Why noise-cancelling headphones are THE essential student purchase these days

The one piece of new tech I wish I'd had back in my uni days? Some noise-cancelling headphones, no question

noise cancelling headphones for students
(Image credit: Sony)

I went to university [cough] years ago, and at the time Wi-Fi wasn't available in the accommodation, smartphones and tablets basically didn't exist, and MacBook air was what came out of the fan vents. But you know the piece of technology available now that I really wish I had back then? Noise-cancelling headphones.

One thing you don't realise about uni until you get there is that you don't get to be in control of your environment very often. People have parties outside your window the night before your exam. They practice music in your house when you're trying to write some coursework. They type loudly in shared work areas when you have a headache and need to finish something urgently. The person next door makes other noises of note in the middle of the night.

Even if you're a diligent student for getting coursework done way before deadline, and you plan a great schedule for sitting down to work on it, there's no guarantee the world around you will actually let you concentrate.

The best noise-cancelling headphones are designed to block outside noise. They work by using microphones on the outside of the headphones to analyse the noise around you, then they calculate what the opposite sound frequencies to the outside noise are, and then mix that into your music using clever processing. The outside noise and the opposite frequencies cancel each other out, leaving just the music to reach your ears. Ingenious.

Now, noise-cancelling headphones aren't perfect – they work better with low frequencies than higher ones, and the less fluctuation in the noise the easier they find it to cancel it effectively – but even with the types of noise they struggle with, they still cut it back massively, and then your music can kind of wash away the rest.

It means you can concentrate when you need to, sleep when you need to, or just tune things out when you need some chill-out time.

The most effective noise-cancellation tech is found in over-ear headphones, but the best noise-cancelling earbuds also do an excellent job of toning down the world, so if you prefer the comfort of in-ear buds (or you just want them to be pocketable), you might prefer to go that route.

The one downside to noise-cancellers? They're more expensive than regular headphones, because good noise blocking requires fancy processing and a pretty great speaker inside. There are really cheap options available, but the effectiveness of the noise cancellation will be disappointing – this is one of those products where it's worth spending whatever you can afford to.

The headphones I'd most recommend for uni students are the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the JBL Tune 660NC. That's with a focus on them being more affordable options – the Sony is easily the best-sounding and most effective for cancellation in the mid-range price bracket, while the JBL is the best we've tested for under £100/$100. Here's our full guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones, though.

When it comes to in-ear noise-cancelling buds, we recommend the Nothing Ear (1) for under £100/$100, the Beats Studio Buds if you want something without the stems that are still close to that price, or the Sony WF-1000XM3 for the mid-range option with the best noise-stopping power (though they're bulkier than the other options). Again, you can also check out our full guide to the best noise-cancelling earbuds for more options.

Matthew Bolton

Matt is T3's former AV and Smart Home Editor (UK), master of all things audiovisual, overseeing our TV, speakers and headphones coverage. He also covered smart home products and large appliances, as well as our toys and games articles. He's can explain both what Dolby Vision IQ is and why the Lego you're building doesn't fit together the way the instructions say, so is truly invaluable. Matt has worked for tech publications for over 10 years, in print and online, including running T3's print magazine and launching its most recent redesign. He's also contributed to a huge number of tech and gaming titles over the years. Say hello if you see him roaming the halls at CES, IFA or Toy Fair. Matt now works for our sister title TechRadar.