The best noise-cancelling headphones are a in valuable tool in any creative's bag, especially if you need to work while travelling. The noise of a vehicle, of conversation or just general background din can make it hard to find your groove, or to make sure you're hearing things properly – but noise-cancelling headphones can cut out the background and elevate the parts you need to hear.
The best noise-cancelling headphones of today offer excellent sound quality even with the noise-reduction processing, and are generally designed to comfortable for long listening sessions, making them perfect for getting through a load of work.
They pretty much all use wireless as their default, but they'll also come with cabled options for the latency-free listening you need with music production, video editing, and so on. Either way, you can activate the noise-cancelling abilities to make sure you're hearing things clearly.
There are so many good options these days that, really, you can make your decision large on price. There are some other factors worth knowing, that we'll mention, and brand loyalty goes a long way, but the good news is that it means it's hard to go wrong – doubly so if you follow our picks!
Take a look at our guide to the best noise-cancelling earbuds around, or our best running headphones if you want to work out while listening to music or your favourite podcast. Or if you're looking for the best headsets for working at home, we've got you covered too.
The best noise-cancelling headphones
The best noise-cancelling headphones available right now are the Sony WH-1000XM4s, thanks to just being all-round excellent. Sound quality, noise cancellation, comfort, battery life… they don't have any major weaknesses.
Son'y noise-cancelling tech is simply amazing, and you have the option of putting these into an 'adaptive' mode that tweaks how severe the noise-cancellation is depending on what situation you're in – it can tell the difference between travelling or an office, for example. Or you can just have them turned up for maximum noise-stopping power.
The audio quality is excellent, the sheer range and detail that they're capable of is truly impressive. They're a bit lively in the bass in particular out of the box, and depending on what work you're doing, you might want to use the EQ in Sony's app to tone that down a little and create a more neutral sound, but that's up to you – we certainly enjoy them for music without any tweaks.
The huge battery life means they're pretty reliable for having charge when using them, and they can be connected with two devices, so it's easy to switch from phone to laptop and back. They have touch controls, including the ability to place your hand over one headphone to trigger 'transparency' mode that lets in outside sound temporarily, so it's easy to have a conversation.
And their price is right in line with the competition – they're just a top, top buy.
The real trick of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 is that they don't just deliver excellent noise-cancellation and sound quality – they also offer clearer mic quality than the competition. If pulling double duty for calls and online meetings as well as creative work is a major part of what you need headphones for, this could well be the better option than the Sony above.
They're also super-lightweight and comfortable for long periods, and the sound quality is really strong – though it's not quite as deep and rich as the Sony. For vocal editing, there's not much between them, but the Sony offer more punch across the whole range for music. The Bose are lovely to listen to still, and very clear – overall audio quality is on par with the Bose QC35 II below, but those are a few years old now. When it comes to noise cancellation, they're absolutely top-tier, though.
The battery life isn't as impressive as the Sony, and they also don't have a folding design for travel – you may or may not mind this.
If you need a pair of noise-cancellers on a budget, our overall pick is the JBL Tune 660NC, which provide a really solid package of sound and noise-cancellation quality for easily under £100/$100.
The audio is lively and offers strong definition, with the only potential issue being that it's tuned for lots of bass. The active noise-cancellation, though, is the best you'll find for the price, damping down anything background with serious effectiveness, considering it's a fraction of the price of its strongest competition.
The absolutely colossal battery life is a big draw here too – if you need something that's always ready to go, look no further. And they still offer that essential wired connectivity option. The controls are a little fiddly to reach, and some will probably prefer an over-ear design to an on-ear design for long-term comfort, though these are very wearable. Outside of that, there's really little to fault here, which is why they make such a good buy.
The AirPods Max are the best-sounding headphones here ultimately, providing audio that's finely balanced, expansive and natural. You'll pay a lot more for this boost in quality, though, and it's not totally transformative when compared to the Sony – just a little more open, a little more agile. Still, if you want the best, there's no question that these deliver it. And they pack in noise cancellation that's every bit as good as the best too, cutting the outside to barely a whisper (if that).
They're much heavier than the competition, but the way they fit solidly to the side of the head (without feeling like you're locked in a vice) means that they don't really feel it – though this doesn't work perfectly for everyone, especially those with really small heads. Still, for our testers, they're really comfortable, and the mesh earpads and headband don't get too wearing.
