In a world of noisy construction traffic, screaming children and loud talkers, the best present you can give (or receive) is the gift of peace and quiet. While you might not be able to afford tickets to a desert island, a pair of active noise-cancelling headphones is the next best thing. They're great for playing your favorite tunes while keeping the outside world at bay. And with an average 15 hours of battery life, they're perfect for long trips. If you're looking for near-absolute silence, we recommend the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs with its best-in-class ANC or the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC if you're on a bit of a budget.
But with a glut of ANC headphones on the market, how do you choose the right pair? Tom's Guide is here to help you select the best set, just in time to muffle the sound of rush-hour traffic. Whatever your tastes or budget, here are the best active noise-cancelling headphones available.
What Active Noise Cancelling Headphones Cost
Features like Bluetooth and touch controls and adjustable noise cancelling (or lack thereof) can affect your headphones' price just as much as the design and drivers. For instance, you can snag an inexpensive pair of ANC headphones for as low as $20 while mid-range cans and buds can range between $150-$350 while audiophile-grade headphones can cost upwards of $1,000.
What to Look For
- Learn the difference between active noise cancelling (ANC) and passive noise cancelling (PNC). Passive noise-cancelling headphones partially block out ambient noise via the ear cups. The denser the foam used and the tighter the seal around your ears, the more outside sound will be reduced. A pair of headphones with ANC features one or more microphones that measure the noise level outside the cans. From there, electronics within the headphones work to create sound waves that block ambient noise.
- Not all ANC is created equal. Some ANC headphones unintentionally create white noise. The negative noise can be soothing but can be so pronounced that it bleeds into your music, inadvertently altering the audio quality. A good pair of ANC headphones will effectively block out ambient noise without adding unwanted effects to your music.
- Check for is battery life. ANC headphones typically last 15 to 20 hours on a single charge. You'll also want to check whether the headphones will still function once the juice runs out. Just because the ANC ran out doesn't mean the music has to stop, too.
News and Updates (January 2019)
- We're on the way to CES 2019! Stay tuned for the latest news on noise cancelling headphones and more.
- The new Jabra 85h headphones are rechargeable, rainproof and have an 85-hour battery life. They also respond to Alexa, Siri and Google Assistant voice commands and sport eight different built-in microphones: four for your voice, two for noise cancellation and two for SmartSound, which adjusts the sound equalization according to ambient noise. Expect them in April for $299/£279.
- Nuraphone is back with Nuraloop, a set of lightweight earbuds that automatically learn about and adapt to your hearing. The buds are also water-resistant, cancel noise and use Bluetooth 5. Pricing and release date have yet to be announced.
- Our review of the Plantronics BackBeat G0 810 headphones is live. We liked the warm, rich audio, dependable ANC and estimated 22 hours of battery life.
- We recently reviewed the Microsoft Surface Headphones, which offer 13 levels of noise cancelling, Cortana and an estimated 15 hours of battery life for $350.
How We Tested
To help you separate the wheat from the chaff when shopping for headphones, Tom's Guide evaluates the following criteria: design, comfort, features, performance and value. We employ a rigorous review process, comparing products with similar fit, features and pricing.
Each pair is worn over the course of a week for 2 hours at a time. During this testing period, the staff is evaluating comfort, ease of use and, of course, audio quality. We listen to several predetermined sample tracks that span a number of genres, including hip-hop, rock, jazz, classical and R&B, and we evaluate the volume, clarity and fullness.
In terms of features, we test the effectiveness of active noise cancelling, Bluetooth range and battery life. For the fitness-focused models, we test to see how they stand up to vigorous workouts, evaluating both how securely they fit while we exercise and how well they handle ambient noise from things like falling weights and gym machines.
Once we complete our testing, we rate headphones based on our five-point system (1 = worst, 5 = best). If a product is truly exemplary, it's awarded an Editors' Choice.
And now that more streaming music services are offering high-resolution resolution audio, be sure to read our audio codec FAQ for everything you need to know about FLAC files, MP3s and everything in between.
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