Working from home has now become a part of many of our lives, but with its benefits also comes 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 carve out a few moments of quiet for ourselves. The domestic-friendly solution that costs much less than installing an anechoic chamber in your house? You guessed it: noise-cancelling headphones.
The best noise-cancelling headphones are great for allowing you to block the outside world so you can listen to your music free of interruption. In fact, many people use them even when they're not listening to music, just as a way to create some silence in which to concentrate – and with those people, we empathise. Of course, we're only interested in noise-blocking 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 below fits that bill.
Of course, new noise-cancelling headphones models are always hitting the shelves, most recently in the form of two highly anticipated ANC earbuds: the AirPods Pro 2 and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II. We hope the rumoured Sonos wireless headphones will have ANC when they arrive, too.
But in the here and now, we are hardly short of excellent noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds to choose from...
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How to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones for you
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Noise-canceling tends to go hand in hand with wireless Bluetooth connectivity, too. You'll find few wired ANC pairs these days – logical considering noise-cancelling is associated with portability. That gives you the freedom of no wires, while battery life often pushes north of 24 hours these days.
Most pairs of ANC ('active noise-cancelling') headphones not only include microphones to cancel out external sound but also to allow for chatting to friends and family, or for those video meetings that are all the rage these days.
The two most important things to consider are whether having different levels of ANC is important to you or whether you want an over-ear or in-ear pair.
Some pairs simply allow you to switch ANC 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 traffic-heavy areas, so ANC headphones often feature a 'Transparency Mode' that, when activated, temporarily does just that.
The best noise-cancelling over-ears tend to isolate you completely, while the effect is generally less severe in earbuds. Both styles offer ANC for affordable (sub-£100/$100/AU$150) prices these days, though. And while you'll see plenty of examples of both below, our expertly curated list of best noise-cancelling earbuds might be your best bet if you've already decided you definitely want in-ears.
It can be tricky for a manufacturer to push the sound performance of a product consistently from generation to generation, but that is what Sony has managed to do with the WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones. Not only that, it has been achieved while executing a major redesign.
When we saw the official pictures of the XM5, we were more than a bit surprised. We wondered whether it was a wise move to give one of Sony’s biggest success stories in recent memory a major redesign. But it's paid off. The Sony XM5 are the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy in 2022 when it comes to value, as their What Hi-Fi? Award 2022 attests to.
The Sony XM5 headphones might feel a little less premium than before, but the jump in sound quality from the previous generation is a big one, and rivals could once again have their work cut out. If you are looking for a new pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, your auditioning should start here. The older XM4 (below) were already the best around, but the XM5 are undoubtedly better for those who can afford to pay the premium.
Read the full Sony WH-1000XM5 review
The Sony XM5 above might be the best-value pair on this list, but that doesn't mean they will be affordable for everyone. So if your budget can't stretch to the company's latest model, your next-best noise-cancelling headphones option is their predecessors, the Sony XM4.
One of the most popular pairs of headphones on the planet (and for good reason), they live up to their hype with great sound quality, comfort and usability. They may not sound quite as good as the XM5 or feature the nicely updated aesthetic design, but they still offer the majority of features found in the XM5, such as ANC, the Speak to Chat function (when you start talking, they automatically pause playback and engage the ambient sound mode) and 30 hours of battery life. For the money, we don't believe you will find anything better.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs WH-1000XM4: which are better?
As you might expect from a product by a major consumer electronics brand, the Panasonic RZ-S500W spec sheet is pretty comprehensive. It includes Dual Hybrid Noise Cancelling Technology achieved through the use of feedback coupled to analogue and digital processing; an Ambient Mode to amplify surrounding noise when the time is right; twin beamforming microphones to increase the clarity of voices and reduce noise during calls; and a total of 19.5 hours of playtime with noise-cancelling activated (6.5 hours from the buds, 13 from the charging case).
The RZ-S500W initially launched at £169 ($199), but already that asking price has been reduced so it now hovers around the £100 ($150) mark. At this lower price, the noise-cancelling, sound quality, touch-capacitive controls, in-app features and general build quality are nothing short of superb for the money.
