Noise cancelling headphones are the business when it comes to headphones right now. Everyone is talking about them – whether positively or negatively – and rightly so.
It is fair to say headphones have witnessed a significant metamorphosis over the years. Not so much as to the apparatus itself (although that has seen its fair share of change), but the technology that goes into them has and continues to undergo a constant state of advancement.
Initially, headphones worked to keep the outside cacophony at bay by simply trying to out-blast everything within the vicinity. This meant you had to turn up the volume to unwanted levels in the event you found yourself in noisy surrounds. Suffice to say it wasn’t the most ideal model for those times when you just need the peace and quiet, and double so in this increasingly frenetic modern world we live in today.
Then along came noise cancelling headphones, long the preserve of pilots and road warriors.
Equipped with special microphones and software, they actively drown out sound before it reaches your ears. This explains their increasing popularity with everyone from students, to office dwellers, to ordinary commuters, to airline passengers.
Factors to Consider When Buying Noise Cancelling Headphones
Deciding on the best noise cancelling headphones to buy is not as easy as it may sound. There are a host of factors to consider. And with the market flooded with a wealth of options all purporting to be good, it can get a bit overwhelming.
Here are some crucial things to keep in mind when buying noise cancelling headphones.
Active vs. Passive Noise Cancellation
Passive noise-cancelling headphones use physical methods to block out noise, mostly high frequency and unsteady sounds. They achieve this by creating a seal (through the layers of foam) between the headphone cups and user’s ears. The idea is to have a physical barrier between your ear and the din.
This, however, is more of noise isolation than noise cancelling, and it comes with the downside of making surrounding noises imperceptible which can be hazardous in some environments.
Active noise-cancelling headphones, on the other hand, employ digital signal processing to cut out ambient sound by approximately 70%. They may or may not combine this with a physical seal as the one present in passives. They work by making use of a processor and mic that constantly monitor ambient sounds and adjust as need be.
Active noise-cancelling headphones are ideal for blocking low and steady frequencies – sound of refrigerator, car engines, constant roar of a plane etc. High frequency and intermittent sounds (conversations and sound of baby crying) are more difficult to keep out.
The term ‘active’ means they require energy to operate, the source of which is a rechargeable battery. That in itself should explain the obvious shortcoming of these headphones. Another drawback associated with them is background hiss, although this is less prominent when audio is playing.
At the end of the day, if you are looking for proper noise cancellation headphones, active is the way to go.
Style of Headphones
Noise cancelling headphones come in different builds and style.
We have the in-ear headphones which are normally plugged in the ear’s canal. They do block out sound but don’t make a very good job of it, with their biggest pull being the portability they offer.
There are also around-ear headphones (aka circumaural headphones) which cover the ear, thereby creating a seal. Similar to the bulky cans employed in recording studios, these headphones block out more sound but have the disadvantage of making the ears sweaty and bringing that itchy feel when worn for long periods of time, say, during a long-haul flight.
And then there are the over-ear headphones (aka supra-aural headphones) which sit on the ear. The very best of them can do as good a job as their circumaural counterparts in terms of drowning out outside sounds, and some people tend to find them more comfortable.
As mentioned, active noise cancelling headphones require batteries to function. And if you end up opting for this type of headphones, then battery life is definitely something you want to factor in.
Some devices come with their own built-in units which are rechargeable. Others require your standard replaceable batteries, and if you end up buying one of these, consider stocking up on extras to avoid disappointment for when you need to use the headphones. AA battery sizes are easier to find compared to the smaller AAA types, but irrespective of size, the key is to always have a spare with you.
Something else to consider with replaceable battery headphones is how the batteries are housed in the earcups. Obviously, a single battery is likely to be more comfortable than the weight of two.
All headphones are not equal, and the fact that they are noise cancelling headphones doesn’t mean that is an automatic guarantee on quality. While there are a few worth your salt, a whole bunch of them are bogus. Yes, rubbish.
