There are a number of different technologies used for active noise cancelling in headphones, both over-ears and in-ears. But whatever tech is deployed the goal remains the same: to prevent ambient noise from colouring your music listening experience.
This is our line-up of the best ANC headphones we tested in the last 12 months. Obviously, some of them, like the Sony WH-1000XM4, also appear on our list of best headphones and also best wireless headphones.
So, if you're looking for something to wear in your noisy office or to block out the noisy commute you're bound to find a pair that works for you.
Best active noise cancelling headphones
- Sony WH-1000XM4
- Sony WH-1000XM3
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Sennheiser PXC 550-II
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Sony WF-1000XM3 True Wireless Earbuds
- Apple AirPods Pro
- Marshall Monitor II ANC
- Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
- JBL Tune 750BTNC
- Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
- Sennheiser HD 450BT
- Skullcandy Venue
- Skullcandy Crusher ANC
The Sony WH-1000XM4 deliver excellent noise-cancellation and surprising sound quality all in a lightweight, comfortable design.
While they don't look significantly different from their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM3, a number of new features including multipoint pairing, DSEE Extreme upscaling, conversational awareness and auto-play/pause using a built-in sensor all help the WH-1000XM4 claim the title of best headphones in 2020.
By every possible metric, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is a wonderful pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones. They deliver exactly what they promise and then some thanks to their exceptional noise cancellation and cutting-edge codec support.
On top of the adjustments listed above, the Sony WH-1000XM4 support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format that enables spatial audio on stereo headphones plus the LDAC codec that can send a bitrate of up to 990 kbps. The unfortunate bit there, though, is that it no longer supports aptX or aptX HD, so your Hi-Res Audio support mileage may vary.
Read more: Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones review
The Sony WH-1000XM3 were the best noise-cancelling headphones in the world for two years running – and while they've been surpassed by the new Sony WH-2000XM4, there's still loads to love about these over-ear cans.
For music lovers, the Sony WH-1000XM3 features aptX HD and Sony LDAC, two of the best ways to listen to Hi-Res music from your phone without a wire. Plus, all of Sony's flagship headphones offer both Google Assistant and Alexa support.
If you can get hold of the older, second-gen Sony WH-1000XM2, they're still very much worth a look as a more affordable (if slightly lower-spec) model.
Read more: Sony WH-1000XM3 review
They don't quite beat the Sony WH-1000XM3s in terms of battery life and price, but the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are still a brilliant pair of over-ear cans – and the best Bose headphones we've reviewed.
Traditionally, noise-cancelling headphones have been designed to block out the environmental sounds around you, so that you can hear your music more clearly (or catch some shut-eye on a noisy flight).
This can be really effective if you’re listening to music. If you’re making a phone call however, the person you’re speaking to can still hear everything that’s happening around you.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 seek to remedy this, by applying noise-cancellation to phone calls as well as music, which is fantastic feature.
The sound quality is undeniably good, with a vibrant, lively character and well-balanced soundstage.
If you’re trying to decide between buying the Sony WH-1000XM3s and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, we’d recommend going for the former because of that lower price and better battery life. That being said, you wouldn’t be making a mistake if you opted for the Bose cans instead (and we wouldn’t blame you if you did) – they sound great, look stunning, and the noise-cancellation is out of this world.
Read more: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review
Coming in at number four are the Bose QuietComfort 35 II - a nearly identical product to the already-excellent Bose QuietComfort 35 but updated for 2018 with Google Assistant. This means you still get the class-leading noise cancellation Bose is known for, good sound quality and incredible comfort, plus a convenient assistant to answer any inquiries you might have while traveling.
Taken as a whole, the Bose QC35 II NC are an excellent pair of headphones for travelers and commuters. Bose has found a good balance of features that will satisfy most mainstream listeners. While we don't love them as much as the better-sounding Sony WH-1000XM2, they're still top of the class for noise cancellation.
