We tested noise-canceling headphones from every major brand: Our top 6 picks for distraction-free listening

We tested noise-canceling headphones from every major brand: Our top 6 picks for distraction-free listening
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A red gradient image with three different wireless headphones.
The best noise-canceling headphones let you listen to music without distractions.

When listening to music, there’s nothing worse than annoying background noise drowning out your favorite songs. That’s why noise-canceling headphones have become so popular. Using built-in microphones and audio processing, the best noise-canceling headphones block ambient sounds so you can focus on your playlist without pesky distractions.

We put several top models through our testing process to pick the six best noise-canceling headphones you can buy. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra over-ear headphones are a real standout and deliver the most impressive active noise cancellation (ANC) we’ve come across. For budget buyers, we recommend the affordable Anker Soundcore Life Q30, which offer ANC that’s way better than we expected for such a low price.   

Below are all six of our recommendations for the best noise-canceling headphones. Each pick has been selected with different needs and budgets in mind, but they all provide a great listening experience.

Our top picks for the best noise-canceling headphones

Best overall: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Over-Ear – See at Amazon

Best on a budget: Anker Soundcore Life Q30 – See at Amazon

Best sounding: Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless – See at Amazon

Best features: Sony WH-1000XM5 – See at Amazon

Best for gaming: SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless – See at Amazon

Best in-ear: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds – See at Amazon


Best overall

Bose has the upper hand in the race for the best noise-canceling headphones. The brand’s over-ear QuietComfort Ultra provide class-leading audio suppression to go along with great features, a comfortable design, and the best sound we’ve heard from a pair of Bose headphones. 

The Ultra ooze luxury from the moment you pull them from their zippered case. The headphones use sleek and durable materials like dimpled aluminum along the arms and band and plush padding coated in soft protein leather. The ear cups are foldable and fully collapsible, making the headphones easy to pack for travel. Battery life is solid at 24 hours, though we would have liked them to last a bit longer, given the Ultra’s price point.

As for performance, the Ultra’s noise canceling is supremely powerful, edging out everything we’ve tested. It’s fantastic at silencing low-end sounds like fans or street noise but also effective for higher frequencies, wholly eliminating sounds like keystrokes and muffling voice chatter, even without music playing. And when you do want to let in outside noise, the Ultra’s transparency mode is among the most natural sounding we’ve heard. 

A pair of white Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones resting on their carrying case on a table.
Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra headphones provide the best noise-canceling performance we’ve tested.

The Ultra’s sound quality is also a step up for the series. Music comes through with deft precision, detail, and balance across genres, especially after bumping the bass down a notch or two with the Bose Music app’s three-band EQ. As with other Bose headphones, instrumentals can sometimes sound slightly sharp and overly processed, but it’s more toned down here for an overall pleasing presentation. Calls come through with crystal clarity as well.

The headphones also boast Bose’s new spatial audio feature, which includes head tracking that can move the soundstage with you independent of your source device. We had mixed results with this, as the feature can sometimes create an echo effect, especially with video content. The headphones are otherwise well-appointed, with features like Multipoint Bluetooth to connect two devices simultaneously, customizable noise-canceling modes, and a wind buffering setting.

As for controls, the Ultra’s mix of hard keys and a volume slider touchpad works well. We would have liked to see a dedicated key for noise canceling and transparency mode, but that’s a minor complaint. Even with a price that goes beyond any pair of QuietComfort headphones before them, the Ultra are a worthy investment, offering a premium experience and noise-canceling that can’t be beaten.

Best on a budget

Thanks to the latest advancements in noise-canceling technology, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get some decent peace and quiet. Anker’s Soundcore Life Q30 are a great example, and at well under $100, they’re a relatively easy investment. 

The Q30’s noise canceling ranks among the best for their price point, doing an especially good job in the lower registers. It’s certainly not as effective as the pricier models on our list, especially in the upper frequencies, but the Q30’s ear cups also offer solid passive noise isolation, which helps to defray some of the ambient annoyances in your life.

