Best noise cancelling headphones 2019: stop the noise made by flying, travelling and people

Block out the sounds of planes, trains and colleagues 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? Yeah, we hate them too. You need the best 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.

While noise cancelling can occur by simply physically blocking sound, as with all in-ear and over-ear headphones, these use tech to add an additional level of noise cancelling that's especially invaluable on planes, trains and city streets.

With new year sales ongoing, we think there's a good chance of Bose and Beats' excellent noise cancelling headphones seeing a discount and possibly old stocks of Sony's splendid 1000XM2.

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.

There is not much in it, but right now Sony's MDR-1000XM3 are the best noise-cancelling headphones available to humanity. The old MDR-1000XM2 are also still very tasty, if you can pick them up in a sale at a red hot deal price.

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),  Bowers & Wilkins' PX is another pair of noise-cancelling cans that, for my money, beats even Bose at its own game.

That said, both Bose's market-defining QC35 II and Beats' Studio3 Wireless are superb options, especially if you like how they look, which I slightly don't.

Oh, and one slightly dark horse to consider: the Bose QC25 is wired (I know, how last century) and has slightly less awe-inspiring noise removal than the newer, wireless breed of headphones but it remains a superb pair of headphones and can often be found at comparatively low, low prices.

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.

The best noise cancelling headphones, in order

Best noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3

1. Sony WH-1000XM3

The best noise cancelling headphones you can buy

Reasons to buy
+Empty List
Reasons to avoid
-Empty List

Well, Bowers & Wikins' PX had a decent run at the top of our noise quelling charts, but there's a new daddy in town. 

Sony's adaptive noise-cancelling 1000X flagships have been brilliant ever since version 1, but the 3rd iteration is where Sony has really nailed it. They're incredibly comfortable, sound superb, and the ANC is next level. 

The WH-1000XM3 is lightweight at 255g, and feels 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, too. They still make your ears toasty over time, but I'm 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 even the PX (and the M2 incarnation of the WH-1000X, come to that) seem antiquated when it comes to dealing with massive challenges like roadworks on streets streaming with traffic.

The sound quality? That is 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 PX, KEF and Beats efforts,  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 are not something I'm 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 new best of the best. 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 PX

2. Bowers & Wilkins PX

The best alternative noise cancelling headphones to the Sonys

Specifications
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

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 a noise-cancelled twist on B&W's usual exciting, but well balanced, signature sound.

Interestingly, the PX doesn't sound as good as the P7 Wireless, which was arguably the best-sounding Bluetooth headphone you could buy. 

However, noise-cancelling makes the PX useful in more situations, and it does sound slightly better than the other big-ticket noise-cancellers. 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.

And that is why, even in their slightly aesthetically iffy rose gold incarnation, Bowers & Wilkins PX is the best noise-cancelling headphone. That may not be the case for much longer as we await a sample of the successor to the Sony cans below, but even if the WH-1000XM3 prove to be better, PX will retain the edge in terms of its control options (Sony insists on using touch panels in the earcups that I can never get on with).

Sony WH-1000XM2

3. Sony WH-1000XM2

Brutal looking cans produce sweet, sweet, noise-cancelled music

Specifications
Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancelling+Consistently exciting audio
Reasons to avoid
-Iffy touch controls-Questionable 'Optimisation' settings

• The all-new and all-improved WH-1000XM3 are now the best noise-cancelling cans you can buy, but if these can be found cheap as a result, we still recommend this older model highly. The M3 isn't that much better.

Sony's T3 Award-winning 1000X took on the Bose QC35 and won with more involving sound, sharper if rather more threatening-looking design and equally good noise cancelling. 

This successor is hardly a massive improvement, but then it didn't need to be. I do wish they'd dumped the on-ear touch controls for buttons, but they are still there. Oh well.

Sonically, the WH-1000XM2 is fantastic – pretty much the equal of the PX and noticeably more propulsive and exciting than the Bose QC35 II. Sony has got the bass weight absolutely spot on, and the result is hugely enjoyable to listen to. The noise cancelling is almost magical and equal to the PX and QC35 II. 

