Passive or active? All-day battery or sweet sound? Here are our favorite noise canceling headphones

Banu Ibrahim and Jacob Krol, CNN Underscored
Updated Thu April 25, 2019

Story highlights

  • Thanks to noise-canceling headphones, you can hit the mute button on noisy passengers and concentrate in a noisy cafe.
  • Our top devices for every budget include Bose, Sony, Urbanista and Marshall.

Whether it's flying, commuting or working in an office, noisy surroundings can be invasive. Those noises can be distracting and even make you miss out on shut-eye. Luckily, the answer is noise-cancellation technology, most commonly found in noise canceling headphones.

These over-ear models truly let you listen for once and close out the world around you. With the press of a button, noise cancellation is turned on, and some even pump in white noise. Otherwise, the content you're streaming, like the latest Taylor Swift jam, will take over. It gives you control over at least one thing in your world, and it can help with concentration and relaxation.

Moreover, noise-cancellation headphones are something you have to hear to believe. It's different from a typical pair of over-ear headphones that can block out some noises through the insulation of the ear pads. Noise-canceling headphones generally employ several microphones and a processor to actively block noise. And yes, these actively cancel out noises as opposed to passive headphones, which don't employ technology, just large earcups.

Furthermore, a high-end pair like the Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($349.95; bose.com) have different levels of noise cancellation that can block out a lot or a little environmental noise.

Whether you're prepping for a long flight, moving into a dorm room, starting a new job or just want peace and quiet, a pair of ANC headphones might be the answer. We've been testing pairs across the spectrum of noise-canceling headphones and have rounded up our top picks.

Gold Standards: Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($349.95; bose.com) or Sony WH100XM3 ($349.95; amazon.com)

Bose is a big name in the audio industry. Heck, pilots, sports teams and even concert halls opt for them. So it shouldn't be too much of a surprise that the latest QuietComfort 35 II headphones top our list. These aren't the most affordable at $349.95, but they pack a punch with features, and generally are on sale.

The active noise canceling inside the QC 35 II is excellent. Whether you're on an airplane sitting next to the engine or on a busy NYC street, they truly block a lot of noise. They let you concentrate, get some shut-eye and pump up the jams. Additionally, you have three levels of noise cancellation, and you guessed it, some of them let more noise in than others. It's also easily controllable through a dedicated button.

Within the companion app for iOS or Android, you can also switch that button to control an onboard voice assistant. You can switch between the Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa, but fair warning, these are more limited on iOS. And these last for a long 20 hours, and can be fast charged.

If you're lucky enough to still have a headphone jack on your phone (or have a dongle), you can plug these in as well. Although most of the time, I found myself using Bluetooth for a fuller experience.

With the launch of the WH100XM3s, Sony put itself in the noise canceling headphone market. And at $349.95, they need to perform exceptionally well.

For starters, Sony uses active noise cancellation technology comprised of software, dedicated processors and several microphones. It's up to par with Bose's technology, and via the companion app, it can match the level of cancellation to your environment. The app also allows you to put an effect on the sound with different presets. It's fun, if you're listening to a live track and want to hear it via an outdoor stadium or a concert hall. However, I wouldn't call this a game changer.

I'd say stick with the core experience, which Sony provides through superb sound quality. You can also expect 30 hours of battery life from the WH100XM3s, which is impressive.

Comfort paired with heavy bass: Urbanista New York ($179.99; urbanista.com)

Stockholm-based Urbanista has a $179.99 pair of ANC headphones called New York. These don't scream high end, but offer value for the price point. The listening experience goes heavy on the bass, like Beats by Dre, and mixes in other tones in a balanced format.

Like Sony and Bose, these are super comfortable. The ear cups and headband both feature memory foam, which makes the New York an excellent choice for long listening times. You can expect between 12-15 hours of noise cancellation, and closer to 18 with noise cancellation off. Like Marshall, these also don't block out everything. However, since it's employing passive (since ear cups are larger) and active, it does a better job.

For smaller ears and those who want to rock out: Marshall MID-ANC ($179.99, originally $269; amazon.com)

Marshall, yes the big name brand when it comes to amps, is in the consumer field as well. So at an MSRP of $269, its MID-ANC headphones might seem pricey. However, with a sale and pretty much everyday discount at $179.99, these cans are pretty good. You'll get a micro-USB charging cable, the MID ANC's, product literature and a super luxe leather and velvet carrying case.

It employs ANC technology with a propriety system for picking up ambient noise and blocking it. There is no companion app or levels of ANC, just an on or off switch on the right ear cup. Interestingly enough, you can have ANC turned on with no music playing and the Bluetooth function turned off.

The MID ANCs promise 20 hours of battery life with noise cancellation turned on, but I got closer to 15 hours. With ANC off, you can extend that playback to about 25 hours, depending on listening volumes.

Unfortunately, the ANC is not the best out there, which might have to do with Marshall's tech. Both Bose and Sony block out all other sounds — that's not the case with these. But the sound is well balanced, especially with classic rock and tracks with many instruments.

Note: The prices above reflect the retailer's listed price at the time of publication.