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Updated May 31, 2022 9:23 AM

If you still haven’t made the switch to noise-canceling headphones, I assure you the investment is well worth it. They’re a total game-changer and there are several reasons you owe it to yourself to get a pair of your own.

Imagine that you’ve finally saved up money to buy an overpriced plane ticket and enough leave to fly home. Now, all that’s between you and a relaxing vacation is a pair of three-hour flights, a one-hour layover, and — don’t forget — you need to be at the airport two hours early. That’s a lot of time to listen to people complain about the airplane not being at the right temperature or conduct hostage negotiations with their kids about which terrible airport food they’re going to eat.

Or maybe you’ve got some downtime in the barracks. You’d like to kick back with a movie or do some gaming with your friends, but your poor speakers can’t keep up with the rowdy neighbors on the other side of paper-thin barracks walls. Instead of blowing out your eardrums by cranking your earbuds up to 11, do yourself a favor and hit life’s mute button with a pair of the best noise-canceling headphones.

Our methodology

I spent several days researching how active noise cancellation works, what kinds of products are available, and how they stack up against each other. I avoided brands that rely on slick marketing and advertising to get the word out and focused on reputable manufacturers that have a strong track record of creating quality products. I also sought out audio expert analysis (like this extremely useful video from This Is Tech Today) to find testing methods that go far beyond what most people can produce. Condensing hours of research into one buying guide makes it possible for you to get all the important information in a matter of minutes. Consider this your cheat sheet to buying the best noise-canceling headphones out there.

Best Overall

Sony has had a string of winners on its hands with the WH-1000XM3, WH-1000XM4, and now the WH-1000XM5. The latest iteration packs even more processing power to deliver excellent audio with minimal interference from the outside world.

The magic behind the WH-1000XM5 comes from dual processors, Sony’s HD Noise Canceling Processor QN1 and Integrated Processor V1. Those two interpret sound information provided by eight microphones to accurately identify ambient noise, create a precise soundwave response, and deliver nothing but your chosen audio. Premium drivers and speakers create excellent sound quality that you can customize with an in-app equalizer. During phone calls, these headphones isolate your voice for clear communication, even when there’s distracting background noise. All contact points are wrapped in soft materials that make the WH-1000XM5 comfortable enough to wear all day.

It’s hard to nitpick these headphones, but it’s worth pointing out that there’s no protection against the elements. You’ll need to keep these high and dry to protect the more sensitive components. They also aren’t particularly portable, since they don’t fold up very well. Beyond that, it’s just a matter of price. If you want the best noise-canceling technology in headphones that sound great and fit like a glove, the answer is clear. The Sony WH-1000XM5 is the top gun for a reason.

Product Specs
  • Controls: Touch-sensitive
  • Battery life: Up to 30 hours (with noise cancelation)
  • Weight: 9 ounces
PROS

Cutting-edge noise cancelation processors

Full, realistic audio quality

Fine-tune the customizable equalizer settings

Extremely comfortable to wear for long periods of time

CONS

Top-of-the-line headphones aren’t cheap

Don’t fold to a very compact size

It’s hard to find noise-canceling headphones (worth buying) for less than $200. Some of the best noise-canceling headphones cost double that. No one is going to argue that the SoundCore Life Q30 from Anker is going to dethrone the best from Sony anytime soon, but these headphones do pack a punch that’s much bigger than the humble price tag suggests.

For just $80 (at the time of writing), you can get active noise-canceling headphones that sound good and are comfortable to wear. Not only does the Q30 knock down external distractions to deliver only the audio you want to hear, it lets you choose from three modes designed for travel, outdoor, and indoor use. Battery life is also impressive. The Q30 will last 40 hours with noise cancellation activated — that’s the best battery performance of any noise-canceling headphones on this list by 10 hours. You can even stretch battery life to 60 hours by turning off active noise canceling. These headphones also allow you to take calls via Bluetooth and interact with people around you using the Transparency mode.

As much as we love seeing these headphones at this price, they aren’t a replacement for premium alternatives. Anker’s noise-canceling processors are nowhere near as sophisticated as the ones offered by Sony or Bose. The depth and customization of audio tone aren’t on the same level, either. Still, if all you want to do is drown out commotion during your commute, workout, or day at work, these are an undeniable bargain.

Product Specs
  • Controls: Physical buttons
  • Battery life: Up to 40 hours (with noise canceling)
  • Weight: 0.58 pounds
PROS

Active noise canceling at a fraction of the cost

Surprisingly effective and comfortable, given the price

Long battery life with noise cancelation engaged

Multiple noise-canceling modes to suit your surroundings

CONS

Nowhere near the quality of the other picks on this list

Best for short-term use or less challenging environments

Honorable Mention

People use noise-canceling headphones for podcasts, remote work, and gaming, but lots of you probably just want to crank up your favorite playlist and take it with you everywhere. In that case, Sony has a great value proposition for music junkies in the WH-XB910N.

