These are the best noise-canceling headphones of 2020
These are the best noise-canceling headphones of 2020

When you need to concentrate, relax or otherwise tune out the world around you, a pair of headphones featuring active noise cancellation can be a godsend. Of course, as with any headphones, you’ll want to consider sound quality, comfort and other features like Bluetooth connectivity. But when you’re in the market for an ANC pair specifically, you want headphones that’ll block out distractions.

So we set forth on a distraction-blocking mission, testing headphones that boast ANC as a headlining feature. We ultimately chose 15 pairs, based on reading reviews and our editorial expertise in the market, and tested them all extensively. And, to be sure of our picks, we continually test the latest and greatest headphone offerings as they come onto the market (evidenced here, as our top overall pick, Sony’s latest over-ear cans, have unseated our previous top choice, the Beats Solo Pros).

After hundreds of hours rocking out to music, using the headphones in loud environments and running battery tests that ran into the wee hours of the morning, we’re ready to share our three top picks.

Not only do the WH-1000XM4s boast class-leading sound (they top our list of best over-ear headphones to boot), but Sony also upgraded the newer generation of our previous runner-up with phenomenal noise-canceling ability. So much so that they ousted our former top overall pick, the Beats Solo Pros, in terms of ANC quality, as the over-ear XM4s better seal the ear from outside noise. Whether it was a noise from a dryer, loud neighbors down the hall or high-pitched sirens, the XM4s proved impenetrable. This is a feat that other headphones, notably the Solo Pros, could not compete with — which is to be expected considering their $348 price tag.

The Beats Solo Pros don’t fall that far behind the WH-100XM4s. While they still can block out a majority of sound and perform great in the noisiest of environments, the XM4s ultimately came out on top, thanks to their superior seal. The Solo Pros inherently let in more noise (e.g., loud conversations and background sounds), as their ear cups rest on your ears rather than create a seal around them. Still, at $299.99, these on-ear cans have a ton to offer and will get the cancellation job done for a majority of people.

The Soundcore Life Q20s came through as our best budget option. At just $60, these offer surprisingly powerful noise-canceling ability that competes with much pricier devices, plus terrific comfort and sound quality to boot.

Best overall noise-canceling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($348; amazon.com)

Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony WH-1000XM4
PHOTO: Jacob Krol/CNN

Whether it’s drowning out your neighbor mowing their lawn for the sixth time this week or blocking out your roommate’s endless Zoom meetings, the Sony WH-1000XM4s have your ears covered.

The noise-canceling bliss starts the second you put these headphones on your head — even before switching on ANC. Thanks to their over-ear design with ample cushioning, they passively block out sound. But engage ANC, and the XM4s take sound cancellation to a whole new level. With microphones built in, they monitor audio around you in real time to block it out.

No matter the situation in which we tested them — bass-heavy thumps, background conversation, sirens — no noise seemed to penetrate. We started off by running on a treadmill with the XM4s. Generally, with a non-ANC pair of headphones, you can hear the gears turning, legs hitting the mat and machine humming along. The XM4s were able to break these sounds up into, well, nothing, clearly outperforming the Beats Solo Pro in this regard.

But the XM4s really shone when blocking higher frequencies, such as the hum of a fan or AC unit, chatty neighbors and other general background noise. We put the XM4s to the test against speakers playing a backing track from a restaurant (plates clacking, people laughing and chatting) along with a real-life outdoor dining scenario. In both situations, these were able to block noise — even without music playing — from nearby tables, silverware falling and even the occasional creak of a door slowly opening. Turning just ANC on provides a white noise effect, and you effectively get left alone in your own bubble.

Adding music while ANC is switched on, though, is like Peter Parker getting bit by the spider — it just gives the XM4s a whole new set of superpowers. Yeah, you get the benefit of distraction-free noise blocking, but it also makes the music sound better. The XM4s have the ability to place you in the center of a mix, with tracks clearly flowing from the left and right around you. Take Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” in which you’ll hear the vocals, organ and eager drum beat trickle around you from the left and right. While some headphones can leave you feeling a little cramped or with white noise interfering, the XM4s leave you with just the music. The processor will even work double time to upscale tracks to higher quality that provides stronger soundstage.

The companion app for Android and iOS lets you customize the sound experience with various preset equalizers (or you can create a custom one). You can even choose to let ambient noise in via the app or with the Speak to Chat function of the XM4s. Essentially, when the device hears your voice, it will lower the music and turn ANC off, allowing you to engage with the world around you. It’s on par with the transparency mode found on the Beats Solo Pros and Bose 700s, but we really like this intelligent way to turn it on or off, as it allows you to easily wear these in more scenarios.

