The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones for 2020
Headphones are great for blocking out the world and letting you enjoy your favorite music, podcast, or audiobook. Sometimes the outside world can bleed through, though, and the sound of planes, traffic, and crowds can cut into your listening experience. If you want to avoid all the noise, you should consider headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) to really get the job done.
Now is a good time to consider a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, as the once-wide gap between Bose and other audio manufacturers has finally shrunk enough for Bose to face some serious competition in the space. It still offers the best ANC on the market, but headphones from AKG, Bowers & Wilkins, Jabra, Sennheiser, and even Apple have high-quality noise cancellation of their own. Beyond that, many of these options offer sound signatures that you might prefer over what you get from Bose. What was once a thin field with only a few truly standout options is now littered with four-star (and above) products.
With that in mind, here’s what you need to know when shopping for noise-cancelling headphones.
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) vs. Passive Noise Isolation
Plenty of headphones (and earphones) can claim to be isolate or reduce noise, but that doesn’t mean they offer proper noise cancellation in the form of ANC.
Passive noise isolation, sometimes called passive noise cancellation, is basically a fancy term for what earplugs do. Simply put, when an object blocks sound, like a thick earpad with memory foam sealing off the area around the ear, it is passively (without any battery power) reducing the ambient noise you hear. When you put your fingers in your ears when a loud siren goes by, that’s a form of passive noise isolation.
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Active noise cancellation is much more complicated. It uses microphones that actively sample the surrounding noise in a room, and then produce an inverse wave that essentially cancels out the sound. Think of it like this: If you have a perfect sine wave and play it along with its inverse wave—the mirror opposite—the result would be no wave at all. It works on a graph, though in real life the results are messier. Regardless, ANC is quite effective at (nearly) eliminating low and mid-range frequencies. Battery power is required for ANC circuitry to work, hence the “active” part of the name.
Nearly all ANC headphones use some degree of passive noise isolation in addition to their active circuitry, primarily for one reason: It’s an easy way for the noise cancellation to sound even more effective, and ANC is typically not nearly as good at tamping down high-frequency noises compared with low and middle frequencies.
What Noise Cancellation Can and Can’t Do
If you haven’t used ANC headphones before, you need to understand this: While noise cancellation does decrease the volume of surrounding noise, it doesn’t fully eliminate noise, and is notably less effective at eliminating inconsistent noise. It’s not like going into a soundproof chamber every time you put ANC headphones on—it’s more like using highly effective earplugs.
What does this mean? Most ANC headphones worth their price will be able to tamp down the rumble of an airplane or a train quite well. The same goes for the whir of a loud AC unit or fan. But these are consistent, relatively unchanging noises—it’s easy for the circuitry to reduce lower and middle frequency sounds that don’t change much. But noise like music, conversation, dogs barking—anything that is more complex than a constant drone—is going to give ANC some trouble. The best noise cancellation will eliminate these sounds to a degree, but you’re still going to hear some of it.
Should Noise Cancellation Add Hiss?
Some ANC adds an audible hiss—like white noise—to the signal. It doesn’t sound awful, but it serves to mask the high frequencies that the circuitry is less good at eliminating. ANC works far better on lows and mids than it does on highs, so getting some of the high-frequency noise reduced passively is essential. The hiss adds another layer that can enhance the sense of quiet you get, but is actually somewhat deceiving.
You’ll know if there’s hiss or not when you enable ANC in a very quiet room. If it’s there, the hiss will have the opposite effect of noise cancellation in this scenario—it’ll be louder than the quiet room itself. Most hiss will not be a deal breaker, and when the music is playing, it won’t even be audible. But generally speaking, the better the noise cancellation, the less it will add any hiss at all.
Here we should also note that some people feel pressure inside their ears when using powerful ANC, while others don’t notice a thing. It’s worth trying on multiple pairs of headphones in a store before you invest in an expensive product that can potentially cause you discomfort.
On-Ear, In-Ear, and Over-Ear Noise Cancellation
The most effective ANC is typically found in over-ear (circumaural) headphones. The earcups can create a seal around the ear, and the earpads act as a barrier. That said, the less-common on-ear ANC models can still eliminate plenty of surrounding noise, are often considered far more comfortable, and are usually more compact and easier to stow away.
In-ear ANC has also improved quite a bit in recent years. In-ear models also have perhaps the greatest advantage in terms of passive isolation—the eartips seal off your ear canal, so high frequencies are more or less eliminated before you turn the ANC on. The advantages one style may present over another are less about ANC performance at this point, and more about personal preference and comfort.
Wired vs. Wireless Noise Cancellation
It makes sense that wireless ANC basically replaced wired models on the market—this is largely what has happened to the headphone industry as a whole. It’s also likely because most of the wireless ANC headphones available can also be used with an included cable, and often with the ANC enabled. You’ll want to check if the model you’re interested in has this option if it’s a priority.
However, some wireless ANC models suffer from a notable issue: The ANC has an audible effect on the audio when enabled. We always make sure to point out which headphones suffer from this issue, and whether the effect is so minor that it can be dismissed as irrelevant. Any model that has a profoundly different sound signature when ANC is enabled has basic design shortcomings, and you won’t find us giving it a high rating.
For more, see our story on The Best Noise-Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds.
Noise Cancellation Apps
Many noise-cancelling headphones work with free apps that can alter the ANC’s performance to better suit your environment. And most ANC models feature an ambient mode, which allows you to hear your surroundings and talk with someone nearby without removing the headphones. It’s a useful, nearly ubiquitous feature, but some manufacturers have taken it an extra step and allow you to blend ANC levels with ambient levels to your preference. When this is available, it’s usually accomplished with a slider in an app.
How Much Should You Pay for Noise-Cancelling Headphones?
Noise cancellation circuitry isn’t cheap. If a model has been around for more than a year or two, you might find some deals, but it’s rare that a quality pair of headphones will sell for less than $200. If they do, the ANC on offer is probably solid for the price, but not on the same level as the top-tier options. If you’re you’re looking for the best of the best, be prepared to pay around $350 to $400. The exception is in-ear models, which can have solid ANC at lower prices, like the $250 Apple AirPods Pro.
If noise cancellation isn’t a big deal for you, you can focus on other characteristics with our lists of the Best Wireless Headphones, the Best Earphones, and the Best Headphones overall. And if you’re shopping on a tight budget, check out the Best Headphones Under $50.
Once you’ve found the right pair of headphones, make sure to take good care of them. To start, read up on our 5 Easy Tips to Extend the Life of Your Headphones and 6 Ways You’re Using Your Headphones Wrong.