Best Noise Cancelling Headphones 2020: Reviews, Buying Guide, ANC - Rolling Stone
×
Home RS Recommends Electronics

The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Tune into the music — and tune out annoying chatter around you

Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Courtesy Amazon

Amazon

Products featured are independently selected by our editorial team and we may earn a commission from purchases made from our links; the retailer may also receive certain auditable data for accounting purposes.

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 You Need to Know Before Buying Noise-Cancelling Headphones

There are many factors to consider when choosing the right 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.

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

Marshall MID

Amazon

Amazon

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).

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.

Pros: Well-balanced sound, light frame.

Cons: MicroUSB charging and Bluetooth 4.0 aren’t the latest-and-greatest technologies.

Marshall Mid A.N.C, $199, available at Amazon

2. AirPods Pro

AirPods Pro

Courtesy Amazon

Amazon

Apple’s AirPods line has been a runaway success, and its latest model, the AirPods Pro, are the active noise-cancelling headphones I wear every day on my commute.

Noise-cancellation and earbuds don’t seem like they go together, but Apple’s four-mic system (two per bud) block out an incredible amount of ambient noise. They work best when blocking out consistent sounds (trains on a track, for example), but do a great all-around job. When I’m listening to music at a medium to high volume, everything around me fades into the background.

Where the AirPods Pro fall down a little is battery life. The buds get 4.5 hours of playtime per charge, but come with a charging case that can get you an additional hour of music listening (with active noise cancellation) when they’re charged for five minutes. In my experience, the only place you’ll encounter this problem is on a long-distance flight. The AirPods Pro charging case charges via USB-C, and supports wireless charging.

This battery trade off is definitely worth it considering these totally wireless earbuds weigh just 1.6oz, and can fit in your pocket. Speaking of fit, Apple includes three sizes of gummy tips for the earbuds (small, medium, large), so the AirPods Pro stay in your ears. It even includes a sound test that plays a tone and uses the earbuds’ built-in microphones to gauge whether you’re using the right eartips.

In terms of audio quality, I’ve been impressed at just how much Apple got right. Music from rock to folk to jazz sounds well-balanced and clear, even at high volumes. They have smaller drivers than on-ear or over-ear headphones because of their small size, but for a pair of earbuds, they’re impressive. I’ve also been happy at how well the buds stay in sync with one another, and the low latency (lag) between when I play audio on my phone, and hear it in my ears. Totally wireless earbuds sometimes struggle with these two issues, but they’ve never been a problem for me.

Pros: Excellent connectivity, great audio quality, impressive noise-cancellation for their size.

Cons: Battery life can’t compete with on-ear or over-ear headphones.

Apple AirPods Pro, $249.99, available at Amazon

3. Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Sony WH-1000XM3

Courtesy Sony

Amazon

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-1000XM3 is the noise-cancelling headphone to beat.

The headphones use a four microphone array to block out noise, and the result is near pin-drop silence when active noise-cancelling is turned on in a slightly noisy room. I’ve worn this pair of headphones on four cross-country flights, and can also report that they blocked out all of the engine noise when I played music at a medium volume. With music off, the sound of jet engines was substantially reduced.

Sony says the WH-1000XM3 gets 30 hours of battery life per charge with active noise-cancellation turned on, and you can get five hours of music playback by charging it for 10 minutes. It takes three hours to fully recharge the headphones over USB-C. That falls in line with my experience; if anything, I think Sony is underselling the battery life a little bit.

One of the reasons this line of headphones has become popular is that Sony has made them smart in a tasteful way. The right earcup is touch sensitive, so you can adjust the volume, and play or pause music with just a tap. Placing your right hand over the earcup activates a pass-through mode, which uses the headphones microphones to stream in ambient noise. This is useful if you’re asked a question, or are trying to hear an announcement in an airport. Rather than taking the headphones off, you can listen attentively with them on.

The company also gives you a ton of audio customization options if you download its Headphones Connect app. Not only can you adjust the EQ of your music, but you can set the headphones to change their level of noise-cancellation automatically based on the sounds going on around you, or even your barometric pressure. To me, these settings are slightly overkill, but they’re really nice to have, and easy to ignore if you’re not interested.

At nine ounces, the WH-1000XM3 is on the heavier end of the spectrum, but in my experience, they haven’t felt uncomfortable to wear, even during long listening sessions. The earcups are so comfortable that I’ve actually fallen asleep with the headphones on and woken up without sweaty ears.

In terms of audio quality, the WH-1000XM3 does a phenomenal job. I use wired headphones with a dedicated DAC (digital analog converter) when I’m home, and this pair of Bluetooth headphones can keep up with that equipment. That’s especially surprising given that it uses Bluetooth 4.2 (the best option when the headphones were originally released) rather than the current Bluetooth 5.0 standard. That said, all but the most strident audiophiles will be really pleased with how they sound.

Pros: The best noise cancellation I’ve heard, useful smart features, excellent audio quality

Cons: Slightly older version of Bluetooth.

Sony WH-1000XM3, $298.00, available at Amazon.com

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

Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Courtesy Amazon

Amazon

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.

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.

Pros: Modern design with great audio technology.

Cons: A little heavy.

Bowers & Wilkins PX7, $349, available at Amazon

5. Bose 700

Bose 700

Courtesy Amazon

Amazon

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 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.

Pros: Six-microphone array for noise cancellation, 11 levels of noise cancellation.

Cons: Lower battery life, Bose doesn’t say much about how they sound.

Bose 700 Noise-Cancelling Headphones, $399, available at Amazon

Popular on Rolling Stone

In This Article: Headphones, RS Recommends, Sony

Newswire

Powered by
Arrow Created with Sketch. Calendar Created with Sketch. Path Created with Sketch. Shape Created with Sketch. Plus Created with Sketch. minus Created with Sketch.