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During a year that saw many Americans turn to full time remote work, lots of brands kicked up efforts to produce noise-cancelling headphones. Even Apple finally released their first branded set of over-the-ear headphones, the AirPods Max, with some of the most powerful — and expensive — noise cancelling available in a headphone set today. But are noise canceling headphones worth that extra money? It all comes down to what your ANC needs are. To best understand what you should look for in that regard, we dive into how ANC headphones work and which are currently the best ones to consider.
What are ‘active noise cancelling’ headphones?
It’s hard to concentrate on working when the bustle of the outside world (or your remote work partner) is constantly worming its way into your ears. Noise-cancelling headphones offer a reprieve, quieting things down so you can relax or focus on your work or project — that’s the idea, at least. I often hear people say “noise cancelling” when referring to any over-ear headphones, but that terminology can be a bit confusing and simplistic. Sure, all headphones block out some noise — after all, when you're listening to music, it's hard to hear your partner, family member or roommate trying to get your attention across the hall.
“If you just put on a headphone that covers your ears, there’s no real ‘cancellation’ — it’s just blocking noise,” explained Karen Panetta, a fellow with the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and dean of graduate studies at the Tufts University School of Engineering. This is typically called passive noise isolation. And it’s nothing to jeer at — it’ll be a long time before brands abandon the use of fabrics, leathers, foam and other fillers to wall in your sound. But while traditional headphones block sound by using earcup designs that fully enclose your ears — like a set of earmuffs — active noise cancelling is something different entirely.
- It usually involves a battery — in contrast to typical headphones that solely draw power from the device they’re connected to.
- And, as Panetta puts it, active noise-cancelling headphones have “extra smarts” that remove outside noise from the equation.
The difference is immediately apparent when you put them on: Instead of merely dampening the outside noise, you’ll all of a sudden feel like you’re in a quiet room, rather than in a loud airplane or bustling Starbucks. It’s almost shocking in the beginning: The first time I used a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, it deadened the sound of a crowded convention hall to a barely-there and distant hum.
How do noise-cancelling headphones work?
So true noise-cancelling headphones require extra power and circuitry, but what exactly does it do?
Panetta explains it like this: Noise-cancelling headphones use microphones to record the noise around you, then “try to mimic those signals and subtract them out of the total signal that’s getting into your ear.” (For you science enthusiasts, it essentially creates an out-of-phase sound wave, nullifying the original sound wave before you hear it.)
Different headphones are better at this than others but the technology has improved vastly over the years. What was once one microphone recording noise is now often an array of microphones, with usually-proprietary technology attempting to cancel as many of those frequencies as possible.
Are ANC headphones right for you?
Noise-cancelling headphones may seem like the pinnacle of headphone technology, but they aren’t for everyone.
Set your expectations. For one, ANC headphones are best at cancelling out constant hums in lower registers, like the drone of an airplane engine — they’re less effective at blocking out the coworker talking in the cubicle next to you or a baby crying nearby. (Panetta notes that they’re getting better at this, though, which my experience bears out — at least, in more expensive models.) When they do work, though, they work well. And they allow you to listen to your music at a lower volume, instead of having to crank it up to drown out that airplane engine (and damaging your hearing in the process).
Know your limitations. Second, some people find that active noise cancellation can give them a headache, or make them feel like they need to pop their ears. This can be uncomfortable enough that it negates the benefits of noise cancelling — though, as The Wirecutter notes, you can alleviate this by using a pair of headphones that let you adjust the level of cancellation, or a pair that just isn’t as powerful in its noise-cancelling abilities.
Cancel noise responsibly. Finally, there are some situations in which blocking all unwanted noise is not ideal — in fact, it can be downright unsafe. “If you’re jogging with your phone, it’s really important that you don’t try to tune everything out 100 percent,” says Panetta. In those situations, she recommends bone conduction headphones like Aftershokz’ Trekz Air, which essentially do the opposite, letting in lots of outside noise and using vibrations to deliver music through your jawbone. As always, it’s about using the right tool for the job at the right time.
How to shop for headphones with noise cancelling
Different headphones accomplish noise cancelling in different ways. Some headphones may have better sound quality than others, and higher-end headsets are usually more effective at cancelling noise. Certain headphones may even have extra features, like a “pass through” setting that lets in different amounts outside noise through the microphones when you want more awareness of the world around you. Depending on your needs, you may find you need a certain pair to check all your boxes.
The best active noise cancelling headphones
So you’re a frequent traveler or coffee-shop-worker, and noise-cancelling headphones sound perfect for you. There are a few models that stand out from the pack.
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.
Sony gives Bose a run for their money with their extremely powerful WH-1000XM4 headphones, which cancel out more noise than most of the competition. It can also let in outside noise through its microphones, but unlike the Bose 700, this setting doesn’t adjust the level of noise cancelling — so some folks may experience discomfort even with this setting turned down. They also have a bassier sound, which some will love and some will hate, although Sony's app has a built-in equalizer that'll help you adjust the sound. Coupled with the Alexa and Google Assistant voice assistants that come with other high-end models, it’s a great alternative (as long as heavy noise cancelling doesn’t irritate your ears). You can also grab last year's model, the WH-1000XM3, refurbished for a discount if you want to save some money.
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.
Former reigning champs, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II are a great option if you want that Bose name and quality but also want to spend a little less than Bose’s flagship model. It lacks a bit of the clarity of the Bose 700 and doesn’t allow for adjustable noise cancelling. But it still does a great job blocking sound and carries a decently balanced sound signature that isn’t overly bassy.
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.
Apple’s AirPods Pro are widely regarded as some of the best noise-cancelling earbuds you can buy — especially if you don’t want the old-school neckband form factor. They work especially well with iPhones thanks to Apple’s H1 chip, which improves wireless connectivity between your earbuds and your phone.
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.