, then these are the cans for you.
Usually, active noise cancellation (ANC) headphones have difficulty maintaining high audio quality, since, to some extent, your music has to compete with the noise-cancellation algorithm. At this price point, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9 headphones did a surprisingly good job at that maintaining that balance. The bass notes are definitely boosted, but not at the expense of the higher notes; you should be able to hear both. However, when the ANC is activated, you may notice that all of the tones sound a bit muted.
On the other hand, the active noise cancellation does a really solid job of blocking out the lower frequency tones, which will be really helpful when you don't want to hear trains rumbling or planes humming while you're in transit. 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. Read the full review.
The Anker Soundcore Space headphones are a relatively budget-friendly alternative to the Sony WH-1000XM3. They offer many of the same control features as the Sony pair, but for hundreds less. It’s a big difference in the budget, and it shows. Anker’s touch controls on the headphone cups are intended to allow easy access to the “play,” “pause,” and “skip” functionality. When they work as intended, they’re helpful. But I often found myself making accidental adjustments when my hand grazed the cup.
Sound-wise, these are surprisingly good. Music felt full, though bass was slightly lacking. These are comfortable, too—they didn’t squish my glasses into my head, but the cups didn’t particularly seal around them, which impacted the noise cancellation.
The Anker Soundcore Space NC headphones offer a lot of features that aren’t necessary. The features feel like a cheap version of the Sony’s, but they’re still a decent option for basic noise cancellation.
The Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 over-ear headphones have a lot of great things going for them: wireless pairing via NFC or Bluetooth, active noise cancellation, a 22-hour battery life, memory foam core earcups wrapped in leather, and two different cases (a hard-backed case and a soft pouch). With all of these premium features, though, expect to pay a premium price. That price may well be worth it to you if you want your next pair of headphones to have both a sleek design and convenient features.
The active noise cancellation (ANC) manages to block out considerable amounts of both higher-pitched and lower-pitched tones, which can really help you to focus when you're out and about in the world. We did notice that the sound profile, which mainly emphasizes the middle tones over the highs or the lows, could get a little fuzzy-sounding when it gets down to the bass, but unless you have especially sensitive hearing, it shouldn't be too noticeable. Even with these minor quibbles, we like the rest of the package enough that we'd definitely recommend the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 headphones to any friends of ours with disposable income. Read the full review.
Note: While we didn't have this problem, there have been reports of issues with the Bluetooth connectivity, so if you can, see if you can try a pair out before you commit to the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0 headphones.
Beats is perhaps one of the most (in)famous headphone brands around. The Studio 3 Wireless tries (and largely succeeds) in bridging the gap between a flat, studio-like audio profile (with a slight emphasis on bass) and a portable pair of headphones you can wear around town. 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.
These over-ear headphones are huge. If you're looking to reproduce the studio headphone experience with no wires, look no further. The Blue Satellite have both the heft and the flat audio profile (with a slight emphasis on the highs) of your favorite studio headphones. In addition to active noise cancellation (which blocks some train rumble, but not all of it), the Satellite also has an AMP setting which instantly boosts the volume and presence of your music.
The Satellite is built with high-quality materials, cushy ear pads, and 24-hour battery life, so what's not to like? The three major issues are long-term comfort, the controls, and the price. The headphones are so heavy and so rigid that I had a headache a few hours of wearing them, and from the looks of the Amazon reviews, I'm not alone. The controls also do not give you audio feedback, so it's tough to tell when the headphones are actively pairing. Lastly, these cans are pretty pricey and will hurt most peoples' wallets, even if the price is somewhat understandable based on the build quality.
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 I 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 my biggest complaint with over-ear headphones.
Audio Technica is well-respected for its sound quality, and I’m happy to report that these headphones live up to the standard. Oftentimes with noise-canceling headphones, sound will be great with the option ticked off, but sound will get muddled when noise cancelation is activated. There’s a little of that here—there often is, even in high-quality headphones—but the sound is hardly compromised.
Costing slightly less than our favorite Sony headphones, they’re still expensive enough to be a competitor in the high-end market. As with many headphones these days, the ATH-ANC 900BT offer touch and swipe controls on their earcup. You can answer calls, change volume, and pause-and-play music. Thankfully, they’re a little less fiddly than some of the other options, like the Anker Soundcore Space headphones.