There are various EQ settings, am 'optimiser' that supposedly makes the sound work better with your glasses (if worn) and your, er, haircut. Theres's also an Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which supposedly improves noise cancelling at altitude. I have to say, I don't think either of them improve anything, but given how good the WH-1000XM2 sounds in the first place, that doesn't really matter.

Beats Studio3 Wireless

4. Beats Studio3 Wireless

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

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

These are also a match for the Bowers' cans in most respects, but I did miss the motion-sensing playback controls and don't like the styling as much.

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 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 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 really tip-top 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.

Bose QC35 II

5. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Splendid pair of premium noise-cancelling cans with Google Assistant

Specifications
Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Great noise cancelling
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 keeps all that but adds Google Assistant – accessed via that button on the right ear cup. 

The QC35 II is not as sexed up as the PX, Studio3 or Porsche Designs' Space One, nor is it ruggedly square-jawed like Sony's rival cans. It's perfectly attractive in its own way though. Audio is the same – it's very good, and the noise cancelling is like sorcery, but there isn't the same sparkle as the other headphones in its little market. 

The ANC does give you total immersion – 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.

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.

The right-ear-based volume/play/pause,etc controls work, and the zip-up carry case is functional. I'm not sure what the purpose of Google Assistant is 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 phonecall-handling abilities quite useful.

6. Bose QC30

Hands down the best in-ear noise cancelling headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 8 hours
Wired option: No
Reasons to buy
+Highly impressive technically+Comfortable to wear+Obviously more portable…
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.

Best noise cancelling headphones: Bose QC25

7. Bose QuietComfort 25

Best wired noise cancelling headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 20 hours
Wired option: Wired only, in fact
Reasons to buy
+Recently appearing at a much lower price+Noise cancelling and audio remain impressive
Reasons to avoid
-At their old RRP they seem distinctly overpriced

Some headphones are born great, some achieve greatness by getting a whacking great price cut that makes them way more attractive. Bose's QC25 used to cost about the same as the amazing, wireless over-ear cans above it in this list, which is pretty crazy.

That's not because Bluetooth connectivity is the be-all and end-all, of course, but the move to wireless also ushered in far greater noise-cancelling technology and DSP.

However, while the old QC25 may not sound quite as good as the QC35 and its Bluetooth bros, they share the same businesslike look, highly comfortable feel and still have very pleasing audio. 

There just happens to be a wire attached to them. Some may well even prefer this, though – less drain on your phone's battery, and you can continue to use them (without the noise-cancelling) when the 20-hour battery life comes to an end.

A carry case is also included, and the QC25 folds up to a pleasingly compact size. 

For as long as the QC25 is on sale (last we looked, it was about £130), it comes highly recommended.

8. Sennheiser PXC 550

The nearest thing to an 'audiophile' ANC headphone

Specifications
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

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.

Marshall Mid ANC

9. Marshall Mid ANC

Best on-ear headphones with noise cancelling

Specifications
Battery life: 30 hours
Wired option: Yes
aptX: Yes
AAC: No
Reasons to buy
+Brilliantly punchy and peppy sound+Neat styling, so long as you're a rock dude/chick
Reasons to avoid
-The ANC costs a considerable premium compared to the Mid without ANC…-…But it's not the most effective

Marshall headphones are sometimes compared to Beats as their sound is deemed to be rather coloured. This is not a very reasonable comparison however. The worst Beats headphones, a few years ago, used to reduce music to a kind of bass- and mid-range-heavy sludge, then charge you 300 quid for the privilege. Marshall's DSP, by contrast, makes everything sound punchy, bright, lively and rockin', from metal to techno and most points in between.

These are the Marshall Mid headphones, with the added bonus of noise cancelling. They sound very much like their ANC-less sibling, but with the flick of a switch, you can quell background sound to an extent. 

My only quibble with this is that the noise-cancelling is considerably more, uh, 'subtle' than on the market leaders placed at #1 to #4 on this list. Given the premium you pay for it, this does make me question whether most users might not be better off with the normal Marshall Mid instead. 

Nonetheless, a great sounding, great looking pair of headphones, with excellent battery life. Oh, but don't get them if you wear glasses – the 'firm' fit is so 'firm' that it starts to quite hurt after half an hour or so, as the arms of your specs are bored into your temples.