The only flaw of note is that the fit is fairly fussy, so take the time to make sure you've selected the best of the five bundled buds for your ears.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
Yes, it's Sony again as we move on to the best noise-cancelling earbuds. The WF-1000XM4 produce one of the most dynamic, detailed and balanced performances we've heard from a pair of Bluetooth buds. Bass notes sound tight and textured, while vocals ooze refinement and sophistication. Their musical delivery keeps you coming back for more, and also makes you thankful for the eight hours of battery life, which is class-leading in this field.
The Sonys are comfortable to wear too. The new-look earpieces include touch-sensitive controls and a new ear tip design which helps with noise isolation. Combine this with the excellent noise cancelling provided by Sony's Integrated Processor V1 and you've got a pair of headphones that effectively block out the hustle and bustle.
IPX4 water resistance comes as part of the XM4 package, as does Sony's clever Headphones Connect app for iOS and Android and clever features such as Quick Attention and Speak-To-Chat which both allow you to have a conversation without removing the earbuds. If you want the new benchmark for wireless earbuds, this is it.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM4
Say hello to the best premium wireless earbud winners at the What Hi-Fi? Awards 2022. As the title of the award suggests, these premium Bluetooth in-ears sound amazing and set a new benchmark for wireless earbuds at this level while throwing in one of the very best in-ear ANC experiences too.
Smaller and lighter than the original QC Earbuds, the Earbuds II provide a comfortable fit and lots of features. Bluetooth 5.3 is a big bonus, and the Bose app allows you to alter the amount of noise-cancelling on offer via a number of customisable presets.
Speaking of noise-cancelling, the Bose are at the top of their game. They can automatically adjust the amount of ANC on offer so your music isn’t drowned out by particularly loud noises and the effect is deeply impressive. As for sound, it's balanced and neutral and overflowing with fine detail.
It's a shame there's no support for high-quality wireless audio codecs such as LDAC or aptX HD, nor is there wireless charging or Bluetooth multipoint. But we don't think this is the end of the world when you consider that these classy buds ooze such sophistication.
Read the full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II vs Sony WF-1000XM4: which are the best pair?>
Focal’s entrance into this burgeoning premium noise-cancelling headphones market isn’t surprising considering its presence at the premium end of the wired space. And nor is the success of its first effort. The gorgeous-looking Bathys are highly recommendable for anyone after the convenience of portability in a premium pair of headphones at this price, who can stretch their budget above the B&W Px8 but not to the heights of the Mark Levinson No5.909.
For a wireless headphone performance, it’s among the most engaging we have heard. And if you want them to double up as home headphones for longer listening stints, which they are more than comfortable enough to wear for, know that going wired via the built-in DAC/USB-C port does add a degree of refinement and tightness to the delivery.
Noise cancellation is fairly non-intrusive to the performance, too, and if you need it – as we did on two flights during testing – it does a decent job of diminishing distracting outside world noise from your music listening in ‘Silent’ mode.
Read the full Focal Bathys review
Focal Bathys vs Bowers & Wilkins Px8: which high-end pair are better?
The AirPods and AirPods Pro in-ears have always been one step behind the competition, particularly when it came to sound quality. They’ve been good-but-not-great wireless earbuds; lovely to use for iOS users, but never quite reaching the sonic heights established by the top noise-cancelling earbuds in this crowded and popular category.
That’s set to change with the new AirPods Pro 2. The second generation of Apple’s flagship wireless ANC earbuds promises a more powerful processor, with advancements in active noise-cancelling, longer battery life, new features and, more importantly, better audio performance.
We certainly didn’t expect them to trouble the best-in-class competitors such as Sony WF-1000XM4 and Bose QC Earbuds II (just higher up this list), but with the AirPods Pro 2, Apple has more than caught up. The Pro 2 are a five-star stunner.
Read the full AirPods Pro 2 review
AirPods Pro 2 (2022) vs AirPods Pro: what are the differences?
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, which 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. If your budget reaches above the Sonys that top this list but not to the Mark Levinsons at spot number eight, the AirPods Max could well be the pair for you.
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 noise-cancelling 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
9 features we'd like to see on the AirPods Max 2 headphones
The Px7 S2 are a clear step forward for B&W, offering a more sophisticated, neutral and detailed sound compared to the 2020-released PX7. These are headphones that really prompt the listener to dig in and analyse their music. Some of the best wireless headphones competition, such as the leaderboard-topping Sony WH-1000XM5, are arguably more engaging, but the Px7 S2 are still an excellent and stylish alternative for those who enjoy attentive listening.
