If you’re looking for a great pair of headphones for travel, the office or just relaxing and tuning out the world around you, what you’re looking for is a pair of great noise-canceling headphones. Available in both over-ear and true wireless models these days, they offer great sound quality, tight integration with mobile devices and tons of convenience features that mean you don’t have to sacrifice to get some peace and quiet.
We’ve been testing dozens of leading models, in real-world situations and simulated environments, to get a sense of just how well these headphones can suppress the annoyances and distractions of everyday life — and we’ve found some of the best noise-canceling headphones for you.
Bose has been a longstanding leader in noise cancellation tech, and the 700 build on that reputation, providing the best noise cancellation out of all the over-ear headphones we tested. They did a stellar job in all of our simulated environments, blocking out noise more effectively than the competition, and improved on that with their equally effective noise-canceling microphones, which let our voice come through clearly and intelligibly even when we placed calls from noisy environments like the streets and subways of New York City.
You can adjust the active noise cancellation (ANC) to your liking as well, with 10 levels of control from that app; you can also set three “favorite” ANC level settings, switchable from a programmable physical button on the left ear cup.
The 700 is the most stylish over-ear headphone Bose has ever made, with a low-profile minimalist look that uses touch controls in place of the multiple dedicated physical buttons of the more business travel-oriented QC35 II and QC45 — it resembles competitors such as the Sony WH-1000XM5 more than previous Bose models, and should suit pretty much any wearer and is very comfortable for all-day wear. It’s not quite as simple to use as the more control-laden Bose models, but the programmable controls and touch panels are reasonably intuitive and take just a few minutes to get used to.
Sound quality is on par with other over-ear flagship headphones, with solid bass out of the box and a three-band EQ that lets you tailor the 700’s overall response to your taste. Battery life is a reasonable 20 hours, with the now standard quick charge giving you three and a half extra hours of playback time after 15 minutes of charging.
For more, read our full review of the Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones 700.
The recently upgraded Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 offers an almost unbelievable level of ANC performance, courtesy of the company’s new customized spin on Adaptive ANC. Bose’s latest buds make this big upgrade without skimping on audio quality; plus, they fit securely and they’re decidedly sleeker than the previous QC earbuds.
Bose’s new CustomTune technology calibrates the noise cancellation system each time you take them out of the case and put them into your ears. Once the earbuds are sealed correctly (which you can check on in the Bose Music app), a small chime lets you know that the one microphone inside the bud is measuring your ear canal and adjusting the audio response and noise-canceling filters. Bose claims that if you put them back in the dock and someone else decides to don them, the ANC will automatically recalibrate and they will get their very own CustomTune profile.
Transparency mode is similarly adaptive. The new AwareMode adjusts for changes in the environment. For example, it will turn down the external microphones to block the sound of a train pulling up to the platform where you’re standing, then return to your original settings. The process is similar to what Apple’s doing with the second-gen AirPods Pro, and it’s a welcome addition to the Bose roster.
Audio quality is great, and the touch-based and app-based user interfaces are easy to learn and simple to manage. The only real downside is power — battery life isn’t comparable to other high-end true wireless models (you get six more hours from Sony’s WF-1000XM4 and 10 from the new AirPods Pro). But you likely won’t notice — we never ran out of battery while testing, with six hours of battery life and a case that stores an additional 24 hours of charge (the case isn’t wireless-compatible, another small drawback for those who prefer that method).
Those minor issues aside, the QuietComfort Earbuds 2 are hard to beat if you want to tune out your environment without resorting to over-ear headphones. Others may offer more features and you can get more advanced audio formats from Sony and Apple, but Bose is still ahead in terms of sheer noise-canceling performance.
For more, read our full review of the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2.
Other noise-canceling headphones we recommend
What to look for in a noise-canceling headphone
A noise-canceling headphone — one that uses active noise cancellation, or ANC, a routine in which it electronically or digitally mixes in an inverted version of the sounds going on around you in order to reduce the volume you perceive — can let you concentrate in a noisy office, get some sleep on a plane or train or just get you the space to relax in a noisy household.
