Whether you’re trying to focus at work, watch your favorite streaming show or get a good outdoor exercise session in, using the right pair of headphones for your situation can make or break your experience. That’s where noise-canceling headphones come into the mix; they help block out unwanted sounds while you’re listening to music, podcasts or calls through your headphones.
Active noise cancellation technology (also known as ‘ANC’) is now a common feature in over-ear headphones, and increasingly smaller in-ear models (like wireless earbuds) too. While it adds a price premium, it’s a hugely useful feature. Below, we walk you through what to know about noise cancellation, how it works and which headphones use the technology best.
Our top picks
- Best overall pick: Sony WH-1000XM5
- Best in-ear: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds Series II
- Best for iOS: Apple AirPods Pro 2
How we picked the best ANC headphones
To select the best ANC headphones on the market, I drew on years of experience using and comparing high-quality audio equipment. I’ve tried headphones from major headphone brands, including Sony, Apple, Sennheiser and Bang & Olufsen. As a freelance reporter and gadgets writer, I tracked the growth of ANC audio in consumer gadgets as well. Here’s what I considered in making these picks:
- Battery Life: If you’re using these for long-haul flights or conference calls, then you’ll need a battery that can last for long periods of time — especially since using ANC drains it much faster than normal playback does. Look for 20-30 hours of ANC usage in over-ear headphones. (That number should be higher when ANC is not in use.)
- Comfort: Look for earcups with adjustable positioning and band lengths to account for different head sizes to maximize comfort so you can wear them for long periods of time
- Driver size: Drivers are the small speakers inside a pair of headphones that actually emit sound. The bigger the driver is, the bigger the sound it can make. Earbuds are more limited on this front, though drivers in over-ear models should sit somewhere between 30mm and 40mm.
The best noise canceling headphones in 2023
As a technology journalist, I’ve tried dozens of noise canceling headphones in various environments. Below are some of my favorite over-ear headphones and earbuds. (All of the over-ear models I recommend are fully adjustable so you can be comfortable no matter how long you keep your headphones on.)
For a truly premium experience, consider Sony’s WH-1000XM5 headphones. These over-ear headphones are known for their comfort, audio quality and effective ANC. The brand’s newest model has a 30-hour battery life and a vast frequency range for showcasing detail at both high and low frequencies. In my experience, they’re comfortable enough for long journeys, too, thanks to soft leather ear cups designed to reduce pressure on the ears.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 4-40,000Hz | Battery life: 30 hours | Weight: 250g | Drivers: 30mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
In my experience, these QuietComfort earbuds do an astonishing job of implementing ANC on a smaller scale. You’ll find a secure fit in these earbuds, alongside exceptional clarity and volume touch controls for a seamless interface. They’re pricey for in-ear headphones, but they are easily some of the best ANC buds on the market right now.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 6 hours | Battery life with charging case: 24 hours | Weight: 6.24g | Drivers: 9.3mm | Water- and sweat resistant: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
If style is as important to you as sound quality, the Beoplay HX from Bang & Olufsen are a great option. With an aluminum exterior, lambskin accents and memory foam earcups, these headphones look and feel like a million dollars — but only cost a few hundred. You can get stronger ANC for less money elsewhere, but the design excellence of B&O really comes through, from the construction materials to the excellent mobile app for adjusting ANC implementation to your desired level.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 20-22,000Hz | Battery life: 35 hours | Weight: 285g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Apple’s latest AirPods Pro earbuds, which won a Select Wellness Award for best wireless earbuds, match the price of the original AirPods Pro while upping audio performance, improving battery life to a total 30 hours (with the charging case, according to the brand) and offering standout noise cancellation. You’ll also get spatial audio features for a slight surround sound effect. For Apple users who prefer an in-ear silhouette, these are the best ANC headphones you can buy.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 6 hours | Battery life with charging case: 30 hours | Weight: 5.3g | Drivers: 11mm | Water- and sweat resistance: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
Sennheiser’s long-running Momentum range has been a high point in consumer audio for a while now, and this wireless ANC model is no exception. It offers the brand’s top-quality sound, with effective noise cancellation and modern smart features (like a transparency mode to hear your environment at a single click). The real highlight, in my opinion, is its 60 hours of battery life (even with ANC activated), according to Sennheiser, which knocks most of the models on this list out of the water.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 6-22,000Hz | Battery life: 60 hours | Weight: 290g | Drivers: 42mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Bose pioneered noise-canceling technology decades ago, and it’s still one of the top brands when it comes to ANC headphones. The Bose 700 has some of the most powerful noise canceling you can get today — not to mention good, balanced sound quality and a super comfortable fit. Most useful, however, is the ability to adjust how much noise cancellation you want using Bose’s app. Add in Alexa and Google Assistant, touch controls, and 20-hour battery life, and you’ve got some of the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 20 hours | Weight: 250g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
After so much success with their AirPods earbuds, Apple launched the AirPods Max, a set of over-ear noise-canceling headphones to compete with the likes of Bose and Sony. The noise cancellation is incredibly effective, though some reviewers say that while they excel at drowning out hums like airplane noise, they aren't as good at canceling out people talking nearby, and may be uncomfortable to wear for some people. However, it offers an easier, more stable pairing process with Apple products. Top that with fancy features like spatial audio for surround sound movies and games for an especially fancy pair of headphones.