The quality is dictated by a list of factors such as the headphone design, materials used and type of internal drivers. Average devices are often enough to keep out background sounds in a setting such as an office environment. However, premium builds are best suited to not only muffle louder external noises but also provide a richer listening experience.
A weak headband tension causes the headphones to easily fall off. An extra-sturdy band may not be too comfortable over long periods of time.
The fact that headphones can be easily damaged is not lost on anyone. That in mind, a hard case is always a safer bet in terms of degree of protection than the soft pouch some noise cancelling headphones may come in.
Some headphones have joints that allow them to fold up into remarkable sizes.
A compact size is no doubt a wonderful thing, but if the presence of more joints means the headphone will be weaker structurally, then they are better not there.
As in most things, the-more-expensive-the-better rule applies in noise cancelling headphones too: you get what you pay for. These headphone types do cost a pretty penny to be honest, so they are best considered an investment; which they are.
But this doesn’t mean there aren’t good affordable options out there. Just make sure you know what you are paying for, and a large part of that should be dictated by 1. the sound quality and 2. what you are purchasing them for in the first place: noise cancellation capability.
When all things are considered though, your budget will, to a large extent, determine the pair you end up taking home.
The Best Noise Cancelling Headphones
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to choose a good pair.
We have made the job easier for you by researching dozens of models so you do not have to. Below is our list of the best noise cancelling headphones you will find on the market, in no particular order.
In the world of audio technology, not many names can sit on the same table with Sony. It comes as no surprise then to find them making an entry into the list of best noise cancelling headphones 2017.
They do so with the Sony MDR-1000X model, a circumaural (around-ear) type of headphone with one of the best noise cancelling capabilities you are likely to come across. Heck, these are the Japanese giant’s best ever noise cancelling headphones, and that alone should tell you they are a Pretty. Big. Deal.
One of the highlighted features on this set is the touch control that comes embedded in the right earcup for volume adjustment (swiping up and down) and changing music tracks (forwards and backwards). Double-tap is for Play/Pause. The left cup, on the other hand, is embedded with an NFC chip that allows for quick Bluetooth pairing. It also features buttons for power on the left side, Ambient Sound Mode and, of course, noise cancellation.
You would bet on Sony to go a step further and that’s exactly what they did with this other special feature: the ability to muffle music. And we don’t mean the press-a-button kind of muffle, although there is this provision as well. Placing your hand over the right earcup deadens everything, allowing you to talk and listen without the need to keep taking off the headphones. Once you’re done, simply remove your hand and playback resumes.
The Sony MDR-1000X cans are comfortable on the wear even over lengthy periods, thanks to the faux leather on each cup that pushes against your ear comfortably while allowing for ample ‘breathing’ space. These headphones, featuring a stunning sleek design, come in two colours: Gray-Beige and classic Black, complete with a hard carry case.
Most noise cancelling headphones have been accused of trading off audio quality for noise cancellation, including many premium ones. With the Sony MDR-1000X headphones, this need not be a concern of yours. This is as superior a sound as you will get, allowing you to immerse yourself in your world, no matter the surrounds.
You would expect such a superior product to come with a hefty price tag, and that’s exactly what you get.
And oh, did we mention they are wireless? The Sony MDR-1000X are a serious set of headphones, without a doubt one of the best noise cancelling headphones available at present.
- Superior audio quality
- Highly effective noise cancellation
- High comfort
- Touch controls and overall sleek design
- Good battery life (up to 20 hours)
- Price tag
If there is a name that divides opinion among fans in the headphone industry, it has to be Bose. While it has its loyal legion of followers, there is a section that believes Bose is all about marketing and that they aren’t as good when it comes to sound as they make themselves to be.
Regardless, one of the few things that the majority can agree on is that the Bose QuietComfort 25 noise cancelling headphones are right up there with the very best, if not the best overall wired noise cancelling headphone available. The fact that they have been in the market for three years now and still holding their own speaks volumes. In fact, it would be fair to say this is one of the best noise cancelling releases ever.
