Noise pollution is distracting and unpleasant. Fortunately, good noise cancelling headphones can dampen the noise and keep your tunes crystal clear. We’ve tracked down the best of the bunch to make your next flight or commute more pleasant.
Not all noise cancelling headphones are created equal. Some companies call their product “noise cancelling” but really their headphones are just very well insulated. This passive noise reduction is akin to putting on the earmuffs we recommended in our roundup of hearing protection for kids. It doesn’t actually “cancel” out anything it just muffles external noises.
All the headphones below are actual active noise canceling headphones that have small external microphones and advanced circuitry to actively listen to the noise in the environment and creates a matched “anti-noise” wave to cancel out the external noise. It’s pretty neat stuff and if you’re deathly curious how it works this short but informative YouTube clip from SciShow does a great job explaining it:
We’ve focused on active noise cancellation methods which typically require separate batteries or to be charged via USB. While that means there’s a little more upkeep involved and you want to keep them powered at all times, it also means you’re protected from unwelcome noise far more effectively.
One thing worth noting: while the majority of people absolutely rave about their noise cancelling headphones (especially business travelers that spend a lot of time in airplane cabins) some people need time to get used to the headphones. Not everyone is affected by it, but some people report that the noise cancellation technology creates an odd sensation of pressure in their ears that goes away after a few days of using the headphones (but in some cases people don’t adapt to it at all). It’s not a common experience but should you purchase a pair and find them uncomfortable for a reason you can’t quite put your finger on, we’d prefer that you’re well informed.
For today’s roundup we’ve focused solely at over-ear solutions. These are generally more effective than in-ear options as there is more space to pack in the circuitry and a larger battery. Here are our top picks.
Bose QuietComfort 35 ($350)
Bose is a well established name in the headphone and speakers field, so it’s little surprise they’ve got a great pair of noise-cancelling headphones on the market. The QuietComfort 35 are a premium set of cans, with plenty of options. Crucially, you can adjust the level of noise cancellation to suit your environment. You need different settings depending on if you’re on a busy commuter train or just taking a quiet walk, after all.
Music is played at a consistently appropriate level thanks to volume-optimized EQ. There’s also a dual-microphone system so you can enjoy clear phone calls, as well as control your phone and music via services like Siri.
The headphones promise up to 20 hours of wireless play time, with up to 40 hours of listening if you opt for the wired mode. If you know you want a pair of over-the-ear noise cancelling headphones and you don’t want to do so much as a moment more of comparison shopping, you really can’t go wrong with the QuietComfort 35s—there’s the ubiquitous favorite of frequent fliers everywhere for a good reason.
Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, Noise-Cancelling, with Alexa Voice Control - Black
AKG Wireless Noise Cancellation Headphones ($300)
Promising crisp and powerful sound quality, the AKG Wireless Noise Cancellation Headphones pack a hefty punch. With both Bluetooth and Active Noise Cancellation switched on, you can listen to your music for about 15 hours uninterrupted. Or, you can just switch Active Noise Cancellation on and listen for about 30 hours via the headphones’ wired mode. It’s good and flexible. A button on the ear-cup controls your music playback.
One of the neatest things about these headphones is their flat-foldable design. Want to store them safely in a bag or even your pocket? They easily fit in with a tangle-free fabric cable making things even simpler. It’s ideal if you want something effective but discreet.
Bowers & Wilkins PX Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones ($400)
Bowers & Wilkins is well known for its high-performance sound equipment. You’ll find their audio system in many cars like BMWs and Maseratis. The PX Active Noise Cancelling Wireless Headphones are their first foray into noise cancelling headphones and they’re pretty great. Their sound quality is second to none, with adaptive noise cancellation that knows when to kick in exactly when needed. Three environmental filters are available, encompassing Flight, City, and Office scenarios.
The headphones provide about 22 hours of battery life with a power-saving Sleep mode for those times you put them down briefly. Simply put them on your head, and they switch back on automatically. They’re lightweight too, so they’re comfy to wear, and easy to pack away. For the ultimate solution, these are an essential purchase.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless Headphones ($350)
As you’d expect from a company with a long history of producing studio-quality headphones, the Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless Headphones offer superior sound quality and effective noise cancellation. Its NoiseGard technology makes sure that you don’t miss out on what you want to hear, just because someone nearby is talking loudly. Each step of the way, the noise cancellation system modifies itself according to your needs.
Where these headphones stand out from the crowd is with its control system. Besides offering voice prompts, they also have touch controls, NFC pairing, and a smart pause function. The touch controls dictate volume, playback features, and track skipping, while smart pause is initiated every time you unfold or fold your headphones. It’s those little things that make the Sennheiser PXC 550 headphones pretty great. Promises of up to 30 hours of battery life are the icing on the cake.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless – NoiseGard Adaptive Noise Cancelling, Bluetooth Headphone with Touch Sensitive Control and 30-Hour Battery Life
Plantronics Wireless Noise Cancelling Backbeat Headphones ($145)
Less than half the price of many of the other headphones listed here, the Plantronics Wireless Noise Cancelling Backbeat Headphones are a pretty effective mid-range choice. The active noise cancelling can easily be switched on or off, depending on the situation. The headphones might not automatically adjust to your needs on the fly like some of the pricier options here, but they get the job done.
Battery life weighs in at about 24 hours of music listening, with the option to switch to a cabled connection when that time expires. The headphones might lack some of the finer options of pricier fare, but if you want a straight forward form of noise cancellation without scrimping on audio quality, these are a good inexpensive option to take.
Poly (Plantronics + Polycom) Plantronics BackBeat PRO 2 Headphones - Wireless Noise Cancelling - Black Tan, Black and Tan
TaoTronics Active Noise Cancelling Bluetooth Headphones ($70)
Still not sure if active noise cancelling headphones are for you? The TaoTronics Active Noise Cancelling Headphones are some of the cheapest out there, so they’re perfect if you want to see how you get on with the technology.
Impressively, the battery life promised is still up to 25 hours, but maybe don’t expect the sound quality to be on a par with other entries here. However, if you’re not an audiophile but you still want some form of noise cancellation, these are a great option. They’re no frills while still being comfortable (thanks to memory foam cushioning) and effective.
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