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The best noise cancelling headphones in 2022, according to experts

Shut out the world with the best noise cancelling headphones out there from Apple, Sony and Bose.
Four different versions of headphones
Tech experts explain how ANC headphones work and which are currently the best ones to consider.Kara Birnbaum for NBC News ; Bose ; Best Buy

When buying new headphones, it isn’t just the audio quality that matters — it’s also important to consider whether the headphones are suitable for the environment you’re going to be using them in. Open-backed headphones are fine if you’re alone in your own home, and the average pair of earbuds will do for a quick phone call during a walk, but only true noise cancelling headphones will fully insulate you from unwanted noise when you want it the least — whether it’s chatty co-workers, screaming children or the screech of the subway carriage pulling out of the station.

SKIP AHEAD The best noise cancelling headphones | How does active noise cancellation work? | What to look for in ANC headphones

Noise cancellation technology is becoming more common in headphones, but it still tends to add a bit of a price premium. Below, we run you through what you need to know about noise cancellation, how it works and which headphones utilize the technology best.

What is active noise cancellation?

Active noise cancellation (or ANC, for short) is a technology that helps to block out unwanted sounds while you’re listening to music, podcasts, calls or any kind of audio playback through your headphones. ANC technology was first patented in the 1950s – though it was audio specialist Bose that first introduced commercial ANC headphones to the market. In the years since, ANC has become a crucial headphone technology for the common commuter. It’s a highly convenient feature for noisy environments, whether it’s a highly trafficked, open-plan office or a loud subway.

The best noise cancelling headphones also come with quality microphone arrays, narrowing in on your speech during phone calls and Zoom meetings to ensure both you and your conversational partners are able to communicate clearly without distraction.

You won’t get ANC with every pair of headphones, but it is appearing in more models all the time — even tiny in-ear earbuds that would have been unthinkable a few years ago.

The best noise cancelling headphones in 2022

As a tech journalist, I’ve tested dozens of noise cancelling headphones in all sorts of 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 stay comfortable no matter how long you keep your headphones on.

Sony WH-1000XM5

For a truly premium noise cancelling experience, consider the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones. Sony’s over-ear headphones are known for their comfort, audio quality and effective ANC, and the brand’s newest model has a beefy 30-hour battery life and incredible frequency range to best showcase a wide variety of musical styles. You should be able to bear wearing these for long journeys, too, thanks to soft leather ear cups designed to reduce pressure on the ears.

Bose QuietComfort Earbuds Series II

Active noise cancellation in earbuds can’t quite compare with in-ear models, but that won’t stop Bose from trying — and these QuietComfort earbuds do an astonishing job of implementing ANC on the smaller scale. You’ll find a secure fit in these earbuds, alongside exceptional clarity and volume touch controls for a seamless interfacing experience. They’re pricey for in-ear headphones, but they are easily some of the best ANC earbuds on the market right now.

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay HX

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 cash elsewhere, but the design excellence of B&O really comes through, from the fancy materials used in construction to the excellent mobile app for adjusting ANC implementation to your desired level.

Jabra Elite 85H

If you’re after a more mid-price ANC model, the Jabra Elite 85H headphones offer excellent noise cancellation at a very reasonable price — not to mention roughly 40 hours of battery life, whether you’re using a battery-draining ANC mode or not. You won’t get some higher-end audio codecs here, so it’s not one for music professionals, but the Elite 85H headphones are still stylish, capable and long-lasting for the average listener.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Bose pioneered noise-cancelling technology decades ago, and it’s still one of the top dogs when it comes to ANC headphones. Its latest Bose 700 has some of the most powerful noise cancelling 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 cancelling you want using Bose’s app, which helps alleviate the discomfort some people might experience. Add in Alexa and Google Assistant, touch controls, and awesome battery life, and you’ve got some of the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy.

Apple AirPods Max

After so much success with their AirPods earbuds, Apple has finally unveiled the AirPods Max, a set of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones to compete with the likes of Bose and Sony. Their noise cancelling is incredibly powerful, though reviewers note that while they excel at drowning out hums like airplane noise, they aren't as good at cancelling out people talking next to you, and may be uncomfortable for some people. However, the built-in H1 chip makes for an easier, more stable pairing process with Apple products. Top that with fancy features like adaptive equalization and spatial audio for surround sound movies and games for an especially fancy pair of headphones.

Soundcore by Anker Life Q30

If the above options are too expensive, Anker's Soundcore Q30 wireless noise-cancelling headphones are a solid alternative for under $100. Their active noise cancelling is not as powerful as higher-end choices — in my tests, they did a decent job blocking out low-pitched drones, but people talking were a bit more audible than on the Bose 700. Having said that, when it comes to long airplane trips, they’ll do 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.

Aukey Beyond ANC Hybrid

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 shockingly well for how good it sounds, and while its noise cancelling isn't on par with more expensive options, it'll do a decent job at blocking low-pitched hums.

Apple AirPods Pro 2

Apple’s latest AirPods Pro earbuds match the price of the previous model while upping audio performance, improving battery life to a total 30 hours (with the charging case, that is) and offering standout noise cancellation in a compact form factor. You’ll also get Spatial Audio for a slight surround sound effect. For Apple users who prefer an in-ear silhouette, these are the best ANC headphones you can buy.

How does active noise cancellation 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.

Richard Trestain, product manager at audio brand Jabra, told us that ANC uses advanced technology to actively counter external noise. “Basically, it detects and analyzes the sound pattern of incoming noise and then generates a mirror ‘anti-noise’ signal to cancel it out. The end result is that you hear a drastically reduced level of noise,” he explained.

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 , 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,” Trestain said. “It adds passive noise cancellation to the mix and filters out high-frequency noise.” However, Trestain noted that since ANC headsets can be “bulkier and heavier,” 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.

Are there any downsides to ANC?

It is worth being conscious of the dangers of headphones that effectively block out your environment. It would be irresponsible to wear them while driving, for instance, and could be dangerous to use while walking down the street, especially when crossing the road. Tuning out your surroundings is best when you’re static and unlikely to come into trouble.

There’s evidence to suggest ANC usage could help prevent tinnitus and reduce stress by blocking out excess noise, though you’ll need to make sure the volume of your music doesn’t make up for the difference in decibels.

The white noise used to cancel out background noise can be quite stimulating for some people and aid concentration in others. It’s really down to the individual and what works best for them.

What to look for in noise cancelling headphones

Aside from the price, there are a few factors to consider when buying noise cancelling headphones.

Battery life

An important factor to consider when shopping for ANC headphones is battery life. After all, if you’re using these cans for long-haul flights, then you’ll need a battery capable of lasting for long periods of time — especially since using ANC drains the battery much faster than normal playback does. You should look for 20-30 hours of ANC usage in over-ear headphones, with a higher figure for when ANC is not in use.

Comfort

Another thing to consider is comfort. I’ve tested many premium headphones that get all the specifications right but are painful to wear for long periods; looking for earcups with adjustable positioning and band lengths to account for different head sizes will go a long way here. (You shouldn’t have that problem with the models we recommend.)

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