Travel a lot with work? Got a long commute? Have annoyingly chatty colleagues? You need noise cancelling headphones and you need them now. They'll stop you having your music, podcasts and audiobooks ruined by the outside world and let you concentrate on you.
A few years back, noise cancellers were wired affairs with big batteries, big carry cases, and a distinct lack of style. Now, they're largely wireless, and the batteries have shrunk, whilst battery life has got longer. But you do still usually get a carry case.
Perhaps as a result, where noise cancellers used to be sold very specifically on their ability to quell background sounds, and largely used on flights, they're now more universal, with the line blurring between NC and Bluetooth headphones.
What is the best noise-cancelling headphone?
Until a recent epiphany, we thought the choice was between the stellar noise-cancelling of the Bose QC35, and the more musical performance of the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless.
Then said epiphany arrived in the shape of the Sony MDR-1000X, which neatly combines the two. With 20 hours of battery life, great noise reduction, support for hi-res audio and generally excellent sound, that's our big recommend in the noise-cancelling headphones field.
- Best Bluetooth headphones, some with noise cancelling
- Best in-ear headphones
- Best on-ear and over-ear headphones
1. Sony MDR-1000X
The best Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones
The Sony MDR-1000X undeniably looks and feels rather like the Bose QC35, and has similarly excellent noise cancelling.
Where it really scores, however, is with its overall audio quality, which is just punchier and more involving than the Bose. Where required, there's more bass weight, too.
In all honesty, nobody should buy a pair of noise cancelling headphones because they want an exquisite, audiophile experience, but this Sony pair delivers a thoroughly acceptable audio performance whilst comprehensively blocking out the sound of your flight, bus or high street.
Having music control via a touch panel on the right ear cup is not as easy as having buttons, even if it does allow for a more seamless appearance. Tapping and swiping the cup results in an experience somewhere between 'fiddly and irritating' and 'doesn't work at all'.
I'd also question the ability to turn off noise cancelling, because this immediately makes the MDR-1000X sound drastically worse. Oh, and the 'audio optimiser', which supposedly tailors the audio to suit your hairstyle (!) and whether or not you wear specs, does not appear to do a lot to the sound, to my ears (I wear specs and my hairstyle is, "none".)
Those, however, are pretty minor caveats in the face of the overall quality of what Sony's served up here.
One interesting side note: certain users online have complained about the MDR-1000X making a 'creaking' noise. I'm really not sure what they're referring to, but it's driving some people nuts. So, er, be aware of that.
As always with tech, you can make use of online selling regulations to test the cans and then return them if they are too, uh, creaky.
2. Bose QuietComfort QC35
Very close rival to those Sony noise-cancelling cans
The QC35 is essentially the old, award winning Bose QC25, but wireless.
It's micro-USB rechargeable, with, lie the Sony HDR-1000X, a battery life of 20 hours – pretty strong.
Bose has very much played for the noise cancelling, rather than audiophile market, and that shows in almost every aspect of these cans.
They're not beautiful, more aluminium functional, and the music playback itself isn't jaw dropping for the price. It's fine: balanced, relatively refined, but not majorly exciting, especially when compared to the Sony.
What is exciting is the 'total' immersion these cans bring. Flip the switch, and London's roar disappears almost utterly. Airports, planes, tubes, trains are uncannily silenced - the QC35's are your audio invisibility cloak made into chunky, silvery flesh.
The right-ear-based volume/play/pause,etc controls work, the zip-up carry case is functional, if sizeable, the charger and standby manual cables are grey and listless, but that headline noise cancelling is awesome.
3. Meters Music OV-1
A radically different take on noise cancelling headphones
Now there's something you should probably know about the design of the Meters OV-1. For reasons best known only to Meters, the switch to turn noise cancelling on, and deploy a bass boost setting (how 1980s!) is impossible to reach when you have them on your head.
There's also something else a teensy bit unusual about their design, which I can't quite put my finger on…
Oh yes: there are f**king huge, fully functional peak meters on both cups. If you can't live with that, move right along. However, if you like to rock a rather bolder look than the drab plastic blackness pedalled by Bose and Sony's market leaders, you may come to love the Meters OV-1.
It differs in various other ways to most of the cans here, actually. The OV-1 is wired, and really has to be thought of as a pair of quality over-ear headphones that happen to have noise cancelling built in as an option.
