Best noise cancelling headphones 2021

Elevate your listening experience with the best noise cancelling headphones out there from Bose, Apple, Sony and more

Best noise cancelling headphones 2021
(Image credit: Sony)

The best noise cancelling headphones are a basic necessity these days if you need to travel a lot or work in an open office or other noisy environment. They'll suppress outside noise, preventing your music, podcasts and audiobooks from being ruined by the outside world, and enable you to listen at lower volumes on average, potentially preserving your hearing.

The best noise cancelling headphones don’t just passively block sound by providing a physical barrier, as you get with all in-ear and over-ear headphones. They use tech to add an additional level of active noise cancelling (ANC) that's especially invaluable on planes, trains and city streets – anywhere with constant noise at lower ranges. The best noise cancelling headphones from the likes of Bose, Sony, Marshall and others are currently by some distance the most popular and profitable parts of the over-ear headphone market.

In this guide, we’ve picked the best noise cancelling headphones at a range of different prices. You’ll find brilliant wireless noise cancelling headphones (and wired models too); the best over-ear, on-ear and in-ear options; and if you’re looking for a specific manufacturer – Sony, Bose and so on – we’ve got you covered as well. If you just want to know today's best noise cancelling headphones deals then head straight for that. 

What are the best noise cancelling headphones?

Easy: Sony WH-1000XM4 are now the best noise cancelling headphones, taking over from their predecessor, the WH-1000XM3 – though the older model is still fantastic, and is now much cheaper, so remains a really strong choice.

Really, though, any of the Sony model mentioned above, or the Bose NCH 700, or Apple's AirPods Max would make you happy. They're all incredibly accomplished, and are broadly very similar – but our AirPods Max vs Sony WH-1000XM4 vs Bose NCH 700 breaks down the differences.

The best noise cancelling headphones right now

Sony WH-1000XM4T3 Awards 2021 winner badge

1. Sony WH-1000XM4

The best noise cancelling headphones you can buy

Type: Over ear
Battery life: 30 hours
Weight: 8.99 oz
Frequency response: 4Hz to 40kHz
Sensitivity: 104.5 dB
Impedance: 47 ohm
Cable length: 3.94 ft
Wireless range: 30 meters (98ft)
NFC: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Superb noise cancellation+Stunning sound +Great battery life+Very comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Could look more exciting

Sony's flagship active noise cancelling 1000X headphones have been very good ever since version one, but the third iteration is where Sony has really nailed it. They're incredibly comfortable, sound superb, and the ANC is next level. They've won the prize for best noise cancelling headphones at the last two T3 Awards.

The Sony WH-1000XM4 noise cancelling headphones are lightweight at 255g, and feel it. The broad, soft ear cups compare favourably to the thinner, harder pointier pads of our former champ the PX, too, as does the remarkably soft headband. They still make your ears toasty over time, but we're not sure there's a solution to that. They also fold neatly away, and the fabric case is among the smartest of its breed.

Onto the audio, and noise-cancellation is simply brilliant. Best in class. With no music playing, the moment you put them on it’s like entering another world, or having a thick sack thrown over your head. It makes the M2 incarnation of the WH-1000X seem antiquated when it comes to dealing with massive challenges like roadworks on streets streaming with traffic, and is enough of a step up from the M3 as well. The sound quality? That's also brilliant. Bass seems even richer than the PX, and music always seems lively, exciting and involving.

Okay looks-wise, they’re less interesting than the PX7, Bose or Beats efforts below, but they look better than the Bose QC35 II, and feel more substantial than any rival other than KEF and Porsche Design's Space One. 

The touch/gesture controls aren't something we're entirely keen on, but they work well enough once you've practiced a bit. Holding a cup to let in ambient sound works especially well, even if you do look a little special when doing it. You can also use the app to change the noise-cancellation button to work with Google Assistant or Siri.

So there we have it: the best noise cancelling headphones are Sony's WH-1000XM4. If premium noise cancelling headphones are the Champion's League of portable audio, these are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Man City and Juventus rolled into one.

Bowers & Wilkins PX7

(Image credit: Bowers & Wilkins)

2. Bowers & Wilkins PX7

The best alternative noise cancelling headphones to the Sonys

Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound with ace ANC+Handy motion-sensing features+Stylish and comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Don't fold up

Though this looks quite dull compared to Bowers & Wilkins' first noise cancelling headphones (the PX), it is still more chic than the Sony WH-1000XM3. The audio quality and noise cancelling are also extremely close to that of the Sonys. 