These noise-canceling headphones are designed for music first, with enhanced bass right out of the box. Feel the beat like your favorite artists intended, and use the Headphones Connect app to tweak the equalizer for a sound that’s custom-tailored for your ears. Sony’s Digital Sound Enhancement Engine even works to restore audio information that’s lost during the compression process of converting tracks into MP3 files. The Adaptive Sound Control cancels out ambient noise and remembers the sound profiles of your favorite locations to improve its noise-canceling accuracy.

The WH-XB9210N isn’t as advanced as the WH-1000 headphones higher up Sony’s product line, but battery life and comfort are comparable. Some users find that Sony headphones’ tone can be overly full or muddy, so be prepared to make small adjustments in the app’s equalizer. When you’re done, you’ll be able to listen to your favorite music anywhere without breaking the bank.

Product Specs
  • Controls: Touch-sensitive
  • Battery life: Up to 30 hours (with noise cancelation)
  • Weight: 9 ounces
PROS

Ideal for listening to music with full bass

Use the app to customize equalizer settings

Compatible with Google and Amazon voice control

Shares comfort features with the up-spec WH-1000XM4

CONS

Tone can be muddy with stock presets

Not as advanced as Sony’s XM line of headphones

Best for Gaming

If you want to upgrade your gaming experience, the Victrix Pro AF ANC noise-canceling headphones have your back. Being able to tune out distractions in your own house can be a serious advantage even if you don’t have to deal with challenges like a crowded airport or busy workplace.

Since these headphones are designed for use alongside your console or PC, they don’t need the same high-powered processors that raise prices on other noise-canceling headphones. Instead, Victrix uses four external microphones to reduce outside noise by about 70 percent. Unlike general-purpose alternatives, these headphones put the microphone on a boom to keep it near your mouth for clearer communication. Since gaming often lasts several hours, Victrix thought outside the box to enhance comfort. In addition to soft padding on the ear cups and headband, you’ll find vents that can be opened to increase airflow around your ears without interrupting sound delivery.

Because these headphones are so specifically tailored to gaming, they aren’t a great choice for other uses. The in-line controller is easy to see but it might not be what you want to use all the time. As long as you keep these noise-canceling headphones plugged into your gaming system, you’ll be golden.

Product Specs
  • Controls: Handheld controller
  • Battery life: Up to 20 hours
  • Weight: 11 ounces
PROS

Designed for gamers by gamers

Cooling vents allow airflow during extended use

Microphone boom enhances vocal clarity

Controls where you can see them

CONS

Noise canceling isn’t as good as our other picks

In-line controller may not be for everyone

There’s no denying that over-ear headphones provide better-quality audio than earbuds. That being said, there are absolutely times when we’d all prefer a light, portable set of earbuds. Whether you’re trying to travel light or get a good workout, Bose QuietComfort earbuds are what you need.

One of the biggest advantages over other earbuds is right in plain sight: The rubber insert is paired with a soft brace that holds each earbud steady on your outer ear. That means less strain on your ear canal and a reduced likelihood of your expensive headphones going flying mid-workout. Despite the compact size, you’ll still get advanced noise-canceling technology, quality speakers, and touch-sensitive control panels. An active equalizer constantly adjusts treble, mid, and bass tones to deliver quality audio regardless of what you’re listening to or what’s going on around you. QuietComfort headphones are also weather-resistant, so you can wear them outdoors with confidence.

The downside of these headphones has more to do with them being earbuds than specific flaws. Battery life is limited to six hours. Tiny touch panels require more precise input than the large sensors on external ear cups. The sound quality is great, but not what you’d get with a more comprehensive physical barrier. Compared to other noise-canceling earbuds, though, these are a home run.

Product Specs
  • Controls: Touch-sensitive
  • Battery life: Up to six hours
  • Weight: Less than one ounce
PROS

Much more secure fit than most earbuds

Cleans up outgoing audio during phone calls

Built to withstand weather and sweat

Comes with three insert sizes for an optimal fit

CONS

Drastically reduced battery life compared to over-ear alternatives

Small size makes touch control more difficult

Our verdict on noise-canceling headphones

Sony’s latest flagship model, the WH-1000XM5, is setting the bar high for the rest of the noise-canceling headphone market. Its excellent microphones, processors, and speakers make the comfortable headphones something to aspire to. If they’re out of reach, you can get active noise-canceling for a fraction of the cost with the Anker SoundCore Life Q30. Is there something we missed? Tell us about your favorite noise-canceling headphones in the comments section.

What to consider when buying noise-canceling headphones

Noise-canceling headphones are great, but they aren’t cheap. Before you hand over a sizable chunk of your most recent paycheck, there are a few considerations we think you should pay attention to. Once you know how noise-canceling headphones work and which features are available, you can make an informed decision so you only have to buy once.