They sound way better with NC turned off. For reasons I can't quite put my finger on, their sonic 'profile' just doesn't seem to suit noise cancelling in the way that the more mass market Sony and Bose headphones do.
That said, it is a handy addition if you're flying or operating a pneumatic drill. The rest of the time, the pillowy earcups provide sufficient insulation from unwanted sound.
The audio without active NC is way more musical – almost 'audiophile', dare I say it – than the Bose or Sony.
Basically, Meters OV-1 is a product that will appeal hugely to a relatively small number of fly-dressed people who appreciate both loud clothing and loud music. And it will appeal not at all to most other folk. Oh well.
4. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 wireless on ear
Born to travel
These Sennheisers are everything a premium pair of contemporary headphones should be. They're elegantly engineered, beautifully made - in this case from stainless steel, faux-suede and leather - packed with tech, and sound stupendous.
Sennheiser's NoiseGard noise cancelling is a fantastic bonus, sucking out real-world cacophony while leaving acres of head space for you to enjoy one of the most impressive wireless performances we've heard, and with a 22hr Bluetooth battery life and folding frame they were born to travel.
However, while we feel the Sennheiser looks and sounds better than the Bose QC35, the even more impressive battery life and more unshakeable Bluetooth connectivity of Bose's rival just shades it, for us.
5. AKG N60 NC
Thoroughly enjoyable, affordable cans
Don't let the cable put you off, because what these ultralight (150g), super-portable headphones lack in Bluetooth they make up for with awesome noise cancelling performance, a long-haul loving 30-hour battery life and thoroughly enjoyable, surprisingly immersive listen, whatever your musical tastes.
Classy looks, smart, folding design and tough neoprene case make these the perfect travelling companion, and a worthy rival to the Bose and Sennheiser cans.
6. Sony MDR-ZX770BN
With Bluetooth AptX, NFC, 98% ambient noise cancelling and a 13-hour battery life all for an rrp of £130 (shop around and you'll get it for less), buyers on a budget can't hope for a better spec. While admittedly, the plastic used in its construction hints at how Sony hits this bargain price point, the headphones are still light, comfortable and far from ugly.
The noise cancelling mode cuts out the hum-drum of public transport brilliantly without feeling like your head is in a vacuum, while the 40mm drivers provide plenty of poke with a clean dependable sound free from any harsh edges. Exceptional value.
7. Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H8
Style to lust after
They're prohibitively expensive and the 'gesture control' ear pad epitomises style over substance, but we still love, no, lust after, the H8.
The flawless aluminium build quality and marshmallowy memory foam ear cups make them a pleasure to wear all day, while the noise cancelling swaddles you from the real world as impressively as the vast majority of larger, over-ear designs.
Combine this with a 14-hour battery life, Bluetooth 4.0 aptX and a rich, exciting, bass-boosted sound quality and you'll do well not to be wooed.
8. Denon AH-GC20
Business class headphones
About as business class as headphones get, with executive matt styling, full travel case, airline adapter and sumptuous long haul comfort. Even without the two types of active noise cancelling switched on, the over ear design muffles all but the shrillest of toddlers, and once you flick the switch the silence is deafening.
The 40mm drivers tuned to combat ambient noise and Bluetooth aptX make for a great listen, especially if you're looking for a bit more bass.
9. Philips SHB8850NC
The Philips brings impressive tech and above par performance to the bargain basement.
Multi-pairing Bluetooth 4.0, NFC, ActiveShield noise cancelling, one button Siri and Google Now access, 16-hour playback (and 28 hours if you eschew noise-cancelling and just use Bluetooth) are all jammed into these comfy on-ear cans.
The silver and black, folding design is suitably modern. Some may find the look a little icey, but we love it, and the bright, level-headed sound is anything but cold.
10. Parrot Zik 2
High-end and high-tech, these cans are co-designed by Philipe Starck.
Owners of his lemon squeezer will not be surprised to learn that these are highly over-engineered, and look rather odd.
However, even if you never use all the digital EQ functions built into the Zik 2, you will be impressed by the comfort, audio quality and noise cancelling on offer.
The Zik 2 is extremely punchy, although the motion sensing controls are something of a pain.