Best Noise Cancelling Headphones of 2020
Best Noise Cancelling Headphones
If you're looking for the best possible noise cancellation on the market, we can't recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4 enough. In our testing these headphones immersed us in a near perfect cone of silence, with only noises that were substantially louder than normal conversational tones ever interrupting our music listening experience. On top of supreme noise cancellation, these headphones produce excellent sound quality, expressing subtleties and nuances in everything from bass-heavy hip-hop to acoustic arrangements. Sony also paid extra attention to the user experience, including a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you take the headphones off, and adding the ability to pair with two Bluetooth devices simultaneously. The latter allows for seamless switching between listening to music on your laptop and accepting a call on your phone.
The obvious drawback of the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the price. However, its price is right in line with those of other premium noise-cancelling models, so while it is expensive it is not outrageously so. Additionally, the earcups are slightly smaller than those of the competing Bose models, so those with particularly large ears may prefer to go that route. Overall we think the vast majority of people shopping for high-quality noise cancelling headphones will be best served by the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Read review: Sony WH-1000XM4
Most Comfortable Noise Cancelling Headphones
Bose Noise Cancelling 700
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 just missed out on superlative marks in both our noise cancelling and sound quality tests. Where it did earn superlative marks was in our comfort testing, mostly thanks to large, ergonomic earcups coupled with deep, cushy padding. Therefore, if you're looking for a premium listening experience that offers correspondingly premium comfort, we highly recommend the Bose Noise Cancelling 700.
The clear downside of these headphones is the price — they often cost a bit more than the models that sound and block noise slightly better. However, if you want high-quality noise cancellation and sound, and have larger ears or have had trouble finding comfortable headphones in general, we think the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is well worth the price.
Read review: Bose Noise Cancelling 700
Best Noise Cancelling Earbuds
Amazon Echo Buds
The Amazon Echo Buds offer "active noise reduction" rather than actual cancellation. Despite this modest marketing, the combination of the tight seal offered by these buds along with the noise reduction technology was better at blocking noise than the vast majority of earbuds we've tested. While it can't compare with the noise isolation provided by over-ear models, in our testing, this noise reduction consistently allowed us to enjoy music in noisy environments without cranking the volume to ear-splitting levels — an issue we've run into with many earbuds. Back that up with impressive bass quality, an automated fit test to help you select the right size earpieces, and a reasonably low price, and you've got a winner.
While many people will be able to find a good fit with one of the earpieces that come with these buds, a not insignificant number of our testers failed to find a fit that was secure enough for running or working out. If you're specifically looking for noise cancelling buds to block out the noise in your next gym session, it would be a good idea to order from a retailer with a generous return policy, just in case.
Read review: Amazon Echo Buds
Best Bang for the Buck
Soundcore Life Q20
The Soundcore Life Q20 is one of the best values on the market today. In our testing, both its active noise cancellation and sound quality proved to be as good as many models that cost two or three times more. Plus, the large ear cups and fluffy padding allow for comfortable all-day use, a rarity in this price range.
The noise cancellation in the Soundcore Life Q20 isn't as effective as some of the higher-priced models. Voices, in particular, are more noticeable, and played vocals and guitar don't sound quite as clear. These headphones still manage to get you about 70% of the way there on both accounts for 20% of the cost. If you're looking for a great value, these headphones are hard to beat. Just make sure to buy from a retailer that offers returns, just in case the headband ends up being too large for your head.
Read review: Soundcore Life Q20
Best On-Ear Model
Beats Solo Pro
We never thought we'd meet a pair of on-ear noise cancelling headphones that could go toe-to-toe with their over-ear siblings, until we tried the Beats Solo Pro. Despite not covering the entire ear, these headphones manage to create an effective acoustic seal, and the active noise cancellation does a good job of mopping up most of the soundwaves that leak through. They also provide excellent, bass-forward sound and simple controls.