Sony promises 30 hours with ANC on, and in our testing we fell slightly short at about 29 hours, 40 minutes. Still seriously impressive and besting anything else on our list.

No, these aren’t the cheapest at $348, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better pair of ANC cans that will have no issues lasting for many years.

Runner-up: Beats Solo Pro ($229.95, originally $299.95; amazon.com)

Beats Solo Pro
Beats Solo Pro

Despite being on-ear headphones, the Beats Solo Pros really tore up the competition on ANC, falling just shy of the XM4s.

In test after test, these managed to cut out a lot of the bassier sounds you’d normally hear in a variety of environments. For example, during a workout on a treadmill with a loud movie on, the droning hum of the machine was all but eliminated. Even the bass of footfall was dampened, as were the midrange frequency sounds of the treadmill’s belt and a movie blaring loudly on a TV. It underperformed a bit with loud voices or higher frequencies on the TV, which resulted in us hearing those noises.

To simulate windy conditions, we wore them next to a large fan, and the deep, bassy hum of the fan simply left our audio space. Higher-frequency sounds, like the oscillation of the fan, were also barely noticeable at moderate speeds. Picking a fan or AC vent up to a high mode did result in those sounds being a bit more audible. Even so, these are both great signs for those who fly often or have loud AC units in their homes.

The Solo Pros also performed admirably when we tested them against public ambiance and speech. The bassy bustle of a crowded public space (simulated with nearby speakers on high) was barely audible with these headphones on. Speech, both near and far, was significantly dampened as well, with a great overall reduction in environmental volume.

For those occasions when you need to hear the sounds around you, these headphones have a transparency mode that actually amplifies ambient sound so you can hear, for example, someone calling your name. The Solo Pros did not perform as well as the Sony WH-1000XM4s in this category, but they still amplified nearby sounds well and improved the volume of distant sounds.

While ANC is the primary focus of this review, sound quality was also weighted heavily in our testing, and the Beats Solo Pros did not disappoint. Listening to “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish gave us the distinct impression that she was whispering in our ear. And during “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, we could really distinguish where the instruments were in the soundstage during the performance. This quality was bested only by the Sony WH-1000XM4s in our testing.

The one place where the Solo Pros fell short on sound quality and didn’t perform as well as the Sony WH-1000XM4s was bass. Playback simply wasn’t as deep, and their sound had a notably less impactful kick than some other pairs. This is something to note if you listen to bass-forward music and find a bass-heavy mix most satisfying.

Call quality, on the other hand, was one of the best on the list. Very clear on both ends, and no notable issues like echoes or feeling boxed in.

In our testing, the Solo Pros, while lasting a staggering 40 hours with ANC switched off, got to only 21 hours with noise cancellation on — falling quite a bit short of the 30 hours we found with the XM4s.

These headphones are built very well, composed of high-quality plastic on the outside and a solid metal skeleton on the inside; this metal runs throughout the design, from the cups through the headband. They fold easily and present very few seams. The cushions also feel durable and high quality, though these cans do seem a bit snug and may not be as comfortable for people with larger heads. Even at their full extension, they did not perfectly fit bigger noggins, which created uncomfortable pressure after some time.

Overall, the Beats Solo Pros were nearly at the top of ANC quality and pair that performance with crisp sound and a comfortable build.

Best budget noise-canceling headphones: Anker Soundcore Life Q20 ($59.99; amazon.com)

 Anker Soundcore Life Q20
Anker Soundcore Life Q20

The Soundcore Life Q20s performed beyond what we’d expect from such an affordable pair of headphones, at just $60. In fact, they did nearly as well as the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700s in pure ANC at less than one-sixth the price.

The Soundcore Life Q20s delivered solid noise cancellation, significantly muffling the bassy hum produced during our treadmill test. However, the range of deep sound they eliminated was less than that of the Sony WH-1000XM4s. In other words: The Q20s reduced the volume of sounds that were muted by the other two picks. In terms of footfall on the treadmill, we saw similar results: The deep, rhythmic banging sound was dampened, but our winning picks reduced this even further. The volume of higher-pitched sounds like the treadmill belt and TV in the background were also well controlled by the Q20s. And though this reduction wasn’t as dramatic as that of the Sony WH-1000XM4s and Beats Solo Pros, it nearly tied with the more expensive Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700s.

