More of us are now working from home than ever before, and doing so creates a whole host of challenges. One of those is finding a way to reduce the hubbub created by family members or housemates so that we can focus on the task at hand - or even so we can carve out a few moments of quiet for ourselves.
Noise-cancelling headphones are great for that. In fact, many people use them even when they're not playing music, just as a way to create some silence in which to concentrate. Of course, we're only interested in noise-cancelling headphones that also sound great when you do want to listen to some tunes (or watch a film or TV show for that matter), and every model we've recommended below fits that bill.
Most also include a microphone for chatting to friends and family, or even doing those video meetings that are all the rage right now. And noise-cancelling tends to go hand-in-hand with Bluetooth connectivity, giving you the freedom of wireless plus a battery life that can push north of 24 hours.
Some simply allow you to switch noise-cancelling on or off, which is fine if you're listening to them on a train or plane. Other models give you greater flexibility and the ability to adjust the strength of the noise-cancelling based on where you're using them. You might want to allow some noise through if you're using them in built-up areas, for example, although not that many of us are visiting any of those at the moment.
Some also boast additional features such as NFC pairing, which allows you to connect noise-cancelling headphones with compatible Android smartphones by simply tapping your phone on one of the earpieces. All things to consider when you're choosing a pair.
The arrival of the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancelling headphones was probably the biggest headphone launch of 2020. Why? Well they just happened to replace the Bose-baiting, Sennheiser-slaying, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning WH-1000XM3s (below), one of the most popular pairs of headphones on the planet. They are quite a big deal and – good news – live up to their hype.
They’re as comfortable as their predecessors (which is very, by the way); they introduce new useful features that elevate the user experience (such as ‘Speak to Chat’, which allows you to talk to someone while the headphones are still on your head, all without moving a muscle); and, more importantly, you’re getting a serious hike in sound quality over the XM3s for the money (in part down to a new DSEE Extreme sound processor).
The line's sense of musicality and enthusiasm remains as addictive as ever here, but you can also hear big improvements over the XM3s across the board. The WH-1000XM4 sounds more composed and confident, especially when it comes to lower frequencies.
We’re in no doubt these sensational Sony headphones will be tough to beat.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM4
No-one was surprised by the announcement of the AirPods Max. Apple’s first on-ear headphones were one of the tech world’s worst-kept secrets for months.
What did come as a surprise was the price: £549 ($549, AU$899) makes them vastly more expensive than the great majority of premium (if we can even still call them that) wireless noise-cancelling headphones. Can they possibly justify such a comparatively huge outlay?
The short answer is that yes, they can. They’re so much better than the existing competition that, arguably, they cross the line from wireless audio into wireless hi-fi.
Unsurprisingly, you do need an iPhone or iPad in order to get the most out of the AirPods Max. They will work with non-Apple products using standard Bluetooth 5.0, but you’ll miss out on many of their unique features. Ultimately, we can’t imagine anyone not already fairly well ensconced in the Apple ecosystem would consider buying a pair.
Assuming you are a keen Apple user, the AirPods Max are the best wireless headphones you can buy – and not by a small margin. Their authenticity, detail, crispness and spaciousness elevate them so far above the previous best in the wireless noise-cancelling class that the comparison starts to become a little redundant and you instead begin to consider them alongside proper hi-fi products.
There’s no denying that they cost a lot more than typical products in this class but, if sound quality is king, there’s equally no denying that they’re worth it.
Read the full review: Apple AirPods Max
While no longer Sony's latest (and greatest) wireless noise-cancelling headphones (that'd be the WH-1000XM4s above), they're still superb options – especially for those with tighter budgets; they've dropped in price a fair bit since their successors came along.
They're 2019 (and 2018) What Hi-Fi? Award winners and remain one of the most comfortable, best-sounding and most intuitive pairs of on-ears we’ve tested. Features include Sony's Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser which optimises the noise-cancelling for when you're flying, touchpad controls and an accompanying Headphones Control app. Thanks to a quick charging battery (done via USB-C), the WH-1000XM3s go from empty to full in three hours while a ten minute charge gives you a whopping five hours of use.
