A lot of headphones come with active noise cancelling (or cancellation) but with transparency modes, hybrid ANC and other complex terms buying a pair can be difficult – especially when it appears that you can either spend under £50 or over £500. Our chart and buying guide will help you choose the right pair.
Headphones come in all manner of shapes, sizes and types and although noise cancelling used to be fairly rare, it’s now widely available with lots of choices. While many fetch a high price, there are some cheaper options too.
Bose and Sony are well-known for the tech but there are various alternatives out there. We also have round-ups for overall best headphones, true wireless earbuds and cheap headphones if you’re looking for something else. Scroll to beyond the list for our advice on noise-cancelling headphones.
Best noise cancelling headphones 2021
Sony WH-1000XM4 – Best Overall
Class leading ANC
Light and comfortable
Sonically same as XM3
No Bluetooth aptX
They might look nearly identical to the previous version, and have the same sound quality too, but Sony has still taken its flagship headphones to a new level.
Somehow, the already class-leading noise cancelling is even better. So much so that they are a bit eery at times.
The firm has added a range of unique AI smart technology that will come in very useful. This includes Adaptive Sound Control, DSEE Extreme and the slightly odd Speak to Chat.
There’s almost nothing to dislike here apart from, perhaps, that the WH-1000XM3 are still excellent and are available for a lot less.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM4 review
Sony WF-1000XM4 – Best Wireless Earbuds
Class leading ANC
More expensive than some
Bulky for small ears
If you want noise cancelling earbuds then Sony has nailed the formula, as long as you can afford them and don’t mind them being a little bigger than some rivals.
Otherwise, there’s nothing to dislike here with the best ANC we’ve tested on any pair of earbuds so far along with the top-notch sound quality you’d expect from a flagship Sony product.
There’s also strong battery life and the earbuds come with the same smart features as the over-ear model such as Adaptive Sound Control and Speak to Chat.
Read our full Sony WF-1000XM4 review
Bose QC 35 II – Best Comfort
Decent battery life
Overdue a refresh
These 2nd-gen headphones from Bose are almost perfect and are easily among the most comfortable we’ve ever tested making them a great choice for long commutes and flights.
Noise cancelling is great including three levels to choose from, sound quality is crisp and clean with even the option to use the cans wired if you like. Battery life is a little off Sony at 20 hours (wireless) and the QC35 II use the older micro-USB port.
They include NFC for easy set up and a digital active EQ so you can adjust the sound.
Note that the Bose QC45 headphones have now been announced.
Read our full Bose QC35 II review
Razer Opus – Best for THX Certification
Only one main ANC mode
A bit too quiet for some
The Opus represents a new direction for Razer, a company solely focused on gaming peripherals up until this point, and the company has done very well indeed.
While some ANC headphones in our chart come with an expensive price tag, the Razer Opus offer impressive noise cancelling technology at an affordable price – albeit simply on or off.
Combine that with the stylish monochromatic finish, complete with silver detailing, and handy features like auto-pause tech and THX certification and you’ve got a phenomenal pair of cans that can handle music, TV, film and more.
They’re also super comfortable.
Read our full Razer Opus review
NuraLoop – Best Custom Sound
Superb personalised sound
Proprietary eartips and adapter
No digital assistant support
NuraLoop manages to condense the custom tuning audio wizardry found in the company’s first product and deliver an in-ear alternative that’s hard to beat in terms of sound quality.
They’re also very comfortable, have decent noise cancellation and long battery life to boot.
Better yet, they undercut Apple’s AirPods Pro while delivering a better audio experience overall. Just be aware that it lacks virtual assistant support and relies on some proprietary components that might cost a little extra to replace.
If you prefer true wireless earbuds you can go for the NuraTrue.
Read our full NuraLoop review
Bose QC Earbus – Best ANC control on earbuds
Middling battery life
The QuietComfort Earbuds can’t match Sony on price or battery life, but they are still brilliant wireless earbuds with top-notch ANC.
They are bulkier and dated in style, but lightweight and secure. The main reason to buy these is the amount of control you get over the noise cancelling.
In the app, you can choose 11 different levels and set three favourites which can be cycled through via the touch control on the left earbud. Great if you want to customise ANC for different situations like exercise, working and commuting.
