What are the best noise cancelling headphones for most people?
“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 for most people. Scroll down to read the full, in depth reviews of each.
- Best buy: Sony WH-1000XM3
- Best for sound: Bowers & Wilkins PX
- Best for comfort: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Best for portability: AKG N60 NC Wireless
- Best all-round: Microsoft Surface Headphones
- Best for bass: Urbanista New York
- Best all-round: Sennheiser PXC 550
- Best value: Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
But, as always, there are a few basic questions you need to ask yourself before you buy.
- Do you want a super-portable in-ear model or a larger, over-ear or on-ear type? Most in-ears have the cancelling tech packed into a little remote housing along the cable. Larger pairs fit everything into the earcups, which makes them easier to handle – not to mention, more effective. You may want to keep an eye out for more travel-friendly collapsible designs.
- Ensure, too, that battery life is sufficient for your needs. An average of 20 hours is decent, although some models offer more, particularly if you keep the wired cable nearby. Double-check this, however – only some ANC headphones will work passively without a battery.
- Finally, some noise-cancelling headphones feature tech that ensures you can still be aware of the outside world, either through temporarily disabling the noise-cancelling tech, or toning it down. This is useful for pedestrians and cyclists, who need to be aware of their surroundings at all times.
There’s plenty to consider, then, but the headphones featured on this list are the best noise-cancelling models we’ve tested.
1. Sony WH-1000XM3
The best noise-cancellers got better
- 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
We felt that Sony’s WH-1000XM2s were great headphones, but with only a few tweaks the WH-1000XM3s have surpassed them.
The overall look and shape remains similar to previous incarnations. The WH-1000XM3s are elegant and ergonomic, as well as being more comfortable. They’re packed to the brim with features, with Sony inserting a new chip for improved noise-cancellation to go with the very useful “Quick Attention” mode for turning your music down to hear the outside world.
And, of course, there’s the sound: cleaner and fuller, with a more defined performance.
2. Bowers & Wilkins PX
An excellent-sounding pair of headphones
- Fantastic sound
- Handy smart sensors
- Auto power/connect/play
- Attractive design
- Noise cancellation could be stronger
The Bowers & Wilkins PX are B&W’s first crack at wireless noise-cancelling headphones, taking on the likes of the Bose and the Sony.
To differentiate these headphones from rivals, 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, which can detect when the headphones are on your head and when they’re off, pausing playback accordingly. They’re even smart enough to know when you lift off a single earcup for a quick chat.
Noise cancellation isn’t quite up there with the likes of Bose or Sony, but that deficit is made up for by the audio performance. If you want headphones with a great, musical sound and proficient noise cancellation, the PX are a great fit.
3. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
A “smart” pair of noise-cancelling headphones
- 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.
So what’s new? 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.
4. 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.
5. 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
Despite the success of its Surface laptops, you wouldn’t expect Microsoft to pump out a headphone. But they have in the Surface Headphones and they’re a decent first attempt.
The headline feature here is the 13 steps of noise-cancellation, offering gradations (via touch controls) of isolation to the point where you’re cast off from the world around you. Sound, especially the mid-range, is good, although overall they’re a little unbalanced and aren’t likely to trouble to cream of the crop.
Aesthetically they’re on the dour side, and the lack of aptX or Bluetooth 5.0 is a knock against them. In terms of ‘smarts’, the Cortana voice assistant is supported, but it’s implementation is awkward. If Microsoft irons out a few issues, the v2 Surface Headphones could be a compelling rival to Sony, B&W and Bose.
6. 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.
7. Sennheiser PXC 550
Good-quality ANC with a plenty of features
- Great sound quality
- Immense features roster
- Effective, customisable noise cancellation
- ANC bettered by Bose
- Very slight hardness to mids
The Sennheiser PXC 550 are feature-packed cans fully deserving of the Sennheiser name.
They’re comfortable, offer excellent sound quality and solid active noise cancellation. There are plenty of extras packed in, too, including adjustable ANC and a number of digital sound processing (DSP) modes for use whilst watching movies.
On the outside of one of the earcups is a capacitive touchpad for intuitive media controls, plus these headphones fold up for easy transportation.
8. Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2
A solid pair of over-ears
- Great value for money
- Sound on a par with more expensive sets
- Solid battery life
- ANC can be hit-and-miss
- Don’t handle bass as well as competitors
They might not be the most inspiring to look at, but the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 offer a solid 24-hour battery life, a comfy fit and decent sound quality. You can also ditch the noise cancelling without shelving wireless connectivity, which is great for preserving battery life.
Speaking of noise cancellation, it’s good although not among the best we’ve heard. Sound is similar in that respect, with a smooth, articulate character that could do with a touch more bass. Be careful with volume, too – these harden up at about 80% of their maximum.
There are a few compromises, but if the likes of Bose, B&W and Sony are out of reach, the BackBeat Pro 2 are a less expensive option.
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.