Types of noise-canceling headphones

Active noise-canceling headphones

All noise-canceling headphones are active noise-canceling headphones. Without the active component, they’re just normal headphones with padding to block external sound. To understand how noise canceling works, we need to get a little bit technical.

Think back to the last time you sat in a crowded room. Everyone was probably talking at a normal volume, but the total sound level was much higher. That’s due to constructive interference, or sound waves adding to each other. Noise canceling works by listening to ambient noise and creating a sound wave that’s exactly the opposite and playing it through your headphone speakers. When the opposite waves combine, they eliminate each other through destructive interference.

Noise-canceling headphones work best when external sounds are consistent, like the steady hum you hear on an airplane, subway, or crowded room. The technology can only account for what it detects; it can’t predict what’s about to happen. That means noise-canceling headphones don’t work as well with sporadic, individual sounds. They can handle your vacuum, but might not account for someone knocking on the door.

As a side note, you might be wondering how active hearing protection works if this is the case. Remember that shooting ear pro only has to limit the volume of individual gunshots; it doesn’t eliminate the sound signature altogether. 

Noise-insulating headphones

Without active noise-canceling technology, the best headphones can do is insulate your ears from ambient noise with a physical barrier. Traditionally, this meant surrounding your outer ear with soft padding that creates a seal between your skin and an insulated cup. This is the same approach used to make over-ear hearing protection, but with the addition of a speaker in each ear cup.

Noise-insulating headphones are relatively affordable compared to active noise cancelation. They can also produce cleaner, more pure audio because they aren’t trying to compensate for exterior noises with additional sound waves. The downside is lackluster performance in loud environments that overpower the physical barrier.

Noise-canceling headphones key features

Active noise-canceling system

Active noise-canceling headphones use a microphone, computer chip, and speakers to deliver only the sounds you want to hear. First, your ears are effectively sealed off from the world either by over-ear cups or in-ear buds. An external microphone listens to the ambient noise around you while a computer chip analyzes its sound wave. The software allows the chip to create a mirror image of this sound wave. When played together through the headphone speakers, the two sound waves cancel each other out and create a minimal hum or hiss that you may not even hear.

This concept sounds simple enough, but it took Bose many years and millions of dollars to develop. Since the first publicly available noise-canceling headphones were released in 1989, other manufacturers have jumped on the technology and developed their own noise-canceling headphones. Like any tech gear, some are better than others.

Speakers

All headphones, noise-canceling or traditional, are built around speakers that create audible sound. Some are tiny enough to fit in earbuds, and others sit outside the ear. The quality of headphone speakers will determine how realistic your music, podcast, movies, or games sound.

In addition to delivering your desired audio, the speakers in noise-canceling headphones also need to play the soundwave the internal computer has matched to the sound around you. Sometimes, this destructive interference leaves behind a noticeable hiss. This undesirable byproduct is more prominent in cheaper noise-canceling headphones. In some situations, the best noise-canceling headphones don’t suffer from noticeable sound pollution.  

Ear cups or buds

All this technology gets wrapped up in ear cups that sit over your ears or earbuds that fit inside the ear canal. Most people find that over-ear headphones produce better audio, but they’re fairly bulky and heavy. Some people also don’t like the way they feel.

Earbuds are great because they’re light and portable. There’s a reason Apple AirPods and AirPods Pro sell so much better than AirPods Max. On the other hand, earbuds can irritate the ear canal after a while and some people get headaches from them. Earbuds also have a much shorter battery life due to their small size.

You’ll have to determine which works best for you, but headphones tend to work better for extended, stationary use; earbuds are better when you’re on the go.

Noise-canceling headphones pricing 

With the exception of the budget-friendly Anker SoundCore Life Q30, expect to pay at least $200 for good noise-canceling headphones. At the very top end of the price range are premium headphones that cost nearly $1,000, but $400 should be enough to get you an excellent pair like the Sony WH-1000XM5.

FAQs about noise-canceling headphones

You’ve got questions, Task & Purpose has answers.

Q: Are there headphones that block all sound?

A: No headphones are going to block all sound, but the best noise-canceling headphones do a pretty amazing job. You’ll be able to enjoy a movie or music at a comfortable volume even if there’s a ruckus going on all around you.

Q: Do noise-canceling headphones reduce sound quality?

A: In a quiet room, high-end traditional headphones have an edge. In the real world, the best noise-canceling headphones improve sound quality by cleaning up the sound waves that enter your ear. When your audio doesn’t have to compete with ambient noise, it comes through in much higher quality.

Q: What’s the difference between noise canceling and active noise canceling?

A: These terms refer to the same thing: headphones that use a microphone and chip to create soundwaves that are precisely opposite of those around you, leaving you with only the sound coming from your device. Without active noise canceling, headphones are just isolating your ears from ambient noise with a physical barrier.

Q: Are noise-canceling headphones worth it?

A: If you listen to any kind of audio in a busy area, noise-canceling headphones are absolutely worth it.

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