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To find the best noise-cancelling headphones, we bought 11 of the best pairs on the market and used them to block out the sound of TVs and housemates while working from home. We took them to noisy airports, cafes, and bus stations and wore them all day in our open offices to compare their sound quality and noise-cancelling capabilities side-by-side. As more people work from home with noisy children, offices become more open, and air travel gets increasingly painful; having a way to block out the din and create a cone of silence for peace and concentration has become more vital than ever. We've spent over a hundred hours testing these headphones using experience gained from evaluating more than 60 pairs of headphones in the last four years, all to find the best pair for you, no matter your budget.
If you want the best noise cancellation the market has to offer, we can't recommend the Sony WH-1000XM4 enough. These headphones immersed us in a near-perfect cone of silence — sounds had to be substantially louder than normal conversation tones to interrupt our listening experience. In addition to excellent noise cancellation, these headphones produce premium sound quality, expressing subtleties and nuances in everything from bass-heavy hip-hop to acoustic arrangements. Sony includes details that improve the user experience, like a sensor that automatically pauses your music when you remove the headphones and the ability to pair with two Bluetooth devices simultaneously. The latter allows you to switch seamlessly between listening to music on your laptop and accepting a call on your phone.
Our biggest gripe with the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the price. However, their price tag aligns with other premium noise-cancelling models. Also, the earcups on these are smaller than on some of the competitors, and we'd suggest those with particularly large ears check out the Bose models. Overall, though, we think the Sony WH-1000XM4 will best serve the vast majority of people shopping for high-quality noise-cancelling headphones.
The Bose Noise Cancelling 700just missed out on superlative marks in both our noise-cancelling and sound quality tests. Where it did earn top marks was in our comfort testing, primarily thanks to large, ergonomic ear cups that boast deep, cushy padding. If you're seeking a premium listening experience that offers correspondingly premium comfort, we highly recommend the Bose Noise Cancelling 700.
The one 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, supreme sound, and you have large ears (or just have trouble finding comfortable headphones in general), we think the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 is well worth the cost.
Though the original iteration of the Amazon Echo Buds offered Active Noise Reduction, the updated 2nd gen version now boasts full-blown Active Noise Cancellation. Coupled with the buds' tight seal, they block noise better than the vast majority of earbuds we've tested. Though not comparable with the noise isolation provided by over-ear headphones, we still found in our testing that we could consistently 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 earpieces, and a reasonably low price tag, and you've got a winner.
Speaking of earpieces, the earpiece options (four earpieces and two ear fins) increase the likelihood you'll find a good fit, although it doesn't guarantee they'll stay in place. Some testers couldn't achieve a secure fit during runs and workouts. If you need noise-cancelling earbuds to block out all the grunts and lousy music at your gym, you may want to purchase an option that comes with a generous return policy, just in case the fit doesn't work for you.
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 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.
On the downside, the noise cancellation in the Soundcore Life Q20 isn't as effective as some higher-priced models. Voices, in particular, are more noticeable, and 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 around 20% of the cost. If you're looking for great value, these headphones are hard to beat. Just make sure to purchase from a retailer that offers returns, just in case the headband ends up being too large for your head.
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.
Our testing of noise cancelling headphones is divided across five rating metrics:
Noise Cancelling tests (35% of overall score weighting)
Sound Quality tests (25% weighting)
Comfort tests (20% weighting)
Ease of Use tests (10% weighting)
Portability tests (10% weighting)
This review represents over 150 hours of active testing, during which we listened to multiple genres of music side-by-side on each pair of headphones. The most critical metric in this category is noise-cancelling ability. To test this, we perform four different in-lab tests and supplement with subjective evaluation of noise-cancelling abilities in various noisy real-world environments. We divide sound quality into three sub-metrics, rating clarity, bass, and fullness, all of which are then combined for an overall evaluation. Finally, we recruited a multitude of testers to help us evaluate each model's comfort and ease of use. We measure ease of use based on user interface and take quantitative measurements such as weight and size to gauge portability.
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 controlled and real-world tests. We garnered opinions from more than a dozen testers that wore each model for several hours.
Thankfully, 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 still providing all-day comfort. If you're in the market for earbuds, the Amazon Echo Buds manage to integrate active noise cancellation 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. But, if you're willing to pay a premium for the best, the flagship models from Sony and Bose provide noticeably better noise cancellation.