A pair of Soundcore Life Q30 headphones resting on their case.
The budget-friendly Soundcore Life Q30 deliver ANC that’s way better than expected.

Anker’s Soundcore headphones consistently perform well in terms of audio performance, and the Q30s hold their own in this department, especially after a few tweaks to their hefty bass in the Soundcore mobile app for Android or iOS. There, you can also customize other settings, swap between three noise-canceling modes, and engage the available sleep mode to activate ambient sounds as you drift off on your commute. 

The Q30s fit comfortably thanks to their solid padding and collapse for travel. Convenience features like Multipoint Bluetooth pairing recall fancier models that cost double or triple the price, while their massive battery life is among the best you’ll find.

However, there are some drawbacks. The earcups use cheaper plastic and are more prone to scratches than pricier models. We also ran into misfires when using the tap command on the right ear cup to toggle between noise canceling and transparency modes. But these small hiccups are far from deal breakers.  

If you’re after a solid pair of noise-canceling headphones but simply can’t stomach the high prices of other top models, Anker’s Soundcore Q30 are a very enticing option.

Best sounding

Sennheiser’s Momentum 4 Wireless headphones don’t have the best or even the second-best noise-canceling performance on our list. That’s OK, though, because once you hear them, you may not care. If you’re an audiophile, the great sound quality you get here could be a more than acceptable tradeoff. 

It took Sennheiser three years to update its storied Momentum headphones, doing away with the retro styling that had defined the series up to now. But it was worth the wait and the redesign. The Momentum 4s deliver audio performance that rises above everything we’ve heard in their class, offering effortless presence, detail, and separation that lets you dig deep into each instrument’s timbres and textures with remarkable clarity. 

The Momentum 4s are no slouches in the features department, either, with battery life that’s double what you’ll get from options like Sony’s WF-1000XM5. You’ll also get features like Multipoint pairing, the ability to adjust noise canceling and transparency modes based on your environment, a three-band EQ, and great wind buffering that also aids in call quality.

As mentioned, the Momentum 4s’ noise canceling is good but not great for headphones at this price point. They do a swell job with lower frequencies but let higher register noises like voices slip through more easily than the other top noise-canceling headphones. Add a bit of music, and that shouldn’t be much of an issue in most scenarios, but it’s worth considering before you pull the trigger.

Although the headphones are quite comfortable, they’re also heavier than some competitors, and they don’t fold up completely, making them slightly harder to pack. That said, if sound is your compass, the Momentum 4s are well worth considering, offering a lush sonic experience.

Best features

The Sony WH-1000XM5 M5 (as in Mark 5) may not have the catchiest name, but they make up for it with a formidable mix of brilliant performance and a truckload of great features.

Sony wrote the book on modern headphone design with its WH-1000X series, putting you in the driver’s seat for a dizzying array of options. It all starts with the brand’s powerful Headphones app, letting you control your noise cancellation in multiple ways, including an option based on your environment. You can silence audio with your voice or let in the outside world with a simple hand gesture on the right ear cup. Alexa is available for smart control, and customization of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio lets you unlock spatial sound with supported content.

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The black Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones.
The WH-1000XM5 headphones are packed with features and are a great alternative to our top pick, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra, if you prefer the Sony brand.

Features aside, the XM5s are as polished as you’d expect a flagship pair of headphones from a market leader to be. Their touch controls are intuitive and responsive, and their noise canceling is incredibly effective across registers. Sound quality is sweet, smooth, and superbly detailed, to the point that you’ll likely hear things you’ve missed in multiple previous listens. Their streamlined design and memory foam padding make them comfortable for hours (though Bose’s Ultras are even comfier).

The only noteworthy issue we take with Sony’s latest design is that, unlike the Bose Ultra and Sony’s cheaper WH-1000XM4, the M5s don’t collapse for travel, making them harder to pack.