Despite the popularity of the QC35s, Bose has shaken things up by releasing a totally new wireless noise-cancelling headphones model, with a focus on sleek design and “breakthrough” audio tech: the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. They may not have pipped Sony to the top spot of the best noise-cancelling headphones, but they're still a fantastic pair of over-ear headphones, coming in at number two.
Read more: Bose QuietComfort 35 II review
It's not often you'll find a pair of wired earbuds, let alone a pair of true wireless earbuds on a list of the best noise-cancelling headphones; considering it's still rare to find the technology in earphones at all, the Sony WF-1000XM3s are very impressive indeed, and fully deserve a place in this roundup.
The Sony WF-1000XM3s manage to offer a level of noise cancellation that's very good for a pair of earbuds – they won't offer the same isolation as a pair of over-ear cans, but if you're after a sleek form factor then the compromise is worth it.
Not only are these hands down the best-looking true wireless headphones out there, but they combine serious noise-cancelling tech with fist-pumping musicality. If you don’t want the inconvenience of carrying full-size cans, they’re a persuasive alternative.
Read more: Sony WF-1000XM3 review
Offering class-leading battery life, terrific style and plenty of personalization when it comes to sound profiles, the Elite 85h are easy to recommend. That said, purists will bemoan the lack of high-end codec support and there are punchier wireless headphones on the market at this price point.
When you consider that Jabra’s Elite 85h headphones are the company’s first attempt at premium wireless ANC headphones, the result is quite commendable. We can’t wait to see what the company’s next premium ANC headphones will accomplish.
If you want an alternative to Sony's WH-1000XM4, these wireless headphones are a great choice.
Read more: Jabra Elite 85H review
Apple's most recent true wireless earbuds come with active noise cancellation, as well as a better fit and sound than their predecessors, the Apple AirPods.
However, at $249 / £249 / AU$399/ R4199, they’re pretty pricey, but they're optimized for iPhone users. The redesign means they’re far less likely to fall out, and the additional microphones provide strong noise cancellation, as well as a useful Transparency mode, which really does let the outside world in.
The sound quality of the AirPods Pro has certainly improved since the previous iteration – there’s a notable emphasis on vocals and bass, meaning these earbuds are better for pop fans than those that enjoy a more natural presentation that lends itself to classical music or more orchestral sounds.
Apparently, there's a new AirPods model on the horizon to join the original buds and the newer Pros. The AirPods Pro Lite are rumored to be a new, cheaper variant of the company's popular true wireless earbuds, and they could be released this year.
Read more: Apple AirPods Pro review
Jabra had already secured its position amongst our best true wireless buds with the Elite 65t, but the Elite 75t is a great upgrade adding some neat touches including IPX55 waterproofing for gymgoers, Qi wireless charging, thumping bass and, of course, excellent ANC, adjustable using a slider in the phone app. The 75t retains the comfort, ease of use and all-round sensibility we liked in its predecessor.
We also particularly enjoyed using the HearThrough feature which lets ambient sound in at the touch of a button. The Jabra phone app is surprisingly full featured with some clever innovations including a detailed hearing test which can slightly customise the sound signature of the Elite 75t. The left and right buttons are not touch sensors but physical buttons which invariably work better than the hit-and-miss touch controls found on the majority of true wireless buds.
Read more: Jabra Elite 75t review
The release of the Apple AirPods Max represented the highest-profile headphones launch for some time, having been the subject of rumor and speculation for two years, and come with active noise cancellation, superb audio quality, and a design that sets them apart from most noise-cancelling headphones on the market.
While their exceptional audio performance and class-leading ANC impresses, they're let down by their eye-watering price, baffling carrying case, and lack of support for Hi-Res Audio codecs.
Despite their high price, the AirPods Max aren’t exactly aimed at the audiophile crowd, owing to their lack of 3.5mm audio port; instead, these cans are squarely targeted at card-carrying members of the Apple ecosystem, with nifty features for iOS users and an unmistakably ‘Apple’ design.
