The best noise cancelling headphones to shut out the world

best noise cancelling headphones review

Whether you work in a noisy office or you’re looking for a meditation aid, the best noise-cancelling headphones will end up being used for a lot of different things over the course of a lifetime.

However, given how wide-ranging and extensive the headphone market is these days, it can be a challenge to find the right pair that suits your needs. Whether you’re on the hunt for something big or basic, there are a few things to keep in mind.

First is that the most effective noise-cancelling headphones are usually the over-ear ones. That’s because they can cancel noise in multiple ways; both fully covering your ears and also filtering out sounds from the outside. In-ear headphones can only really do one of these jobs.

The other key phrase to look out for is ‘active noise-cancelling’. This means that microphones on the outside of the headphones take in noise and subtly adapt to mask it. Again, this is usually only found on bigger headphones as the technology takes up a bit more room.

Of the headphones I tested, noise-cancelling quality was reasonably high across the board (with a few particularly note-worthy examples, which I've picked out below). But I’d be the first to admit, I lack an audiophile’s ear for actual sound quality so. To that end, I sought the assistance of musician and West End sound technician Karl Toth, who tested each pair of headphones and talked me through their individual merits and demerits.

So, without further ado, here are the best noise-cancelling headphones we found, starting with our very favourite…

 

1. Bang & Olufsen H9i

Why we like it: They’re luxuriously designed on every level and the audio quality is perfection

Price: £289, Amazon

Everybody knows that Bang & Olufsen represent the gold standard when it comes to premium headphones. Their devices are of a very high quality aesthetically and technically, and the latest pair of cans is no exception.

From a design perspective, the H9i is a treat. The headphones feels sturdy and well-built, with a thick leather headstrap and plush cups around your ears. There's a nice touch of understated glamour at play here, helped by the metallic surfaces that are textured to help prevent unsightly fingerprints. The design is calibrated perfectly to show the quality without being overly ostentatious.

And the sound is just as good. I watch on as Toth puts them over his ears, pauses for a moment, and then lets a wide grin spread across his face. He kisses the air with a flourish, like the cliché of a chef enjoying the first sumptuous bite of a newly created dish. “These are perfection,” he tells me. “The sound is absolutely precise, carefully tuned to be exactly right every time. I could throw these on and no matter what song, it’d sound fantastic. Even audiophiles would enjoy these.” At this point his commentary dissolves into contented sighs and occasional whoops of delight.

And just in case the sound doesn't quite leave you in paroxysms of pleasure, you can adjust the bass and treble to your own personal specifications with the Beoplay app. In reality, few users will ever need to do so.

There are other useful functions too. By tapping and swiping against the outside of the cups with your fingers, you can pause and skip back and forth through songs, or even change the volume. When a colleague came over to talk to me, I slid them off and was pleased to find that my music paused automatically, then picked right back up where it’d left off when I popped them back on.

They’re also fast-charging: two and a half hours should give you 24 hours battery life, although this is more like 18 when you’re using the noise-cancelling and Bluetooth functionality. Either way, it’s fast.

What I would note is that if you’re not playing music, the noise-cancellation is nothing to write home about. It’s not bad, it’s just not amazing. Once your music kicks in though, you won’t be able to hear the outside world at all.

If you’re looking for a set of noise-cancelling headphones offering audio perfection and a sleek, stylish look, these will suit you perfectly.

Buy now

 

2. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Why we like it: They noise-cancelling mid-call is fantastic

Price: £349.00, Amazon

There's something that's immediately impressive about the Bose 700 headphones. Every seam, every connection, every element is so carefully constructed that feel like a small work of art in the hand. The ends of the headband glide right over the cups with a soft, satisfyingly smooth precision. 

Looks aside, they're also seriously comfortable. Both the headband and the cups are packed with a squidgy foam material, encased in a rubbery-feeling material (though not actual rubber, so don't worry, it's not going to catch on your hair) which feels soft no matter how tightly you wear them. 

