Best noise cancelling headphones 2018: the answer to the noise of 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.

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 four excellent and very similar, over-ear options, for the most subjective of reasons: Sony's MDR-1000XM2 (baffling touch controls), Beats' Studio3 Wireless (the styling is less to our taste) and Bose's market-defining QC35 II (rather bland looks). And a newcomer: the KEF Porsche Design Space One Wireless (sounds especially bad with ANC turned off). 

Decisions, decisions…

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

1. Bowers & Wilkins PX

Narrowly the best over-ear noise-cancelling headphones

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.

2. 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

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.

3. 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.

4. Bose QC35 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.

Marshall Mid ANC

5. 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.

6. KEF Porsche Design Space One Wireless

The best looking noise cancelling cans

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.

7. 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
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.

8. AKG N60NC Wireless

Another great pair of on-ear noise-cancelling heapdhones

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

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.

9. 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.

10. 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.

10. 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 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

Specifications
Battery life: 16-33 hours
Wired option: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Extremely affordable+Good battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Build feels cheap

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.