What are the best noise-cancelling headphones?
“Hell is other people,” observed Jean-Paul Sartre. Well, clearly he didn’t have any noise-cancelling headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones are increasingly popular with those who have to endure a noisy journey on a plane or train, or even a loud office.
The following list is a summary of the best noise-cancelling cans we’ve tested so far.
- Best buy: Sony WH-1000XM3
- Best sound: Bowers & Wilkins PX
- Best build: Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
- Best for smarts: Bose Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones
- Best for comfort: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Best for portability: AKG N60 NC Wireless
- Great Ambient Mode: Beats Solo Pro
- Great noise cancellation: Microsoft Surface Headphones
- Great for long sessions: Urbanista New York
But before you hit the high street/online stores, there are a few questions to ask yourself.
Do you want an in-ear or a full-size pair of headphones? In-ears require a good fit before zapping any unwanted noise so a good seal is imperative. Larger pairs can cover this off easily and because of this are more effective. One feature to think about is whether the headphone has a travel-friendly collapsible design so they can be folded up when not in use.
Ensure, too, that battery life is enough. 20 hours is decent, although some models can stretch this 30 hours and above, which is more than enough for a week, if not a bit more, before you need to consider charging.
Finally, some noise-cancelling headphones have an ‘ambient mode’ which ensures you can still be aware of what’s around you This is useful for those in busy cities who need to pay a bit more attention to their surroundings.
The best noise-cancellers available
- Best noise-cancellation we’ve heard yet
- Excellent sound quality
- Fast-charge feature is great
- Comfortable fit
- Responsive controls
- Could do with a touch more treble
While the WH-1000XM2s were great headphones, with a few tweaks the WH-1000XM3s have surpassed them.
The look and shape remains similar, but The WH-1000XM3s are elegant and ergonomic, as well as being more comfortable. They’re packed with features, including a new chip for improved noise-cancelling to go with the very useful “Quick Attention” mode for turning your music down to hear what’s around you.
And, of course, there’s the sound: cleaner and fuller, with a more defined performance.
Bowers & Wilkins PX
- Fantastic sound
- Handy smart sensors
- Auto power/connect/play
- Attractive design
- Noise cancellation could be stronger
The PX are B&W’s first crack at wireless noise-cancelling headphones.
B&W has focused on its core strengths of luxury design and audiophile sound quality – but with some impressive tricks up its sleeve too.
Those tricks include adaptable noise cancellation and a clever wear sensor that’s smart enough to know when you lift off a single earcup – pausing music in the process – for a quick chat.
Noise cancellation isn’t quite as good as Sony, but that’s made up for by the musical audio performance.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
Noise-cancellation, luxurious build and epic sound in one package
- Rapid, forceful and detailed sound
- Fit comfortably
- Look and feel the money’s-worth
- Quite big
- Others cancel noise even more effectively
Sennheiser’s third gen Momentum Wireless throws noise-cancellation into the bargain for what is a strong pair of headphones.
These aren’t the kind of headphones that come loaded with smart features. The focus is very much on sound. Battery life is a rather minuscule 17 hours and noise-cancellation proves to reasonable effective, if not quite up to the level of the best around.
It’s in the sound department where the Momentum Wireless prove more than a match for its closest rivals. It’s an outstanding listen, full of detail, clarity and excellent fidelity.
Bose Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones
A stylish pair of noise-cancellers
- Very comfortable to wear
- Very good noise cancellation
- Easy to use app
- Great looks
- Not particularly portable
- Lean audio character
- 20 hours battery life is a bit low
At £350, the Bose NC Headphones 700 are more expensive than most, but they have plenty of features from Alexa and Google Assistant support to excellent build and comfort.
Battery life isn’t as generous as other models – they offer around 20 hours – but that’s enough for a few days. Audio quality and noise cancellation hasn’t greatly improved over the QC 35 II, but performance is still very good.