So far, so good, and we've not even got to the actual sound quality yet. It shouldn't come as any great surprise to learn that Bose have put their decades of speaker technology to good use here. The highs are bright and sparkly, and the lows give a good thumping bass. OK, the lows are not quite as good as the likes of Bang & Olufsen and Sony (see below). Still, for pop and more modern tunes, these will serve you well. 

The real focus here is the noise-cancelling. Bose set out to create the ultimate noise-cancellation technology and, well, they've done a good job. There are four microphones around the headphones which detect sounds and use active noise-cancelling to block it. 

A lot of active noise-cancelling headphones come with one or two different levels of noise-cancellation, but Bose has gone the whole hog by including 11 different noise-cancellation levels. Out of the box, you can adjust between talk-through, which doesn't cancel at all, a mid-point, and the highest noise-cancellation setting, but these can all be adjusted through the accompanying app. If you like setting two and setting seven, for example, you can make these your defaults. 

The microphone array has another handy function: phone calls. You can answer phone calls through most of the headphones on this list, but the Bose 700 is really the only one which puts this feature front and centre. The microphones are used to cancel noise from your end, so the person on the other end of the line can hear you speaking crystal clear, without you having to take your phone from your pocket. I tested this by calling my mum from the middle of a busy London railway station and she commented that it sounded 'eerily quiet', thinking that perhaps I was calling from a monastery or the middle of a field. Alas, no, but it goes to show how effective the feature is. 

As with most of the headphones here, there are also touch controls on the cup, which see you swiping upwards and downwards to adjust the volume; tapping to pause; and can also bring up your phone's voice assistant. 

All in all, these are a great set of headphones. My one criticism, and it's a churlish one, is that the case is a little bit bulky, not ideal for shoving in a bag. But honestly, if whinging about the size of the case is the worst thing I can say about them, I think that really speaks to the quality more than anything else. 

Buy now

 

3. Sennheieser PXC 550 Wireless Adaptive Noise Cancellation

Why we like it: Super comfortable and well-adjusted for popular music

Price: £299.99, Sennheiser

“These are really comfy,” says Toth as he dons the Sennheieser PXC 550. “I feel like my head is getting a hug from Paddington Bear.”

He’s not wrong. While the padding on the PXC 550 headphones does feel a little cheap to the touch, there’s no denying that these headphones are seriously comfortable to wear, even for long periods of time. In terms of general look, there’s little to complain about: they're nice enough, all leather and metal and just slightly retro too. They’re also incredibly lightweight, so you may even forget you’re wearing them after a while.

“The sound quality is really solid on these," says Toth. "The whole spectrum is pretty neat and tidy here. The EQ has been intelligently souped up to give everything you need. For what a consumer needs, you won’t find much better than this... aside from Bang & Olufsen". So that’s a thumbs up then.

Where these do outperform the Bang & Olufsen headphones is the noise-cancelling element. Not only is the noise-cancelling excellent, it comes with some really nice, smartly considered features too. For example, a double tap on the right cup pauses the music and noise-cancellation immediately – ideal if a colleague really needs to talk to you. Double tap again and you can pick up right where you left off.

There are also three levels of audio-transparency which you can adjust to suit your needs. If you’re on a train and need to listen out for your stop, you’ll want to leave it on the lowest level; if you really need to get some work done without distraction, go for the highest.

Once again there’s touch controls on the outside of the cups to control the headphones. You can swipe up and down to adjust the volume and forwards and backwards to skip through tracks, then tap to pause.

Overall, this is a really solid set of easy-to-use, light-weight headphones, and with 30 hours battery life, they might be the ideal ones for those who travel a lot.

Buy now

 

4. Sony WH-1000XM3

What we like about it: Strong noise cancellation and very comfortable

£272, Amazon

The first thing to say about Sony’s WH-1000XM3 is that they are incredibly comfortable. In fact, they might just be the most comfortable set of headphones I’ve ever worn. Make no mistake, these are a big pair of over-ear headphones, just like the rest on this list, and yet they’re also some of the lightest, with the softest cups. 

In design terms too, they’re as basic as can be, incredibly simple and free of frills. No fancy colours, buttons, or nonsense. They’re like everything Beats wants to be, in the sense that you might wear them around your neck as a fashion accessory.