Besides the high price tag, the only downside to the Solo Pro is the fit. The tight seal that allows the noise cancellation to work so well is only possible because the headband exerts a considerable amount of clamping force against the ears. That force generally isn't uncomfortable for short periods, but it can get quite annoying after an hour or two. However, these can still excel for shorter bus or subway commutes, just don't expect to be comfortable wearing them all day once you get to the office.
Read review: Beats Solo Pro
Why You Should Trust Us
Senior Research analyst Michelle Powell and Senior Editor Max Mutter have tested more than 130 personal audio products in the last four years, all using the same repeatable hands-on testing process. We honed this process with the help of Palmer Taylor, a professional audio recordist who has completed projects for the likes of Apple, National Geographic, and ESPN.
This review represents over 150 hours of active testing, during which we listened to each pair of headphones side-by-side with varying genres of music. We also subjectively evaluated their noise cancelling abilities in various noisy real-world environments, and more objectively assessed those attributes next to controlled noise sources. Finally, we recruited a multitude of testers to help us evaluate each model's comfort.
Related: How We Tested Headphones
Analysis and Test Results
To find the best noise cancelling headphones, we tested each pair across five different performance metrics, the most significant of which is noise cancellation. We based our ratings for this metric on several different controlled and real-world tests. We also assessed sound quality, the second-most heavily weighted metric, via multiple side-by-side listening tests. In quantifying the final of our primary metrics, comfort, we garnered opinions from more than a dozen testers that wore each model for several hours. We assigned slightly less weight to portability and ease of use. Although these attributes can be quite significant in certain situations, they're generally less noticeable in day-to-day use than noise isolation, sound quality, and comfort.
Luckily, you don't have to break the bank to get effective noise cancellation. The impressively inexpensive Soundcore Life Q20 offers enough noise cancellation for most situations while also providing all-day comfort. If you're in the market for earbuds, the Amazon Echo Buds manage to integrate active noise reduction into an actual wireless form factor for a far lower price than most competitors. After these budget options, prices make a much more significant leap than the noise cancelling abilities do. If you're willing to pay a premium for the best, however, the flagship models from Sony and Bose provide noticeably better noise cancellation.
Active noise cancellation can improve your focus and productivity when noisy distractions abound, or enhance sound quality when you're hoping to relax in a hectic environment. Our testing started by wearing each pair of headphones with the noise cancellation turned fully on and no music playing, while sitting right next to a fan emitting a consistent 70-decibel hum. These sorts of predictable noises should be the easiest to cancel out, and thus provide a baseline assessment of each model's performance. We then took each model out into the real world to grade their performances different common situations. We tried their noise cancellation features with and without music playing while working from home with the TV playing in the background, in airports, cafes, and a crowded open office.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 led the field in our noise cancellation testing, with the noise cancellation often being so effective some testers described the experience as, "Otherworldly." In more terrestrial terms this meant that people talking directly next to us were rendered completely unnoticeable when we flipped the noise cancellation on, even if we weren't playing any music through the headphones at the time. Consequently noisy offices, crowded train stations, and overly distracting home offices were no match for these headphones in our testing. Additionally, they offer "optimization" technology that can adjust the noise cancelling based on your current altitude (think better performance when used in planes) and whether or not you're wearing glasses. We found this feature to offer a small but noticeable bump in noise cancelling performance in both situations, and it seemed to reduce the feeling of pressure in the ears that can often come with active noise cancellation. (Editors' note: we were not able to test these headphones on a plane, but did take them into the mountains and use them at over 6000', very close to the effective altitude of 8000' you would experience on a commercial flight).
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 took a very close second to the Sony WH-1000XM4 in our noise cancellation tests. It also was able to virtually eliminate conversational tones and managed to almost erase the din of crowded train stations, but we felt loud noises started to become somewhat noticeable with these headphones just a bit before they were perceptible when wearing the Sony WH-1000XM4
A number of the over-ear models in our lineup provide reasonable but not exceptional noise cancellation. In general, these models offer a reliable barrier against outside noise when using both ANC (active noise cancellation) and playing music. However, they may struggle a bit in more challenging circumstances, such as when using the ANC without music playing, or when the ambient noise gets especially loud. In general, these headphones offer plenty of noise cancelling firepower for most work-at-home environments, long flights, and crowded cafes. Some of the models that fit into this group are all of Bose's non-flagship offerings, the JBL Live 650BTNC, the Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC, the Sony XB950N1 Extra Bass, and the Beats by Dre models.