Select editorial projects manager Rebecca Rodriguez is a huge fan: “The transparency mode on these headphones is what I was most impressed with,” she says. “I use this setting when commuting and it lets me stay aware of what is going around me without diminishing the sound quality of whatever song I’m listening to. They are also incredibly comfortable; the mesh band makes it feel like they are conforming to your head shape, and the ear cups are well padded and removable for whenever you want to clean them.”
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 20 hours | Weight: 385g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
If the above options are out of your budget, Anker's Soundcore Q30 wireless noise-canceling headphones are a solid alternative for under $100. Their ANC is not as powerful as higher-end choices — though, in my experience, they can block out low-pitched drones. I also found chatter from people nearby me a bit more audible than on the Bose 700 listed above. Having said that, when it comes to long airplane trips, they’ll work nicely without breaking the bank. They also sound better than many of their budget-focused competitors, with some extra thump in the bass that doesn't overpower or muddy the rest of the range as much as other bass-heavy cans.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 16-24.000Hz | Battery life: 60 hours | Weight: 265g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
For an earbud option that costs less than Apple's AirPods Pro, I recommend Aukey's EP-N5, also known as the Beyond ANC. It's priced well for how good it sounds, and while, in my experience, its noise cancellation isn't on par with more expensive options, it'll block out low-pitched hums.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 20-20,000Hz | Battery life: 7 hours | Battery life with charging case: 35 hours | Weight: 10g | Drivers: 10mm | Water- and sweat resistant: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
How to shop for the best ANC headphones
- Shape and size: Everyone’s ears are different — some may love the plush comfort or sound isolation of over-ear headphones, while others may dislike the added weight and wish for some compact in-ear models instead. Make sure you pin down what will be most comfortable and appropriate for you. Over-ear models will block out more noise, according to experts. (See below for more details.)
- What are you using them for? Some headphones are great for the gym, some are great for the office or a commute, but you’ll want a pair of ANC headphones that work for your specific needs. For workouts, make sure the headphones have some semblance of water- or sweat resistance, and possibly a transparency mode to let you hear your surroundings with an easy click.
What is active noise cancellation and how does it work?
Many over-ear headphones offer some kind of “passive” sound isolation, thanks to layers of padding around the ear that help to muffle external noise. But the technology behind active noise cancellation is something else altogether.
ANC uses advanced technology to actively counter external noise, according to Richard Trestain, product manager at audio brand Jabra. (Despite working at Jabra, a technology brand that makes headphones, Trestain only provided shopping advice and did not provide any specific headphone recommendations for our list.) “Basically, it detects and analyzes the sound pattern of incoming noise and then generates a mirror ‘anti-noise’ signal to cancel it out,” he says. “The end result is that you hear a drastically reduced level of noise.”.
There are multiple kinds of ANC. Feedforward ANC — common among smaller, in-ear headphones — uses external microphones to record and counteract ambient noise. Feedback ANC, on the other hand, uses internal microphones to focus on counteracting the noise that makes it to your ear.