Our assessment is that the XM3 sound slightly more open and natural, although there is nothing wrong with the PX7 mix. There is slightly less bass weighting, which we don't like quite so much – but if you prefer a less prominent bottom end, you will have the opposite reaction, of course.

That is not to imply the B&W PX7 is overly polite – which is a criticism I'd make of the Bose NC 700. In fact with some types of rock music they sound more meaty and aggressive than the Sonys. It's B&W's usual exciting, but well balanced signature sound basically.

The noise cancelling on the PX7 is excellent, but fractionally less so than the Sony. On trains, for instance, a low rumble is just detectable on the PX7, while the Sony, with the NC on high, blocks it out. 

In terms of comfort, it's again the case that the PX7 is excellent, while the WH-1000XM3 is… excellenter. Slightly lighter. However, it's still a pleasure to wear the PX7 on a Transatlantic flight – and with 30 hours of battery life, there are no worries on that score either. 

As with the old PX, the level and type of ANC can be varied via an iOS and Android app, or turned off entirely off – although we wouldn't advise that as it sounds noticeably worse. You can lift an ear cup away from your ear to mute the PX7 and listen to announcements or talk to people.

Finally, unlike the Sony there are proper physical controls here rather than earcup touch sensors. Being old-fashioned at heart, I prefer proper physical controls. 

Shure Aonic 50 review

(Image credit: Shure)

3. Shure Aonic 50

Arguably the best sounding noise cancelling headphones of all

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Stunning sound quality+Makes the most of hi-res sources+Built like a tank
Reasons to avoid
-Rather massive-So… many… buttons-Unforgiving with poor source material

…Well, despite what I said above about preferring physical controls, you can have too much of a good thing, and Shure's cup-mounted array of buttons and sliders is both too big and not designed well enough to be easy to find with your fingers.

That's one of a number of slightly outdated features of these noise cancelling marvels from Shure – there's no accelerometers or sensors or Alexa to be found here. However, none of that matters a jot when you start listening to the Aonic 50 – or AONIC50 as Shure insists on styling it.

The sound quality of the Aonic 50 should have purists purring. There isn't an excess of bass and it delivers all the sparkling detail and painstaking accuracy you could want. Then there's support for just about every sound-improving codec available to humanity: aptX, aptX HD, AAC, AptX Low Latency, even Sony's none-more-obscure LDAC, would you believe?

As a result it serves up probably the best results of any of these noise cancelling headphones when used in conjunction with CD-quality and hi-resolution sources. It also makes a fine job of delivering Spotify and the like, although if the tunes you are playing are of a lower standard in terms of bit-rate or recording quality, Shure Aonic 50 will not disguise that fact as well as its rivals. 

The noise cancelling, while excellent, is also not quite up there with the other big-priced rivals on this page. And of course, for some people, the fact there isn't an excess of bass – or an excess of style, come to that, as these are pretty hefty and not terribly chic – will be more of a minus point. One for the old school audiophile who wants the best possible sound, with noise cancelling on top.

Bose NC 700

(Image credit: Bose)

4. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Best noise cancelling headphones for call quality

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Astonishing voice pick up+Generally excellent noise cancelling+Very good sound quality
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly less good than Sony and B&W but cost slightly more

If you want a pair of noise cancelling headphones for making calls and using voice assistants, Bose's ridiculously-named cans – usually referred to as NC 700, which reads a bit sexier – are the best choice.

Not only do they cancel noise coming from the other end, they can also do an astonishingly good job of quelling background sound in your location. This is also very handy when trying to use Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, reducing the number of times you have to repeat yourself to your bumbling virtual PA.

In terms of sound quality with music, the Bose NC 700 – sorry, Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 – are excellent, close rivals to the Sony and B&W options above. Now personally, I don't see how anyone could listen to all three and conclude the Bose sound better, but that is not to say they sound bad. They are a bit flatter overall, which makes them less exciting to listen to, but on the other hand also very easy to listen to for hours on end. So if you are easy like Sunday morning maybe these are your babies. 

There is also support for Bose's audio AR… thing. This uses movement sensors in the headphones to detect where you are looking and adjusts what you hear accordingly. Applications for this include a kind of sonar for golf players and some surround sound type things. It's clever and interesting but maybe not all that essential, at this point in its evolution.

Funnily enough, I think the Bose NC 700 is a sexier looking pair of headphones than either the Sony or Bowers efforts, which is not something you could have said about the old QuietComfort 35. 

This is another great pair of ANC headphones; clearly the Bose NC 700 are well worth your consideration. 