For those shopping on a budget, the Soundcore Life Q20 nearly matches the noise cancelling capabilities of the models mentioned above, at a mere fraction of the price. The most significant difference you're likely to notice if you opt for this budget pair is that normal voices can easily penetrate its noise cancelling technology. However, even voices and sounds that make it to your ears are generally much quieter and can easily be drowned out with some music played at a reasonable volume.
Of the noise cancelling earbuds we've tested, the Amazon Echo Buds are our favorite. Although they only have "active noise reduction" capabilities, the technology, combined with a good fit and seal, to be quite effective at blocking out ambient noises. Whether working out at home or in a loud gym, we were able to enjoy our music without having to blare the volume in order to drown outside noise. While no pair of earbuds can match the noise blocking abilities of over-ear headphones, these buds are quite useful in cancelling the ambient sounds of public transportation.
For those looking at noise cancelling headphones to concentrate better, sound quality is of secondary importance. If you want noise cancelling headphones to provide you with the best possible listening environment for enjoying your music, even if the outside world is noisy, then sound quality is just as important as noise cancellation. We tested sound quality by listening to a variety of music with each pair of headphones, one right after another, to get direct comparisons. We focused our attention on the clarity of the bass, mid, and treble ranges, whether they were highlighted or faded into the background, and the sound's overall fullness. To assess these headphones in the ways they are likely to be used, we assessed sound quality in both quiet rooms and out in the world with lots of ambient noise.
Great noise cancellation almost always makes music sound better, so it's no surprise that there is a lot of overlap between the top performers in this and our noise cancelling categories. The Sony WH-1000XM4 again took the cake here, provident us with incredibly clear and dulcet tones throughout all frequencies. Whether a song was bass-heavy, acoustic, or vocal centric, everything received clear and nuanced expression. If you're a bassophile you may want to bump the bass up on the EQ, but overall we think these headphones display the most audio prowess.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 also sound fantastic, leaning into the warmer, bass-forward sound that the company favors. If that's your preference then you'll likely enjoy how these headphones sound just as much as the Sony WH-1000XM4. However, if you like things on the brighter side, we think the Sony's are just a bit more capable at adjusting the EQ in that direction.
Although a few different models fell just behind the top scorers in our sound quality testing, all had their particular strengths. The Beyerdynamic Lagoon ANC, for example, has a bit less bass power than the top models but offers exceptional clarity in the mid and treble ranges. These characteristics are excellent for those who like the guitars and vocals to come to the forefront and don't mind losing some of the over-the-top basses. The Jabra Elite 85H and the Beats Solo Pro both don't' have as much clarity in the higher ranges but provide consistent articulation throughout, resulting in an overall full and encompassing sound.
A few lower-priced over-ear options stood out in our sound quality testing, namely the Anker Soundcore Life Q20. These headphones put a lot of eggs in the bass basket, bringing the low end to the forefront with deep and precise bass notes. Instruments and vocals in the mid and treble ranges lose a bit of brightness but combine with the bass well enough to create an overall full-bodied sound. The JBL Live 650BTNC provides a similarly bass-forward sound, but with slightly better clarity in the higher ranges. It costs quite a lot more than the Anker Soundcore Life Q20, but still much less than the premium models.
When it comes to in-ear noise cancelling headphones, the Amazon Echo Buds and the Apple AirPods Pro are neck and neck in terms of sound quality. The Amazon Echo Buds have a bit more bass power, but the Apple AirPods Pro presents an overall crisper and tighter arrangement. While neither can compete with the sound quality of even the lower-tier over-ear models, both sound good enough for enjoying music while working out, taking a walk, or traveling.
