10 best noise cancelling headphones 2018

Block out the sounds of planes, trains and people with these active noise cancelling wireless and wired headphones

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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 allow you to listen at lower volumes, on average, potentially preserving your hearing.

What is the best noise-cancelling headphone?

There's been something of a (muffled) boom in active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones in the last few years. The wireless and noise defeating technology has improved and become cheaper to manufacturers, while punters seem happy to pay £300 or more on a decent pair of ANC cans.

At present there are a number of stand-out candidates with, really, a hair's-breadth of difference between them. 

For its mix of great sound, noise blocking, style and useful motion-sensing tech (they pause when you remove a cup from your ear and go to standby when taken off), our current favourite is Bowers & Wilkins' PX.

It just shades out three excellent and very similar, over-ear options, for the most subjective of reasons: Sony's MDR-1000X (baffling touch controls), Beats' Studio3 Wireless (the styling is less to our taste) and Bose's market-defining QC35 (rather bland looks). 

If you prefer something more portable, and a bit cheaper, the new, wireless update of the AKG N60 NC is a fantastic option. 

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 cities 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. 

Most noise cancellers, and particularly the on-ear ones, can be used with a wire, without noise cancelling (and with, in a few cases), when the battery runs out. As noted above, the audio does tend to suffer in this situation but at least you won't have to stop listening entirely, until you can recharge.

The best noise cancelling headphones, in order

1. Bowers & Wilkins PX

Narrowly the best over-ear noise-cancelling headphones

Battery life: 22 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound with ace ANC+Handy motion-sensing features+Stylish and comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Pricey-Don't fold up
Today's best Bowers Wilkins PX deals

Bowers & Wilkins have been making big strides in wireless headphones since entering the market with the P5 and the PX is its first Bluetooth ANC headphone.

It has more attractive, contemporary styling than the P7, which it replaces, but still feels reassuringly expensive (well, it is expensive).

The level and type of ANC can be varied via an iOS and Android app – I find the 'City' setting sounds best. You can also turn it off – though I wouldn't advise that as it sounds noticeably worse – and allow voices and ambient sounds to pass through, so you aren't completely cut off from your surroundings. 

This seems to me a bit like buying roller skates, then sawing off the wheels and wearing them as shoes, but it's a popular feature apparently.

The audio is highly listenable, with an ANC twist on B&W's usual exciting, but well balanced, signature sound.

The PX doesn't sound as good as the P7, which was arguably the best-sounding Bluetooth headphone you could buy. However, it still sounds better (albeit fractionally, and it's just IMHO), than any other noise-cancelling headphone. I know some reviewers have said they aren't the most comfortable, but I can't really agree with that. They're fine, even with spectacles.

Another Ace in the PX's pack is the inclusion of motion-sensing. This means that if you lift a cup from your ear, the sound is paused, and if you take them off entirely, they go into a standby mode.

To my utter amazement, not only did this actually work but, even more mind-bogglingly, when you put them back on, they actually reconnect and resume playing. I don't want to seem cynical, but I am so used to features like this failing, I was honestly shocked that Bowers have nailed it here. If you find your head movements or the way you wear the headphones trigger the motion sensors too easily, you can also dial down their sensitivity or turn them off.

Brilliant ANC cans, in short.

2. AKG N60NC Wireless

Best on-ear noise-cancelling heapdhones

Battery life: 15 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound+Great looks+Foldable and compact
Reasons to avoid
-Naturally less good noise insulation
Today's best AKG N60NC Wireless deals

The wireless version of the excellent N60NC is here, and retains all the attributes of its predecessor whilst adding the option of Bluetooth connectivity (like nearly all of these cans, you can also wire it, to save battery).

Unlike the Bowers, Bose, Sony and Beats offerings, these are on-ears. As such they offer less 'passive' noise reduction, but greater portability – they also fold up.