The effect is very different from just plain physical noise isolation, though headphone designs incorporate both, and for noise cancellation to work its best you need some isolation to begin with, meaning either good-fitting in-ear headphones or earbuds, or over-ear headphones that fully enclose your earlobes (which is why the models we’ve looked at fall into these categories). You’ll want to find earbuds with tips that let you get a tight seal, or over-ear headphones that fit comfortably over your ears.
The noise-canceling effect does a much better job when the source of the offending sound is steady-state, or continuous, and is most pronounced in the lower audio frequencies, which is why these headphones are so good at cutting out the rumble of an airplane or train engine but don’t do much about screeching brakes or your seatmate’s animated conversation (that’s where passive isolation is handy).
It’s perfectly OK to buy and use noise-canceling headphones for travel without bothering to listen to music at all, though since the effect isn’t perfect, listening to music or podcasts will give you a better overall experience (and is also why sound quality matters so much), and part of why most manufacturers have been moving toward do-it-all headphones that are really good at noise cancellation but also really good at most everything else.
So as we advise in our pieces on the best over-ear headphones and the best true wireless earbuds overall, we emphasize that you look for a stable Bluetooth wireless connection that works with all of your stuff (hopefully with fast switching; support for all of your favorite audio formats; integration with the operating system you use, whether iOS or Android; and an app that lets you manage it all without too much frustration). And you need it to be comfortable to wear all day and to pack up small enough to take with you wherever you go.
Luckily, most major manufacturers have been trying to hit this target for a few years now, and they’ve largely succeeded. The latest wireless flagships from Sony, Bose, Apple, Sennheiser, Bowers & Wilkins, Jabra and others mostly do it all, and frankly they all sound pretty good too (with some differences in how they’re voiced), so the choice comes down to what integrates best with your stuff (or gives you the most options) and what feels good and sounds good to you.
How we tested
To find the best noise-canceling headphones, our testers put the leading models available through a set of listening tests that examined ANC performance in situations designed to mimic common usage scenarios like air travel and noisy office spaces. We also carefully assessed sound quality, functionality, usability and comfort — the issues that are so important to most users.
We carefully examined design elements, studied every physical control and application interface element, tested ANC, transparency, equalization and virtualization software options and noise isolation, timed battery life and charge time and read up on warranties.
Throughout the process, we compared each headphone carefully with its competitors, new models, and previous favorites to get the best sense of how the models we tested stacked up to the field.
Active noise cancellation (ANC)
Since noise-canceling performance is the primary consideration for most people interested in these headphones, it was first and foremost in our testing. We tested the headphones under four real-world noisy conditions: 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. We wanted to determine how well a pair of headphones eliminated steady-state, low-end sounds like treadmill rumble and machinery hum — the sort of thing noise cancellation is typically good at. We also looked at how well the headphones were able to suppress higher-frequency continuous noise like restaurant chatter, and also (mostly as a measure of each headphone’s passive isolation) checked on how well the headphones reduce background sounds overall, including short-duration incidental noises.
Since it’s important to hear what’s around you, we also tested each model’s “transparency” or “ambient sound” mode, which uses the external call microphones to pass through some (or all) of the sound of your environment. We tested this first by snapping fingers a foot away, to get a sense of how the headphones picked up nearby sound sources; we then listened to a radio placed 8 feet away playing news programming, to check on how intelligible speech was in this mode.
For both ANC and transparency modes we examined how much control a user has over level, balance, location-based automation and other fine-tuning options. We also made a multi-daylong playlist to run each fully charged headphone to exhaustion, with ANC on at 75% volume, to simulate typical listening.
In addition to personal favorites our testers knew well, we used a baseline set of well-engineered contemporary songs, including acoustic, electric, and electronic music, so we could easily establish direct comparisons. This included “Bad Guy” by Billie Eilish, “Royals” by Lorde, “Jazz Crimes” by Joshua Redman, “I’m on Fire” by Bruce Springsteen, “Neon Lights” by Molotov Jukebox, “Let Me In” by Laminate Pet Animal and “Might Be Right” by White Reaper.