One model we were somewhat disappointed with is the Sony WF-1000XM3. We had high hopes for the sound quality of these truly wireless earbuds, but noticed a persistent fuzziness that caused the music to sound less than stellar. It didn't sound bad necessarily, but we certainly didn't have the delightful listening experience that its high price point might suggest.
Noise Cancelling headphones are often worn to enhance focus and decrease distractions while working, which usually means they're worn for several hours at a time, making comfort very important. We tested comfort by having multiple different testers wear each pair of headphones for at least a full day while recording any annoyances they noticed during that time. These testers run the gamut in terms of head and ear sizes, so no matter your cranial constitution, their findings should help you identify a pair that will provide all-day comfort.
When it comes to over-ear headphones, our testing team discovered that comfort is determined mainly by the user's ear size. A headphone's ear cups and padding either provide enough room for your ears to sit comfortably without any squishing or rubbing. Or they don't. Thus if you have smaller ears, you'll likely find most over-ear models to be comfortable, but if you have larger ears, you will need to be sure to get a larger pair.
For those of us with larger ears, all of the models offered by Bose will be quite accommodating thanks to their large earcups and particularly plush padding. The Sony WH-1000XM4 and the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 also fall into this category, though the latter's headband is so large that it may not be able to adjust small enough to accommodate smaller heads.
The fit of earbud-style headphones is a more personal matter, with the amount and quality of the different earpieces available being the best indicator of whether or not you'll be able to find a comfortable fit. Luckily, all of the leading models of noise cancelling earbuds offer a wide range of earpieces in appropriate sizes (including the Apple AirPods Pro, Amazon Echo Buds, and Sony WF-1000XM3).
While the primary use of most headphones is quite intuitive, accomplishing things like skipping tracks, adjusting noise cancellation levels, or engaging features like ambient noise pass-through can be tricky on some models. We tested user-friendliness by having a string of testers accomplish a series of tasks with each pair, keeping note of any difficulties.
Our favorite over-ear model in this category is the Bose Noise Cancelling 700. These headphones employ touch-sensitive controls on the right earcup for play/pause, adjusting volume, and skipping tracks. While other models offer similar controls, the Bose Noise Cancelling 700's are by far the best thanks to intuitive and reliable gestures. It is also easy to pair with the associated app to unlock control over more specific settings.
For Apple users, the Beats Solo Pro is quite easy to use because it harbors an H1 chip, allowing it to nestle into your personal Apple ecosystem instantly.
Of the earbuds in our lineup, the Apple AirPods Pro proved to be the most user friendly, due primarily to their protruding white tips that allow access to the controls via a pinching gesture. This feature generally skirts the problem of many true wireless earbuds' controls — that you can't avoid pushing the bud further into your ear or possibly dislodging it when pressing the control buttons. The same white tips, however, remain controversial from a fashion standpoint.
Noisy environments are usually encountered outside of the house, making packable noise cancelling headphones more useful because they can easily be brought along on your commute or while traveling. To test this, we measured how small each can fold up, weighed them on a digital, and assessed the durability of any included carrying cases. We also brought each model along while travelling, commuting, and going on general adventures, noting how easy it was to pack them into our bags or whether they felt cumbersome to tote along.
Unsurprisingly, the small earbud models are the most portable overall. The Apple AirPods Pro, the Amazon Echo Buds, and the Sony WF-1000XM3 all pack into small charging cases that can fit into a pocket. Of the three, the Apple AirPods Pro is the smallest.
When it comes to over-ear models, portability is dictated mainly by the quality of the included case, as there isn't much difference between their folded up sizes. Bose provides high-quality protective cases with all of its models. Sony does the same for its flagship models, but lower-tier items generally just come with a drawstring pouch.
Noise cancelling headphones can be an integral part of any home office setup. They can also make airline travel and public transportation commutes less hectic, and improve musical enjoyment wherever you are. However you plan to utilize the auditory sanctuary supplied by active noise cancelling technology, we hope that our mixture of controlled and real-world testing has helped you find the best pair of headphones or earbuds for your needs.
— Max Mutter and Michelle Powell