There are two types of noise cancellation: passive and active. Passive noise cancellation (PNC, or sound isolation) is a physical element, whereby the shape of the headphones dictates how much ambient sound can sneak in. PNC can be enough for many people, as headphone designs are more sophisticated than ever, and designers regularly conceive of ingenious ways of putting a barrier between your ear and the outside world. This is, therefore, the most effective way of protecting your ears against loud, sudden noises, such as explosions or jet engines.
Active noise cancellation (ANC) brings tech into the equation. A series of microphones within the headphones listen out for any nuisance noise in your surroundings. Then, speakers match the frequencies of those sounds, cancelling out this noise and giving you the blissful sound of silence. ANC technology usually needs a few moments to settle and note the various sounds in your surroundings, working most efficiently in settings with consistent ambient sound.
This technical magic does have a slight downside. As ANC senses external frequencies and negates them by matching them in your ears, this has an effect on the music you’re listening to: after all, tracks will most likely have frequencies that match with the outside world. Usually, this doesn’t affect the listening experience hugely, but means that investing in good quality noise-cancelling headphones is a must.
Not all ANC headphones and earphones are created equal, of course, with various degrees of success across the market. No headphones cancel out all noise (yet), but to most ears, this doesn’t really matter – it’s an odd sensation to look down at yourself typing, only to hear nothing coming back at you. And the less said about people sneaking up on you, the better. No need for tiptoes.
There are many brands that now offer genuinely good noise cancellation, along with quality sound output. After hours of testing, and getting sick of at least three of our favourite albums, we’ve put together a list that’ll please any ear.
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 Zoom us for a month.
The best noise-cancelling headphones for 2021 are:
- Best overall – Bose noise-cancelling headphones 700: £249, Johnlewis.com
- Best wireless noise-cancelling headphones – Sony WH-1000XM4: £299, Johnlewis.com
- Best sound – Apple AirPods max: £549, Ao.com
- Best budget noise-cancelling headphones – JBL tune 750BTNC: £74.99, Currys.co.uk
- Best throwback – Sennheiser momentum 3 wireless: £339, Ao.com
- Best for luxury – B&O beoplay HX: £449, Bang-olufsen.com
- Best balance – Bowers & Wilkins PX7: £249, Amazon.co.uk
- Best looks – Beats Solo Pro: £199, Johnlewis.com
- Best battery life – Jabra elite 85h: £198.37, Amazon.co.uk
- Best rival to over-ear – Technics EAH-AZ70W: £150, Hificorner.co.uk
- Best noise-cancelling headphones under £100 – Panasonic RZ-S500W: £99.99, Argos.co.uk
- Best newcomer – Marshall mode II: £159.99, Marshallheadphones.com
- Best for audiophiles – Grado GT220: £199, Amazon.co.uk
- Best for Apple users – Apple AirPods pro: £199, Ao.com
Bose noise cancelling headphones 700
Thanks to the Bose NC 700s, the brand is still the king of ANC. The noise cancellation capability is the best on the list, and noise is impressively dampened even at half power. Cleverly, input microphones also work alongside the ANC to reject background noise and isolate your voice during phone calls. The sound from the NC 700s is among the best we tested, too, and the look of the headphones matches the sophistication found inside. If you’re in the market for lightweight wireless headphones with supreme noise cancellation, you’d be hard-pressed to find better.
Best: Wireless noise-cancelling headphones
These are brilliant headphones: in fact, one of the best examples of wireless headphones we’ve ever tested. The sound profile is delicate and impressive, with options for EQ tweaking in the corresponding Sony app if you want a little more oomph, and the battery life is a massive 30 hours. The PNC does a lot of heavy lifting itself, but the ANC is supreme, immediately shutting off almost all ambient noise, and leaving you with your own thoughts and your music. If you’re a fan of Sony audio, or want more control over your listening experience, then it’s a no-brainer.
Apple AirPods max
Apple’s first over-ear product doesn’t disappoint. These are among the best NC headphones out there. From the super-premium build and feel, to the intricate, stunning audio, to the impressive ANC, the AirPods Max really do head straight to the top of the tree. They’re pricey, the accompanying case is laughably pointless, and as always, you’ll ideally need an Apple product to pair with, but as this is all we can come up with against them, you can tell that we’re struggling. A technically superior pair of headphones, with the best sound on the list.
JBL tune 750BTNC
Best: Budget noise-cancelling headphones
The tune 750s are the definition of good value. There are headphones on this list that have better sound, more versatile and powerful ANC and a sturdier, more premium feel. However, to the majority of listeners, the tune 750s are bang on the money. They’re light, fit nicely over the ears, and the ANC is much more effective than we were expecting. The sound is a little bass-heavy, but mightily impressive for how much you’re paying. Battery life comes in at around 15 hours, which is paltry when compared to higher-end models, but we can cope with a little more forward planning as a payoff.
Sennheiser momentum 3 wireless
Sennheiser’s reputation for the very best audio precedes it every time the brand releases a new product, and each time, that reputation is entirely justified. It’s no different with the momentum 3 wireless headphones. They produce a level of audio intricacy not seen elsewhere at this level, they look like a classic pair of Eighties cans, and the ANC is almost second to none – especially the “anti pressure” mode that lessens the vacuum effect. Well worth the investment, especially for those who want old-school looks with new-age tech.