During our fan test, the Soundcore headphones impressed once again. They reduced the volume well, to the point where the fan oscillation was barely audible. (Meanwhile, the Solo Pros and WH-1000XM4s completely muted this particular sound.) The Q20s’ control of the bassy hum of the fan gave the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700s a run for their money, though. During our restaurant ambiance test, the low droning of the crowd was eliminated to a great degree by the Q20s. What sounds remained were reduced in volume very well, actually outdoing more expensive devices like the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs.

The Soundcore Life Q20s scored a bit below average on sound quality. This was in part due to their call quality, which featured decent clarity but unfortunate spikes in volume. That being said, this pair tied with the more expensive Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2s, and among a list of high-end devices, a near average score is no small feat. Listening to “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman, which features pitchy saxophone and intense snare drums, we were never hit with an uncomfortably loud note or muddled bass. The vocals were also on point: During Bruce Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire,” his voice felt authentic, like we were on stage. Overall, their performance matched that of the Bowers & Wilkins PX7s, which retail for much more. Soundstage did suffer somewhat, however. Songs like “I’m on Fire” simply felt a little less three-dimensional than they did with our top picks. This was a minor problem, though — the positions of vocals and instruments on stage were still reproduced pretty well.

These headphones really excelled at handling bass, reproducing the deep and booming tones of “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, performing just a hair off from the $500 Beoplay H9s. Unfortunately, these headphones experienced an infrequent bug that affected our listening experience when it arose. During some songs, the bass ended up slightly muting the rest of the track, quickly fading back to normal volume after each beat. This occurrence was rare and minor, which won’t be a problem for most users. Audiophiles, on the other hand, may want to look elsewhere.

One of our favorite features of these headphones was the battery performance. The Soundcore Life Q20s clocked in with an incredible 40 hours of battery life with ANC on. This is simply the best out of every device we tested, the next best being the $250 Jabra Elite 85h headphones with 36 hours of battery life. They also deliver impressive quick-charge abilities, topping up four hours of juice from just five minutes of charging.

These headphones sport the popular three-button row organization, where a playback and call control button is flanked by two volume buttons, which are raised for some tactile feedback and not nearly as loud as the controls on the Beats Solo Pros. On the opposite cup are the power button and a button that toggles ANC. Unfortunately, these headphones do not feature transparency mode.

These headphones aren’t flimsy by any means, though the plastic quality certainly feels less sturdy than that of the WH-1000XM4s or Beats Solo Pros. They do feel more solid than some pairs we tested, like the Sony WH-CH710Ns, which cost $140 more. Visually, they share similarities with the Sony WH-1000XM4s. Available in black and silver, they have few seams, and little detail to speak of. But overall, they appear less elegant due to the shiny plastic and geometrically generic ear cups.

The Q20s performed outstandingly on comfort. The cushions are soft and airy, resting gently at both the headband and ear cups. There is a generous amount of cushion, which, combined with its similar weight to the WH-1000XM4s, causes little to no pressure buildup. It’s certainly easy to forget you’re wearing them while you’re going about your day.

When it comes to value, the Soundcore Life Q20s outperformed their price, delivering high-quality noise cancellation and impressive sound quality at a fraction of the cost compared with most headphones in our testing pool.

How we tested

Many of these headphones were included in the testing field for our best over-ear headphone review, where we looked at design, comfort and battery life thoroughly. We also learned every control and listened to a variety of music genres on each device. For this roundup, we overhauled our ANC testing. We wanted to formulate several tests that would examine different properties of ANC as well as common scenarios like air travel and being in crowds. As we did in our other review, we cross-compared devices frequently.

Check out the category breakdowns below.

ANC (Active Noise Cancellation)

