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? You guessed it: noise-cancelling headphones.
The best ANC headphones are great for allowing you to do just that. 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 we've recommended below fits that bill.
Of course, new noise-cancelling headphones models are always hitting the shelves, and if you're an Apple fan after a true wireless earbuds style, you might want to consider waiting for the highly anticipated AirPods Pro 2. Perhaps the highly rumoured Sonos wireless headphones will have ANC when they inevitably arrive.
How to choose the best ANC headphones for you
Noise-cancelling 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 right now.
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 ANC over-ears tend to isolate you completely, while the effect is generally less severe in earbuds. Both styles offer noise-cancelling 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 on 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 headphones. Not only that, it has been achieved while executing a major redesign.
When we saw the official pictures of the Sony WH-1000XM5, 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 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 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?
Somehow, Sony's managed to build on the huge success of the WF-1000XM3 (just below) and produce a pair of wireless earbuds that take everything up a notch.
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 WF-1000XM4 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
Can't afford the new Sony WF-1000X4 earbuds above? Their predecessors, these WF-1000XM3 – 2019 What Hi-Fi? Award winners, no less – are comfortably the best around at their lesser price.
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.
Read the full review: Sony WF-1000XM3
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. 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 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
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
Got a slightly bigger budget for a pair of wireless noise-cancellers? Lucky you. You might well consider the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless, 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 3 Wireless
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
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 PX7 tick all three boxes.
Even in a market crowded with premium offerings, the PX7 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 2 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-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
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
Yes, you can get true wireless earbuds not geared towards sport that, for a similar price, will deliver more insight into music by offering that bit more detail and dynamic subtlety. The Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 and Sony WF-1000XM3 are two such pairs. But, unlike these JBLs, they won’t have the honed ergonomics or ruggedness to be hailed as ideal fitness buddies.
Within the context of earbuds for exercise, the Reflect Flow Pro are like champion heptathletes – strong in all areas. They're waterproof, lightweight, comfortable and with multiple ear tip fin options, and sound very decent for the money. And for that they are extremely easy to recommend.
Read the full JBL Reflect Flow Pro 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 latest 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
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
AirPods Pro 2: release date rumours, price news, design and leaks
If you want a set of wireless over-ear headphones you can put on, deploy noise-cancelling on your commute or at your desk and largely extinguish the outside world for up to 24 hours, the Bose QC 45 has the edge over most of the competition at the price. And for many, that will be the end of the story.
Sonically, your money can buy better – the Sony WF-1000XM4 further up this list, for example. And if you want extra features like a more tailored noise-cancelling experience, an auto-pause function when you remove them, or sound EQ adjustment, you might be better shopping elsewhere.
We understand the inclination to stick to a winning design recipe, and that attitude has produced another very likeable (if not class-leading) pair of QuietComfort headphones.
Read the full Bose QuietComfort 45 review
Lindy has blown rather hot and cold with its noise-cancelling on-ear headphones. The company’s latest attempt here follow the excellent, five-star BNX-60 (nearer the top of this page) from some years ago but also, more recently, the rather disappointing and pricier BNX-100 from 2019.
Lindy claims that the BNX-80 take the best from each of these forebears and trump the lot. Whichh they do. If you’re after a competent pair of wireless noise-cancelling headphones for this sort of budget, we would certainly recommend spending your money on the Lindy BNX-80.
They are decent all-rounders and do their job rather well. Sonically, they aren’t the very best, but they provide a comfortable warm listening experience that we’re sure many people will enjoy.
Read the full Lindy BNX-80 review
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
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 cancellation 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-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 – 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 below.
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-cancelling headphones reviewing process sees us use pairs in an office, in 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 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.
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