Really, my advice would be to try this, the Sony WH-1000XM3, Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and Beats Studio3 Wireless and decide which sounds, feels or looks best to you – or, alternatively, just buy whichever happens to be cheapest today. 

They're all very high quality headphones that won't let anyone down.

AKG N60NC Wireless

5. AKG N60NC Wireless

Best cheap noise-cancelling headphones

Battery life: 15 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound+Good looks+Foldable and compact
Reasons to avoid
-Naturally less good noise insulation than over-ears-The active noise cancelling is less advanced too

If you want the best cheapo noise cancelling headphones, and don't mind having on-ears, rather than the more comfortable over-ears, look no further than the N60NC.

As usual with AKG, audio quality is really excellent for what you pay, and consistently good whether you're wired or wireless, and with or without noise cancelling. These are great headphones in short. Of course, the noise cancelling is less perfect than on the newer, more expensive, over-ear options here, and on ears are intrinsically more uncomfortable than over ear – and more so if you wear spectacles.  

On the other hand, the on-ear form does make them more portable, especially as they fold up. And the price usually is way lower than the 'Big Three' above.

Beats Studio3 Wireless

6. Beats Studio3 Wireless

Don't underrate these superb sounding Beats noise cancellers either

Battery life: 22 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Remarkably effective ANC+Great sound+Rapid charging
Reasons to avoid
-Rather iffy looks

The Beats Studio3 Wireless noise cancelling headphones are a match for the Bose, Bowers and Sony cans in most respects. The killer feature here is the way the noise control adapts to the sounds around you, whether that's engine noise, chit-chat or even wind. A stiff breeze is usually the nemesis of noise-cancelling headphones because of the way they use microphones to monitor ambient sound. Beats, in conjunction with Apple, has developed some sort of algorithm to fade it out within a few seconds and it actually works.

That would matter little if these Beats had the failings of many of their predecessors, but they are also easily the best sounding of the Studio range to date. Bass isn't obtrusive; instead you get a detailed, classy sonic signature. This really did feel like Beats 'growing up' when Studio 3 first appeared, and Dr Dre has put out nothing but anthems since, as they were followed by Powerbeats Pro and Solo Pro, both of which are excellent.

Unlike the other options here, there is little difference between the Studio3 Wireless with ANC turned off and with it turned on. They have excellent noise cancelling, but you don't 'hear' the cancellation process as much as you do with the other ANC big hitters.

Apple users also get the same easy pairing and device switching as on the AirPods, thanks to the semi-legendary W1 chip. Although to be honest, it's not as if boring old Bluetooth is too sloppy when it comes to pairing, these days. One final bonus is the quick charge, 'Fast Fuel' feature. This gives three hours of play from a 10-minute charge. You can also turn off the ANC and double your remaining battery life, should you run short. 

The styling on these is quite horrible, admittedly, but you can't have everything. 

JBL Tune 660NC

(Image credit: JBL)

7. JBL Tune 660NC

Even cheaper noise-cancelling headphones

Battery life: 44 hours with ANC
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise cancellation+Comfortable design+Long-lasting battery
Reasons to avoid
-Volume controls aren’t very intuitively placed-Audio is very bass-heavy-Prone to scratches

To immerse yourself in music without spending hundreds for the privilege, the JBL Tune 660NC deliver excellent noise-cancelling capabilities. You wouldn't expect on-ear headphones to block out noise this well, but they do. Paired with a weighty, punchy sound there's no hope of distracting you from your favourite tracks. 

The battery life is another feature to shout about here: with ANC switched on, the headphones will last a massive 44 hours of playtime. Switched off, that goes up to 55 hours. You'll rarely have to charge them up. Despite not feeling particularly premium, these are likely to look good on any head as well thanks to the simple, compact design.

Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 review

(Image credit: Microsoft)

8. Microsoft Surface Headphones 2

Easily the best Microsoft noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise cancelling+Excellent sound+Excellent design
Reasons to avoid
-Slightly less excellent than the three similarly priced headphones above

The original Microsoft Surface Headphones really were a product for hardcore Microsoft fans only, assuming such folk exist. The successor, however, sounds better and costs less – which I think we can all agree is a winning combination. Microsoft Surface Headphones 2 sound almost unfailingly good, across both high quality sources and more compressed streams, such as from Spotify. They're also very comfy, and the noise cancelling is right up there with the best. 

If you like the look of these headphones and can find them at the right price, you will definitely not be let down. However, there is a reason that they sit at this relatively lowly position in the best noise cancelling headphones chart, and it's that the competition is both plentiful, and slightly better.