Read our full Bose QC Earbuds review
Apple AirPods Pro – Best for iPhone
Sub-par battery life
Better sound quality elsewhere
Noise cancelling is one of the main new features of the AirPods Pro and these wireless earbuds do a great job of cutting out the likes of traffic, trains and appliances. They’re not so good at higher frequencies such as kids screaming but that’s tough for any in-ear headphones.
You can’t adjust the strength of the noise cancelling manually but the automatic adjustment works well. There’s also a transparacy mode you can toggle with a squeeze of the stem which allows you to pipe in some sound from the outside world to have a converstation or listen out for dangers. It’s one of the best we’ve tested.
These are great wireless earbuds with noise cancelling if you can afford them.
Read our full AirPods Pro review
Anker Soundcore Life A2 NC – Best Budget Earbuds
Hybrid Active Noise Cancellation
Great battery life
No auto-pause tech
Case feels a little cheap
No auto-switching of ANC profiles
If you don’t have much to spend on noise cancelling earbuds then look no further than this pair from Anker. They’re already available for a lot less than the RRP.
Hybrid ANC does a great job of keep noise out, with three different modes available as well as a transparency option, too. Far more than you would expect for a pair this cheap and they also offer great bass and battery performance.
The price does mean you’re missing out on some features though, like auto-pause and the build quality is understandably on the basic side.
Read our full Anker Soundcore Life A2 NC review
Apple AirPods Max – Luxury for iPhone users
Incredible sound quality
Limited Android support
No power button
An ill-designed Smart Case
No Lossless support
They are expensive, but the AirPods Max are a great option for those wanting luxurious over-ear headphones – although you’ll probably want to look elsewhere if you have an Android phone.
Apple offers amazing sound quality here along with stunning build quality and brilliant noise cancelling. There are also various handy smart features making them a great pair of headphones.
It’s odd there’s no power button but early battery life issues have been fixed. You just might want to get a third-party case to avoid Apple’s ridiculous Smart Case.
Read our full Apple AirPods Max review
Sennheiser HD450BT – Best Value Overear
Great audio range
Mic muffles if worn reversed
The Sennheiser HD 450BT offer a rich sound. The accompanying app allows you to equalize the bass and trebles so you can get the sound that’s just right – whether you prefer bass heavy tones or clear mids and trebles for vocals and podcasts.
They might not technically be budget, but they are one of the cheapest pairs of noise cancelling headphones we’ve tested and are around half the price of many rivals. The ANC is pretty decent, too.
The headband and ear pads don’t clasp onto your head so you can expect a comfortable fit – useful if you want to wear them for a few hours at a time. The combination of features make them a particularly good choice for students.
Read our full Sennheiser HD 450BT review
What do noise cancelling headphones do?
Noise cancelling shouldn’t be confused with noise isolation. The latter is simply the way of putting some headphones on – no matter the type – creates a physical barrier and blocks out some of the sounds around you.
Using earplugs to sleep is an example of noise isolation. You may see it described as ‘passive noise cancelling’ on headphones.
In contrast, noise cancelling headphones are doing something more than just physical. They are digitally playing sound into your ears – other than the music or audiobook you’re listening to – to negate the sound around you.
This is called ‘active noise cancelling’ (often shortened to ANC) and is what you need to look out for when buying proper noise cancelling headphones.
The headphones listen to the world around you with microphones and play an inverted waveform of whatever they hear. So if the ambient sound is a number, say 5, the headphones play -5 to you equalling 0.
This is all done and processed in real-time so you get the effect of not hearing the things around you.
Find out how we test audio.
In practice, you’ll never fully get 0 and some headphones offer better noise cancelling than others. Regardless, it makes listening to audio or speech a lot easier as you don’t need to pump the volume to counteract the sound around you.
These days many noise cancelling headphones are more advanced than simply switching the feature on or off. Some will allow you to control how much noise cancelling there is so you can adjust it depending on where you are. This helps with battery life as you can save power when somewhere less demanding like an office.
Some also have modes that help you hear announcements so you don’t miss something important like a call to gate at the airport or have a conversation with someone without removing your headphones. This feature goes by many names such as ‘aware’ and ‘social’ mode.
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