Many of us are now working from home more 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 carve out a few moments of quiet for ourselves.
The best noise-cancelling 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.
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. Noise-cancelling tends to go hand in hand with wireless Bluetooth connectivity, too, also giving you the freedom of no wires, plus a battery life that often pushes north of 24 hours.
Some 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, for example.
Of course, new wireless 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 highly anticipated AirPods Pro 2.
- Already decided on in-ears? These are the best noise-cancelling earbuds
- How active noise-cancelling headphones work
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.
The arrival of the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless noise-cancelling headphones was probably the biggest headphone launch of last year. Why? Well, they just happened to replace the Bose-baiting, Sennheiser-slaying, What Hi-Fi? Award-winning WH-1000XM3 (below in spot five), 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 XM3 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 XM3 across the board. The WH-1000XM4 sound more composed and confident, especially when it comes to lower frequencies.
The best noise-cancelling headphones on the market and we’re in no doubt these sensational Sony headphones will be tough to beat.
Read the full review: Sony WH-1000XM4
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
While no longer Sony's latest and greatest wireless noise-cancelling headphones (that'd be the WH-1000XM4 at the top of this page), these XM3 are 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-1000XM3 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
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 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.
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
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
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
KEF has dabbled in the headphone market since 2013, experimenting with both over-ear and in-ear models over the years, however it’s fair to say the hi-fi giant hasn’t set the headphone market alight. But could all that be about to change with the ambitious Mu3?
The Mu3 are KEF’s first-ever wireless noise-cancelling earbuds and they can certainly be considered worthy rivals to the Apple AirPods Pro. However, we have some reservations about the call quality, and while nothing about the performance stands out as being a negative, the Mu3 can’t quite match the sonic ability of the class-leading rivals at this level from the likes of Bose and Sony.
However, if you’re a fan of the KEF brand – or Ross Lovegrove in particular – and have the funds at your disposal, it’s well worth giving them a chance.
Read our full KEF Mu3 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
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