Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones 2020: Active Noise Cancellation Picks - Rolling Stone
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The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones We’re Using Right Now

For when you just want to tune into the music — and tune out the noise around you

Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Amazon

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Sometimes you just want to shut out the world around you. But if you can’t find a quiet space away from people, you can at least throw on a pair of headphones to drown out the noise. Pair the headphones to your streaming service and device (I.e. the Amazon Music app on your phone) and find your zen as you get lost to your favorite artists and tracks.

While dozens of companies are making decent headphones these days, if you want a truly immersive listening experience (think rich highs and deep, body-shaking bass), you’ll want to look for a pair of cups with noise-cancellation technology.

Keep in mind that no headphones will ever block out 100% of your surrounding noise (and many companies prefer the term “Active Noise Reduction” over “cancellation” for this reason). Not only would that dampen your listening experience, it would also pose a safety threat, say, if you were walking around outside and couldn’t hear a car or pedestrian approaching.

Still, we’ve found a bunch of great options that significantly reduce noise and keep distractions to a bare minimum, so you can tune into the music — and tune out that annoying chatter around you.

What Makes a Good Pair of Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

There are many factors to consider when choosing the best noise-cancelling headphones for you; below are the most important ones, which we considered while we were researching this list.

Style: Most noise-cancelling headphones are designed in the over-ear style, which means the earpads are large enough to cover your entire ear. This makes sense, because the large earpads block out some noise automatically by putting a solid barrier between you and the outside world. Still, to balance this list out we’ve included one pair of on-ear headphones and one pair of earbuds, so you have have the freedom of choice.

Noise-cancelling microphones: Active noise cancellation (ANC for short) works by zeroing out unwanted noise with the addition of other, almost imperceptible sounds. Microphones in your headset draw in outside noise, and then invert the sounds internally. The inverted soundwaves are then used to counteract the original waveforms, effectively “cancelling” them out.

Battery life: This is something to consider when choosing any pair of Bluetooth headphones, but it’s especially true with noise-cancelling pairs. Active noise-cancelling is a battery-hungry feature, so we set the bar high: all the headphones on this list get at least 20 hours of playback time per charge. The earbuds we chose get 4.5 hours, but have a charging case that bumps its total up to 24 hours.

Weight: If you’re going to be wearing a pair of headphones all day, you don’t want them to feel heavy. All of the headphones in this guide weigh around half a pound, which is pretty standard for this category.

What Are the Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

We rounded up our favorite pairs of noise-cancelling headphones to buy right now, based on audio quality, noise cancellation technology, battery life and ease of use.

1. Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Cancelling Headphones

How do you make a good thing even better? For Sony, whose WH-1000XM3 headphones topped our list as the best noise-cancelling headphone of the year, it meant adding new features and refining the little details rather than re-designing an already-impressive set.

Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless headphones review

Amazon

Sony’s brand new WH-1000XM4 headphones one-up their predecessor with intuitive features that make for a more seamless — and yes, whisper quiet — listening experience. The same noise-cancelling technology is in place here, with four microphones (two on each earcup) running ambient noise through the HD Noise-Cancelling Processor QN1. New to these headphones is the processor’s ability to customize its noise cancellation function based on the environment you’re in (I.e. a relatively quiet office vs. a busy freeway with traffic). These new headphones also have additional microphones that isolate outside sounds while you’re on the phone, resulting in clearer audio for both the speaker and receiver. We found no problem with the mics picking up our voice while on a call, and the ability to filter out noise for every environment makes it easy to take a fuss-free call both at home and on a walk or run.

The WH-1000XM4 headphones are great for travel — especially to eliminate the din of cabin noise if you’re on a plane — but we’ve found them especially great for work too. They’re super comfortable, even when wearing for hours at a time. The new headphones offer multiple device pairing, letting you switch from your laptop to a call with the touch of a button. Cup your hand over the right earpad to quickly pause music, say, if you need to talk to a colleague. And if you fully remove your headphones, the music automatically pauses.

Music-wise, the WH-1000XM4s really up the ante with the ability to process more nuances from a track, across a wider range of frequencies. Sony says its “Digital Sound Enhancement Engine” automatically upscales digital files for more pristine listening too, bringing out more clarity and depth. We tested the headphones out while listening to a number of genres, from hip-hop to classical, and audio was crisp and well-balanced — never overbearing. Volume and settings are easy to control on the headphones or through the easy-to-use app.

Like its predecessors, the headphones get up to 30 hours of playback time; a quick ten-minute charge gets you up to five hours of use. Sony’s WH-1000XM line has earned the company a reputation for creating some of the best noise-cancelling headphone out there. As someone who has used them regularly for over two years, its WH-1000XM4 is the noise-cancelling headphone to beat.

2. Marshall Mid A.N.C. Wireless Headphones

Marshall has made a name for itself by creating amps used by world-famous bands like AC/DC, but it’s slowly been entering the headphone arena. Its Mid A.N.C on-ear noise-cancelling pair are an example of why the company has been successful.

The Mid A.N.C get 20 hours of battery life with active noise-cancelling turned on, and 30 hours when it’s turned off. Marshall says the headphones can fully recharge in around three hours over MicroUSB. These headphones use four microphones to block noise, which is pretty standard, and mid-sized 40mm drivers (a driver is the part of the headphone that creates sound; the bigger, the better).