What makes the Bose QuietComfort 25s so good is that they have managed to get most of the basic things right. The sound is not the best in the world, but it’s decent enough for most average listeners. The noise cancellation is awesome so much so that it even beats a good deal of more expensive options out there. The comfort level is good. The headphones can connect via NFC. They fold up great. Battery life of upwards of 20 hours should serve just fine for many of us. And what’s more, there is a selection of three colours to make your pick from.
If you don’t mind a wired set with decent sound and superior noise cancellation, the QC 25s are a pair you can rely on for years. They get the job done, no questions asked.
- Full sound
- Stunning noise cancellation
- A little older on the market
The Philips Fidelio NC1 are over-ear (supra-aural) type of headphones that work surprisingly well at noise cancellation for this type of headset. This can be attributed to the memory foam on the ear pads which makes for a great seal over the ear. However, this headphone doesn’t completely wash away some sounds – tapping of keyboard, for example, or completely muffling the jet engines.
The switch to activate the noise cancelling feature is located on the left can. Flicking it automatically bumps up the volume in turn and this may catch one by surprise if they were not expecting it. As for the sound itself, it’s high-definition quality with great balance so pretty good, although these headphones have been accused of sound leakage.
The Philips Fidelio NC1 are not wireless, in case that is a selling point for you. They come in a minimalist hard case, and their battery life is impressive, delivering up to approximately 30 hours.
The NC1 may have its weaknesses, but for this price range, you aren’t likely to find a better deal.
- Overall great quality build
- Magnificently-balanced HD sound
- Superb battery life
- Value for money
- Minor sound leakage
If you have been using headphones for a while, then Sennheiser is a brand you most likely are familiar with. For those who don’t know much about the German company, this is a brand that rivals the Sonys, Boses and Beats’ of this world when it comes to sound quality.
They have been in the audio equipment scene for quite the longest time. This has allowed them to lay a solid foundation, and particular emphasis has been rendered on design, sound signature and versatility, all evident in every individual product they unleash upon the ever growing list of admirers: casual listeners, business listeners, audio pros, audiophiles you name them.
The Sennheiser Momentum series has been lauded for its killer audio performance and noise cancelling capabilities, and no set epitomises this more than the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless Headphones. This pair has gotten over its predecessor’s shortcomings in sound quality and comfort levels by offering superior, refined sound and making the earcups softer and more spacious.
A quick glance at these over-ear cans and what is likely to catch your eye is the distinctive stainless steel sliders. Opinion on the look is divided depending on whom you ask, but we for one think it serves to accentuate the overall look of the headphone. The leather cups provide a high degree of comfort, and as much as they may have been given a kick in terms of size, they are not the biggest in the world.
As far as sound goes, the Momentum 2.0 Bluetooth headphones have one of the best sounds you can get in a Bluetooth headphone, allowing for a rich, totally immersive listening experience, a factor aided by the inclusion of the aptX codec. You’ll warm up to them especially if you are big on bass.
The noise cancellation ability is what you could call acceptable – not up there, but still manages to get the ordinary job done.
Battery life is good, allowing for about 20 hours, and a cable is provided to allow you to listen in passive mode should the juice run out. It can also connect via NFC.
The biggest cry over the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 headphones has been with regard to price. The headphones are great quality overall with ample features, sure, but the cost could have been a little lower.
When all things are considered though, there is a lot to like about this set, hence the reason it makes it on our list of best noise cancelling headphones 2017.
- Best in class sound
- Host of features
- Noise cancelling ability could be better
- Hefty price tag
It was in 2015 when Audio-Technica wowed us with the statement-making ATH-MSR7, an impressive line of over-ear headphones that are part of the SonicPro series particularly built for High-Resolution music buffs.
The Japanese giant has carved a name for itself as designers of some of the best sounding headphones on the market. And these two – the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7GM (Gun Metal) and Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7BK (Black) – were no different, perfectly trending the fine line between sexy aesthetics and kickass audio output.
