Whether you’re commuting, on a lengthy flight or trying to concentrate in the office, noise-cancelling headphones can be a godsend.
In a nutshell, the headphones work by creating their own sound waves, which are 180 degrees out of phase with the penetrating waves, thus cancelling out the unwanted noise. On some models, especially the cheaper ones, this can lead to it feeling as the sound is actually being sucked out of your ears – like a milder version of your ears popping when the air pressure changes. Some people find this uncomfortable, although it doesn’t bother others.
All the headphones on this list are active, using the method of noise-cancellation explained above, and therefore either require separate batteries or to be charged via USB. Be careful not to confuse them with passive headphones, which simply use insulation within the headphones to block out external noise – and are often cheaper.
The downside of active headphones is that, of course, they can run out charge. In some cases, this will just mean the headphones lose their noise-cancelling capability, and that you can still listen to them via a wired connection. However, when a Bluetooth-only pair runs of out charge, it stops working altogether – not what you need 30 minutes into a transatlantic flight.
Most of the headphones we chose are over-ear, as the full ear coverage helps to block out the noise, although there some effective on-ear options here, too. We tested them in the IndyBest office, walking along a busy high street and on a noisy London Underground train, focusing mainly on noise-cancelling capability, sound quality and comfort.
1. Bose QuietComfort 35: £330, John Lewis
Thanks to its QuietComfort series, Bose has long been considered the definitive name in noise-cancelling. And with this latest iteration, the reputation holds firm. There are barely any added features, but that simplicity allows Bose to focus on what it does best – beautifully textured, versatile sound capability and exceptional noise-cancelling. The QC25 pair, which came before, was wired only and there’s still the option of wiring here, but the wireless connection holds up strongly. The big ear cushions sit comfortably on our (admittedly also rather big) ears with the all-encompassing design meaning no outside noise leaks in. In terms of looks, things haven’t strayed too far from the QC25’s decidedly unflashy style, although there are now volume controls on the right headphone. Can connect via NFC and gives around 20 hours of battery life.
2. Sony MDR-1000X: £360, John Lewis
Sony’s attempt to tackle the big players of the high-end noise-cancelling market is a very strong one. The noise-cancelling itself is excellent, allowing us to pick out fine details in the music even while walking down the high street at rush hour. And there’s certainly a lot of detail to pick out – the soundscape is wide, nuanced and impactful. The ambient noise feature is useful, dimming your music and enabling you to hear voices with ease. This can be achieved either by pressing a button, or by holding your hand over the right can (the latter is best for listening to something briefly). The touch-sensitive controls, also on the right can, which allow you to play, pause, skip and change volume, are responsive and simple. We found them perfectly comfortable to wear, too. Gives around 20 hours of battery life.
3. Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless: £330, John Lewis
We reckon the sleek, understated design of these cans might just be the best of Sennheiser’s current range – they're certainly a far cry from the more hardware-heavy Momentum 2.0 pair (featured below). They're on-ear, but the large cushioning covers the ear sufficiently and comfortably, so much so that they sometimes even feel like over-ears. The noise-cancelling is excellent – definitely in the same league as the Bose and Sony pairs on our list – and it adjusts itself according to how much noise there is to cancel. Or, you can flick a switch to turn the noise-cancelling on full whack. In terms of sound quality, it delivers full, true sound that’s capable of tackling pretty much any genre. The headphones turn themselves on and off as you twist round the cans, which is handy if you get into the habit of packing them away in the carry case after use. Can connect via NFC and will give around 30 hours of battery life.
4. Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2: £250, Amazon
This Plantronics pair sits at the mid-to-lower price range of the noise-cancelling scale and offers great value. As would be expected, the silence isn’t as complete as that achieved by the Bose and Sony models (which are significantly more expensive) but the active noise-cancelling – turned on by a switch on the left ear – still does enough to make sure your listening experience remains largely unhindered. The audio is clear and true, dealing well with both jazz and electronic music in our test, and there’s the possibility of wired listening thanks to the supplied cable. The open listening mode helpfully allows you to tune into the world around you, and the music pauses when the headphones are taken off, thanks to sensors (although we found these sensors can, at times, be overly sensitive). Controls on the ear, to play, pause, skip and change volume, are simple and intuitive. A very solid offering which will give around 24 hours of battery life.