They produce an open, spacious sound that gives every instrument, effect and vocal room to breathe. Vocals sound focused and direct, but the instruments around them are delivered in a way that makes it feel as if you’re in the room with the band. Combine that spaciousness with greater detail, dynamic subtlety and loads of lovely deep bass and you've got a breathtaking noise-cancelling package. If you're looking for excellent noise-cancellers but can't afford the WH-1000XM4's outlay, you won't be disappointed with these.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM3
Got a slightly bigger budget for a pair of wireless noise-cancellers? Lucky you. You might well consider this pair, which is an extraordinary effort by Sennheiser’s engineering team.
Sennheiser doesn’t need any ‘third time lucky’ well wishes for its third-generation Momentum Wirelesses – both the originals and second versions were instant knockouts when they arrived, and these have been much improved over their predecessors in the sound department. They're an energetic, timely and hugely insightful listen that you've no choice but to be entertained by.
That sonic success is backed by enhanced usability features too, although be aware that battery life is only 17 hours next to the above Sony's 30-hour claim.
Still, if you can live with slightly more frequent recharging, these wireless wonders will do you proud: they're comfortable, convenient (you don't need to pair them before every use), and they automatically pause or play music as you take them off/put them on.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
There are wireless in-ear headphones and then there are truly wireless in-ear headphones. The former are wireless in name only – there's either a cord or neckband connecting the two earbuds. On the plus side, it means you'll never lose one. But if you want to cut the cord completely, then the new Sony WF-1000X3 earbuds – 2019 What Hi-Fi? Award winners, no less – are comfortably the best around.
They're a lightweight, compact design – quite the achievement given they squeeze in batteries, playback controls, a Bluetooth receiver and active noise-cancelling. Battery life is six hours, although the supplied carry case doubles as a charger, giving you an extra 18 hours.
Wonderfully musical, tonally natural and brilliantly punchy, these true wireless buds sound superb, and the noise-cancelling is excellent - even better than that of the preceding model (the Sony WF-1000X). If you want noise-cancelling but you don't want on-ear headphones, you need to check out the Sony WF-1000XM3.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3
B&W’s flagship noise-cancellers are born entertainers and can rub shoulders with the very best. All a pair of headphones can do is sound, look and feel great – and the B&W PX7s tick all three boxes.
Even in a market crowded with premium offerings, the PX7s stand out for their sophisticated styling and quality of build and materials. (Though as anyone familiar with B&W's oeuvre will tell you, that's hardly surprising.)
They don't skimp on features, either. There are three tiers of noise-cancelling, depending on whether you want to block out background noise completely, quite a lot, or just a bit. This is joined by aptX Adaptive Bluetooth tech, which improves data rates and reduces latency.
The Sonys that top this list might have pipped them to a What Hi-Fi? Awards Best Buy due to their better value, but these are fine alternatives – especially for those who value sonic sprightliness and street-cred style. B&W, we like the cut of your jib.
Read the full review: Bowers & Wilkins PX7 review
The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2s tick a lot of boxes. They're comfortable to have in place for long listening sessions. Battery life is competitive too, with a single charge giving seven hours of playback and the charging case providing an additional three charges, bringing the total battery life at your disposal to 28 hours.
They're nice to use too, with touch-sensitive pads on each earpiece which can be customised to control music playback and features.
We're pleased to report that the noise-cancelling works extremely well and gives the Sonys in top spot a run for their money. Background noises are dumbed down leaving you free to enjoy their excellent sound quality.
They're extremely refined and sophisticated for the money. Highs and lows are smooth and controlled but dynamics aren't sacrificed. The Sennheisers present a wide, detailed soundstage with impressive scale and authority. Granted, they're a little pricier than other noise-cancelling earbuds, but if your budget can stretch, we think you'll be seriously impressed. Up there with the Sonys as the best noise-cancelling earbuds we've tested.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
The BNX-60s show that noise-cancelling and Bluetooth can both be carried off in a very modestly priced package.