Deliver they did, and the MSR7 range continues to be a blockbuster hit among headphone hunters. There was one notable downside though – the lack of noise cancelling technology. Then again, these were not meant to be noise cancelling headphones. Nevertheless, it’s a call Audio-Technica has sought to answer.
Enter the Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7NC.
We said it before and we’ll say it again: there is a long list of noise cancelling headphones out there that don’t sound great, including high-end ones. Most tend to lose audio texture and detail the moment you flick that switch. However, the one thing you will notice with these cans is that the sound quality is not affected when you turn on noise cancelling. In debates surrounding noise cancelling, that’s a biggie. Whopper.
This is even more so considering the audio quality delivered by the MSR7NC is nothing short of remarkable: Hi-Res, versatile audio with great clarity and minimal distortion. If you crave authentic reproduction, this is the go-to guy.
The effectiveness of the noise cancelling feature itself is not right up there with say, the MDR-1000X or QuietComfort 35, but it can still hold its own with regard to muffling low frequency noise. The earcups have these acoustic vents which naturally keep unwanted sounds from infiltrating your sound space, a feature complemented by the closed-back design.
What’s more, it has an impressive battery life of close to 30 hours aided by the fact that it is short of one key feature, assuming it matters to you: Bluetooth.
All in all, if you’re looking for true quality sound with a tincture of noise-cancelling, you can never go wrong with this headset.
- Unparalleled audio quality
- Comfortable cans with overall sleek design
- Great battery life
- Speedy access to compatible mic and volume controls
- Lack of Bluetooth
- Inability to use wireless (although countered by the pros of cabled headphones, such as quality audio)
Another Sony on the list, we know…At the risk of sounding biased, we were thoroughly impressed by the H.ear on Wireless MDR-100ABNs, and this we say from a totally impartial point of view.
They may seem targeted at the fashion savvy consumer, but as you would expect from the Japanese audio technology behemoth, they are by no means no looks without substance. Sony really got it right with the balance between sound quality and ANC performance, and for that alone, you will find this pair of headphones on many a top 10 list of best noise cancelling headphones available today.
And it is good we make this clear: this is not just any audio; it is Hi-Res Audio, as crisp as it gets. The around-ear headset offers effective noise cancellation and ability to adapt to your current surroundings – whether at the office or tube – actively seeking and decimating any low-register noise. This means you don’t have to increase the volume in noisy settings as all that simply washes away.
What makes the noise cancellation feature so effective also happens to be its Achilles heel. The positioning of the mic at the bottom of each cup works wonders in terms of eliminating ambient sound. But it also means it can get a little rackety in blustery weather as wind tends to beat around the holes.
Being a Sony wireless headphone, the MDR-100ABNs also feature LDAC support. This is a proprietary standard of transmitting audio files at thrice the data rate of your regular wireless headphones. While this is of benefit to owners of other Sony offerings like Xperia handsets and Sony MP3 players, these headphones also feature aptX codec (which works with more devices) as well as NFC.
Another notable downside is that the set sounds quite poor when no power is running through it, but with power flowing, the sound is full and fun. Plus, you won’t notice much difference in quality when you flick on the ANC, a huge plus.
The overall design is sophisticated, with five urbane colours to suit different individual styles: Charcoal Black, Cinnabar Red, Bordeaux Pink, Lime Yellow, and our personal favourite, Viridian Blue.
- Fun sound with balanced highs
- Good active noise cancellation
- Great style and array of colour options
- More than 20 hours of battery life
- Compact control layout under each cup
- Headphones don’t fold flat
- Earcup shape could be bigger
The Bose QuietComfort 35 noise cancelling headphones are the talk of the town at the moment, as they have been since they were first announced in 2016. Reason is because they are deemed the Rolls Royce of the noise cancelling headphone category; the headphones to benchmark upon.