5. AKG N60NC: £150, Amazon
These exceptionally light (150g), on-ear headphones score highest in terms of portability, folding up into an impressively small travel pouch. The noise-cancelling is up excellent, too, effective at both muting office chatter and nullifying the incessant hum of an airplane engine. And when you consider that price tag, now reduced to less than £150, it gets even better. The sound itself is natural, clear and punchy, but there’s no Bluetooth connection, so you’ll be dealing with wires. The battery life is huge, too, giving up to and around 30 hours of listening time.
6. Samsung LEVEL On Wireless Pro Headphones: £230, Samsung
These headphones from Samsung are larger than most others out there, and are therefore best suited to people with larger heads. They are comfortable, though, with soft, faux-leather cushioning. The noise isolation is strong in itself, and the active noise cancellation is impressive too, although still some way off the best-in-class, and it does decrease the sound quality ever so slightly when it’s turned on. You can control volume, change tracks and activate talk-in mode (to hear the world around you) by tapping and swiping the touch-sensitive right cup – it’s effective once you’ve got to grips with it. The Bluetooth connection give a detailed sound quality with a warm tone, and you can also use a wired connection.
7. Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless: £374, Amazon
These may have a heftiest price tag on our round-up, but it’s reflected in the quality. The distinctive stainless steel sliders look great, and the leather, over-ear cups are comfortable (although not the biggest we tried). They’re among the very best-sounding Bluetooth headphones we tried, too, providing a clear, immersive listening experience thanks to the aptX codec. The battery life can be as long as 20 hours or so, and if it does die, there’s a cable to listen passively, and it can connect via NFC.
8. Audio-Technica ATH-MSR7NC: £249, John Lewis
The biggest stand-out characteristic of these comfortable headphones from Audio-Technica is that the sound doesn’t change when you turn the noise-cancelling on – that certainly can’t be said for many other NC pairs, which often lose texture and detail when you flick the switch. And the sound here is excellent, hi-res audio, which is versatile, balanced and true. It’s not as warm as some listeners might like, but it certainly doesn’t sound brittle. The noise-cancelling itself isn’t as all-conquering as that of the Bose or Sony models on this list, however. It does a good job of muting low frequency noise – which muffles your music the most – but it’s nowhere near silent. If you value sound quality above all else, though, while still wanting noise-cancellation, then these could be a good pick. There’s no Bluetooth, which helps the battery life extend well towards an impressive 30 hours.
9. Philips Fidelio NC1: £160, Amazon
These wired on-ear headphones from Philips are the cheapest on our list by some way, but stand their own as a solid noise-cancelling choice. They immediately seem very small, and fold up even smaller, which is handy when it comes to transporting them. The noise-cancelling is as good as you’d expect at this price – it adeptly reduces low frequency sound, but you’re still going to be able to hear the tap-tap-tap of keyboards in the office, for example. Be aware that the volume also increases significantly when you turn the noise-cancelling on via a switch on the left can, which can be a bit of a shock if you’re not expecting it. The high-definition sound quality itself is great, with a nicely balanced soundscape, especially for a pair of on-ears. We did notice some sound leakage, unfortunately. Overall, when you consider that these aren’t priced too far north of £100, the headphones come highly recommended as a budget option.
The Verdict: Noise-cancelling headphones
As this list is focusing on noise-cancelling capability, our Best Buy goes to the Bose QuietComfort 35 pair. Although many of its competitors are coming close to matching its noise-cancelling, it's still the best. As a complete pair of headphones, we're big fans of the Sony MDR-1000X pair, which has great features and excels in noise cancelling.
This article was originally published in April 2016, and has since been updated to reflect the current market
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