Ultimately, we think the Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones edge out the XM5s if you’re specifically looking for the most effective noise-canceling performance on the market. But, when factoring in other features and general value, the XM5s are our top pick for the best over-ear headphones overall. 

Read our Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones review.

Best for gaming

The SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless is a noise-canceling headset built for gaming. Unlike our other picks, it has a retractable boom microphone designed for voice chat, so you can better communicate with other players during online matches. 

And in addition to Bluetooth, it supports a wireless 2.4GHz connection. This feature isn’t something you’ll find on typical noise-canceling headphones designed for music, but it’s an essential option for a gaming headset since 2.4GHz provides less audio lag. The Arctis Nova Pro can even support simultaneous 2.4GHz and Bluetooth connections, so you can pair it with a phone and a compatible gaming console at the same time.

The headset comes with a cool wireless transmitter that also acts as a control hub and a battery charger. An OLED display is built into the hub, so you can monitor your settings and adjust things like volume, EQ, and noise cancellation. The headset includes two batteries that can each last 20 hours, and you can charge the spare battery in the control hub when not in use so you always have one ready to go. 

A SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless gaming headset on a wood surface resting against the wall.
The Arctis Nova Pro Wireless is a gaming headset with ANC support and cross-platform compatibility.

Sound quality is excellent for gaming, but like many headsets of this type, its audio profile favors a bass-heavy sound that gives extra oomph to deep effects like explosions in action games. If you want headphones with music playback in mind, we recommend opting for one of our other picks. 

The active noise-canceling feature also works well and is a nice inclusion for gaming since it can minimize background sounds so you can focus on your on-screen missions and multiplayer chats. However, the ANC here is more suited for dealing with moderate at-home noises and isn’t as good at blocking out troublesome outside distractions. 

Various spatial audio options are fully implemented with a DTS:X license on Windows, support for the PS5’s Tempest 3D, and Windows Sonic compatibility on PC and Xbox. You also get access to SteelSeries’ audio software suite, Sonar, which allows you to customize the headset’s EQ and surround sound functions.

The SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro is our pick for the best gaming headset. It’s an excellent pair of headphones for gamers who want wireless support and ANC. SteelSeries sells a few different versions of this headset, but the edition we recommend here has full cross-platform wireless support for PC, Xbox, PlayStation, and Nintendo Switch.

Read our SteelSeries Arctis Nova Pro Wireless gaming headset review.

Best in-ear

Though our previous pick in this category, the Sony WF-1000XM5, remain our recommendation for the best wireless earbuds overall, Bose has bested them in noise-canceling performance. Like their over-ear siblings, this in-ear version of the QuietComfort Ultra deliver best-in-class ANC. We’ve tested tons of noise-canceling earbuds, but none can match this model’s ability to block out ambient distractions. 

In addition, the QC Ultra earbuds offer a natural-sounding transparency mode when you want to hear your surroundings. They can also reduce sudden loud noises to help keep your ears safe. General audio quality is impressive, too, with a dynamic and clear sound profile. And you have plenty of freedom to adjust the sound to your liking with a three-band EQ setting in Bose’s mobile app.

A pair of Bose Quietcomfort earbuds pictured in front of their case on a yellow table.
Bose also sells an in-ear version of its QuietComfort Ultra headphones.

You’ll also get many of the same features that you’ll find on Bose’s over-ear version of these headphones, including spatial audio support with head tracking. Again, we prefer to listen to music without this mode engaged, but it’s nice to have this option included for those who enjoy it. However, unlike the over-ear QuietComfort Ultra headphones, these earbuds do not support multi-point pairing. 

On the design front, the QC Ultra feature a more compact build than Bose’s previous-generation QuietComfort earbuds. A volume slider is positioned on the earbud’s stem for easy control, and they fit comfortably in ear with three different-sized ear tips and stability bands included. On the downside, the included charging case is a bit large, and it doesn’t have wireless support unless you add on a $50 case cover. 

