It's fair to say that the best noise cancelling headphones aren't as much a luxury as they are a necessity these days, particularly as the world is opening back up and we're forced to face it again. If you're travelling, whether it be in-flight, on the bus, on foot or by some other creative measure, they're perfect: they cut out outside noise, allowing you to focus on whatever media you're playing. With that background noise squashed, noise cancelling headphones typically allow you to listen at lower volumes without needing to blast it away with sound.
The best noise cancelling headphones are not just for travel. They're perfect for leaning back and chilling out, and great for concentration – if you're struggling with an assignment, fighting with the din of a distraction-laden office, just want to block out (most of) the kids' wailing, noise cancelling headphones will do it.
For this list we've selected the finest noise cancelling headphones at a number of distinct price points. You can certainly spend a lot if you want to, and you'll generally get better-made headphones with superior noise cancelling if you do, but equally it's possible to get some very creditable active noise cancellation (ANC) at a price which doesn't break the bank. And we're not just looking at noise cancelling cans here; ANC over-ears, in-ears, on-ears, wired or wireless, whatever your favourite headphone style, there's a noise cancelling option to match.
We have a dedicated guide to the best noise-cancelling earbuds if you're looking just for buds. If you just want to know today's best noise cancelling headphones deals then head straight for that, though you'll find the lowest prices for all the headphones we recommend right on these pages.
What are the best noise cancelling headphones?
If you want the best overall – balancing powerful audio, features and noise-stopping power – go for the Sony WH-1000XM4. They're comfy, they're sturdy, and they pack some serious chef's kiss ANC power. If you want to save a few bucks, the model that this Sony replaces – the Sony WH-1000XM3 – is still available for a much lower price, and is the best mid-range option.
For solely the best actual ANC power, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (just) take the cake. For the best cheap noise cancellers, you need the JBL Tune 660NC.
The best noise cancelling headphones right now
The Sony WH-1000XM4 noise cancelling headphones are lightweight at 255g, and feel it. The broad, soft ear cups sit brilliantly on the head, as does the remarkably soft headband. They do 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.
Looks-wise, they're not entirely exciting, and you'll absolutely be able to find some sexier-looking cans elsewhere on this list, but they're also not offensive. It's like Sony had a five-hour design meeting, and the frustrated result once all the donuts and coffee ran out was to create some headphones that just don't upset anyone.
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. You can read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review here.
If you're looking to immerse yourself in music without spending hundreds for the privilege, the JBL Tune 660NC delivers excellent noise-cancelling capabilities. They're genuinely surprising. You wouldn't expect on-ear headphones to block out noise this well, but they do. Paired with a weighty, punchy sound, there's basically no hope of the outside world distracting you from your favourite tracks.
The battery life is another feature to shout about here: with ANC switched on, the JBL Tune 660NC 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.
This set of cans is proof positive that there's very solid ANC available on the lower end, and reaches so high on our list chiefly for that reason – and the other reasons listed in our full JBL Tune 660NC review.
Don't get us wrong – spending more gets you much more effective noise cancellation. But for those on a budget who just need a bit of quiet, they're a top buy.
While the over-ear Sony headphones don't stray too far from the design of their predecessor, the WF-1000XM4 offers a significant trimming of the XM3's wacky rectangular driver enclosure, replacing it with a more bulbous but more subtle affair. Not everyone loves it, but however you feel about the WF-1000XM4's looks, one listen is enough to prove that these have precisely what it takes to win you over.
The ANC is not quite a strong as the best over-ear options, but absolutely superb in its own right; the overall sound one of the best, most dynamic and detailed audio experiences we've ever had with ear buds, a real step up from the already-great XM3s. This is, at least in part, down to the new DAC, analogue amplifier, and the same DSEE Extreme audio processor with Edge-AI featured in the fourth-gen over-ears.
Battery life is extensive at around eight hours on a charge, which is a real plus, and they offer fast pairing and Find My support for Android devices – though there's no such support for Apple, and there's no aptX HD on board. These are very minor omissions in what are otherwise a set of very accomplished true wireless noise cancelling ear buds. Check out our full Sony WF-1000XM4 review.
The XM4 may be lording it up there at the top spot, ruling the best noise cancelling headphones roost, but let's be honest here: the previous generation of XM3 cans are still absolutely brilliant ANC headphones. They're comfy, they have excellent noise cancelling, and they're pretty superb in the sound department, too.
In fact, at this point, they may be an even better buy depending on your perspective. Stock still appears plentiful, and given that they've been superceded they're now a chunk cheaper than they were in their prime. There are plenty of colours on the market - though even in beige or blue the design is just as plain as their successor, so you won't be turning too many heads - and they offer up a lot of connectivity flexibility.
Would we buy them over the XM4s? Heck no. As subtle as the difference may be to the untrained ear, the XM4s do offer a true upgrade. Would we buy them over the budget JBL headphones above? Honestly, we'd advocate saving up and going Sony if you can.
If you want a pair of noise cancelling headphones for making calls and using voice assistants, Bose's breathlessly-named cans – usually referred to as NC 700, which reads a bit sexier – are an excellent 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 brilliant previous-gen Sony cans but not precisely perfect. We 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; on the other hand, they're also very easy to listen to for hours on end.
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, we think the Bose NC 700 is a sexier looking pair of headphones than Sony's effort, which is not something you could have said about the old QuietComfort 35. This is another great pair of ANC headphones, and clearly the Bose NC 700 are a worthy buy – as our full Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review explains.
Despite Bose's position at the very beginning of the noise cancelling timeline - its founder famously sketched his ideas for noise cancelling tech on a napkin while enduring a loud flight - this is the first set of ANC earbuds the company has put out.
Design is very reminiscent of Sony's older buds, with a chunky rectangular outer packing in some hefty drivers. Noise cancelling is, as you might expect, pretty brilliant, more than good enough to make up for the (just slightly) lacking battery life, at 6 hours on a charge or 18 with the included case. That's not deal-breaking, by any means, but it may not be enough for lengthy travel situations.
And the price? Well, it's possibly a little high, particularly considering that Sony's WF-1000XM4s sit at basically the same point – and you'll find a slightly more detailed soundstage there. But they're a damn good buy, and our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review goes into all the details.
Though this set of cans looks quite dull compared to Bowers & Wilkins' first noise cancelling headphones (the PX), it is still more chic than Sony's efforts. The audio quality and noise cancelling are also extremely close to Sony's XM3s, which puts these in good company.
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 we'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 basically B&W's usual exciting but well balanced signature sound.
In terms of comfort, the PX7 is excellent, though the likes of the WH-1000XM3 and WH-1000XM4 are, well, 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.
The noise cancelling on the PX7 is excellent, though about a quarter step below the best. 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. Here's our full Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review.
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.
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 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.
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 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.
Beats' buds are, let's be frank, about as un-Beats as a Beats product comes, at least if you don't buy the eye-searing red ones pictured above. The heavy, almost brash mix of the past gives way to something far more subtle; the styling leans towards the more button-down than bombastic. In short, they're suitable for folks with whom Beats hardware may once have entirely clashed.
They're smart cookies, supporting both Android and iOS' device-finding functions (so no worries about Apple's ownership of Beats dragging these entirely towards iOS) and they're built well too. Battery is so-so, at only five hours with ANC switched on, and the noise cancelling is decent, if not market-leading.
But at essentially half the price, and with a darn sight smaller design than the Sony and Bose buds featured here, the Beats Studio Buds absolutely deserve a look, as our full Beats Studio Buds review explains.
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.