But hey, you came here for noise-cancelling headphones, so let’s talk about that. The noise-cancelling is great. In fact, it’s not only great, it’s jaw-dropping. The thing that normally happens with active noise cancelling is that it tunes out background noise, but it isn’t great at people’s voices, so if your colleagues are talking nearby that can leak through. But by some miracle Sony have managed to dull even those sounds. 

Alright, so you can still just about hear some noises that are close to you, but everything sounds far away. Like you’re listening to them from the other end of an old telephone.

And, of course, the sound quality is pitch perfect too. Unfortunately I didn’t have Toth with me to help guide my acoustically challenged ears this time, but even I could mark out the distinct level of quality of this effort from Sony. 

The highs are high and sparkly, the lows are deep and bassy. I took them off my ears and just stared at them, agape for a few moments. It takes a truly special product to make you feel the wonder of technology, to get you to really consider what a special time we live in that a speaker small enough to fit in a headphone can be simultaneously powerful enough to make a sound like this. 

You’ve also got all the bells and whistles from touch controls to a whopping 30 hours of battery life at full charge. All in all, a great pair of headphones.

Buy now

 

5. Libratone Q Adapt Wireless On-Ear headphones

Why we like it: The CityMix noise-cancelling technology is jaw-droppingly good

All the products on this list are noise cancelling headphones – but that doesn't mean the ability to tune out the world is their USP. Both the Bang & Olufsen and Sennheiser, reviewed above, are excellent all-round headphones that include noise-cancelling as part of their package.

The Libratone Q Adapt are slightly different. These heavily grey headphones are all about their incredible CityMix noise-cancellation tech. And rightly so: they're the best noise-cancelling headphones on this list by a country mile.

The headphones come with four different noise cancellation settings, which you can cycle through by touching a button. The first is just the natural noise-cancellation of covering your ears. The next one cuts out about 40pc of noise. Then you go up to about 70pc. The final setting cuts out over 90pc of the noise from ever reaching you – at which point, you feel a bit like an astronaut in outer space. I could just about hear the rest the office, but it all sounded so far away, like I was listening to it all from the stratosphere.

In terms of design, the Q Adapt headphones look great too. They’ve got a nice woven fabric headband and soft leather earpads. The joints are stainless steel too and they slide rather than ratchet, which feels both more premium and less likely to break. They have a pleasing heft to them that feels luxurious and minimalistic.

Again, the requisite tapping and swipe controls are all present and correct here, with the added caveat that you have to use two fingers to control them which should hopefully help prevent you from accidentally tapping when you don’t mean to.

Sadly, there are a few negatives. Those steel joints are very firm and you do feel it when you wear the headphones for a long time; it sort of feels like you’ve had your head in a clamp after a while.

In additional, Toth wasn’t blown away by the sound quality, noting that while the highs and lows sounded good, there was an “undefined middle” that made it hard to pick out individual instruments or singers.

Personally, as someone without any kind of audiophile tendencies, I thought the sound quality was just fine. If you’re not fussy about your music quality, I think the positives outweigh the negatives with these headphones.

Buy now

 

6. Mixcder E9

Why we like it: They represent fantastic value

Price: £54.99, Amazon

Given that the majority of headphones on this list cost several hundred pounds, it might be a surprise to see this budget model so high up. Mixcder have done really well to get top quality speakers into such a cheap pair, says Toth. “I was hearing things in the middle that I didn’t hear on other models. You get the clarity in the middle and the shimmery top notes. The bottom is a bit muddy, but unless you’re addicted to bass you should be impressed.”

I’d add that the the noise cancellation is nothing special but works well enough. A solid C+, if you ask me.

Perhaps surprisingly, we both picked out the Mixcder headphones as some of the best looking headphones we tested. They resemble the Bang & Olufsen ones, with less branding, which can only ever be a good thing (obvious branding is tacky, says this reviewer). The Mixcder E9 hug your head nicely and don’t slide off – although prolonged use does lead to the 'slightly clamped' feeling mentioned earlier.