These are also a pair of over-ear styled headphones, so you’ll want to consider your own preference, too.
Of the budget headphones we tested for this guide, the Taotronics TT BH046 headphones are a clear winner. I was skeptical of the hundreds of overwhelmingly positive reviews for these headphones on Amazon, but they lived up to the promise. Despite using similar materials to other budget headphones, these don’t feel flimsy or cheap in the hand or on the head. One of the more annoying these for a cheaper pair of headphones is being able to feel and hear the set on your head while walking—these are near-silent and fade into the background, as a pair of headphones should.
Sound is about average, as you’d expect for a pair of headphones this cheap. Noise cancellation works surprisingly well, too. These work very well at blocking out talking—there are multiple times during testing where I was able to drown out even the busiest coffee shop.
The Mixcder E7 originally hails from the UK, and are among the cheapest wireless over-ear headphones I’ve ever seen. These lightweight headphones are aiming for studio-grade sound, and have a very flat audio profile that only slightly emphasizes some of the higher-pitched tones you may listen to. Their volume range is a little bit lower than I was expecting. Lower volumes are great for preserving your hearing, but can diminish the immediacy and urgency of your music.
A nice perk is that, despite the low price, the E7 also has active noise cancellation. The ANC blocks out a lot of the lower-pitched humming (such as that of an air conditioner) that you would hear during a commute or on an airplane. Higher-pitched engine noise, however, is still audible.
The ear cups are plush and comfortable, but the headband may dig into the top of your head after a few hours.
It’s very easy to switch the E7 from one Bluetooth device to another, and the inline microphone was strong enough so that both myself and the person on the other end of a phone call could hear one another. While there is no “pause/play” button on the headphones themselves, the button that do exist are large and easy to operate. Between the 20-hour battery life, the ANC, and the low, low price, these headphones are a great way to dip your toe into the waters of wireless over-ear headphones without forking over a lot of cash.
When it comes to noise cancellation, lots of people look to Bose to hand over the golden silence—and with good reason. Bose recently added its first compact option to an already well-loved lineup: The QC20i are active noise canceling earbuds that can absolutely crush the clamor of your everyday hustle and bustle.
Unfortunately, that level of amazing noise cancellation comes at a price, both in the form of its relatively high cost (especially for in-ears) and the fact that the formidable noise cancellation is powered by its own battery pack, which is at the end of the cable. You can still use the earbuds without the noise cancellation, but either way, because of the cumbersome battery pack, we don't recommend using these in an outdoor or athletic capacity. These are perfect if you need to block out noisy coworkers at your job or upset babies on an airplane. If noise-cancellation is your top priority, though, and you prefer earbuds, these ones won't let you down. Read the full review.
If you need a pair of headphones that have both ANC and can stand up to daily wear-and-tear, the ANC7bs are a great candidate. These mid-tier over-ear headphones have solid noise-cancellation that is better at blocking out higher-pitched noises, like conversation and trains shrieking, than they are at blocking out lower-pitched noises like A/C hum and the rumbling of an airplane. If you find lower-pitched ambient noise more intrusive, you might need to pass these by.
Additionally, the bass-heavy sound profile will have some listeners rejoicing and others straining to better hear the high, clear tones of instrumentals or vocals.
Whether you like the sound profile or not, though, these headphones come with a few great extras. Not only do they come with two removable cables, intuitive controls, two adapters, and a sturdy carrying case, but these headphones are also very durable, and will fit snugly on your head. If you treat them right, you might not need to buy another pair of noise-canceling cans for a while. Read the full review.
These over-ears have squishy, comfortable ear-pads that allow you to wear them for hours at a time without feeling like your head is in a vice. The controls are easy to operate and the battery life clocks in at about 30 hours. I was able to get a solid connection, even when I was a couple of rooms away from my device; my experience matches the reported range of about 30 feet.
The sound quality isn’t the best; in my experience, it was tough to hear the bass, but these headphones were great for music that emphasized the mids and the highs. If your use case is more “listening to the game” than “listening to moving classical music”, though, these headphones will work just fine.
While the headphones are lightweight, they’re also on the small side, so if you have a large head or big ears, you might find that these headphones are acutely uncomfortable.