Still, despite any minor shortcomings, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra earbuds easily cement themselves as the best in-ear noise-canceling headphones you can buy.

How we test noise-canceling headphones

The silver Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones earcups

When testing contenders for the best noise-canceling headphones, we use each model as we would in our daily lives to understand how they’ll perform for a typical listener. That includes evaluating features like ease of setup with different source devices, comfort, battery life, and general usability.

We assess sound quality by listening to music across multiple genres from the best music streaming services as well as in high resolution. We also play videos and listen to them with each model to test features like spatial audio and head tracking with stereo and Dolby Atmos content.

To evaluate noise canceling and transparency modes, we conduct real-world testing in natural environments and, whenever possible, in situations like plane flights or train commutes. We also incorporate a sound-treated room and professional stereo monitors to reproduce sounds like airplane noise, voices, and other effects. Battery testing includes putting the headphones on a stopwatch at medium volume to ensure they live up to their manufacturer’s claims or come close.

Noise-canceling headphones FAQs

The Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones in black.

What is noise canceling?

Noise cancellation, also known as Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) or Adaptive Noise Cancellation, is a technology designed to suppress sounds in your immediate environment. Noise-canceling headphones are outfitted with tiny microphones which pick up ambient sounds. They then use onboard circuitry to analyze those sounds in real time, flipping the polarity of the frequencies (essentially reversing their waveforms) to “cancel” them. 

Noise cancellation is an imperfect science and, as of yet, it’s not able to block out all the sounds in a given environment. That said, with each iteration, the best noise-canceling headphones increase how much sound they can block, especially at higher frequencies, which are generally the hardest to cancel. The better the noise cancellation, the more frequencies are blocked, and the more noise your headphones can reduce.

Which brands offer the best noise-canceling performance?

In the consumer headphones market, Bose and Sony are known for delivering top-notch noise-canceling performance. Though high-end models from both brands are nearly neck-and-neck, we give a slight edge to Bose.

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Other solid brands include Soundcore, Sennheiser, JBL, Master and Dynamic, and Bowers and Wilkins. And though its models don’t quite make this guide, Apple is also a notable option with its AirPods Pro earbuds and AirPods Max over-ear headphones. Check out our guide to the best Apple AirPods to learn more about the company’s headphones.

Are over-ear headphones better than earbuds for noise canceling?

While the gap between over-ear headphones and earbuds was once more prominent, today’s top noise-canceling earbuds are close to or on par with the best over-ear headphones with ANC. Both types offer good passive noise isolation, and both use a mix of advanced hardware and software, including multiple microphones. While it varies case by case, you can now get very effective noise canceling in either over-ear headphones or earbuds.

What is transparency mode?

Transparency mode, also called ambient audio (or sometimes hear-thru), is essentially the opposite of noise canceling. Using the same exterior microphones, instead of canceling the sound around you, transparency mode pipes ambient sound into your headphones in an effort to keep you aware of your surroundings. Transparency modes on most headphones can be easily toggled on and off, so you can go from listening to music with ANC to letting outside sound in. This is not only a great safety feature, but it can also be helpful for situations like flights or other forms of mass transit where you need to communicate quickly.

What is Bluetooth wireless connectivity?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows for an exchange of data, for our purposes in the form of audio, across short distances. Most Bluetooth devices offer a range of around 33 feet, though some, such as Class 1 Bluetooth devices, can travel 100 feet or more. Improvements in Bluetooth over time have allowed for increased bandwidth and, among other things, higher sound quality that’s more reliable. In general, having the latest Bluetooth version can mean speed, efficiency, and reliability improvements.

Best overall
A pair of white Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones resting on their carrying case on a table.
Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra headphones provide the best noise-cancelling performance we’ve tested.

