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 (October 2018)
- Microsoft recently announced the Surface Headphones, which offer 13 levels of noise cancelling, Cortana and an estimated 15 hours of battery life for $350.
- We recently reviewed the Sony WH-1000xM3 headphones which offer great sound while shutting out all that pesky ambient noise disrupting your commute.
- Samsung just announced that its launched the $349 AKG N700NC headphones, which promise studio quality sound, up to 20 hours of battery life and a premium design.
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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