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Noise-cancelling headphones are college essentials — here’s the ones to buy

Bose QuietComfort 45
(Image credit: Bose)

Buying back-to-school tech can be expensive. Between a new laptop and a TV for your dorm, there’s not always a lot of money left in the bank account for audio products. 

But, if you can only afford one, skip out on basic earbuds and buy a pair of noise-cancelling headphones instead – they sound great and, more importantly, they’ll help keep things quiet around the dorm or the library when you need to get some studying done.

If you’re too tired to do the homework yourself, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. We’ve done the research on the best noise-cancelling headphones and have picked out a few of the best models befitting a hardworking student. Here are the top picks.

Best noise-cancelling headphones for college students 

The Sony WH-1000XM4 on a table

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)
The best noise-cancelling headphones for college students

Specifications

Weight: 8.8 ounces
Battery life (rated): 30 hours (ANC on); 40 hours (ANC off)
Bluetooth range: 33 feet
Codec support : SBC, AAC, LDAC

Reasons to buy

+
Excellent audio quality
+
Remarkable noise cancellation
+
Strong battery life

Reasons to avoid

-
Call quality still needs work

For college students, we highly recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4. Yes, they’re last year’s model but they offer most of the features of the Sony WH-1000XM5 at a cheaper price. We like both them and their successors because of how great their audio quality is thanks to the inclusion of Sony’s DSEE upscaling technology and their fantastic noise cancellation. These are the kind of headphones you could wear for hours without feeling fatigued – and you can, thanks to the industry-leading 30-hour battery life. For the money, these are your best bets.

Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review.

Cleer Enduro ANC review

(Image credit: Future)
The budget alternative to the Sony and Bose headphones

Specifications

Type: Over-ear headphones
Size and weight: 7 x 6.6 x 3 inches, 10.6 ounces
Battery life (rated): 60 hours (ANC on)
Bluetooth range: 30 feet
Codec support: SBC, AAC, aptX Adaptive
Digital Assistant Support : Yes

Reasons to buy

+
Class-leading battery life
+
Bass-rich sound
+
Effective ANC

Reasons to avoid

-
ANC mics pick up wind noise
-
Comfort wanes over time

Need something even more wallet-friendly? The Cleer Enduro ANC offers an almost irresistible combination of affordability, audio richness, active noise cancellation and battery life. Emphasis on the battery life: we got more than 50 hours of mid-volume, fully ANC-enabled playback out of this over-ear set. If you plan on wearing your noise-cancelling headphones for hours at a time and aren't able to pick from the upscale options above, the Cleer Enduro are the salutatorian of the group.

Read our full Cleer Enduro ANC review.

Bose QuietComfort 45 review

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Future)
Best Bose headphones for ANC playtime

Specifications

Size and weight: 7.25 x 6 x 3 inches; 8.5 ounces
Battery life (rated): 24 hours (ANC on)
Bluetooth range: 30 feet (10 meters)
Special features: Pairs with other Bose products; Active EQ

Reasons to buy

+
Elite active noise cancellation
+
Refined sound signature
+
Good battery life
+
Fantastic comfort and connectivity

Reasons to avoid

-
Can’t turn ANC off 
-
Lacks several features found on previous Bose headphones

If you’re looking for something with a bit of a pedigree in noise cancellation, Bose has a difficult-to-surpass reputation. While we don’t feel they offer quite the same audio quality as the Sony WH-1000XM4, there’s no doubt that they bring their A-game when it comes to noise cancellation. On top of that, they offer great call quality thanks to their additional microphone that picks up your voice in crowded areas – and they’re a little cheaper than our top pick, too. 

Read our full Bose QuietComfort 45 review.