One ear cup has a volume control, the on/off switch for the active noise-cancellation and a blue light that indicates when the ‘ANC’ (active noise-cancelling) feature is in use. The other has the USB input for charging, pause/play/skip track controls, a Bluetooth connection light and a standard wired headphone output. A full charge is good for 15 hours of wireless music, or a little less with the active noise-cancelling.
At this price, you'd be worried about bright treble or booming bass, but instead, the Lindy BNX-60 headphones produce a balanced sound that’s easy to listen to. They also deliver a groove and also do a decent job with vocals.
For this kind of money, it's extremely hard to grumble. So we won't.
Read the full review: Lindy BNX-60
One of the most compact and convenient pairs of noise-cancelling headphones we've ever tested, the AKG N60 NCs deliver a superb performance for the money. Which goes a long way to explain why they're multi-What Hi-Fi? Award winners.
This is a good-looking pair of on-ears with an excellent fit. Battery life is 15 hours with the noise-cancelling and Bluetooth engaged, and this ramps up to 30 hours when the noise-cancelling is turned off. That's very decent indeed, and more than enough to see most people through a week's use.
Bass delivery is powerful yet transparent with crisp, detailed vocals, soaring highs and convincing dynamics. They're a nice size, being compact enough to sling in a bag for your daily commute or a weekend away. And they're comfy, too: you'd be perfectly content to wear these all day.
OK, they're not going to challenge those at the top of this list for quality, but then they aren't priced to. For the money, they're extremely tough to beat.
Read the full review: AKG N60 NC Wireless
Historically, the vast majority of Bose's noise-cancelling headphones have been on- and over-ear designs, but the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds take the legendary line into the relatively new world of true wireless earbuds. And they do so with great success.
The Bose feel lightweight enough and we have no issues listening for a few hours at a time. For the average commute or exercise session (the QuietComforts are both sweat and weather-resistant) they are great to live with. Battery life is a claimed six hours from a single charge, with the charging case supplying an extra two charges, making 18 hours in total – a decent reserve, but by no means class-leading. And being able to customise some features and controls, and adjust the excellent noise-cancellation, in the companion app is handy.
The sense of enthusiasm and excitement conveyed by the Bose buds is highly infectious. There’s power, poise and a fantastic sense of dynamism. Bass notes sound full-bodied, go deep and the QuietComfort Earbuds squeeze out lots of detail.
All in all, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are great all-rounders, capable of impressive musicality and topped off with excellent noise cancelling. They’re more than a match for any rival at this level.
Read the full review: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
The rather unwieldy name of Bose’s newest headphones doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but it does reflect the company’s recent focus on improving noise-cancelling technology in its headphones. The 700s use a new noise-cancelling system with everything from new acoustics to new digital signal processing – all running off Bose’s own NC chip.
It features an eight-microphone system (six to cancel noise, two for voice pick-up) and 11 increments (from 0-10) of noise-cancellation intensity to choose from, allowing you to transition from full isolation to full transparency. Zero doesn’t turn noise-cancelling off; it is a light veil that allows you to hear your environment, while ‘10’ represents the most extreme level of sound blocking. Whichever level we use, in whatever environment, the isolating effect is as good as we’ve experienced in a pair of headphones.
This is the most sophisticated noise-cancelling system we've come across, period.
For a hands-free experience, there’s built-in voice control, and when listening to music, (which is, after all, what they're designed to do) the sound is bold, clear and upfront – although less so than the Sonys, B&Ws and Sennheisers above. Bose claims the sonic quality in these 700s is comparable to the four-star QC35 IIs (listed below), and we’d agree.
Read the full review: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
If you're looking for the best-sounding noise-cancelling in-ears available, you're looking for the Sony WF-1000XM3s. But if you're looking for the lightest, most comfortable, most terrifically techie noise-cancelling in-ears (and you're an Apple user), you should absolutely give the AirPods Pros a go.