We listened carefully for how well each headphone reproduced bass and revealed midrange and treble detail, how realistic a soundstage it created and overall clarity, paying special attention to whether noise cancellation and transparency modes interacted with or interfered with the overall sound. And for headphones that used virtual surround modes, we assessed the realism and usefulness of the included effects.
We tested each physical control to find out whether the user interface of each model was easy to understand and how intuitive it was to control playback, calls, volume, Bluetooth pairing and features like ANC and transparency modes. We paid equal attention to companion apps, examining the extended settings available and how intuitive and useful the software was in daily use.
We paired each headphone with multiple Apple, Android and Windows devices, assessing ease of pairing and switching between multiple devices (where that was supported) as well as speed of reconnection, carefully noting range and latency.
To check battery life, we used a long playlist and following a full charge to capacity, ran each headphone to exhaustion at normal listening level (75% volume) with ANC on and off. We also used them as part of our daily routines, charging them to capacity and then using them for work and commute until exhaustion to get a sense of how many days of real-world use they would support. After exhausting the battery, we also double-checked quick-charge features, testing to see if we could get the claimed battery life.
We researched what the warranty covered for each device, what period it covered and whether extended warranties or service plans were available.
Other noise-canceling headphones we tested
$60 at Amazon
A great value, with surprisingly powerful noise cancellation and solid sound quality for much less than the competition. You can’t fine-tune the ANC, and you don’t get a transparency mode or customizable EQ, but as usual Anker covers the basics for a song.
$400 at Amazon
The Beoplay H9 are pricey but offer very good noise-canceling performance, nearly as good as our top pick. Sound quality is also great, and the high build quality and good looks are compelling. Call quality isn’t as good as expected, however, which is a letdown at this price, and they aren’t as comfortable as the competition.
$350 $150 at Amazon
The Beats Studio 3 Wireless, the latest update to the model that kicked off the high-end headphone craze, integrate seamlessly with Apple devices, switching automatically between your Macs, iPhones and iPad, and offers very effective noise cancellation. If you like the now classic look and feel, they’re a less expensive alternative that gives you some of what’s great about the AirPods Max.
The Bose QuietComfort 45 offer the same great noise cancellation as the Bose 700 in a more traditional package with lots of physical controls in place of the 700’s touch controls. The build quality is impressive, they fold small as befits their executive-travel heritage and they’re made for long-term comfort. They’re perfect for road warriors, but we think that most people will be happier with the Bose 700, which are more stylish and our testers found more comfortable overall.
$250 From $200 at Amazon
Our former budget pick, the affordable, solidly built Jabra Elite 85h gives you solid ANC performance and very good sound quality for about half the price of the competition, at the slight expense of a bit of bulk, a little less comfort and less refined sound quality.
$200 $95 at Amazon
The JBL Live 650BTNC deliver crisp sound and a reasonably realistic soundstage for the money, though compared to your recommendations they suffer somewhat, especially on the low end, where they don’t deliver extended bass. The JBL Headphones app gives you multiple sound profiles to choose from, but they don’t overcome the 650 BTNC’s inherent character. The sleek, minimal design is attractive, but they have a lot of clamping force, so they aren’t as comfortable for long wear as our main recommendations. But they’re available at a deep discount, and if you’re looking for something to use occasionally they may fit the bill.
$199 $135 at Amazon
The Poly (formerly Plantronics) BackBeats Pro 2 has decent overall sound quality but lacked bass extension and didn’t produce a wide-sounding soundstage. Call quality was relatively poor, with one recipient describing it as sounding like we were underwater. But they are comfortable to wear, and they have a fun-to-use rotary volume control.
$350 From $310 at Amazon
The updated Sennheiser Momentum 4 drop the retro styling of their predecessors for a more vanilla look, but improved ANC, a solid app and great sound make them a compelling choice for headphone aficionados.
$320 $239 at Amazon
The Skullcandy Crusher ANC were our least favorite among those we tested. A dedicated bass boost slider on one of the cups lets you go from thin bass response to skull-rattling boom, but it felt like a gimmick, adding clutter to the mix but not definition. Using the Skullcandy app gave us access to some better-sounding custom profiles, but given that the Crusher weren’t especially comfortable to wear, we’d look at one of our other recommendations at this price.