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Ranking the Best Noise-Canceling Headphones of 2020

Noise-canceling headphones are one of the best options you can find for those looking to listen to music without dealing with outside noise and distractions. Modern noise-cancellation technology allows you to drastically cut down on a range of distracting sounds without impacting the overall quality of your music.

We put some of the most highly popular noise-canceling headphones through their paces to find the very best of the best for you. Our list below includes a range of both over- and in-ear noise-canceling headphones sure to meet the needs of every user.

Rankings 

1. Bose 700 Noise-Canceling Wireless Headphones

Bose 700 Noise-Canceling Wireless Headphones

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The Bose 700 series noise-canceling headphones are a major departure from the previous design and styling of the company’s headphones. It has a totally new look, without the function forward design of the older models such as visible hinges and plush padding. The result is a sleek and futuristic pair of cans plus a thinner and lighter headband.

Why we like it: Bose is the undisputed master of active noise-cancellation tech. Every generation of their headphones has pushed the cutting edge, to the point where they’re the only brand you should consider if noise-cancellation itself is your primary goal. They also offer the best call performance through a combination of advanced mics and a specialized digital signal processing (DSP) system. If you’re a business traveler who’ll be fielding conference calls as often as you’re listening to music it’s the best option.

Flaws: The price of the 700’s is high, but the true failing is battery life. Despite being an ultra-premium pair of headphones you only get about 20 hours of use with noise-cancellation turned on. That’s well below most other top-of-the-line headphones.

2. Sony WH1000XM3 Noise-Canceling Headphones

Sony WH1000XM3 Noise-Canceling Headphones

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The WH1000XM3’s represent the latest edition high-end wireless noise-canceling headphones from a company that really knows audio. Every release from Sony has pushed the frontier of mass-market headphone excellence forward just a bit, with the WH1000XM3’s showcasing that to a T. They present you with some of the best audio quality you can find plus noise-cancellation tech that’s getting closer and closer to top of the market with every new update. 

Why we like it: It’s not hyperbole to say that the WH1000XM3’s are the best all-around headphones available. They have the clearest sound, with punchy mids and uppers plus bass that really rattles your bones when you need it to. Sony packed them with some of the best BlueTooth codecs available, including their own in-house LDAC system to provide you with the most cutting-edge wireless connectivity possible. If that isn’t enough, they’re comfortable, fold down to a shockingly small package, and have a look that wows.

Flaws: The only thing keeping the WH1000XM3’s off the top of our list is their slightly less than stunning noise-cancellation. It’s very good, but it isn’t quite the best. They’re arguably the best all-around headphones on the market today, but if pure noise-cancellation is what you’re looking for they aren’t the end-all, be-all.

3. Sony WF-1000XM3

Sony WF-1000XM3

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The Sony WF-1000XM3s are noise-canceling true wireless earbuds designed to pack the best audio tech into as small and portable a package as possible. They’re incredibly lightweight, comfortable, and offer some of the best audio quality and noise-cancellation you can find in the true wireless earbud category.

Why we like it: There’s no other way to say it: The WF-1000XM3s are the best noise-canceling wireless earbuds money can buy. They’re comfortable enough for all-day wear, include the latest and greatest audio and noise-cancellation features, and offer battery life that will see you through several long flights or most of a week’s work. 

Flaws: Other than price, which is substantial, the WF-1000XM3s lack any kind of sweat or water resistance. We wouldn’t recommend wearing these while working out or even while walking outdoors with a chance of rain.

4. Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless Headphones

Bowers & Wilkins PX7 Wireless Headphones

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The PX7s are the newest release from British audio powerhouse Bowers & Wilkins. They took the foundation established with the company’s first release, the PX5s, and improved virtually everything it was possible to improve. The result was a remarkable pair of headphones that comes very close to challenging the top-quality models.

Why we like it: The PX7’s adaptive noise-cancellation is an intriguing twist on a classic design. It allows you to step up noise cancellation to one of three different levels for customized cancellation. You can get a gentle reduction in outside sound or a near-total elimination. Besides the cancellation features themselves, the PX7s are beautifully constructed from high-end materials like carbon fiber and offer some of the best audio quality available. They have 43mm drivers that provide crystal clear audio and use the advanced aptX HD BlueTooth codec for near-lossless wireless connection.