They’re arguably the most stylish pair on this list and they are supremely comfortable to wear. If you want to look good when out and about, the Bose aren’t a bad shout.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II
A “smart” pair of noise-cancellers
- Superb noise cancelling
- Excellent mic for calls
- Light and comfortable
- Long battery life
- No aptX
- Rivals sound better
Like their predecessors before them, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II’s are light and comfortable and perfect for when you’re travelling.
Significant changes are harder to find with this generation. AptX support (or aptX HD) is still lacking, but these headphones continue to sound great, if not quite up to the audio standard of the B&W PX or Sony WH-1000XM3.
The level of noise-cancelling is now adjustable and Google Assistant is on board for feeding back notifications from your phone. Other than that, it’s business as usual for these hugely capably cans, including a battery life that remains a respectable 20 hours wireless or 40 hours wired.
AKG N60 NC Wireless
- Excellent sound
- Collapsible design
- Good noise cancellation
- Could have more padding on the headband
- No NFC
The AKG N60 NC Wireless are a petite pair of on-ear noise-cancelling headphones aimed at travellers and commuters alike.
Their lightweight, collapsible design makes them far more portable than their larger over-ear competition, and their 15-hour wireless battery life is more than acceptable for their size – plus they’ll work passively too.
As far as noise-cancelling is concerned, the N60 NC Wireless lose out to the top dogs, but they do enough to dull the outside world to little more than a murmur.
They sound great, too, offering a punchy, detailed and well-organised performance that’s both fun and expressive. A formidable little package.
Beats Solo Pro
If you dislike how these sound, your ears need checking
- Superb transparency mode
- Good active noise cancellation
- Balanced tone, particularly for Beats
- Go over-ear and you get bigger sound, same price
- Tight grip may be a turn-off
- Fold to turn off? It’s not for everyone
A pair of Beats headphones that don’t overcook the bass? Say it ain’t so
Excessive bass was always the problem with Beats headphones, and in the Solo Pro, Beats has chosen the path of less bass for a clearer, balanced sound. There’s still that signature bass, though the Solo Pro avoid the warmth and muddiness associated with the brand.
And the noise-cancellation proves to be very effective, if not as robust a solution as Sony or Bose but the Transparency Mode for listening to what’s around you is excellent. The high price means they’re not quite a slam dunk, but they are nonetheless an accomplished pair of on-ears.
Microsoft Surface Headphones
Very capable noise-cancellers
- Sturdy, comfortable build
- Fine noise-cancelling
- Great Bluetooth range
- Impressive mid-range
- Mediocre battery life
- Sonically ill-balanced
- no aptX
- Grey finish is on the drab side
You wouldn’t expect Microsoft to pump out a headphone, but for a first attempt the Surface Headphones are decent.
The headline feature is the 13 steps of noise-cancellation via touch controls. Sound, especially the mid-range, is good, although they’re a little unbalanced and won’t trouble the cream of the crop.
The lack of aptX or Bluetooth 5 is a knock against them and Cortana implementation is awkward. If Microsoft irons out a few issues, the Surface Headphones v2 Surface Headphones could be a compelling contender.
Urbanista New York
Comfortable and smart-looking cans with powerful bass
- Powerful, exciting sub-bass
- Good wireless performance
- Comfortable for long sessions
- Soft treble and upper-mids
- Only moderately effective ANC
The problem with noise-cancelling headphones is that the great ones cost well over £200. Go below that figure and the quality can be lacking. Well, not anymore. The Urbanista New York aren’t as good as the very best available, but they offer a sound that’s enjoyable, they’re comfortable to wear, and you can pick up a pair for less than £150.
Urbanista is usually great with its aesthetics – and the New Yorks are a good mix of design, comfort and performance. The use of proper memory foam means they settle nicely on your head, and sit there for hours without any discomfort.
How we test noise-cancelling headphones
Any set of noise-cancelling headphones sent in for review will be rigorously tested by one of our audio experts. The expert will use them for a minimum of a week as their primary pair of headphones.
This means the headphones will be tested in a variety of environments to gauge the effectiveness of their ANC and general audio quality, as well as directly comparing them against similarly priced rivals and a reference pair. We also understand that not everyone enjoys the same type of music, so we test units using by playing all genres from classical to rock and hip-hop.