Sound is really excellent, especially for the price which – while hardly a giveaway bargain – is somewhat less than the big-name over-ear options here. Audio is consistently good whether you're wired or wireless, and with or without noise cancelling. The latter feature is probably less perfect than the aforementioned over-ear rivals, but still useful when in a train, plane or chattery office.

3. Beats Studio3 Wireless

Remarkable noise-cancelling and great sound make for the best Beats ever

Battery life: 22 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Remarkably effective ANC+Great sound+Rapid charging
Reasons to avoid
Today's best Beats Studio3 Wireless deals

These are pretty much a match for the Bowers' cans in every respect, but I did miss the motion-sensing playback controls and don't like the styling quite as much, although they are a handsome range of headphones, for sure.

The killer feature here is the way the noise control adapts to the sounds around you, whether that's engine noise, chit-chat, and 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 second.

Admittedly, if you're not hiking on moorland or standing in a wind tunnel, that isn't hugely useful, but it does give a good indication of how effective the ANC is.

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 does feel a bit like Beats 'growing up', if I can say that without sounding hideously patronising. 

Unlike all the other options here, there is actually 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 other ANC cans.

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 3 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.

4. Sony MDR-1000X

Best VFM Bluetooth noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great sound with noise reduction on+Solid build, good comfort
Reasons to avoid
-Iffy touch controls-Sounds quite poor with NC turned off
Today's best Sony MDR-1000X deals

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, and probably near parity with Bowers & Wilkins' PX and Beats Studio3 Wireless. Where required, there's more bass weight, too. 

If you have a compatible (Sony) device, you can even stream at something more like 'hi-res' quality thanks to the LDAC connection. I'd question the benefits of this with a noise-cancelling headphone, but it's there if you want it.

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 cracking audio performance whilst doing a stand-up job of 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. While it's not cheap, the MDR-1000X is also notably more affordable than its main rivals here, in part because the WH-1000XM2 – the bafflingly-named, direct successor to this headphone – has just been launched.

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'.

5. Bose QuietComfort QC35

Yet another splendid pair of premium noise-cancelling cans

Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancelling
Reasons to avoid
-A bit dull looking maybe
Today's best Bose QuietComfort QC35 deals

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.

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 when compared to the newer cans above it in this list.

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.

Pleasingly, Bose has now updated the headphones and its iOS and Android app so you can now vary the level of the ANC.

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 was and is awesome.

Also look out for the new, updated QC35 II, which adds Google Assistant compatibility. And if you don't feel like that's a vital addition, you may see the original QC35 going down in price… 

6. Bose QC30

Hands down the best in-ear noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 8 hours
Wired option: No
Reasons to buy
+Highly impressive technically
Reasons to avoid
-Overall sound is not as good as on over ears-We just don't like 'necklace' in ears

It probably hasn't escaped your notice that all the entries so far have been quite premium, well padded, over-ear Bluetooth headphones. So just to redress the balance, here's a pair of quite premium, unpadded, in-ear Bluetooth headphones. 

In-ears benefit much less than over-ears from noise cancellation – a really good pair should in fact isolate you from the outside world sufficiently that NC is not even needed. However, you have to take your hat off to Bose for the QC30, which is almost as cocooning as the fantastically successful QC35. 

The problem with that is that Bose's style of NC tends to crush the sound into the bottom and mid parts of the audio spectrum and that is particularly true here, leaving you with treble that is less than sparkly.

I also, personally, hate the necklace/Alice band style of in-ear headphone, although at least here it makes sense, as the band is presumably where the mics, ANC processing and battery all live. A lot of people have no problem with necklace earphones so can feel free to ignore this paragraph.

7. Sennheiser PXC 550

The nearest thing to 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
Today's best Sennheiser PXC 550 deals

If you're looking for purely the best-sounding ANC headphones around, look no further.

Sennheiser's PXC 550 looks dull, and has some fairly iffy design ideas, but for pure sound quality it 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 I'd consider this more a great-sounding pair of headphones that has ANC as a fairly minor side benefit.