To me, the most impressive part of these headphones was the noise cancellation. The ANC doesn’t really cancel noise out, so much as it boosts the volume of your music, but the seal of the headphones on my ears was good enough on these headphones that, without the ANC, I couldn’t hear a fire alarm going off in my building. A fire alarm! Amazing.
If you just want to try out ANC without making a serious investment, the MPow H5 are a good pair of starter headphones that get job done without any extra bells and whistles.
As a budget-priced product, the Mixcder’s E9 headphones can’t be compared against the higher-quality ones on this list because they just aren’t in the same class. But for the price, these are a decent option. Here’s the good news—these headphones sound fine, and there’s nothing that stands out as particularly bad. They just worked. One of the best ways to describe the sound is soft. Nothing is especially punchy or particularly exciting.
I had no problems with connectivity during my use, and noise cancellation worked as expected, too. I found these nice to use in a coffee shop, where there are a lot of different sound frequencies.
The biggest problem is that they feel fragile. It’s not like they’re going to snap in half, but you can feel the material quality or lack thereof.
Skullcandy’s Venue headphones have a great look—a classic, sleek design that’s minimal in appearance and reminiscent of the Beats line, but for a much cheaper price. I love that these have almost no noticeable branding, really solidifying that minimal feel. These are a bit more expensive than the other budget options, around a hundred more than the cheapest pair, yet they still feel distinctly like a budget option. These don’t feel as sturdy as some others at this price point, and like the Cowin E7s, I was able to hear these moving on my head, despite having noise cancellation turned on.
Sound, however, was pretty good, and better than average for a price point like this. The bass on these headphones is strong, but it wasn’t overpowering other sounds. As mentioned earlier, though, the noise cancellation is below average, allowing even the sounds of the headset moving on my head come through.
The Panasonic RP-HC800 over-ears are an expensive, sleek pair of headphones that utilize active noise canceling (ANC) technology. Unfortunately, the ANC, which is powered by a single AA battery in one of the ear cups, out-performs the audio fidelity. With the ANC activated, the Panasonic RP-HC800 easily eliminates the sound of babies crying or the rumble of an air conditioner. However, in an attempt to make the bass more audible, the sound profile minimizes the mid-range tones, making it more difficult for you to hear the parts of your music that carry the melody, such as notes from common instrumentals like a guitar or a trumpet.
Additionally, when playing music at high volumes, these headphones, despite their large ear pads, tend to leak that sound to the outside world. We recommend that you use these headphones when you're alone in a room, as your music may disturb other passengers in a quiet train car. These headphones have their issues, but if you're a bass-lover who needs to concentrate, the Panasonic RP-HC800 are a great fit. Read the full review.
The Cowin E7 noise-canceling headphones are a budget headset, priced at $60, and feel like it. While the design is OK, the materials feel cheap compared to the other options at this price point. You can feel that while wearing them, too. I found the headphones creaky while walking, and was surprised and displeased that the noise cancellation wasn’t able to drown that out. One of the things that’s so important about a pair of headphones is that you’re able to forget that they’re there while wearing them, whether that’s a fit that doesn’t put pressure on the head or add even more noise. These are fairly comfortable with regard to pressure, but it’s impossible to forget they’re there when they’re creaking with every step.
Likewise, I found that the wireless signal dropped out when I turned my head to the side, away from my smartphone playing music which was in the opposite pocket from the direction I turned.
Any pair of noise-canceling headphones have to be able to 1) block out ambient noise and 2) function as headphones that transmit music to your ears. The Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 do a pretty good job at both tasks, but there are some trade-offs. Without the ANC, the bass is really de-emphasized and sounds rather tinny and hollow. With the ANC, though, the reverse is true: the bass gets a boost, but the mids and high-mids are muddied and muffled.
On the other hand, these headphones have plush ear pads and a headband that doesn't feel like it's digging into your skull after a couple of hours. The controls are easy to use (even if you have to hunt around for the ANC button), and the ANC is powered by a single AAA battery. These headphones can't be used for wireless playback, but they can be used as wireless isolators (if you really need just peace and quiet) by removing the cable. For commuters who prioritize comfort and noise cancellation over audio fidelity, the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC70 are a solid investment. Read the full review.
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.