There’s no fancy tapping or swiping controls on these, but given that they’re less than half the price of the next most expensive headphones on this list, it's a reasonable exchange. More importantly, they’re really easy to connect to Bluetooth and don’t require any fuss.

If you’re happy to dispense with some of the bells and whistles, these headphones will serve you well. The sound quality belongs on a much more expensive model.

Buy now

 

7. Microsoft Surface Headphones

Why we like it: The cups are incredibly comfortable

Price: £329.99, Microsoft

Before I was allowed to test these, Microsoft gave me a briefing about everything I could ever possibly want to know about their flagship headphones. Most of it was fairly anodyne stuff but one piece of information stuck out: the pads are made from the same material as mawashis. For those unfamiliar with Japanese, that’s the loincloth that sumo wrestlers wear. Incredible stuff.

I’m assuming that, given sumo wrestlers don’t wear anything else, a lot of attention is paid to making sure their mawashis are comfortable, hence why Microsoft is using the same material. Either way, I can confirm that these headphones are incredibly comfortable to wear. Even the headband is padded with a soft foam. Since receiving my review unit, I have used it all day, every day at my desk for two weeks and counting.

One of my favourite features on these is that the cups have physical dials which you can twist to turn the volume and noise-cancellation up and down. It’s a nice analogue-feeling that simply tapping or swiping can’t replicate. It also offers a lot more degrees of control over the noise-cancellation.

The speakers are what Toth describes as “non-fatiguing”. He wasn’t surprised when he said I could listen through these headphones for hours at a time. “They’re very controlled, not too boomy on the low end, not too harsh on the high-end. The EQ feels very soft, but that does make them feel a bit quiet even at the highest volumes.” That, and the high price point, prevents me from ranking the 'phones higher in this list.

Buy now

 

8. Audeara A-01

Price: £260.01, Amazon

The big selling point of the Audeara A-01 is that it gives you a hearing test when you first put them on and then adapts the music to your personal hearing. And to be fair, it does make music sound a lot better. My right ear is slightly weaker than my left, so having a pair of headphones that compensates for that was a revolution for me.

Even so, that doesn’t necessarily mean the speakers are perfect. Toth notes that they seem to have been designed with an older listening sensibility in mind. “Modern music is all very shiny and bright at the top, which these aren’t perfect for. They tend to tone down the harsh stuff on both the high and low-ends.

"I think they’d be fantastic if you were listening to Pink Floyd. Everything is mellow, but very clear to be fair.”

In addition, the active noise cancelling is not great. On the positive side, the headphones are just naturally good at noise reduction since they cover your whole ear.

Another positive is that these are incredibly flexible. If you’ve got a particularly big head, this is the headset for you.

Buy now

 

9. Beats Studio3 Wireless

Price: £259.99, Currys

Love them or hate them, Beats are one of, if not the biggest headphone brand in the world. However, they do have their fair share of detractors. According to Toth, they’re seen by professionals as a bit lightweight, pretending to be worth the premium they charge without really having the credentials to back those prices.

On the plus side the Studio3 Wireless is certainly a nice looking pair of headphones, that’s for sure. You can get this version in a variety of different colours, but I really liked the rather fetching dark blue of my review unit. They’re also very comfortable, with nice padding all around.

Instead of tapping and swipe controls, Beats have a physical input on one of the cups. It’s a bit of a mixed bag in terms of utility. While yes, physical buttons will always be more reliable and responsive than touch-pads, it does require more force to press it, so it’s less easy to quickly pause your music for example.

The noise cancelling is very good too, able to tune out most of the sound from the office as I worked.

Sadly though, the speakers didn’t impress my expert tester. “They’re okay. The sound is flat. It’s like studio quality but it’s not quite as good as proper studio quality. It’s very accurate but not quite accurate enough for professionals, so the music will sound flat and boring for the average consumer.”

Overall, Beats Studio3 Wireless is a unremarkable, decent set of headphones that are priced about £200 more than they should be.

Buy now

 

10. Soundcore Space NC

Price: £99.99, Amazon

“These ones are closer to what a true audiophile would look for,” admits Toth. “But having said that, they do feel a bit muddy in the low end, and I think they’re softening some of the super aggressive high stuff.”