Generally, the Px7 S2 put in a strong noise-cancelling performance, too, with consistency and minimal sound colouration across the different settings. The 30-hour battery life is welcome, as is fast charging. And support for aptX Adaptive and aptX HD are big ticks in the box for those who own sources that also support these higher-quality Bluetooth codecs.
Note that the Px7 S2 don’t support passive audio, though, so must be charged up and powered on even for cabled listening.
Read the full B&W Px7 S2 review
The BNX-60 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
Only the strongest film franchises tend to get a fourth go and, like Toy Story 4, the Momentum 4 Wireless have dutifully honoured the legacy of those that came before it – sonically and feature-wise, if not aesthetically. We are disappointed to see the classy design of Momentums of old giving way to one that’s markedly more non-descript, but the new guise is fit for purpose and we recognise that many might like its low-key discretion.
The design is actually very well thought out, and arguably more importantly noise cancellation is effective and sound quality entertaining. When first playing music through them, we were struck by their tonal balance, which has shed a layer or two of the richness that has characterised older Momentums, in favour of more neutrality this time round. They sound sharp and sprightly, and that added leanness hasn’t come at the expense of substance across the frequencies: highs are well-honed, mids are pleasingly plump, and lows strike a good balance between being taut and tubby.
That they undercut the more insightful Sony XM5 makes them highly recommendable for those that can’t afford the extra outlay for that bit more sonic transparency, and perhaps even the best alternative if you prefer your music to be more lively than, as the B&W Px7 S2 above are, predominantly analytical.
Read the full review: Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless
Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless vs Sony WH-1000XM5: which headphones are best?
The Mark Levinsons enter our test room doors as the most expensive wireless noise-cancelling pair we’ve tested and therefore do so with a weight of expectation on their shoulders. Can wireless performance ever be so good as to justify such an expense? You bet it can.
If we hadn’t unboxed the Levinsons and gone through the simple Bluetooth pairing process ourselves, we would be tempted to check for any wires dangling from the earcups. While the No. 5909’s performance is still short of the best available from similarly priced wired headphones, it’s easily the best wireless headphones performance we’ve come across.
Anyone who is after the convenience of wireless without sacrificing too much sound quality to get it, and lucky enough to afford such a best-of-both-worlds solution, the Mark Levinsons are highly recommendable.
Perceived value may not get top marks (they don't look as bling as they could), but sonic value certainly does – and that’s really what matters here. Mark our words, these wireless headphones really wow.
Read the full Mark Levinson No. 5909 review
Earfun builds on the success of its former Award-winning Air earbuds by cramming even more features into a new ‘Pro’ variant, the main addition being active noise cancellation. (There is now a 10mm driver and three mics per earpiece, too.) But, considering the claims on the spec sheet, the price remains jaw-droppingly low.
Not long ago, you’d have paid hundreds to get something anywhere near as fully-featured. At the time of writing, we haven't come across anything at this level that does everything these Earfuns do, as well as they do it. (Not even the Earfun Air Pro 2!)
The Earfun Air Pro fit securely, connect easily, have reliable controls and feature basic but effective noise-cancelling profiles – for just a small premium on the Air model. There’s also USB-C charging and wearer detection, plus the sound is pretty decent for the money.
It’s rare that we award five stars to a pair of true wireless headphones at this ultra-low price point, since cheap rarely means good value. Simply put, it does here.
Read the full Earfun Air Pro review
There are true wireless headphones that have proven so consistently commendable over the years that a new iteration is hard to ignore when it comes along, and the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless are one of them.
Entering their third generation here, two years on from the launch of the sophomore efforts, the wireless noise-cancelling earbuds remain on the top rungs of an increasingly tall ladder with an improved performance that's right up there, a competitive spec sheet that offers great battery life (28 hours) and Bluetooth codec support (aptX Adaptive), and the bonus of extra in-app personalisation features. Oh, and a welcome new launch price below those of the former Momentum models.
They're nice and comfortable, deliver one of the most mature, spacious and refined performances in the market, and have the bonus of noise cancellation too.
