(Pocket-lint) – Noise-cancelling has become a must-have feature in any good pair of headphones or earbuds, whether it’s used to isolate listening on a morning commute or drown out the drone of a jet engine.
With many more of us now working from home, too, and perhaps needing something to help block out its unique set of distractions, there’s every reason why you should invest in a pair.
With so many choices available, though, finding the best active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones for you is no easy task.
Some pairs will have more effective noise cancellation, while others may sound better, cost less or suit your eye more.
Finding the right balance for your tastes can be tricky, which is we’ve picked out what we believe to be the best pairs money can currently buy. Hopefully, this should make the decision a whole lot easier, though we also advise checking out the section below our picks for those who need a little help understanding what to look for.
What are the best noise-cancelling headphones?
- Sony WH-1000XM5
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Bowers & Wilkins PX7
- Sony WF-1000XM4
- Apple AirPods Pro
- Sony WH-1000XM4
Best ANC headphones: Our top pick
- Outstanding noise cancellation
- Superb sound quality
- Comfortable to wear for long periods
- No aptX support
- Don’t fold down like the previous models
The WH-1000XM5s are a masterclass from Sony, pairing comfort, a bold new design and superb performance – both sonically and in terms of active noise cancellation.
That makes for a very strong combination. If you’re travelling regularly and want to cut out droning noise, or if you just want to lose yourself in your music, the WH-1000XM5s are just a very slight cut above the next best options.
There are definitely a couple of sore points, such as how the new design doesn’t fold down as small as its predecessors, but anybody who wants the very peak ANC package shouldn’t look past this flagship Sony offering.
ANC headphones and earbuds we also recommend
The Sony WH-1000XM5 may be Pocket-lint’s pick for the top-performing ANC headphones, but we also know that they won’t be the right pair for everyone. That’s why we also recommend the four other picks below, including earbuds and headphones from Bose, Apple and Bowers & Wilkins.
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Outstanding noise cancellation
- Great balanced sound
- Cool design
Think of noise-cancelling headphones and the chances are high that you’ll think of Bose. Despite the unimaginative name, these over-ear cans deliver a very imaginative sound quality that rivals the best competition out there. And the multi-level noise-cancelling is pretty close to being class-leading.
There’s also smart assistant integration for Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Siri, a solid app for various customizations (but no EQ, sadly), and well-integrated touch-based controls on the right earcup.
Aside from the Sony XM5s, there’s no better pick to take on your travels. And, even then, we’re sure there are plenty of people that would actually prefer the overall package delivered by Bose here. The margins are very tight at the top.
- Great design
- Amazing sound
- Really solid ANC
Bowers & Wilkins is no stranger to the audio game; the British-based company has been going since 1966, and its older ANC pair of headphones, the PX, was a mainstay on this list. So, when we heard it was updating them with new tech, safe to say our ears certainly pricked up. When we actually got them onto our ears, our expectations were, amazingly, exceeded once again.
The PX7 headphones look great, and they sound even better. B and W’s noise cancellation is at the top of its class, and adding features like aptX Adaptive support makes for smoother listening experiences and better future-proofing. Really impressively, too, the headphones are even more comfortable than ever before, making for a dreamy user experience.
- Great sound
- Excellent ANC
- Improved battery life
- Quite chunky
- Not cheap at all
Sony has applied its audio expertise to noise-cancelling in-ear buds, not just headphones. We’ve seen what the company can do with a pair of over-ears, so we had mighty high expectations for the entirely wire-free in-ear model – now in its fourth-gen form.
These wireless in-ears deliver a well-balanced sound that leans neither too heavily on bass, nor higher levels. We found it to be just right. The noise-cancellation is just as accomplished, as well, effectively blocking out the general humdrum of everyday life, as well as plane and train noises.
Of course, being small in-ear buds in a portable case makes them very easy to carry around in your coat pocket or purse.