More seriously, I could barely contain my 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. I also wasn'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. I sat through the process twice and on both occasions it transpired my favoured EQ was… completely flat response with no frequencies boosted or lowered at all. How I chuckled.

I 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 – this is going to be very appealing to discerning listeners.

8. Sony WF-1000X

Best noise cancelling true wireless headphones

Battery life: 3 hours
Wired option: No
Reasons to buy
+Technically incredible+Great sound
Reasons to avoid
-Enfeebled battery-Less reliable connectivity
Today's best Sony WF-1000X deals

One for the early adopters, these true wireless, Apple-Airpods-for-people-who-like-music-style buds from Sony are a technical marvel. Sonically, they're by far the best of the true wireless crowd, and they also include ANC that's surprisingly effective even if, understandably, not on par with the over-ear options here.

On the down side, the claimed battery life of three hours is …terrible, and the real-life battery life of about two hours is really terrible. 

A carry case-cum-battery is included, which claims to give two full recharges although I found it frequently fails to provide any charging at all, unless plugged in to the mains. 

The other downer is that the stability of connection is more like Bluetooth headphones from 2-3 years ago. They don't just need to connect to your phone; they need to link to each other too, and evidently, that causes problems.

The intermittent dropouts that result are annoying but not fatal. In fact, the WF-1000X is a true miracle of miniaturisation and I love it. It sounds superb and makes you feel like you're from the future. For two hours at a time.

9. Meters Music OV-1 Wired

A radically different take on noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 10-12 hours
Wired rather than Bluetooth:
Reasons to buy
+Excellent audio quality+'Striking' design, ahem
Reasons to avoid
-Better with the noise cancelling off-A non-starter if you don't like the look
Today's best Meters Music OV-1 deals

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. A Bluetooth version, logically dubbed OV-1B, arrives shortly

They sound way better with NC turned off. For reasons I can't put my finger on, as I don't understand the science, their sonic 'profile' just doesn't 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. 

On the flip side, the audio without ANC is way more musical – almost 'audiophile', dare I say it – than the Bose or Sony, presumably because these are wired, and wired headphones just sound better. 

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.

10. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 wireless on ear

Excellent audio and noise cancelling but slightly iffy connectivity

Battery life: 22 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Very good noise cancelling+Excellent audio
Reasons to avoid
-Iffy Bluetooth connectivity
Today's best Sennheiser Momentum Wireless deals

These Sennheisers were another big contributor to the rise of ANC. 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.

11. Philips SHB8850NC

Best noise cancelling headphones under £100/$100

Battery life: 16-33 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Extremely affordable+Good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Build feels cheap
Today's best Philips SHB8850NC deals

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.

Battery life is also impressive. You get 16 hours with Bluetooth and ANC, 28 hours with just Bluetooth, but a whopping 33 hours if you go for ANC via the included cable, rather than wirelessly.

The silver and black, folding design is as comfortable as it is modern. Some may find the look a little icy, but we love it, and the sound is anything but cold.

11. Libratone Q Adapt In Ear

Best noise cancelling in-ear headphones with a Lightning cable

Mic and remote: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Good sound +Handy noise cancelling
Reasons to avoid
-Not the greatest fit-Works with iOS devices only
Today's best Libratone Q Adapt In Ear deals

I'm a bit surprised there aren't more of these, but people have evidently decided they prefer Bluetooth, now the 3.5mm socket is gone from their iPhone. These (Lightning) wired over-ears give very good sound, with a bit of adjustable 'urban' NC thrown in.

The Q Adapt sounds really good and the ANC, while nowhere near as good as Bose's in-ear rival, the QC30, is a handy addition. I did find it remarkably difficult to get them to fit properly in my ears though, regardless of which of the various included tips I tried. 

A stylish and nifty little niche addition to the NC canon, nonetheless.