They work flawlessly in terms of their wireless connection, the noise-cancelling is extremely capable, and there's a Transparency mode that allows outside noise in so effectively that it's like using a pair of completely non-isolating headphones.
Thanks to the bespoke, elliptical silicone tips, the Pros burrow far less deeply into your ears than most in-ear headphones and exert far less pressure, making them barely noticeable in everyday use. They're still secure enough for most people to use them while going for a run.
Sound wise, they lack a little of the punch and dynamism of the Sonys, but they counter with a rich, easy-going nature that works well with all tracks – even those that are rather low quality.
Read the full review: Apple AirPods Pro
With the Aonic 50s, Shure is embarking on an ambitious journey to break into two new markets at once. These headphones offer both Bluetooth wireless connectivity and have noise-cancelling built-in, the first time that either technology has featured in a pair of Shure over-ear headphones.
And, at £379/$399 a pair (black or brown finishes are available), the Shure Aonic 50s are jumping straight in at the deep end. The headphones sit above current class-leaders from Sony, Sennheiser and Bowers & Wilkins, all of which have set sky-high standards for this type of headphone.
While they don't fold as compact as they're rivals, the Aonic 50s are solid, stylish and comfortable. Sound wise, they're clean, balanced and transparent, just as you'd hope from a pair of Shure headphones. The tight bass is a particular highlight.
The noise-cancelling is a bit of a mixed bag - Standard is a bit to subtle and Max is rather too aggressive - but there's still much to like from the Aonic 50s.
Read the full Shure Aonic 50 review
The HD 450BTs might look a bit plain, but it's always unwise to underestimate Sennheiser - and so it proves here. Considering the mid-range price, these are solidly built, very comfortable cans that offer a great battery life and solid noise cancellation.
Sound is good, too. Smooth, rich and full-bodied, they provide an effortless listen that's also lively enough to be engaging.
Their tonality is a little skewed towards the bottom end, sacrificing the midrange clarity that more neutral rivals, such as the AKG N60NCs, are capable of. That may not play into the hands of every music fan, but some will find favour in the Sennheiser’s modest bias.
Read our full Sennheiser HD 450BT review
AKG Y-series headphones are normally there-or-thereabouts when it comes to the all-important performance-per-pound ratio. You only have to look at the AKG Y400 to see what we mean – compact, affordable and so impressive in performance terms that we gave them an Award this year.
The noise-cancelling Y600NC aren't quite at the same level, particularly in terms of sonic vim and vigour, but if you value a smooth ride, few sonic surprises and a listenable balance, the Y600NC do enough to warrant being on your radar. Just as long as ‘refinement’ beats 'excitement’ in your book.
Read the full AKG Y600NC review
Philips’s strategy is to pack in most of the functionality of the current market-leaders, wrap it in a design not a million miles away from that of the current market-leaders, and then charge a fair bit less than the current market-leaders. The result is the PH805s.
These are stylish, comfortable, well-made headphones that on paper do everything you could reasonably expect. That said, the noise-cancelling is a good bit less effective than that of many rivals, and that will put some prospective buyers off.
Those who are happy to have only a little outside noise blocked will find the PH805's sonic delivery to be solid, weighty, warm and detailed, if a touch lacking in outright dynamics.
Read the full Philips PH805 review
The Lagoon ANCs are Beyerdynamic’s most concerted effort yet to grab some of the premium wireless, noise-cancelling, over-ear action. They do that by throwing in every feature you would expect, plus one you might not - Beyerdynamic’s Light Guide System, which illuminates the inside of each earcup depending on what the headphones are up to.
The Light Guide System is entirely useless, especially as there are voice prompts to let you know what the headphones are up to. It manages to lower the tone of an otherwise-classy product to that of a provincial nightclub.
But look past that odd feature and there's much to like. The delivery is winningly neutral and even-handed, packed with detail and fast-paced. The noise-cancelling is effective, too. With a little more excitement and dynamic range, these would be five-star headphones.