For Apple users, they have all the advantages of any AirPods, including auto-switching between all your devices, Find My capability, and Spatial Audio 3D sound support in music and movies. The annoying side here is that you need to buy a separate cable for wired connectivity, though the latency from Apple devices is incredibly low, and may be sufficient anyway. The battery life is also nothing to write home about.
These were the out-and-out best noise-cancelling headphones available when they launched, but while newer technology may have lost them the top spot, Sony has simply dropped the price since then, and now they're the hottest noise-cancelling buy for a more mid-range budget.
The noise cancellation is just about as good as the newer model, while the sound quality is phenomenal for the price too – they don't have quite as much range as the WH-1000XM4, but they're still packed with dynamism and detail, and offer powerful bass as well as clear treble, and balance them excellently. Again, you can tweak the EQ in the app if you want a flatter sound.
These were the favourite noise-cancelling cans for a long time, and it's easy to hear why: they do a great job of turning down the outside noise, they sound great themselves, and they tough and comfortable, with a fairly compact folding design for travel.
Since their release, newer models have come along with better battery life, improved noise cancellation and strong audio quality overall… but people still love the balance of features that these Bose offer, and they're definitely not wrong. Though others might have improved on them, they're still a really great buy, and if you love the fit or are just a Bose fan, they're a great buy.
What really holds them back is a selection of fairly minor things in the grand scheme, but they do add up. They're micro-USB for charging (not USB-C) which means another cable, the mic quality isn't so great, there's no auto-pause when you take them off, the plastic build quality doesn't feel premium, and battery life is middling… these are why they're not higher on the list, but they're not really dealbreakers.
If you need the top NC headphones for kids – for travelling, say, or so they can concentrate better on homework in a noisy environment – these are the best option to go for. They don't look like typically 'kiddy' headphones, but they're made for smaller head sizes, meaning they'll give you a better fit, which means a better seal against noise and better comfort so they don't need to take them off quickly.
The noise cancellation is actually pretty solid for the price, and does a good job of blocking out the world around. They also have a volume cap at 85dB, which means they're made to protect kids' hearing against loud noises – either outside, or to stop them cranking up their volume too high.
They've got wired or wireless support, and while it's a bit of a shame that they're Micro-USB in a USB-C world, we can live with that. It's similar for the battery life – we wish it were longer, but it'll last for just about any journey start to finish, and that's what's vital.
The Sennheiser Momentum 3 are great as a more premium buy, especially if you want aptX lossless wireless listening. The large ear cups, and the plush leather material used for the cups and the headband, are super comfortable for prolonged use. The ANC toggle and volume buttons are on the right can, and are intuitive to use, but really where the Momentum 3s really shine, are the sound when enjoyed at max noise-cancelling.
There's a subtlety and power to these headphones – their ability to pick out the smallest detail is impeccable, but they can deliver full-bodied and rich sound at the same time. A quick play with the app allows some extra treble and big bass, if you feel like it. The noise cancelling is pretty damn good too, though the state of the art has moved on since their launch.
For a music connoisseur who wants the highest possible quality for wireless listening as well as great noise-stopping power, they're a wonderful choice. The price is a pretty premium, but so are the results.
Choosing the best noise-cancelling headphones
The key thing to look for when selecting the best noise-cancelling headphones is active noise control (ANC) technology. ANC isolates external noise – whether it’s coming from an engine, chatty workmates, or a busy train carriage – and neutralises it using hi-tech circuitry, leaving you with an audio feed free from ambient intrusion. Put simply, it actively removes all background noise. Or at least that’s the hope.
You can then either fill the empty soundstage with your own music, or simply use your noise-cancelling headphones to block out your surroundings and help you focus.
Active noise-cancelling was first developed in the 1950s to enable pilots to communicate in noisy cockpits. It wasn’t until the mid-'80s Bose created the first commercially available headsets to feature ANC, making it the go-to brand for noise-cancelling headphones for quite some time. However, more recently, the likes of Sony, Plantronics, and Sennheiser have all produced ANC headphones that compete with Bose in almost every respect.
Beyond ANC, you will also need to think about fit and comfort, weight, codec support, durability and general sound quality. The best noise-cancelling headphones do typically come with a hefty pricetag, but it's worth noting that there are often great deals on headphones, so that can be a good time to bag a bargain.