Bose has the current upper hand in the ongoing race for the best noise-cancelling headphones. The brand’s QuietComfort Ultra provide class-leading audio suppression to go along with great features, a comfortable design, and the best sound we’ve heard from a pair of Bose headphones. 

The Ultra ooze luxury from the moment you pull them from their zippered case. The headphones use sleek and durable materials like dimpled aluminum along the arms and band and plush padding coated in soft protein leather. The ear cups are foldable and fully collapsible, making the headphones easy to pack for travel. Battery life is solid at 24 hours, though we would have liked to see a bit more, given the Ultra’s price point.

As for performance, the Ultra’s noise cancelling is supremely powerful, edging out everything we’ve tested. It’s fantastic at silencing low-end sounds like fans or street noise but also effective for higher frequencies, wholly eliminating sounds like keystrokes and muffling voice chatter, even without music playing. And when you do want to let in outside noise, the Ultra’s Transparency mode is among the most natural sounding we’ve heard. 

The Ultra’s sound quality is also a step up for the series. Music comes through with deft precision, detail, and balance across genres, especially after bumping down the bass a notch or two with the Bose Music app’s three-band EQ. As with other Bose headphones, instrumentals can sometimes sound slightly sharp and overly processed, but it’s toned down here for an overall pleasing presentation. Calls come through with crystal clarity as well.

The headphones also boast Bose’s new spatial audio feature, which includes head tracking that can move the soundstage with you independent of your source device. We had mixed results with this, as the feature can sometimes create an echo effect, especially with video content. The headphones are otherwise well-appointed, with features like Multipoint Bluetooth to connect two devices simultaneously, customizable noise-cancelling modes, and a wind buffering setting.

As for controls, the Ultra’s mix of hard keys and a volume slider touchpad work well. We would have liked to see a dedicated key for noise cancelling and transparency mode, but that’s a minor complaint. Even with a price that goes beyond any pair of QuietComfort headphones before them, the Ultra are a worthy investment, offering a premium experience and noise cancelling that can’t be beaten.

Best budget
A pair of Anker Soundcore Life Q30 headphones on a table with a phone, watch, passport, and wallet.
The Soundcore Q30 are the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy on a budget.

Thanks to the latest advancements in noise-cancelling technology, you don’t have to spend a ton of money to get some decent peace and quiet. Anker’s Soundcore Life Q30 are a great example, and at well under $100, they’re a relatively easy investment. 

The Q30’s noise cancelling ranks among the best for their price point, doing an especially good job in the lower registers. It’s certainly not as effective as the pricier models on our list, especially in the upper frequencies, but the Q30’s ear cups also offer solid passive noise isolation, which helps to defray some of the ambient annoyances in your life.

Anker’s Soundcore headphones consistently punch above their weight when it comes to audio performance, and the Q30s hold their own in this department, especially after a few tweaks to their hefty bass in the Soundcore mobile app for Android or iOS. There you can also customize other settings, swap between three noise-cancelling modes, and engage the available sleep mode to activate ambient sounds as you drift off on your commute. 

The Q30s fit comfortably thanks to their solid padding and collapse for travel. Convenience features like Multipoint Bluetooth pairing and the ability to activate transparency mode by holding your hand on the right ear cup recall fancier models that cost double or triple the price, while their massive battery life is among the best you’ll find.

If you’re after a solid pair of noise-cancelling headphones but simply can’t stomach the high prices of other top models, Anker’s Soundcore Q30 are a very enticing option.

Best sounding
A pair of Sennheiser Momentum 4 headphones in their carrying case on a desk.
Sennheiser’s Momentum 4 headphones are the pair to get if you favor sound quality over noise-cancelling performance.

Sennheiser’s Momentum 4 Wireless headphones don’t have the best or even the second-best noise-cancelling performance on our list. That’s OK, though, because once you hear them, you may not care. If you’re an audiophile, the great sound quality you get here could be a more than acceptable tradeoff. 