Flaws: Price and portability. The PX7s are consistently more expensive than other headphones of near-comparable quality. The design is gorgeous, but it doesn’t allow the earcups to fold in when not in use. You wind up with one of the bulkiest pair of noise-canceling headphones, not at all good for travel use.

5. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

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The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s are true wireless earbuds that improve upon the company’s first-generation Momentum’s. They give you all the great features that the first model provided plus improved battery life and highly effective noise-cancellation.

Why we like it: Where the Momentum True Wireless really stand out is in audio quality and comfort. Their 7mm dynamic drivers offer rich bass, natural mids, and crystal clear treble that allows you to pick out every detail of a song. When you add in the gorgeous stylistic touches you end up with high-end earbuds with impressive features.

Flaws: We were honestly a bit shocked at how unintuitive and downright confusing the default controls are to use. Everything just felt a little ‘off’ coming out of the box, enough that we frequently found ourselves entering the wrong command. Thankfully they’re fully customizable, but it seems like they should have been able to improve the UI and UX for the initial impression.

6. Jabra Elite 85H Wireless Headphones

Jabra Elite 85H Wireless Headphones

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The 85Hs are Jabra’s first stab at competing with the biggest names of premium-headphones in the coveted over-ear market. For a first attempt, they’re honestly really good. The style and overall aesthetic are downright gorgeous and the sound and noise-cancellation are comparable to many other high-end headphones, though not quite a match for the best of the best.

Why we like it: What helps set the 85Hs apart from the competition is battery life and customizability. They provide a full 36 hours of continuous use, plenty for back to back intercontinental flights or a full work week, and allow you to change almost everything about the sound, balances, and settings using the Jabra Sound+ app. It gives you full access to the levels and performance features to really make the headphones your own. 

Flaws: The biggest let down for the 85H was the lack of advanced BlueTooth codecs. They don’t support the most advanced codecs at all, and the quality of the sound suffers for it. You wind up with decent but not spectacular sound combined with effective but uninspired noise-cancellation. 

7. Apple AirPods Pro

Apple airpods pro

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The Apple AirPods Pro are a major departure from the company’s design ethos with their wireless earbuds, a good move in our opinion. They’re more comfortable and fit in your ear more securely than their predecessors while also offering more advanced features like active noise-cancellation and better battery life. 

Why we like it: They’re the perfect match for the consumer who has to have the total Apple package. They’ve got the distinctive styling that matches your iPhone perfectly, and manage to pack in respectable though not incredible features like decent noise-cancellation, fit, and improved battery life. Even better, the newest updates offer an immersive Dolby Atmos spatial audio feature that creates a dynamic 3D soundstage that tracks the movement of your head. 

Flaws: For the same price, you can get noticeably better earbuds and even over-ear headphones. They’re serviceable earbuds but they fall behind the competition in sound quality, comfort, durability, noise-cancellation, and basically everything else. If you’re an Apple fan that won’t matter, but if you’re not there’s no reason to buy them.

8. Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid

Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid

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The Anker Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrids are value-priced noise-canceling headphones that knocked our socks off with the value they provide. Anker has established a reputation as a quality manufacturer of ‘generic’ electronics and has put out a pair of headphones that showcase everything they’ve learned. They’re not perfect by a long shot, but they offer acceptable audio quality, mostly effective noise-cancellation, and reasonable comfort. They blow the comparably priced competition out of the water and honestly show favorably even to headphones two or three times their price.

Why we like it: For the price, they can’t be beaten. They cost just a fraction of our top-raked headphones while offering features and performance that’s in the same ballpark. Not everyone is ready to drop hundreds of dollars on headphones, and the Soundcore Life Q20 Hybrid’s give you attractively designed over-ear headphones with noise-cancellation that works, audio quality that’s surprisingly good, and a very respectable 40-hour battery life.

Flaws: While the Q20s provide excellent value, they’re undeniably bargain headphones. There are lots of headphones that beat them out in basically every important factor if you’re willing to spend more.

9. Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II

Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II

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The QuietComfort 35 Series II are the culmination of Bose’s previous generation of headphones. They’re not quite the best of the best anymore, but they’re still beautiful, comfortable headphones that offer crystal clear audio and highly-effective noise-cancellation. 

Why we like it: If you’re looking for features and performance that approach the quality of the best for a cheaper price these are the headphones for you. Even if they aren’t quite cutting edge they still offer crisp, beautiful audio quality and noise-cancellation that can cut out most background noise. There’s a reason the QuietComfort series of headphones topped the lists of best headphones for so many years.

Flaws: While we really like the QuietComfort 35 Series IIs, they’re no longer top-of-the-line. If you’re willing to spend a bit more you can get headphones that have noticeably better performance.

10. Sennheiser Momentum 3

Sennheiser Momentum 3

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The Sennheiser Momentum 3 are a high-end pair of over-ear headphones. They’re the closest you can get to studio-quality sound from wireless headphones, using 42mm drivers that give you precise sound that near-perfectly replicates the artist’s intent for the song. Even better, they come with an EQ app that lets you adjust the sound settings to get the perfect levels for your needs.

Why we like it: Sennheiser is famous in the audio world for good reason. The Momentum 3s offer some of the best audio quality you’ll find in noise-cancellation headphones with a stunning sound stage effect and crystal clear audio. They also allow you to fully customize the level and type of noise-cancellation in use and play around with the balance of the audio itself.

Flaws: The noise-cancellation on the Momentum 3s is good but not great. We found this especially disappointing given the very high price point of these headphones. Even worse, the battery life is embarrassingly short. They provide a maximum of 17 hours use with noise-cancellation on. 

Who should buy noise-canceling headphones? 

Noise-cancellation headphones are generally excellent headphones in their own right, but they aren’t necessarily the best headphones for everyone. The groups below will see the most benefits from them.

Frequent flyers – Business travelers and others who find themselves on weekly flights are one of the groups who can most benefit from noise-canceling headphones. The constant drone of an airplane engine is perfect for modern noise-cancellation technology.

The best headphones can completely negate it, making your flight much more comfortable. Other sounds such as crying babies or the loud conversation of other passengers can also be greatly reduced (1).

Commuters – Commuters see benefits from noise-canceling headphones for much the same reason as frequent flyers. They can significantly diminish the sound of a train or bus engine and even help block out the other annoying sounds of travel.

Earbuds are best for this application as they’re compact, lightweight, and fit unobtrusively and securely as you’re sitting and walking.

Students – Anyone who’s ever had to cram for finals understands the importance of concentration in studying. There’s nothing worse than being in the zone and having someone around you distract you and break your focus.

Noise-cancellation headphones let you block out the vast majority of outside sounds and laser lock your focus onto your assigned material.

How we ranked 

We used five key metrics while creating our list. These were audio quality, noise cancellation effectiveness, battery life, comfort, and portability. 

Audio quality – Audio quality itself is the most important part of any pair of headphones. We looked for extremely clear audio with a good baseline balance for a variety of different types of music. Many modern headphones are bass-heavy to the detriment of the mids and uppers. 

Most top-ranked headphones offer excellent sound quality, so unless you’re a true audiophile it’s unlikely you’ll be able to notice a huge difference between the top contenders. 

Noise cancellation effectiveness – While all noise cancellation works in a similar manner, not all noise cancellation is the same. One of the chief complaints about cheaper or older headphones is that noise cancellation adds an audible buzz or hissing sound to your audio. 

There’s a noticeable difference between the microphones and algorithms of top-of-the-line headphones and more value-priced models.

Connection type and quality – Wired headphones still provide the best quality audio, but wireless options are improving at a breakneck pace. If you want wireless noise-canceling headphones we recommend you look for models with at minimum BlueTooth 5.0 and preferably advanced codecs such as aptX, AAC for Apple devices, and LDAC (2)(3). These offer much lower latency and are approaching lossless transmission potential.