AirPods Max engraving

(Image credit: Apple)
The best noise-cancelling headphones for iOS

Specifications

Size and weight: 7.4 x 6.6 x 3.3 inches; 13.6 ounces
Battery life (rated): 20 hours (ANC on)
Bluetooth range: 33 feet
Special features: Spatial Audio; Audio Sharing; Siri

Reasons to buy

+
Luxury design
+
Excellent noise cancellation
+
Spatial audio sounds great

Reasons to avoid

-
Expensive
-
No aux jack

They’re wildly expensive at $549, but you could make the case here that Apple’s flagship over-ear headphones do offer some really neat tricks for the price. Yes, you’ve got great sound quality and noise cancellation, but you’ve also got spatial audio on iOS and a way to track the headphones via the Find My… feature on your phone. Now, hopefully you’ll never need to use the latter feature, but it’s college and things do happen. If you’re going to make this kind of investment, it’s nice knowing that you can track them down if they get lost.

Read our full Apple AirPods Max review.

Urbanista Miami

(Image credit: Future)
Ultra-cheap noise-cancelling headphones that last longer

Specifications

Type: Over-ear headphones
Size and weight: 8.1 x 6.6 x 3.5 inches, 10.9 ounces
Battery life (rated): 40 hours (ANC on); 50 hours (ANC off)
Bluetooth range: 33 feet (10 meters)
Codec support: SBC, AAC
Digital Assistant Support: Yes

Reasons to buy

+
High audio quality
+
Outstanding battery life
+
ANC and transparency modes

Reasons to avoid

-
Tight fit
-
Poor resistance to wind noise

Need something a little more stylish but still affordable? The Urbanista Miami is perhaps the most stylish pair of cheap noise-cancelling headphones you can buy. The sound quality is great, with strong bass that never overwhelms the rest of the mix, and the ANC works well enough to cut out most background noise. There’s a transparency mode too, which you don’t always get on affordable ANC cans. There are some drawbacks here that you won't find with some of the other models we listed, but it's a pair of headphones that you can buy without worrying how much you'll have left in your bank account when you've got them.

Read our full Urbanista Miami review.

Why go for noise-cancelling headphones and what makes them different? 

You might be looking at this list and feeling a bit overwhelmed with the options, especially if you’re coming from sub-$100 over-ear headphones and earbuds. It's a big jump in price and with textbooks to pay for, any extra expense needs to be given extra consideration.

To make noise cancellation work effectively, these headphones need to have specialized microphones in them that can capture ambient noise and send it to a centralized processor. The processor analyzes the sound and creates counter waves that block out the noise. 

The algorithm to do this isn’t particularly complicated, but obviously the quality of the microphones and the processor inside the headphones have a major impact on overall performance.

In short, it’s definitely possible to find noise-cancelling headphones for less money than the ones we listed above – but it’s their technical chops that make them the top of their class.

AirPods and AirPods Pro in a woman's ear.

(Image credit: Future)

Looking for something more subtle? Try noise-cancelling earbuds instead 

After years of testing, we can safely say that over-ear headphones offer superior noise suppression than their in-ear counterparts – but not everyone is into the retro style of over-ear headphones. If that’s you, there’s plenty of great noise-cancelling earbuds worth checking out.

Among our favorites are the Sony WF-1000XM4 (that’s not a typo, Sony really makes earbuds that have a very similar name to the over-ears) and AirPods Pro. Folks looking to stray away from the popular picks can also check out the OnePlus Buds Pro, Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro and the Google Pixel Buds Pro

All of the above options come highly recommended by our staff of testers and make for great workout partners if you plan on hitting the gym in between classes. 

Here’s the list of the best deals on all of the above to help you save a little extra cash before you head out for the new semester.

Nick Pino
Managing Editor, TV and AV

Nick Pino heads up the TV and AV verticals at Tom's Guide and covers everything from OLED TVs to the latest wireless headphones. He was formerly the Senior Editor, TV and AV at TechRadar (Tom's Guide's sister site) and has previously written for GamesRadar, Official Xbox Magazine, PC Gamer and other outlets over the last decade. Not sure which TV you should buy? Drop him an email or tweet him on Twitter and he can help you out.