The most effective kind of ANC is hybrid ANC, which combines both technologies — it uses what Trestain calls “a combination of inward-facing and outward-facing microphones” to cancel noise both inside and outside the ear for clearer calls and listening sessions.
If you’re looking to block out as much noise as possible, you’ll want to opt for an over-ear model. “An over-ear ANC headset fully covers your ears and blocks out most outside sounds,” says Trestain. “It adds passive noise cancellation to the mix and filters out high-frequency noise.” However, since ANC headsets can be heavier and bulkier than other options, some people may prefer earbuds.
In-ear models generally won’t block quite as much outside noise, but ANC versions are designed to create a seal over your ear as much as possible.
Is ANC good for hearing health?
The CDC estimates that 12.5% of children (aged 6-19) and 17% of adults (aged 20-69) in the U.S. experience some kind of permanent damage to their hearing from “excessive exposure to noise” — so it’s important to consider your audio hardware and how you use it.
Dr. Gayla Poling, an audiology researcher at Mayo Clinic, is an expert in early identification of hearing loss from noise exposure and says that headphones regularly come up in discussions around hearing health. “There's a body of evidence that shows if I have headphones that are really good quality, and block out background noise, maybe I don't have to turn the volume up to hear it,” says Poling. “So in some ways, there’s a sort of protective effect in the sense I don't have to turn it up as loud to share and enjoy the music.”
However, it’s crucial that ANC headphones aren’t mistaken for actual hearing protection — the kind of professional sound mufflers or earplugs that construction workers, welders and firearm specialists use to protect their ears in high-volume environments. “ANC is really designed to block out ambient sounds, like a fan running,” says Poling. “You’re wanting to cancel out that low-level sound, to make the environment less stressful.
"That is not the same as hearing protection in really noisy environments, where we really want to deaden the sound, sound-proof, and reduce the overall exposure to the ears,” she says. ANC, will not do much for hearing protection when it comes fireworks or really loud rock concerts, according to Poling.
ANC is also a very nascent technology in consumer audio, and technology tends to a race ahead of slow, rigorous medical literature so it’s hard to say how ANC affects ear health, good or bad: “Evidence or research in this area is still very much emerging, because the technologies are just now largely accessible,” says Poling. “We don't really know the effects of active noise cancellation on those things. They just haven't been studied.”
Ultimately balance is the key, so make sure you aren’t listening to loud music for overly long periods. Eighty five decibels — roughly the noise level of a bustling street corner — is seen as the upper limit of what people can listen to comfortably for 8-10 hours at a time, though this naturally varies according to the individual, according to Poling.
Are there any downsides to ANC?
Yes. In certain cases, blocking out your environment would be unsafe. For example, it would be irresponsible to wear them while driving, and could be dangerous to use while walking down the street (especially when crossing the road), or in the gym, where there is a lot of heavy equipment. Tuning out your surroundings is best when you’re static and unlikely to come into trouble.
It’s important to be able to hear someone call your name or tell you to watch out, says Poling. “You have to have at least situational awareness for your own safety.”
The efficacy of ANC, or dangers of high volumes, will also depend on the person using it. “Everyone's ears are different,” says Poling. “They're almost like fingerprints, and every shape and size is very different. And it's very individual, who's actually at risk for hearing loss.”
How does ANC affect battery life?
ANC is an energy-intensive process, using built-in microphone arrays to record environmental noise, and then negating that input with an opposing signal. Battery life can drop significantly when ANC is active, just like using your headphones for all-day meetings or long conference calls will run the battery faster than simply listening to music or a podcast.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Richard Trestain is a product manager at audio brand Jabra. Despite working at a technology brand that makes headphones, Trestain only provided shopping advice for this guide and did not provide any specific headphone recommendations for our list.
- Gayla Poling, PhD, is an audiology researcher at Mayo Clinic.
Why trust Select?
Henry St. Leger has been writing about consumer technology for years, extensively trying headphones, soundbars, and home entertainment hardware. They were previously the news & features editor at TechRadar and have bylines for Insider, Healthline, T3, Tech Advisor, and Trusted Reviews.