It took Sennheiser three years to update its storied Momentum headphones, doing away with the retro styling that had defined the series up to now. But it was worth the wait and the redesign. The Momentum 4s deliver audio performance that rises above everything we’ve heard in their class, offering effortless presence, detail, and separation that lets you dig deep into each instrument’s timbres and textures with remarkable clarity. 

The Momentum 4s are no slouches in the features department, either, starting with battery life that’s double what you’ll get from options like Sony’s WF-1000XM5. You’ll also get features like Multipoint pairing, the ability to adjust noise cancelling and transparency mode based on your environment, a three-band EQ, and great wind buffering that also aids in call quality.

As mentioned, the Momentum 4s’ noise cancelling is good-not-great for headphones at their price point. They do a swell job with lower frequencies but let higher register noises like voices slip through more easily than the very best noise-cancelling headphones. Add a bit of music, and that shouldn’t be much of an issue in most scenarios, but it’s worth considering before you pull the trigger.

Although the headphones are quite comfortable, they’re also heavier than some competitors, and they don’t fold up completely, making them slightly harder to pack. That said, if sound is your compass, the Momentum 4s are well worth considering, offering a lush sonic experience.

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Best features
The black Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones.
The WH-1000XM5 headphones are packed with features and are a great alternative to our top pick, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra, if you prefer the Sony brand.

Sitting nearly even with Bose’s QuietComfort Ultra when it comes to top-notch noise cancelling, Sony’s WH-1000XM5 headphones are an excellent alternative and may even be a better option for some. The M5 (as in Mark 5) may not have the catchiest name, but they make up for it with a formidable mix of brilliant performance and a truckload of great features.

Sony wrote the book on modern headphone design with its WH-1000X series, putting you in the driver’s seat for a dizzying array of options. It all starts with the brand’s powerful Headphones app letting you control your noise cancelation in multiple ways, including an option based on your environment. You can silence audio with your voice or let in the outside world with a simple hand gesture on the right ear cup. Alexa is available for smart control, and customization of Sony’s 360 Reality Audio lets you unlock spatial sound with supported content.

Features aside, the XM5s are as polished as you’d expect a flagship pair of headphones from a market leader to be. Their touch controls are intuitive and responsive. Their noise cancelling is incredibly effective across registers. Sound quality is sweet, smooth, and superbly detailed to the point that you’ll likely hear things you’ve missed in multiple previous listens. Their streamlined design and memory foam padding also make them comfortable for hours (though Bose’s Ultras are even comfier).

The only noteworthy issue we take with Sony’s latest design is that, unlike the Bose Ultra and Sony’s cheaper WH-1000XM4, the M5s don’t collapse for travel, making them harder to pack. Frankly, the most convincing argument against these cans is made by Sony’s cheaper M4 headphones, which offer a lot of what makes the M5s great for less cash. But if you want Sony’s best and all the features that come along, the WH-1000XM5s are a great buy.

Read our Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones review.

Best in-ear
A pair of Sony WF-1000XM5 earbuds in a case on a table in front of a smartphone.
Sony’s WF-1000XM5 earbuds use an in-ear design and deliver a compact solution for buyers who want noise-cancelling headphones.

The WF-1000XM5 are our pick for the best wireless earbuds you can buy. They pack what we love about Sony’s top-tier over-ear headphones into a micro-sized frame with an in-ear design, offering tons of features, great sound, and excellent noise cancelling in a sleek design that fits neatly in your pocket.

Even for earbuds, the WF-1000XM5 are remarkably small for their class, especially compared to their predecessors, the WF-1000XM4, and top rivals like Bose’s QuietComfort II and Ultra buds. Their size is all the more impressive given their exceptional battery life and performance, with noise cancelling that knocks out low-end frequencies and effectively muffles high-register sounds like voices and clattering dishes.