Beats Solo Pro

(Image credit: Beats By Dr. Dre)

9. Beats Solo Pro

Best on ear noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Remarkably effective ANC+Great sound+Rapid charging
Reasons to avoid
-On ear is less cosy than over ear-Some slightly baffling controls

A few years back, Studio3 Wireless proved conclusively that Beats by Dr Dre could do noise cancelling headphones. This follow up builds on that success and tones down the looks to the extent that they may have more appeal overall.

As ever, these on-ear headphones block out less sound and are less comfy than most over-ears – for specs wearers they are just not suitable for really long-term wear. However their ANC is stunningly good and sound quality continues to follow Beats' much more sophisticated sound profile of recent years. They sound truly excellent. 

An interesting note about pricing: Beats Solo Pro have a higher RRP than the AKG N60NC above but you see certain of its colourways going for very low prices from time to time. So keep an eye on our live pricing widgets and deals pages…

Bose QC35 II

10. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

These vintage noise cancelling headphones are still a strong option (when available)

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancelling+Very good sound+Timeless, if dull, looks
Reasons to avoid
-Its rivals are a bit snazzier, audio- and looks-wise-Google Assistant is hard of hearing and limited of use

The QC35 is the headphone that kick-started the ANC revolution, being Bluetooth-connecting, with a long battery life (about 20 hours), very solid audio and – for the time – jaw-dropping noise-cancelling.

Its successor, the Bose QC35II kept all that, but added Google Assistant – accessed via that button on the right ear cup. The QC35 II never looked especially exciting, but it has a timeless, unobtrusive quality to its design. 

The noise cancelling is timeless in its own way as well – Bose admitted that the system used in the much newer NC 700 at #3 in this list, is basically the same as that of the QC35 II. When you flip the switch, city roar all but disappears, while transport hubs, planes, tubes and trains are uncannily silenced. If you turn it off, as with the Sony and B&W headphones, sound quality diminishes noticeably. But handily, Bose updated its software a while back, so you can now vary the amount of ANC applied. You can't move through 11 levels of ANC as you can with the NC 700 but I'm not sure anyone really needs to do that.

The right-ear-based volume/play/pause,etc controls work, and the zip-up carry case is functional. We're not sure what the purpose of Google Assistant was in this context, because it really struggles to hear you a lot of the time, but if you don't mind persevering/shouting, you could find its music controls and phone call-handling abilities quite useful.

Bottom line: given that you can often find it way cheaper than the Sony, B&W and Bose's own, newer headphones, the QuietComfort 35 II remains an attractive option. There is a reason that Bose didn't discontinue it as soon as the NC 700 came out.

11. Sennheiser PXC 550

More an audiophile ANC headphone

Battery life: 20-30 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+The best sounding of all ANC headphones+Long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Irritating controls-Annoying app

Until the arrival of the Shure Aonic 50, these were the best sounding noise-cancelling cans around, and they are still a very good option, especially if you love Sennheiser's signature sound.

Like the Shures, Sennheiser's PXC 550 noise cancelling headphones may look a bit  dull, and have some fairly iffy design ideas, but for pure sound quality they just can't be faulted. Certainly, the ANC is not on the same level as the Beats, Bowers, Bose or Sony rivals. It's not bad, but we'd consider these more a great-sounding pair of headphones that have ANC as a fairly minor side benefit. 

More seriously, we could barely contain our rage at the on-ear touch controls for skipping tracks and changing volume – you'll need to be highly dextrous or patient to get the desired effect. We also weren't crazy about rotating the earcups to turn the PXC 550 on and off. The choice of (button-controlled) EQ settings do nothing but muck up the sound in a variety of exciting ways, apart from the Speech mode which, to be fair, does a good job with spoken word.

Download the CapTune iOS/Android app and it lets you do personalised EQ setting for individual tracks. Nice idea huh? Well… not when it involves doing A-B comparisons of what songs sound like while trying umpteen different settings. You say which you prefer, until CapTune finds your 'perfect' EQ for you. We sat through the process twice and on both occasions it transpired our favoured EQ was… completely flat response with no frequencies boosted or lowered at all. How we chuckled. We also don't like the 'Lufthansa Business Class, 1987' styling. BUT…

With wonderfully punchy, detailed sonics and 20 hours of Bluetooth playback with ANC – or a mighty 30 hours if you use the included mic/remote cable instead of going wireless – these noise cancelling headphones are going to be very appealing to discerning listeners.

