The cost of living crisis is real. Everything's getting more expensive, including petrol, the weekly shop, energy, and even McDonald's Cheeseburgers. In the face of this unprecedented squeeze on household budgets, you might think a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones are beyond your means. But you'd be surprised.
Good ANC headphones – be they in-ear, on-ear or over-ear – can be much more reasonably priced than you would imagine. And that doesn't mean they sacrifice sound quality. In fact, all of the below have scored four or five stars, so you can guarantee they have solid features and very good (if not excellent) sound quality.
But which is for you? Earbuds? Over-ears? And should you go wireless? We're here to help...
How to choose the best cheap noise-cancelling headphones for you
So, should you go wireless? In short, yes. It's more convenient, and sound quality has come on leaps and bounds in recent years. It will also give you much more choice – wired ANC pairs are becoming a rarity these days.
Most pairs with active noise-cancellation (ANC) feature microphones that cancel outside sound, and also those to let sound in, so you can be more aware of your surroundings or even have a chat without taking the headphones off. This 'ambient aware' (or 'talkthrough', as it's also known) was once the preserve of pricier pairs, but is now trickling down to the budget end of the market.
The big consideration is: in-ear or over-ear? The former are smaller and more pocketable, while the latter's design i.e. the fact that they tend to envelop your ears completely, generally allows for more effective noise-cancelling.
Battery life should also be a key factor. Budget pairs can't match their pricier counterparts, but you should still demand around 20 hours to avoid having to plug in too often.
You might think of over-ear ANC headphones as expensive, but they really don't have to be. 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, on/off switch for the active noise-cancellation and a blue light that indicates when ANC 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-canceling.
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 Lindy BNX-60 review
These are Panasonic's first true wireless earbuds with ANC, but you wouldn't know it from the spec sheet. The Japanese electronics giant has gone all in with noise-cancelling; 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).
It works. The RZ-S500W are stellar performers, with an expansive, detailed presentation and excellent noise cancelling. Even the touch controls – tricky to pull off even by the deftest of brands – work superbly. They're a joy to use.
Downsides? The fit is a bit fussy, but experiment with the ear tip sizes and we're sure they'll be nice and snug. And the battery life is better elsewhere at this price. But these are minor niggles in what are some of the best cheap noise-cancelling headphones around.
Read the full Panasonic RZ-S500W review
Earfun has a reputation for making capable pairs of wireless earbuds at wallet-friendly prices. And the Earfun Air Pro, complete with ANC, don't disappoint.
They fit snugly, pair easily, and are simple to use with their intuitive controls. Their noise-cancelling modes might be a little basic, but they're effective. And to be honest, having anything more than just ANC on or off is nothing short of amazing at this price.
Amazing because they cost little more than the ultra-cheap Earfun Air. Add in USB-C charging, wearer detection, and decent sound for the money, and you've got an unbeatable proposition at this price. 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. And that includes the Earfun Air Pro 2!
Read the full Earfun Air Pro review
The WF-1000XM3 – 2019 What Hi-Fi? Award winners, no less – might be getting on a bit, but their heavily discounted price makes them among the best cheap noise-cancelling headphones around.
They're lightweight and compact, which is impressive given the amount of tech inside. Because not only is there the Sony QN1e HD noise-cancelling processor, there are microphones, built-in controls, support for voice assistants, and of course Bluetooth compatibility. Battery life is six hours, although the supplied carry case doubles as a charger, giving you an extra 18 hours. That total of 24 hours is very respectable, especially considering the XM3's reduced price.
Wonderfully musical, tonally natural and brilliantly punchy, these true wireless buds sound superb, and the noise-cancelling is excellent. Now they've been superseded by the XM4, there are plenty of deals to be had. Buy with confidence.
Read the full Sony WF-1000XM3 review
You can spend a lot more on a pair of sports headphones. But as anyone familiar with the phrase 'all the gear, no idea' will tell you, that's not always such a good idea. Because the JBL Reflect Flow Pro do everything you could need from a sports pair, and then some.
They're waterproof, lightweight, comfortable and come with multiple ear tip fin options. They sound very decent for the money, too. They're like champion heptathletes – strong in all areas.
Sure, pricier pairs will dig up a bit more detail in a track, and a little more subtlety. But they lack the Flow Pro's sheer ruggedness and ergonomics, not to mention their fantastic value. If you're looking for the best cheap noise-cancelling headphones for sports, you've just found them.
Read the full JBL Reflect Flow Pro review
Lindy has blown rather hot and cold with its noise-cancelling on-ear headphones. The company’s latest attempt here follows the excellent, five-star BNX-60 (higher up this list) from some years ago but also, more recently, the rather disappointing and pricier BNX-100 from 2019.
They don't quite hit the same sweet spot in terms of bang-for-buck as the BNX-60, but they are still a fine pair of cheap noise-cancelling headphones. Although plasticky, they feel quite plush for the price, and they're comfortable enough to wear all day.
Sound is pretty decent, too. It won't trouble a premium pair, but for the price, it's warm and nicely rounded, with everything evenly projected. The low end has been given an overhaul too, with bass notes snapper and better-defined.
If you’re after some of the best cheap noise-cancelling headphones and prefer an on-ear design, we would certainly recommend the Lindy BNX-80. They're not quite as great value as their BNX-60 stablemates, but they're still pretty good.
Read the full Lindy BNX-80 review
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-cancelling
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-canceling 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 – 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-canceling headphones 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-cancelling 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, on busy streets, 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 also key 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 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.
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.
The best headphone deals around
More to spend? The best wireless headphones you can buy
Sony WH-1000XM5 vs Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700: which are the best noise-cancelling headphones?