In bowling, three strikes in a row is called a ‘turkey’; in What Hi-Fi? reviews, three five-star badges in a row is known as a blinder of a run. Building on an already winning recipe with an improved feature set, decent step up in performance and kinder price tag, the Momentum True Wireless 3 are as competitive as ever and Sennheiser’s best yet. A brilliant buy.
Read the full Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 review
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 vs Sony WF-1000XM4: which are better?
Aside from a different drive cone material that is supposedly lighter, more rigid and better controlled in its behaviour, the spec sheet reads the same as for the company's Px7 S2 (above) – and that’s no bad thing. The Px8 have Bluetooth 5.2 with aptX Adaptive compatibility, four microphones for noise-cancelling plus another two for voice pick-up in phone calls and a claimed 30-hour battery life.
Their sound is a match for the similarly priced AirPods Max, so we would argue for them being the number one choice for the Android user at this price point.
There are some niggles (see our 'against' list above) but nothing that comes close to denting our enthusiasm for these headphones. They are a fine effort that deserves serious consideration if you are buying at this level.
Read the full B&W Px8 review
While not the very best sounding noise-cancellers out there, this is the most sophisticated noise-cancelling system we've come across, period.
The rather unwieldy name of Bose’s noise-cancelling over-ear 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.
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
How active noise cancellation works
It's all very clever really. Noise-cancelling headphones essentially use two or more tiny microphones on their outer housings to "listen" to the external noise around you and create a mirror image of the compression and rarefaction of the air that it detects.
We can think of the soundwaves around us like peaks and troughs, or ripples in a pond. Plane engine noise is an ideal example since the thrum you hear in the cabin is typically a soundwave of constant amplitude – the height of the peaks and the depths of the troughs are largely continuous.
If you produce another sound wave with the same amplitude but opposite phase – with a peak where the engine sound wave has a trough, and vice versa – you get something called antiphase. Added together, the two sounds cancel each other out. The result: silence. And – voila – you're listening to your music in peace!
- How active noise cancelation works – the in-depth answer!
Passive vs active noise-canceling
Some manufacturers may say their headphones boast a "noise-isolating design" or "natural noise-cancelling abilities", but that doesn't necessarily mean they are 'proper' active noise-cancelling headphones.
Active noise cancellation is a technology; it's an electrical feature that requires power to work. When you're using it, you'll soon notice ANC will drain your wireless headphones' battery at a faster rate. Toggle ANC on and tiny microphones on your headphones pick up that irksome engine thrum. This is then quickly measured by the headphones' internal electronics to produce an opposite sound, which is fed into your ears. If the tech does a good job, all you'll hear is the chug of the train fading into nothingness.
Passive noise-cancelling – or noise isolation, as it's often referred to – is, instead, a physical thing; a term used to describe headphones that block out external sounds and reduce the amount of sound leaking into your ears without the need for power. This is simply achieved through physical design elements.
Closed-back designs, leather earpads, a good in-ear seal, sizing up or down in eartips, a heavier clamping force in the headband (meaning the earcups fit tighter over your ears), dampening in the earcups and even the shape or material of the driver housings all contribute to passive noise isolation. But remember: it's not the same as the active noise-cancelling headphones we've listed above.
How we test noise-cancelling headphones
While we have state-of-the-art testing facilities in London, Reading and Bath, where our team of experienced, in-house reviewers test the majority of hi-fi and AV kit that passes through our door, noise-canceling headphones are different beasts that require use on the go in different environments.
Therefore, our noise-canceling headphones reviewing process sees us use pairs in an office, amidst street noise, on public transport and, when we can, even on a plane. We judge a pair's portability, comfort and battery life, and of course sound quality is king in forming our verdicts and star ratings too.
As What Hi-Fi? is all about comparative testing, each pair we review is compared to the best in its price and style class – whether that's one standout pair or a few we favour the highest among the many models we listen to each year for reviews and during the What Hi-Fi? Awards judging. We keep class-leading products in our stockrooms so we can always compare new products to rival ones we know and love and see how they perform contextually in the market.
All review verdicts are agreed upon by the team rather than an individual reviewer to eliminate any personal preference and to make sure we're being as thorough as possible, too. There's no input from PR companies or our sales team when it comes to the verdict, with What Hi-Fi? proud of having delivered honest, unbiased reviews for decades.
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