Apple AirPods Pro
- Really great ANC
- Amazing sound
- Great iOS integration
- More pedestrian on Android
In some ways, Apple took its time getting to noise cancellation, although the huge success of its AirPods without the feature might have given it some time to work with. The AirPods Pro adds the functionality at last, though, and in one fell swoop has solved what was likely to be most people’s two biggest issues with its earbuds.
Firstly, they can now fit a far wider range of ears, with three earbud sizes to pick from – rather than the “hope they fit” approach of the first two generations of standard AirPods. Secondly, the superb ANC Apple’s used means that you can actually rely on the AirPods Pro to be audible even on the busiest of commutes.
With slightly smaller stems than previously, they’re also less obvious than ever, design-wise, and make a great choice, especially if you’re an iPhone user. That quick and reliable pairing is as useful as ever.
- Superb cancelling
- Amazing sound
- Great looks and battery life
They might no longer be the latest headphones, but Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones are excellent at cutting out external noise, with only a slight drop-off compared to the newer XM5s. And they’re easier to fold up small.
Compared to the XM3s, the design tweaks add quality and refinement, while a more powerful chip provides the grunt to cancel out more noise.
The results are sensational, with the 1000XM4 not only sounding great as a set of headphones, but also being some of the most effective at combatting external noise through more selectable levels. It’s an outstanding package – and one that’s naturally available at a cheaper rate than its newer sibling.
Other headphones we considered
When trying to figure out what we believe are the best ANC headphones and earbuds currently available, we spent hours testing and researching. We consider a number of factors when it comes to recommending these options – and apply the same criteria when a new device is being considered for inclusion. It’s not all judged on our testing, either – we also try to factor in consumer reviews, brand quality and value.
In all of our roundups, there are also many products we test that don’t make the final cut. Since they may be the right fit for some people, however, we’ve listed them below.
How to choose some noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds
While active noise-cancellation (ANC) was once rare, there are now countless devices that offer it to choose from – here are some questions to help you narrow things down.
Do you want over or in-ear headphones?
When it comes to ANC, you’ve got a major choice on your hands between over-ear headphones and in-ear earbuds, both of which can be found with the tech and offer different benefits. Earbuds are way smaller and more portable, so are convenient for everyday use in our experience, while over-ears tend to offer the best isolation but are bulkier, making them more suited to home use or longer journeys.
It’s really up to personal preference, as well – some people simply don’t find earbuds as comfortable, and others can’t stand the pressure of over-ears, so if you have a strong leaning in either direction that will probably inform your thinking.
Are you on iOS or Android?
While most options on the market now cater pretty equally to both mobile operating systems, there are still some occasions when you’ll find a device works better on one than the other – particularly when it comes to Apple’s own products, which favour iOS.
This shouldn’t lock you out of any purchases, but it may make you more likely to go with a product, since tighter integration generally leads to easier user controls and pairing.
What’s your budget?
If you’re going into this sort of purchasing process we recommend that you work out what you’re happy to spend ahead of time, or you might find that you end up spending more than you intended. After all, ANC is still often the preserve of quite premium options, so a lot of the choices available are fairly pricey.
More about this story
Every product in this list has been tested in real-life situations, just as you would use it in your day-to-day life.
We’ve tested each and every one of the noise-cancelling devices on this list and have full reviews to back up our list, making sure that each meets the highest standards from an audio standpoint. While the noise-cancelling itself is key, it’s also important that wider sound quality isn’t compromised, and that everything is in balance.
Looks are also very important, since you have to wear these and feel comfortable doing so, and the price tag attached is a huge factor as well, and one to which we pay careful attention.
As with any roundup, it’s not possible to deliver a list that works for every type of user, but we lean on the experiences and opinions of the wider Pocket-lint team – as well as thoroughly assessing the areas above – in order to do our best in this regard.
What we always tend to avoid when compiling these picks are needless spec comparisons and marketing lines; we just want to provide an easy to understand summary that gives you an idea of what each device is like to use. Our verdicts are concise, but this is purely in the interest of brevity.
Writing by Conor Allison. Editing by Cam Bunton.