12. KEF Porsche Design Space One Wireless

The best looking noise cancelling cans for business-class folk

Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound+Humungous battery life+Icily elegant Teutonic styling
Reasons to avoid
-Noise cancelling is less full-on than its price-bracket rivals

The KEF and Porsche Design Space One wireless noise cancelling headphones are a great option if you want to stand out. KEF knows a helluva lot about audio; Porsche Design knows a thing or two about making things look nice and then flogging them to rich people in airport shops. Put them together and you have a winning proposition.

The noise cancelling here seems of a slightly more old-fashioned type than the likes of the PX7, NC 700 and MH-1000XM3. It does a good job on flights – it really is aimed at the business class frequent flyer, we think it's fair to say – but is less effective on trains or at tuning out urban and office noise.

Where the KEF Porsche Design Space One really stand out is in terms of their musical quality – when the ANC is turned on anyway; they sound borderline awful with it off, which is not an unusual trait in noise cancelling headphones. The comfort, look and feel are also spot on, and they have possibly the the most chic and stylish carry case of all the premium ANC cans, if that's important to you. 

If you turn the ANC off, the audio immediately changes in character almost entirely, becoming really quite raucous and wild. We think that's because of the way the noise-cancelling tends to reduce certain treble and bass frequencies, so when it's turned on they sound normal, but when it's off the treble and bass are wildly hyped for a sound that is rather more punk rock than Porsche Design's customers probably crave. Thankfully for them, 30 hours of battery life means they will seldom need to go without ANC.

Noise cancelling cans: what you need to know

A few years back, noise cancellers were wired affairs with big batteries, big carry cases, and a distinct lack of style. Now, they're increasingly Bluetooth rather than wired, and the batteries have shrunk, whilst battery life has got longer. But you do still usually get a carry case. There are also more in-ear options and even some true wireless ones.

As a result, where noise cancellers used to be sold very specifically on their ability to quell background sounds – specifically aeroplane noise – they're now more universal, with the line blurring between ANC and Bluetooth headphones. 

There is still a bit of mild controversy over active noise cancelling headphones. They just don't generally sound as good as standard cans, when it's quiet. Obviously they come into their own where there is background noise. 

I don't want to overstate this, because the best ANC headphones sound really, very good. But if you're in search of a more refined audio experience, a wired headphone without ANC, at the same price, will almost invariably sound better.

Because of the way they're engineered, they also generally sound less good with the ANC turned off – deactivating noise cancelling is more a battery-saving measure than anything.

That said, the most recent candidates are a big improvement over what was around a few years back, when ANC cans tended to feel a bit like listening to music in a vacuum chamber. For noisy environments – from trains to planes to, well, just life in general, really – they offer a better overall experience than standard headphones.

Oh, and why are they called 'active' noise cancelling? Because they use technology to cancel out sound. This is on top of the usual 'passive' noise cancelling, which means using padding on headphone ear-cups, or simply filling your ear canal, with in-ear headphones, in order to keep out sound. 

ANC cans fit into two categories. The ones at the top of the chart below are noise cancellers first and foremost. With the exception of the Beats Studio3, which was made by witches, the best over-ear ANC headphones all sound somewhat worse with the noise cancelling turned off.

The other category of best noise cancellers could be more described as excellent headphones that happen to have ANC as a bonus feature. The noise cancelling is not as awe-inspiring as on the market leading cans, but it is handy where there's a lot of background noise. The headphones also tend to sound pretty damn good with the cancelling turned off.

Most noise cancellers, and particularly the on-ear ones, can be used with a wire, without noise cancelling – that's handy for when the battery runs out. Some can even cater for wired listening with noise cancelling, just like it's 2009 all over again. 

As noted above, the audio does suffer with the more high-end noise cancellers when you turn ANC off, but at least you won't have to stop listening entirely, until you can recharge.

• Now return to our Top 10 noise cancelling headphones

Duncan Bell
Duncan Bell

Duncan has been writing about tech for almost 15 years and fitness ever since he became middle aged and realised he could no longer rely solely on his boyish good looks. He used to be on telly loads, but an unfortunate incident put a stop to that, so he now largely contents himself with telling people, "I used to be on the TV, you know."
Pre-lockdown Duncan was widely regarded as the best-dressed man ever to work for T3 – admittedly not saying much. Post-lockdown he is looking forward to wearing clothes other than shorts and hoodies again very soon, assuming he can still fit into them. He currently writes about cycling, fitness tech that isn’t too heavy, and all things kitchen and home related.