10. KEF Porsche Design Space One Wireless

The best looking noise cancelling cans for business-class folk

Specifications
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

Back to the 300-and-something-quid over-ear market again and these new arrivals from KEF and Porsche Design are yet another fantastic option.

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 PX, QC35 II and MH-1000XM2. It does a good job on flights – it really is aimed at the business class frequent flyer, I 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 terms of their musical quality when the ANC is turned on. 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. I 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 considerably more punk rock sound. 

Thankfully for Porsche Design's sophisticated punters, 30 hours of battery life means they will seldom need to go without ANC.

11. AKG N60NC Wireless

A great pair of on-ear noise-cancelling headphones, at a decent price

Specifications
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 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).

Sound is really excellent, and consistently good whether you're wired or wireless, and with or without noise cancelling. 

These are great headphones in short, although if I'm being pedantic, the noise cancelling is less perfect than on the premo, over-ear options here. On the other hand, the on-ear form does make them more portable, especially as they fold up.

Taotronics noise cancelling headphones

12. Taotronics TT-BH22

Best budget noise cancellers

Specifications
Battery life: 25 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+They are so cheap compared to the competition+Solid audio quality+Great value
Reasons to avoid
-The noise cancelling can't compete with the pricier options

I get a bit concerned whenever someone sends in cheaper audio products for review. Most of what I handle is fairly 'premium', and I do worry that cheaper products will turn out to sound just as good, and then I will feel like my whole life is a lie, based on glossy packaging and expensive 'lifestyle'-based advertising.

I was singing hallelujah, then, to find that these Taotronics noise cancellers sound nowhere near as good as your Sonys, Porsches and Boses. But then of course they don't; these cost less than 60 quid.

At that price the Taotronic Noise Cancelling Headphones are a steal, as they do offer very solid audio and excellent build quality. They just don't look or feel excessively cheap, although they admittedly don't exactly reek of premium plushness either.

Where they do noticeably fall down is in the quality of noise cancelling. On the street I found that turning it on added little to the excellent noise isolation provided by the pillowy ear cups. 

On trains, they do a decent job, but not remotely on a par with the really expensive options in this list. 

However, if you want a cheap pair of headphones that are well made, look good, sound good and offer noise cancelling as a kind of optional bonus on top, you can't really go wrong here. They'd be a perfect present.

13. Sony WF-1000X

Best noise cancelling true wireless headphones

Specifications
Battery life: 3 hours
Wired option: No
Reasons to buy
+Technically incredible+Great sound
Reasons to avoid
-Battery has same lifespan as a fruit fly-Not always very reliable connectivity

One for the early adopters, these true wireless buds are like Apple Airpods but with considerably better audio. 

Despite some annoying quirks around charging and staying connected (and a nasty habit of falling out when I'm cycling), the WF-1000X were a technical marvel when they appeared and they still have the best sound quality out of the true wireless crowd.

As part of an audiophile-friendly spec sheet that also includes AAC and aptX compatibility and an unusually good EQ adjuster, they also include ANC. This is surprisingly effective although of course, it's not remotely on par with the over-ear options here.

On the down side, the claimed battery life of three hours is pretty poor, and the real-life battery life of about two hours is really poor. A carry case-cum-battery is included, which claims to give two full recharges, but I find 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, and a succession of firmware updates appears to have made them more stable. Anyway, 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, albeit only for two hours at a time. The noise cancelling is a little bit of icing on top.

14. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 wireless on ear

Excellent audio and noise cancelling but slightly iffy connectivity

Specifications
Battery life: 22 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Very good noise cancelling+Excellent audio
Reasons to avoid
-Iffy Bluetooth connectivity

These Sennheisers are rather old, but back in the day 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 still 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 still feel the Sennheiser looks and sounds better than the Bose QC35, Bose's cans – and all the other premium wireless noise cancellers that have followed in its wake – offer even more impressive battery life and better Bluetooth connectivity. It took Sennheiser a few more goes before it worked out how to do wireless headphones that didn't suffer from occasional dropouts.