Last year’s WH-1000XM4 headphones were marginally pipped to the post by the Bose NC 700s (£279.95, Johnlewis.com), but the marginal gains made by Sony’s latest world-beating cans means there’s a new pair at the top. The WH-1000XM5s provide smaller improvements when compared with the stunning evolution of the XM4s, and there’s a design refresh that won’t be to everyone’s taste (the omission of hinges that would enable the headphones to fold up like the XM4s is a personal bugbear).
Noise cancellation has been around long enough now that most people will either own – or at least have heard of – a pair of headphones or earphones that offer apparently life-changing levels of sound sapping.
Unfortunately, this means there are plenty of less-than-impressive examples of noise “cancellation” that sound more like a snake has made its home in your headphones.
It’s true that not all noise cancellation is created equal. There are even different types of noise cancellation: passive noise cancellation (PNC) uses the shape of the headphones to block out your work neighbour, while active noise cancellation (ANC) – the type we’re mainly dealing with here – uses in-built microphones to listen for irksome external noise, instructing the speakers to match the frequencies of those sounds to provide you with an island of sonic serenity.
Noise cancellation, in theory, is there to make your listening experience much more enjoyable, but there can be too much of a good thing, especially if the ANC doesn’t find the right balance. Getting to grips with the right tech can be the difference between a cloud of sound or a waterfall of external din.
Luckily, we’ve put in the listening hours, to give you the best chance of finding the ANC headphones for you, and help our favourite artists with what we can only think will be pounds of royalty fees.
How we tested
When testing noise-cancelling headphones, it’s important to try each pair in a variety of scenarios, some more obvious than others. Yes, we tested them in busy cafés and beside main roads, but we also took care to test ANC (where applicable), for instance, in a quiet room. This is due to ANC’s tendency to sometimes emit a small hiss when working, something that could begin to grate on your nerves after a while in an empty office.
We tested each pair of headphones by accosting them with a smorgasbord of different audio sources: from the deep rumbles of Billie Eilish’s Bury a Friend, to the complicated delicacy of Jacob Collier’s Flow Freely, with Yo-Yo Ma, Childish Gambino and Kaho Nakamura thrown into the mix. We made sure to listen to our favourite podcasts to check for vocal clarity, and rang friends and family so much to test microphone quality that nobody wanted to FaceTime us for a month.
The best noise-cancelling headphones for 2023 are:
- Best noise-cancelling headphones overall – Sony WH-1000XM5 noise-cancelling headphones: £318.99, Amazon.co.uk
- Best noise-cancelling headphones for ANC performance – Bose noise cancelling headphones 700: £279, Amazon.co.uk
- Best noise-cancelling headphones for the gym – Beats fit pro noise-cancelling headphones: £199, Amazon.co.uk
- Best budget noise-cancelling headphones for call quality – Nokia clarity rarbuds pro Noise-cancelling headphones: £59.99, Amazon.co.uk
- Best noise-cancelling headphones for sound quality – Apple AirPods max noise-cancelling headphones: £499, Amazon.co.uk
- Best noise-cancelling headphones for Apple users – Apple AirPods pro 2, £239, Amazon.co.uk