  • Pure ANC: We devised four noisy conditions under which to test headphones: sitting next to an active washing machine, running on a treadmill with a loud movie playing, sitting next to a large fan and playing a soundtrack featuring busy restaurant ambiance (chatter and silverware clatter) on high through nearby speakers. These tests aimed to measure several parameters of ANC. We wanted to determine how well a pair of headphones eliminated bassy, humming sounds. We compared headphone performance to find out how deep sound had to be before a pair could effectively mute it. We also looked at how well the headphones lowered overall sound, which came in the form of more midrange sounds. On that line, we compared how each device’s ANC reacted to more abrupt mid- and high-frequency sounds that accompany busy environments
  • Levels of control: We examined how much control a user has over ANC level. Some devices provide the option to change the ANC strength, either with on-device controls or via a companion app. Others only provide the ability to toggle ANC on and off.
  • Transparency: Transparency mode amplifies local sound as opposed to the dampening experienced with ANC. We devised two tests for the quality of transparency mode: snapping fingers a foot away and listening to a news radio 8 feet away. The first test gave us a sense of how much the headphones could amplify sounds in our personal space. For each device, we compared the volume of the snap with transparency on versus its volume without the headphones on. The second test was aimed at how well speech could be heard somewhat nearby. We listened to the radio with each pair on and compared the volume with our experience without them on. We noted whether the words of the radio were intelligible as well.
  • Levels of control: We looked into how much control we had over transparency level. Some devices may allow the user to adjust the strength of transparency mode, either via controls on the device or a companion app. Others simply provide a way to toggle transparency mode on and off.
  • Battery with ANC: We created a playlist composed of jazz, rock, pop, rap, classical, EDM and other genres to determine battery life. We used a playlist for each pair that was about two hours longer than their projected maximum battery life. We played them with ANC on at 75% volume.

Sound quality

  • Bass: To determine how deep a frequency each headphone was capable of, we listened to “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Royals” by Lorde. Both of these songs feature deep, intense bass. They also helped us find out how much satisfying bassy kick each pair of headphones was capable of.
  • Compression: In audio, compression is used to amplify very quiet sounds and reduce the volume of very loud sounds. Too much compression, however, can obscure higher-frequency tones and muffle deeper ones. In this subcategory, we listened for the right amount of compression. If tones were shrill or we heard audio artifacts like crackling, there wasn’t enough compression. If tones in the higher range felt muted and/or tones in the lower range were muddled, there was too much. We listened for these qualities in “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish and “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman. The former features extremely deep tones, and the latter features quiet, subtle instrumentals as well as blaring saxophone and drums.
  • Soundstage: In audio, soundstage is the feeling of three-dimensional space brought forth by high-quality stereo sound. Great soundstage will allow you to really hear the positions of instruments and vocalists during a song. To test this, we listened to “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen and “Neon Lights” by Molotov Jukebox. Both songs feature instrumentals with distinct 3D positions and vocals that make you feel like you’re on stage with the artists. This is one category where cross-comparison was especially important, as we wanted to find out the extent to which different headphones presented this three-dimensional effect.
  • Overall: This subcategory combined bass, compression and soundstage notes. Aside from observing and rating the headphones’ performance in each of those separately, we also noted how well these aspects came together to produce the overall listening experience. We noted call quality here too, looking for quirks like echoes, voice crispness and background noise. We listened to “Let Me In” by Snowmine and “Might Be Right” by White Reaper, songs that are particularly busy (as in full of different instruments, vocals, subtle beats and bass) to get a broader view of how the above subcategories worked together.

Design

  • Build quality: We examined the quality of what each device was made of and how the pieces fit together. On that line, we took a look at overall design and figured out what we liked best visually. To test build quality, we flexed the headband as far as we could safely go and looked into what material held the whole pair together. We also checked whether the ear cups could fold inward and took a look at the button quality, if buttons were present. Finally, we factored in bulkiness and weight.
  • Ear cups: We kept the headphones on for at least an hour at a time to determine whether the ear cups created any tightness. We also determined whether they were comfortable enough to forget we were even wearing them after a time.
  • Headband: As we wore the headphones, we also determined what kind of pressure, if any, the headband applied. We noted headband flexibility here too and whether the headband would fade from our notice as we wore them.
  • Overall comfort: We combined our comfort-related notes and determined whether discomfort arose elsewhere, like in the area where the headband and ear cups meet.

Features/usability

  • Controls: We learned and tried out the controls on each device to determine if they were easy to learn. We wanted to know how intuitive it was to control playback, calls, volume, Bluetooth pairing and toggling features like ANC. We noted here whether there was a narrator voicing the controls we selected and providing information like remaining battery life.
  • Bluetooth connectivity: We measured the latency of controls between the headphones and device with which they were paired. We also determined how quickly the headphones reconnected to a previously paired device after being turned on. Finally, we tested whether a pair of headphones could be connected to more than one device.
  • Companion app: The more control an app provided, the better score it received. Some apps could, for example, display battery life, adjust ANC or even allow you to select and create custom sound profiles. Some were more basic.
  • Ports: We determined whether the ports on each device functioned properly.
  • Controls off-device: We combined Bluetooth connectivity and companion app notes here and determined which smart assistants could be synced up with each device, if any. We also checked if any included AUX cables had a control box on them. If so, we determined how much control it provided.