Battery life – For travelers and others on the move battery life is one of the key factors to consider. Modern wireless noise-canceling headphones should offer a minimum of 20-25 hours of battery life.

The very best are pushing 40-50 hours on a single charge, plenty of life for multiple intercontinental flights, or a full week of use. 

Comfort – The best-sounding headphones with fantastic noise-cancellation are still basically unusable if you can’t wear them for more than a short period without discomfort. We considered in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear headphones as part of our list, with pros and cons for each.

Well-fitting in-ear headphones are generally the easiest to wear for long periods, followed by over-ear, and finally on-ear.

Portability – Most of the key applications for noise-canceling headphones are found outside the house. For this reason, portability is one area we weighted heavily. We looked for headphones that were compact, lightweight, and as packable as possible without sacrificing quality.

Brands we trust – In the headphone world, there are two names that stand head and shoulders above the rest. These are Bose and Sony. One or the other has produced the best wireless, noise-canceling, and advanced headphones of the past decade. They have slightly different focuses but each offers impeccable audio quality, comfort, and some of the most advanced noise-cancellation available. 

Using these metrics we generated a rating scale to use for all the headphones we reviewed. The ones that made it onto our list offered the best combination of performance and value.

FAQ 

Q: How do noise-cancellation headphones work?

A: Active noise-cancellation uses a system of microphones combined with advanced algorithms. The mics pick up low-frequency sounds from outside while the algorithms work to neutralize them with opposite sounds. Because they’re phase-inverted by 180 degrees the sounds cancel each other out (4).

Q: Do noise-canceling headphones protect your hearing?

A: Yes, and no. Noise-canceling headphones aren’t safety earmuffs. They aren’t rated to reduce potentially dangerous outside sounds in the way that safety earmuffs or earplugs can. What they can do is reduce the level of outside sound, allowing you to listen to your music at lower volumes. Considering noise-induced hearing loss is a serious issue among all age groups this is a major benefit (5)(6).

Q: Are over-ear headphones better than earbuds?

A: This one really comes down to how you intend to use your headphones. In-ear headphones, commonly known as earbuds, are the most portable type of headphones and offer excellent sound isolation because of the tight seal they form with your ear. The downside to their small size is smaller, less capable drivers and a less ‘open’ sound that reduces the overall quality of certain types of music.

Our pick for best in-ear noise-canceling headphones was the Sony WF-1000XM3.

Over-ear headphones have the largest drivers and can reproduce the widest range of frequencies. You end up with silky smooth highs and deep, resonant bass plus a dynamic stage effect that’s hard to beat. The downside is that they’re much larger and less portable.

Our pick for best over-ear noise-canceling headphones was the Bose 700

Q: What noise-canceling headphones are good for flying?

A: Noise-canceling headphones are arguably the best headphones possible for flying. The low, repetitive noise of engines and air circulators are exactly the kind of sound that noise-cancellation headphones can drown out best (7).

Our pick for best noise-canceling headphones for flying, also our overall top pick, was the Bose 700.

Q: Are noise-canceling headphones good for gaming?

A: They can be. Noise-canceling headphones offer superior sound quality and the kind of 3D soundstage effect you need for modern competitive gaming but usually won’t connect natively to consoles. None of the major consoles allow BlueTooth connections without some kind of adapter or workaround. If you’re willing to do so you can, but there are better options in purpose-built gaming headphones. 

Q: Can noise-canceling headphones work without music?

A: Absolutely. The actual noise-cancellation of your headphones doesn’t rely on the presence of music or any audio at all. If you just want to cut down annoying outside sounds while working or traveling they’re more than capable of doing so (8).

Q: Are noise-canceling headphones good for sleeping?

A: It depends on what kind of sleeping you’re talking about. For sleeping on a plane, train, or automobile? Absolutely. 

For sleeping at home in your bed? Not so much. 

A white noise machine provides a very similar effect without the need to wear bulky headphones to sleep in.

Recap

Noise-canceling headphones offer some of the best audio quality and portability you can find. They cut out background noise and allow you to listen to your music at lower volumes without sacrificing any of the detail of your music.

For Hastings #1 noise-canceling headphones recommendation, click here.

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