Active noise cancellation can improve your focus and productivity when plagued by noisy distractions. It can also enhance sound quality when you're hoping to relax in a hectic environment. You found your way here, so noise cancellation is likely your top priority, and we give this metric a 35% weighting in the overall score.
Without music playing, we turned the noise cancellation fully on and wore each pair of headphones while sitting right next to a fan emitting a consistent 70-decibel hum. Predictable noises like these 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 across different everyday noisy 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 — it was often so effective that some testers described the experience as "otherworldly." In more terrestrial terms, this meant that people talking directly next to us were rendered completely silent 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 bus terminals, 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 for both situations. It seemed to reduce the feeling of pressure in the ears that can often come with active noise cancellation. (Editor's note: we were unable 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).
In our noise cancellation tests, the Bose Noise Cancelling 700 took a very close second to the Sony WH-1000XM4. It also was able to virtually eliminate conversational tones and managed almost to 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
For those shopping for something a bit more affordable, the Soundcore Life Q20 costs a fraction of the premium models mentioned above and nearly matches their noise-cancelling capabilities. The most noticeable difference in this budget model is that its noise-cancelling technology can be penetrated fairly easily by normal voices. Whatever voices or sounds make it past the noise cancellation are generally much quieter and can easily be drowned out with some music played at a reasonable volume.
Of the earbuds we've tested with noise-cancelling technology, the Amazon Echo Buds are our favorite. Combined with the excellent fit and seal, the technology in these earbuds is quite effective at blocking out ambient noises. When working out at home or in a loud gym, we could enjoy our music without having to blare the volume to drown outside noise. While we haven't found a pair of earbuds that can match the noise-blocking abilities of the over-ear models, the Amazon Echo buds are quite valuable for cancelling the ambient sounds of public transportation.
Sound quality is of secondary importance for those looking at noise-cancelling headphones to concentrate better. But 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 weigh this metric at 25% of the overall score to strike a balance and give proper representation.
We tested sound quality by listening to a variety of music genres with each pair of headphones, one right after another, to get direct comparisons. We focused 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 get a complete picture of how these headphones function when used in various situations, we assess sound quality in quiet rooms and outside in the world with lots of ambient noise.
Excellent 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 metric. The Sony WH-1000XM4 again took the cake here, providing incredibly clear and dulcet tones throughout all frequencies. Everything received clear and nuanced expression, whether a song was bass-heavy, acoustic, or vocal-centric. If you're a basophile, 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 brighter sounding, the Sonys are a bit more capable of 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. For example, some products have less bass power but offer exceptional clarity in the mid and treble ranges. These characteristics are excellent for anyone who likes guitars and vocals to come to the forefront and doesn't mind losing some of the over-the-top basses.
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 one model we found somewhat disappointing was the Sony WF-1000XM3. We anticipated these wireless earbuds would have good sound quality going into testing. However, we encountered a consistent fuzziness that diminished the music's sound. It didn't sound completely terrible, but it was a distraction that we didn't expect, given the high price.
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 give it a 20% weight in the overall score for these reasons. 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. If you have smaller ears, you'll likely find most over-ear models to be comfortable, but if your ears are bigger, you will need 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 exceptionally 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.
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, taking note of any difficulties. We give this metric a 10% weighting in the overall score.
Our favorite over-ear model in this category is the Jabra Elite 85h. The button controls are hidden on the outside of the earcup and give a satisfying click with each press, so you don't have to wonder if a touchpad is tracking your gestures. Music automatically pauses when you move them off your ear, even just a little, which is super handy for having quick conversations. The Bose Noise Cancelling 700 are another easy-to-use option. 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 specific settings.
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.
Portability has a 10% weighting in the overall score. We feel it is not the most important, but still influences our preferred products. Noisy environments are usually encountered outside 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 scale, and assessed the durability of any included carrying cases. We also brought each model along while traveling, commuting, and going on general adventures, noting whether they felt portable or 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 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 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 incredibly useful across many scenarios, from public transit commutes and airline travel to your home office setup, improving your musical enjoyment or allowing you to focus all your attention on an important meeting. 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.
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GearLab is founded on the principle of honest, objective, reviews. Our experts test thousands of products each year using thoughtful test plans that bring out key performance differences between competing products. And, to assure complete independence, we buy all the products we test ourselves. No cherry-picked units sent by manufacturers. No sponsored content. No ads. Just real, honest, side-by-side testing and comparison.