Average speakers then. Still, these headphones do a reasonably good job of noise-cancelling, and they’re very comfortable, they’ve even got a sort of quasi-premium look with leathery ear cups. They have tap controls which actually might work best out of any of the headphones here.

Overall, not too bad, but not too good either. You’re probably getting about what you pay for hear.

Buy now

 

11. Urbanista New York

Price: £149.99, Carphone Warehouse

“These headphones are like a friendly neighbour. They’re nice enough, but you don’t want to hang out all the time,” explains Toth, noting that they’re souped up just a little to make them sound a little bit more sparkly than a flat pair of studio headphones, but not with great dexterity.

The noise-cancelling is also pretty poor and it weirdly takes a fraction too long to actually register when you play/pause your music.

On the plus side, they look great and keep the obnoxious branding to the bare minimum, instead going with a plain matte black plastic. They also have an easy access shortcut to talk to your phone’s assistant, so that might be helpful. Swings and roundabouts.

Buy now

 

12. Sony WH-1000XM2

Price: £330, Amazon

I think I’ve got a normal sized head, but apparently Sony doesn’t feel the same way, with this massive pair of headphones that felt way too big and bulky for my liking. Size notwithstanding, I quite liked the design which is simple and unfussy.

The sound quality is decent enough without ever getting to any level that is particularly remarkable. I did experience a few cut-outs while on Bluetooth though, so that might be something to watch out for.

The best feature by far is the ability to play for about an hour off a ten minute charge, which is nifty as hell.

A mixed bag, all in all, but at this price point these headphones should be much, much better.

Buy now

 

Frequently asked questions about the best noise cancelling headphones:

Do noise cancelling headphones block out voices?

Partially. In my experience with these headphones they tend to block out all the background noise and dull anything closer to you. So if you work in an office with a lot of chatter from three tables away, consider it gone. If you sit next to a chatty Cathy who is constantly jabbering away, they may quiet her but probably won’t shut the noise out completely. However, if you’ve got your music on, that will normally do the rest of the job and block her out entirely.

Can you sleep with noise cancelling headphones?

Probably not with any of the noise-cancelling headphones on this list as all these are over-ear headphones. In-ear products could work – but you risk damaging your ears if you put too much pressure on them, so they may not be ideal if you’re a side-sleeper. That being the case, why not try headphones specially designed for sleep, like these from Bose.

Does noise cancelling protect hearing?

Yes, as long as it works properly. Cheaper noise-cancelling headphones can have a buzzing or hissing noise which is not good for you. Constant low-level noise is actually just as bad for you as acute high-level noise. So make sure you invest in a pair that works, but yes, if you do that, then it should work to protect your hearing.

Do noise cancelling headphones block out snoring?

You can probably infer an answer to this one from my answers to the first two questions. If you’ve got a particularly loud snorer down the hall, then they’ll probably block him out. If you’re sleeping in the same bed as the snorer, they’ll quieten him or her but don’t expect total snoring elimination.

Is noise cancelling safe?

Yes. Unlike mobile phones, headphones don’t emit low-level radiation so they’re totally safe to have next to your head for as long as you like. If you're using them in Bluetooth mode that does use a frequency similar to cellular networks (though much weaker) but both are non-ionising radiation and totally safe around humans.

 

Glossary of terms:
  • Active Noise Cancelling (ANC): Microphones on the outside of the headphones listen to the sound that is coming from outside and adjust to make sure it is all blocked out effectively

  • Open-back/closed-back: Basically, this refers to whether or not you can hear music playing from outside the headphones. If you’re listening to your headphones while commuting and you don’t want to annoy your fellow passengers, you’ll want to make sure you’ve got closed-back headphones.

  • EQ:The levels of frequency response of an audio signal, or controls which allow their adjustment. It’s usually displayed as a graph which you can sometimes adjust.

  • Audio transparency: This is when you are listening to your music and the headphones’ external microphones continue to function. They can intelligently pipe external sound to you over your music. So, for example, you could listen to and talk to a person without ever needing to take your headphones off or pause your music.
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