Finding the best noise-cancelling headphones will depend upon several different criteria, such as sound quality, design, comfort, price, and exactly how much ambient sound they are able to remove. Active noise-cancelling (ANC) has been around since the 1950s, having initially being developed to enable pilots to communicate in noisy cockpits. But it wasn’t until the mid-'80s that Bose developed the first commercially available headsets to feature ANC, and since then it has become the go-to brand for noise-cancelling headphones.
More recently, the likes of Sony, Plantronics, and Sennheiser have all produced ANC headphones that compete with Bose in almost every respect. So how do you go about choosing the best noise-cancelling headphones for you? Read on to find out.
Not quite what you're looking for? Take a look at our guide to the best wireless headphones around.
How to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones
Active noise control (ANC) technology is a vital ingredient when choosing the best noise-cancelling headphones. Put simply, what ANC does is isolate external noise – whether it’s coming from an engine, a thunderstorm, or a busy train carriage – and then neutralise it with hi-tech circuitry, leaving you with an audio feed bereft of ambient intrusion. Or at least that’s the hope.
This means that you can either fill the empty soundstage with your own music, or simply use your noise-cancelling headphones to dampen the acoustic environment around you. But it isn’t the be-all and end-all. Beyond ANC, you will also need to think about fit, weight, codec support, durability and general sound quality.
Which are the best noise-cancelling headphones?
Despite the growing competition, Bose still holds the crown of best noise-cancelling technology with its QuietComfort 35 II headphones, but there’s a big caveat: the price tag (around $350/£320). Add to this the uninspiring design and lack of features in the QC35 IIs, and the race starts to get a little more interesting. Close behind Bose is Sony, with its WH-1000XM2 headphones. At the time of writing, they're around the same price or a bit cheaper, depending on where in the world you are.
Lots of factors play a part in choosing the best noise-cancelling headphones, and in this post we consider some of the main areas you need to think about when choosing which ones to buy.
01. Sony WH-1000XM2 headphones
These noise-cancelling headphones are close to perfect
Compatibility: Bluetooth 4.1 | Battery life: Up to 30hrs | Weight: 275g | Inputs: Micro USB, Stereo Mini Jack
The battle for best noise-cancelling headphones is a two-horse race between the Sony WH-1000XM2s and the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs. Bose still rules the roost when it comes to flat out noise-cancelling chops – though the XM2s still do a great job of blocking out lower frequency audio. But in other departments, Sony excels.
Out of the box, both the XM2s and the QC35 IIs sound incredible, and there’s little to separate them. However, one thing to note about sound quality is that Bose doesn’t currently support aptX (for streaming hi-res audio via Bluetooth). Do these letters matter? Maybe not so much right now, but increasingly they will, as more devices begin to incorporate the aptX codec.
Design-wise, the QC35 IIs are uninspiring, and although Sony doesn’t do a whole lot more with the XM2s, what it has done well is to pay attention to refining details, such as hiding the hinges on the earcups. This gives the XM2s a more premium feel.
Lastly, let’s take look at features. This is an area where Sony has tried to innovate, and although the gesture controls on the WH-1000XM2s may flummox some people, we found them intuitive and responsive. Swiping up or down on the right earcup controls the volume; tapping the earcup stops and starts playback; swiping back and forth selects previous and next tracks; and you can even place your hand over the earcup to lower the volume and allow ambient audio to enter the headphones.
In a head-to-head fight it’s almost impossible to split these two titans of noise-cancellation, but if you're in the UK, the difference in cost (around £50, at time of writing) could sway your choice. We think the WH-1000XM2s currently provide the best overall combination of ANC, sound quality, comfort, design and affordability.
02. Plantronics Backbeat PRO 2 headphones
The best noise-cancelling headphones for commuters
Compatibility: Bluetooth 4.0 | Battery life: Up to 24hrs | Weight: 290g | Inputs: Micro USB, Stereo Mini Jack
What do you look for in a good set of commuter headphones? Top of the list for some people is noise-cancellation, to block out the constant thrum of rush hour. For others, long battery life might be the most important thing. And then there are the people who need headphones to remain comfortable over prolonged use. The Plantronics Backbeat PRO 2 headphones tick all these boxes, and then some.
Weighing just 290g, the Backbeat PRO 2s can be worn for hours at a time without becoming uncomfortable. And with a Class 1 Bluetooth transmitter enabling extended connectivity, you should get up to 330 feet of range (and it also comes with support for the aptX codec).
Operating the PRO 2s is done via a set of touch controls on both earcups, and a jog wheel is also set into the left earcup, which enables you to turn the volume up and down.
Beyond the basics, the Pro 2s are packed with features. With the flick of a switch, you can allow outside audio through, which is a useful feature if you need to interact with other people whilst commuting. And the PRO 2s also have pressure-sensitive earpads that detect when you don and remove your headphones, playing and stopping your audio accordingly. Brilliant.
At the time of writing you can pick up a pair of Backbeat PRO 2s for around $200/£150, which – though not what many would call budget – is still only half the price of most of its peers in this category. And for that you get a set of headphones that sounds great (particularly in the mid-range) and also boasts a build quality that puts some of its more expensive competitors to shame.
03. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless headphones
Great audio. Decent proprietary ANC tech. And looks to die for!
Compatibility: Bluetooth 4.0 | Battery life: Up to 22hrs | Weight: 263g | Inputs: Micro USB, Stereo Mini Jack
If you’re looking for a set of noise-cancelling headphones to turn heads, the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless headphones are – hands-down – the best-looking headphones in this category.
From the metallic headband with its leather padding and colour-matched screws, to the curved lines of the earcups, all the way down to the violet charge light, every small detail has been considered. And the best thing of all is that Sennheiser has made sure that they sound great, too.
Outside of Sony and Bose, Sennheiser’s proprietary NoiseGard system offers up some of the best noise-cancelling we’ve come across. NoiseGard uses four mics to detect and dampen sound, and it effectively removes most steady background noise. (Other notable features include support for aptX and a soundstage that manages to avoid being as claustrophobic as some other over-ear headphones.)
For the price, we feel that Sennheiser could have added more features, but the few it does have work well. The power button doubles up for Bluetooth pairing duties, and there’s also a multi-function button that slides for volume and depresses for pause, play, skipping and calls.
Beyond the lack of features, there’s little to dislike about the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 headphones, and if you can bring yourself to part with the cash, you won’t be disappointed.