Like their full-sized cousins, the WF-1000XM5 are also packed with features. Opening the Sony Headphones app, you’ll find settings to adjust everything from ambient sound and noise cancelling to Multipoint pairing, speak-to-chat (pausing sound when you speak), head gesture controls, and a multi-band EQ.

Sound performance is crisp, punchy, and accurate across genres, with a penchant for instrumental definition. You can raise the sound quality further by activating Sony’s DSEE Extreme audio upscaling engine, while supported Android devices can access high-resolution Bluetooth streaming with Sony’s LDAC audio technology. The buds also provide good call quality thanks to bone conduction sensors.

With the XM5s, Sony has also improved the physical design of its top earbuds thanks to a more stable and secure fit to go along with basic water resistance for versatile use cases. One complaint about the redesign: these things are slippery, making it challenging to grip or nudge them out of the case. They’re also quite expensive, but their fantastic performance and packed set of features make them an excellent option for anyone who wants a compact pair of noise-cancelling earbuds.

How we test noise-cancelling headphones
The silver Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones earcups

When testing headphones for consideration in our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones, we use them as we would in our daily lives to get a sense of how they’ll perform for a typical listener. That includes evaluating features like ease of setup with different source devices, comfort, battery life, and general usability. We assess sound quality by listening to music across multiple genres from the best music streaming services as well as in high resolution. We also play videos and listen to them with each model to test features like spatial audio and head tracking with stereo and Dolby Atmos content.

To evaluate noise cancelling and transparency mode, we conduct real-world testing in natural environments and, whenever possible, in situations like plane flights or train commutes. We also incorporate a sound-treated room and professional stereo monitors to reproduce sounds like airplane noise, voices, and other effects. Battery testing includes putting the headphones on a stopwatch at medium volume to make sure they live up to their manufacturer’s claims or come close.

Noise-cancelling headphones FAQs
The Sony WH-1000XM5 wireless noise-cancelling headphones in black.

What is noise cancelling?

Noise cancellation, also known as Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) or Adaptive Noise Cancellation, is a technology designed to suppress sounds in your immediate environment. Noise-cancelling headphones are outfitted with tiny microphones which pick up ambient sounds. They then use onboard circuitry to analyze those sounds in real time, flipping the polarity of the frequencies (essentially reversing their waveforms) to “cancel” them. 

Noise cancellation is an imperfect science and, as of yet, it’s not able to block out all of the sounds in a given environment. That said, with each iteration, the best noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds increase how much sound they can block, especially at higher frequencies which are generally the hardest to cancel. The better the noise cancellation, the more frequencies are blocked, and the more noise your headphones can reduce.

Are over-ear headphones better than earbuds for noise cancelling?

While the gap between over-ear headphones and earbuds was once more prominent, today’s top noise-cancelling earbuds are close to or on par with the best over-ear headphones with ANC. Both types offer good passive noise isolation, and both also use a mix of advanced hardware and software, including multiple microphones. While it varies case by case, you can now get very effective noise cancelling in either over-ear headphones or earbuds.

What is transparency mode?

Transparency mode, also called ambient audio (or sometimes hear-thru), is essentially the opposite of noise cancelling. Using the same exterior microphones, instead of cancelling the sound around you, transparency mode pipes ambient sound into your headphones in an effort to keep you aware of your surroundings. Transparency modes on most headphones can be easily toggled on and off so you can go from listening to music with ANC to letting outside sound in. This is not only a great safety feature, but it can also be helpful for situations like flights or other forms of mass transit where you need to communicate quickly.

What is Bluetooth wireless connectivity?

Bluetooth is a wireless technology that allows for an exchange of data, for our purposes in the form of audio, across short distances. Most Bluetooth devices offer a range of around 33 feet, though some, such as Class 1 Bluetooth devices, can travel 100 feet or more. Improvements in Bluetooth over time have allowed for increased bandwidth and, among other things, higher sound quality that’s more reliable. In general, having the latest Bluetooth version can mean speed, efficiency, and reliability improvements.

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