Read the full Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC review
These JBL on-ears are a decent bet for anyone with a modest budget to spend on noise-cancelling headphones. There's a good level of comfort on offer, 22 hours of battery life to play with and built-in volume and playback controls.
So how do they perform? The JBLs will treat you to a powerful, punchy sound with beefy bass and exciting dynamics. True, that bass can overwhelm at times, with the balance veering slightly too far towards the aggressive side of things.
While we're on downsides, build quality isn't the best: the plastic ear cups scuff a bit too readily during daily use (these are not a pair to toss in a bag and forget about). But if you can live with these minor quibbles, these talented headphones will serve you well and you'll find the smug feeling of having picked up a real bargain will last a good long while.
Read the full review: JBL Tune600BTNC
Sony's already snaffled a couple of places in this list and now we've got another pair of its noise-cancelling headphones for you to consider.
The WH-CH700Ns sit at the more affordable end of the spectrum and boast a solid Bluetooth connection, an impressive 35-hour battery life, and a tight, detailed sound.
Noise-cancelling is only OK, but at this price that's fair enough. If you want Sony WH-1000XM3 levels of cancellation, you're going to need to spend y WH-1000XM3 amounts of money, which is around double what these cost. For some, that's fine. But others can't - or don't want to - spend that much.
Sonically, the WH-CH700Ns deliver an easy listen with just enough weight and detail across the frequency band to offer better than passable insight. They're let down slightly in the timing department, but what pair of headphones at this price isn't?
In short, if your budget is limited, you could do a lot worse. In fact, we'd be very happy with these indeed.
Read the full review: Sony WH-CH700N
Sony's become something of an expert in the noise-cancelling headphone category in recent years. The WH-1000XM2s arrived on the market in 2017, but they're still very competitive for the money.
Noise-cancelling is excellent and like the more recent WH-1000XM3s mentioned above, the 2s also include an Atmospheric Pressure Optimiser, which boosts the noise cancellation when you're flying. Battery life is around hours 20 hours with all features turned on but it can be extended if you switch from Bluetooth to a wired connection. So even the longest of long haul flights won't pose a problem.
The WH-1000Xs time well and are equally happy bounding along to an enthusiastic bout of house music as they are communicating slower, more emotive melodies. Wide-ranging dynamics at either end of the frequency scale sandwich an impressive level of detail, and the result is that this musical package maintains your interest at all times. These Sonys keep you coming back for more.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM2
Beats has long had a reputation for youth-oriented headphones with plenty of low-end, often at the expense of the rest of the frequency range. But these are probably the most mature-sounding Beats headphones we’ve heard. These Solo Pros still pack plenty of low-end kick, but they’re extremely well balanced, entertaining and detailed. There's a pleasingly full-bodied overall tonality that some of its stablemates have been sorely lacking.
They’re held back somewhat by a looser sense of timing and less sympathetic low-level dynamics than the class leaders, such as Sony’s WH-1000XM3s. And they're still certainly not cheap. But the design, build and noise cancelling ability of the Solo Pros will be more than enough to tempt many into buying them. And we wouldn't blame them: these are fine headphones, and proof that Beats can do grown-up when it wants to. Maybe it's maturing now it's owned by Apple?
Read the full Beats Solo Pro review
It wouldn't be a round-up of the best noise cancelling headphones if there weren't a few Bose options, and the QC 35 IIs are arguably the best pair we've heard from the brand in recent memory.
There's a lot of competition at the price point, not least from the Sony WH-1000XM3s at the top of this list, but these QCs are still hugely competitive.
Noise-cancelling is among the the best in class, while they're also super comfy and deliver a detailed and entertaining sound. The fact Google Assistant is built-in just adds to their appeal - it means you can control your tunes hands-free, just by using your voice.
Musically, the Sonys, B&Ws and Sennheisers towards the top of this list will impress you more, but as a pair of headphones to live and fly with, the Bose QC 35 IIs are a delight. Bose retains its reputation as the ever dependable workhorse of the noise-cancelling headphone world.
Read the full review: Bose QuietComfort 35 II