B&O beoplay HX
Best: For luxury
The HX headphones are perhaps the best-looking on the list, with a slimline sophistication, amazingly lightweight feel and chrome finish, alongside a massive 35-hour play time. They also happen to produce one of the best sounds around. The flip side of this is that the ANC, when switched on, doesn’t block out as much as other premium models here: however, if we had to choose between blocking out every sound around us and getting to listen to Bang & Olufsen’s class-leading audio performance, B&O would win out every time.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7
Best: For balance
The PX7s have a joyful sound to them. Everything is finely balanced, dealing with complicated tracks easily, especially when it comes to pairing treble with bass. The design is also unique, and a refreshing take on wireless headphones. Noise cancellation works very well, and is super versatile, with three levels of NC available. They look and feel great, with a sophistication not seen often, even at the upper end of the market. A formidable pair of headphones.
Beats solo pro
The solo pro headphones are characteristically Beats, just all grown up. Apple’s H1 chip makes the headphones snappy when connecting and keeps the audio in perfect sync. The look is sleeker than ever before, and the sound output is the most considered it’s been in a Beats product thus far, with parred back bass giving terrible and mids room to breathe. The ANC is also premium, helped by the headphones’ on-ear design. A pair of headphones to convert any ardent Beats cynic.
Jabra elite 85h
Best: Battery life
Inhabiting the middle ground of the market, The Elite 85h headphones manage to offer plenty of features that place them alongside more expensive choices. The ANC is decent, and the Jabra app offers multiple noise-cancelling options, with varying levels of transparency. The sound is, understandably, not at the level of headphones such as the Bose NC 700s or Sennheiser momentum 3, but still gives the listener plenty of clarity and richness. The battery life is also a huge 30 hours with ANC switched on, impressive at any price.
Best: Rival to over-ear
A subsidiary of Panasonic, Technics is most noted as a brand that produces some of the best turntables in the world, most notably the industry-standard SL-1200. The company has taken its turntable and audio knowhow and put it into the EAH-AZ70W, a pair of earbuds that produces phenomenal sound, full of character and scale. The EAH’s noise cancellation works wonders, with two different options, and the controls are as easy as a few taps. A worthy investment if you’re looking for an in-ear ANC competitor.
Best: Noise-cancelling headphones under £100
The RZ-S500W offer noise cancellation to rival many over-ear efforts. The trade off for this is that they’re quite big and bulky for earbuds, jutting out pretty significantly, but that’s a minor issue compared to its advantages. Touch controls are easy to get the hang of, and the audio output is impressively clear and balanced, especially when you play about with the EQ and ambient noise levels. A great in-ear option for NC enthusiasts.
Marshall mode II
While Marshall’s Mode II earphones don’t offer ANC, the noise dampening effects of their shape give the listener plenty of cancellation. Ultimately, you’re buying a Marshall product for the sound it puts in your ear, not the sound it blocks out, and when it comes to the former, these earphones deliver. Audio clarity is as pure as you’ll find in an earbud, with the characteristic Marshall sound present in abundance. They look great and sound even better.
Best: For audiophiles
Another set of non-ANC earbuds whose passive noise cancellation pairs with their sound to deserve a spot on this list. Audiophiles love Grado. The family-run brand has been making its products in the same small Brooklyn factory for 65 years, and has enjoyed praise across the audio world since the beginning. The GT220s are another worthy submission to the story. They’re particularly pricey, seriously impressive earphones: the shape might look odd, but it results in a secure, comfortable fit and help the PNC perform brilliantly. Features are sparse, but the sound is almost perfect, with a fullness difficult to top. The bass rattles your brain. In a good way.
Apple AirPods pro
Best: For Apple users
The AirPods Pro are still among the best in their class. Both passive and active noise cancellation (along with transparent mode) are close to pristine, they fit comfortably and the audio is quintessentially Apple: although there are some rivals that might edge them, the AirPods Pro are clear, clean and intricate, with very little to pick up on. The AirPods Pro 2 are rumoured to be coming out at the start of 2022, but it’s difficult to see where Apple’s designers will go to improve the originals.
Noise-cancelling headphones FAQS
Is noise cancelling bad for ears?
Some people experience a little dizziness or a vacuum effect when first wearing ANC headphones, as the technology removes sound and frequencies that our brains would expect to hear or feel. This isn’t harming your hearing at all. In fact, noise-cancelling headphones can actually protect against hearing loss, dampening external noise instead of having you just turn the volume up to potentially dangerous levels.
The verdict: Noise-cancelling headphones
This was one of the hardest decisions we’ve had to make. Each pair we tested had its own superior elements, from Apple’s signature sound, to Sony’s complete package and battery life, to Sennheiser’s audio intricacy. However, if we focus on the noise cancelling capabilities of each, along with the price, the Bose NC 700s edge the race: they really do seem to shut out everything bar a jet engine, and produce a beautiful sound to boot.
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Looking for more headphone recommendations? Here’s our list of the best wireless headphones in 2021
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