Bose has for long been lauded for its noise cancelling technology, and this latest stab has only served to reinforce that standing. It is an upgrade on the Bose QueitComfort 25 which was a bestseller in its own right. Still is.
In fact, there are barely any added features on this iteration, and this has allowed Bose to divert their focus on the things that matter: creating a beautifully textured, versatile sound and exceptional noise cancelling capabilities, two aspects the QC 35s have become synonymous with.
Unlike its predecessor, this set is wireless but still retains the wired option. The around-ear cups are big enough to sit comfortably on even the largest of ears. Their overall design also means noise would have its work cut out for it when trying to penetrate.
The QuietComfort 35s have kept up with the unflashy theme of their predecessor, although the volume control buttons have now shifted to the right earcup. They have multiple connection options including Bluetooth and NFC. And with a battery life of about 20 hours, that’s just about sufficient enough.
If you are debating whether or not to splash on the Bose QC 35s, you can revel in the knowledge that this will be money well spent if you are looking for quality sound and noise cancelling features at the same time. Many names of repute have had the audacity to christen these the best noise cancelling headphones on the market right now, and that alone should tell you what you are in for.
- Broad and beautifully textured soundstage
- Exceptional noise cancellation
- Active EQ
- Bland looks
- Price tag
The H9 is flat-out an excellent pair of wireless noise cancelling headphones. By and large, the H series range of headphones are some of the most classically designed sets in the history of headphone design. That’s because they are made with one discerning client in mind: the high roller.
The H9 is the latest release off the B&O Play stable, and it is the pinnacle of not just B&O’s headphone range, but most high-end sets. It features machined-aluminium hardware, with memory foam ear padding swathed in plush lambskin, with a lightly padded, stitched headband rounding off the look.
But how do they measure up in terms of performance?
To put it simply – amazing. In fact, any one of the sets from the H series range – Beoplay H6 through Beoplay H9 – have all been fantastic offerings with one of the best sound quality and noise cancellation features available on headphones. What puts off many when it comes to these sets is the steep cost and the fact that there are cheaper priced models guaranteeing basically the same thing. Well, almost.
The Bang & Olufsen H9 doesn’t veer far off from its predecessors in terms of features.
Visually, there is little difference from the H7 and H8, with the H9 still spotting the sliding power switch of the H7, as well as the small LED on the bottom of the right cup where is also situated the 3.5mm cable input and micro-USB charging port. Again, the left earcup houses a removable Lithium-ion battery, just like the H7.
The H9 also borrows the noise cancelling abilities (and price) of the Beoplay H8, which was magnificent and could be said to be only second to Bose’s QCs. And just as the H8, this latest offering also has one of the most cosy on-ear cups, a design that allows even those with glasses to don the cans comfortably without the need to take off their glasses.
As far as the downsides go, the H9 battery life with noise cancelling has been shortened and allows only 14 hours per charge (compare that to the H7’s 20 hours). As much as that’s still sufficient for a day’s worth of sound, it’s significantly lesser than the slightly affordable options from Sony and Bose. The touch controls also remain quirky.
The sound quality itself is fantastic, and switching on ANC actually improves the output as opposed to being a detriment.
Overall, if splurging £400 on a set of cans is not a biggie for you, then by all means, the extra clarity and modest noise cancellation offered by the H9 is well worth it when you factor in the ergonomic aspect.
- Great sound
- Good noise cancellation
- Luxurious headphones
- Steep cost
- Touch control quirks
Noise cancelling headphones play a big role in cutting out ambient sound which can be considered a modern-day scourge. However, it is good to understand that no headphone will keep out noise 100% and anyone telling you so is messing with your intelligence.
It is clear that these sets cost a tad higher compared to your regular Joes. But if they help you focus on your tasks better, or make you 5 per cent more productive, or probably help you bring back sanity in this chaotic modern world, then a price range averaging upwards of £200 will pay for itself in no time.
And by opting for any one of the options we have outlined in this review, you can be assured you are throwing your money on the best noise cancelling headphones available on the market.