Marshall MID

Amazon

These headphones support Bluetooth 4.0, which is a slightly older version of the wireless audio standard. This means they’ll be a little less energy-efficient than the other options in this guide. This isn’t a big deal, but like charging over MicroUSB instead of USB-C, it’s a minor inconvenience. In terms of comfort, the Mid A.N.C have plush leather earpads, and weigh just 7.33oz. This makes it the lightest pair of headphones on this list besides Apple’s AirPods Pro.

When you hear the name Marshall, you might assume these headphones are meant for rock music, but you’d be surprised. I’ve tested them before, and found they’re a great all-around pair of headphones. Marshall’s custom tuning doesn’t overly boost the bass or treble; instead, the company made headphones that sound very detailed, and pleasant to listen to. That said, if you don’t like how they sound out of the box, you can adjust their EQ (equalization) through Marshall’s iOS or Android app.

3. Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Active Noise-Cancelling Wireless Headphones

Bowers & Wilkins is another vaunted audio company that has made the jump into high-end noise-cancelling headphones, and its latest offering is the PX7.

Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Amazon

In terms of technology, the PX7 are competitive — or better — than any option in this guide. The headphones have a four microphone array to block out noise, and can it to “adapt” to your surroundings in order block out the specific type of sounds. Bowers & Wilkins says the PX7 gets 30 hours of battery life per charge, and get six hours of playtime with a 15 minute charge. The headphones charge over USB-C.

The PX7 have a Bluetooth 5.0 chipset, which is the current standard. It’s more power-efficient than previous versions, and allows the headphones to create a stronger connection to your phone, so audio is less likely to cut out.

Modern technology and great battery life are important, but Bowers & Wilkins really spent time making sure these headphones sound great. The PX7 has 43mm drivers, which are the largest on this list. The headphones are often used by the same engineers at Abbey Road, who also use the company’s $15,000 800 series speakers.

The one double-edged sword with the PX7 is its physical design. The headphones are made out of carbon fiber, which makes them look sleek and modern, but makes them heavier than the other headphones in this guide. They weigh 10.7 ounces, which is only 1.7 ounces heavier than Sony’s WH-1000XM3, but every little bit counts when you’re wearing something on your head. This shouldn’t be a deal-breaker by any means, but just something to keep in mind.

4. Bose 700 Noise-Cancelling Headphones

For a long time, when someone asked about noise-cancelling headphones, the default answer was to go with Bose’s QC35. The company has been challenged by companies like Sony and Bowers & Wilkins, and has responded with the Bose 700 noise-cancelling headphones.

The 700s use a six microphone array to block out noise, and have 11 levels of noise-cancellation, so you can tune them to work best in your current environment. This is the most sophisticated noise cancellation system of any headphone in this guide, which proves Bose is taking this feature very seriously.

Bose 700

Amazon

Bose says the 700 noise-cancelling headphones get 20 hours of battery life with active noise-cancelling turned on, and can get 3.5 hours of playtime on a 15-minute charge. The headphones charge over USB. These charging times aren’t impressive compared to Sony and Bowers & Wilkins headphones, but you’ll still get through a cross-continental or international flight with plenty of battery life to spare. The lower battery life is a fair trade off for the additional noise-cancelling microphones, and the 700’s fairly light 8.8oz weight.

In terms of technology, Bose’s 700s have touch-sensitive controls on the right earcup like Sony’s WH-1000XM3. You can change their EQ, and access other options like Bose AR (a technology that intelligently blends your music to ambient sounds around you) through the Bose Music app on your smartphone. You can also access smart assistants like Amazon’s Alexa and Google Assistant with the push of a button. These headphones also support Bluetooth 5.0, the current standard for wireless connectivity.

Bose doesn’t say much about how the 700s sound, but the QC35 had a good reputation, and these headphones are built on similar technology. The company does tout Bose AR, so if you’re interested in getting to hear a cutting-edge audio technology, the 700s are a good option. Still, it seemed Bose really prioritized nailing noise cancellation, so it could regain its status as the default option for travelers and commuters.

5. Sennheiser 450BT Wireless Headphones

Sennheiser is a familiar name in the audio world, with their headphones used by everyone from casual music listeners to sound engineers and artists. These 450BT headphones fall somewhere in between, delivering studio-worthy sound in a lightweight, portable unit that delivers a lot of bang for its buck. Expect pretty decent bass, with good contrasts and a wide, dynamic range of mids and highs, even when the volume is turned up.

sennheiser noise cancelling headphones

Amazon

The wireless headphones use Bluetooth 5.0 technology for easy pairing, with AAC and AptX Low Latency codecs for stutter-free audio transmission. Sennheiser’s active noise cancellation technology creates a deep, immersive listening experience, helping you zone out from the outside world. The grippy ear cups help to further seal out noise.

A single charge gets you up to 30 hours of playtime. The headphones use a USB-C connection for fast charging. Like other models on our list, the headphones support voice assistants like Siri and Google Assistant.

If you’re commuting or traveling, these headphones fold down into a small, D-shaped package that tucks into a carrying case for easy portability. When it comes to features for price-point, these headphones deliver on value.

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