Battery

  • Usage time: We repeated the test under “Battery with ANC” from the ANC category, instead playing each device with ANC off at 75% volume.
  • Quick charge: To look at this advertised feature, where headphones receive a large amount of battery in a short amount of time, we first checked whether the device provided this feature at all. Then, among those that did, we compared which headphones gained the most battery in the shortest amount of time.
  • Overall: We combined the notes above, looking to find out how good a device’s battery life and quick charge were to give us an overall score.

Warranty

  • Warranty: We looked into what warranty/warranties each device came with. Warranties that lasted longer or were more numerous scored better.

How we rated

We scored each pair of headphones based on its performance under each subcategory. The combined scores of the subcategories add up to a category’s total maximum score. We weighted sound quality a little more than ANC because, as important as ANC is, a pair of headphones should put out good sound first and foremost. See below for a breakdown of this point system.

  • Sound quality had a maximum of 40 points: bass (10 points), compression (5 points), soundstage (5 points) and overall (20 points).
  • ANC had a maximum of 35 points: pure ANC (10 points), levels of control (ANC, 2 points), transparency mode (10 points), levels of control (transparency, 2 points), battery with ANC (6 points) and overall (5 points).
  • Features/usability had a maximum of 30 points: controls on-device (5 points), Bluetooth connectivity (5 points), companion app (5 points), ports (5 points) and controls off-device (10 points).
  • Design had a maximum of 25 points: build quality (10 points), ear cups (5 points), headband (5 points) and overall comfort (5 points).
  • Battery had a maximum of 20 points: usage time (10 points), quick charge (5 points) and overall (5 points).
  • Warranty had a maximum of 5 points: warranty (5 points).

Notably, most of our non-ANC scoring was compiled during the testing for our over-ear headphone review. This was done price-blind. That way, the cost of a pair of headphones wouldn’t bias our ratings. Once the final scores were tallied during this and the previous review, we factored in price to determine the value each pair provided.

The most important subcategory to determine our best ANC and runner-up categories was pure ANC. We wanted to concentrate on which device put out the absolute best ANC experience. We also kept in mind its quality in other categories. If a device had great ANC but scored poorly in another category, we would rethink that device for our recommendation. At the end of the day, our top choices need to be good headphones as well.

For best value, we looked into the pricing of each model. We then compared price to pure ANC score, once again factoring in other categories to make sure the recommendation stood well enough on its own outside of ANC capability.

Everything else we tested

Beats Studio 3 Wireless ($349.95; bhphotovideo.com)

The Beats Studio 3 Wireless headphones put out ANC that eliminated a decent amount of deep sound and dampened sound volume well in general. Their ANC is comparable to that of the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs but still a ways off from the Beats Solo Pro and Sony WH-1000XM3s. At the same time, the Studio 3 cans beat out the Jabra Elite 85h headphones on sound quality by several points while falling behind on comfort. They also look terrific, both in terms of structure and color options.

Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700 ($379.95, originally $399.95; bose.com)

The Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700s ranked third on pure ANC. Scoring one or two points below the WH-1000XM3s in our tests, these headphones mute a lot of the deeper hums that accompanied our test conditions. They also excel at reducing overall volume, almost as much as the Sony cans. With the Bose Music app, you can customize ANC and select favorites from 10 different levels. A button on the left cup can be used to switch between three selections and toggle transparency mode. You’ll also enjoy these headphones’ crisp and clear playback with stronger bass than that of the Beats Solo Pros and better comfort. In fact, they scored best in comfort in our over-ear headphones review.

Bose QuietComfort 35 II ($299.95, originally $349.95; bose.com)

The Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs tied the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2s on pure ANC, except these headphones differed, reducing deeper sound better but dampening volume to a lesser degree. They also received exactly the same sound quality score as the Beats Solo Pros, producing quality playback while suffering somewhat on bass. Their simple design is balanced by comfortable, lightweight construction.

Jabra Elite 85h ($249.99; amazon.com)

The $249.99 Jabra Elite 85h cans found themselves a hair above the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs in ANC performance. While the differences were marginal, the Elite 85hs primarily outperformed the QC 35 IIs and BackBeat Pro 2s in volume control. On the sound quality side, the QuietComfort 35 IIs won out with better compression but similar stats in other fields. The design of the Elite 85hs is rather bulky without many visually distinguishing features. They did, however, win “best for working out” in our over-ear headphone review, in large part thanks to their great control setup.