For Android users, the AirPods Max are simply a high-performance pair of noise-cancelling headphones with an unusual design, as fantastic as they may sound – and for these users, we can't see how the high price is justified.
But, if you've already bought into the Apple ecosystem, you have a lot of money to burn, and you don't care about Hi-Res Audio, you won't find headphones that sound better or are easier to use than the AirPods Max.
Read more: Apple AirPods Max review
In terms of sheer sound quality, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless headphones sound brilliant, with high levels of detail, warm bass, and natural-sounding highs.
The customizable noise cancellation on offer here is also good, but it doesn’t quite reach the class-leading standards set by the Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless headphones.
They have nowhere near the battery life of Sony’s headphones, and are more expensive – which begs the question, why buy the Sennheisers when you could have the WH-1000XM3?
Well, if built-in Tile tracking appeals to you, and you like the industrial design and premium materials of the Momentum 3 Wireless, that could be reason enough – and if you do opt for them over the Sony model, you won’t be missing out on any audio quality. In that respect, they’re truly matched.
Read more: Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless review
Although Bose has long been the default choice for noise cancelling technology, arch-rival Sennheiser has definitely closed the gap and are now as good at sound isolation. However, here Sennheiser has scored a victory on another front: price. The HD 450BT sound every bit as good as cans costing twice as much and the noise cancelling is excellent too.
With the foldable design Sennheiser has also managed to keep these properly compact, and they're still quite light, especially for headphones offering an impressive 30 hours of battery life with active noise cancellation turned on.
The HD 450BT work equally well as a well-padded over-ears to use on your morning commute and all day at work, and for the frequent traveler who wants great sound and noise cancelling in a more affordable package.
Read more: Sennheiser HD 450BT
JBL is a popular name in the world of headphones and Bluetooth speakers, and rightly so. Solidly dependable, consumers know what to expect from the brand – decent sound quality for a decent price.
That's what we found with the JBL Live 650BTNC last year – and now, ready to take their place are the JBL Tune 750BTNC, a superior successor to the 650BTNC's as a high-spec and well-priced set of over-ear headphones.
The JBL Tune 750BTNC sound great, look great, and they fit well. Reliable and easy to use, you might miss waterproofing and a few minor features – but at this price, it feels foolish to complain too readily.
Read more: JBL Tune 750BTNC review
The sound quality, battery life, and design of the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 are truly brilliant – and they're a really good alternative to the Sony WF-1000XM3, particularly if you prefer a more flashy design to adorn your ears.
We did find that those with smaller ears sometimes find them a little uncomfortable, however, and their high price just stops them from taking the top spot of this round up.
Otherwise? Sennheiser has pretty much knocked it out of the park with these buds, offering great noise cancellation alongside smart looks and stunning sound.
Read more: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review
Skullcandy's brash styling has been toned down in recent years, and that reflects its increased attention to sound and build quality. While there's nothing subtle about the Crusher's trademark haptic bass which can be cranked up to a physical rumbling sensation, the noise cancelling is above average and almost entirely hiss-free.
It is also far easier to operate than many other headsets on this list. Hold the power button to turn on and off and touch the left cup for a few seconds to set ambient mode which pipes in outside sounds.
They're comfortable enough for hours of continuous wear and fold down pretty small into their supplied carry case.
Full review: Skullcandy Crusher ANC
What is noise cancellation?
Noise-cancelling headphones use analogue and electronic methods to block out the environmental sound around you, allowing you to listen to your music in peace without distraction. Most noise-cancelling headphones make use of the following two approaches:
Passive noise cancellation
This is when the headphones physically block outside sound from reaching your ears, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. Noise-cancelling over-ear headphones typically have heavily padded earcups to achieve this, while in-ear headphones need to fit snugly in your ear to create a tight seal, stopping environmental sounds from entering.
Active noise cancellation
This method uses inbuilt microphones to analyze environmental noise and create 'anti-noise' frequencies that are mixed in with your music playback. This effectively cancels out the sound of your surroundings using analogue or digital filters.