Updated for 2017
Outside noise interferes with the enjoyment of music and movies, whether you’re flying across the Pacific or mowing the lawn. Eliminating these distractions is the reason Bose released the first commercially available active noise-canceling (ANC) headset in 2000. Because this tech makes it so much easier to hear hushed dialogue in movies or the pianissimo finale of a favorite symphony, ANC headphones have become standard items to pack for any serious traveler (especially anyone with a window seat next to the plane’s engine). They’ve also become popular with office workers who want to eliminate the chatter of colleagues and other workplace noise. And what otherwise-boring lawn-mowing session isn’t improved by adding a clear, blasting soundtrack?
Additional Contribution by Tucker Bowe
PSB M4U 2
PSB Speakers has been making quality audiophile products since 1972, and its first pair of noise-canceling headphones is no exception. Designed by the Toronto-based company’s founder, Paul Barton, the M4U 2 offers punchy yet defined bass, balanced mid-range and soaring upper ranges, as well as excellent separation between instruments. Interchangeable inputs on either earpiece allow users to plug in the audio cable on the right or left side, depending on what’s most convenient.
Bose QuietComfort 35
The newly released QC35 around-ear headphones are the next generation of Bose’s lauded QC25s and, according to Bose, they offer the best noise-cancellation ability of any wired or wireless headphone. Their dual-mic system rejects ambient sounds, so communicating on the phone, or with Siri, is more accurate. They have a long battery life (up to 20 hours), and feature simple controls (on/off, music playback, volume control, answer calls) on the right ear cup. They come in black and silver models.
Definitive Technology Symphony 1
The Definitive Technology Symphony 1 is a high-end pair of wireless ANC headphones. They boast luxuriously plush earcups and a lightweight aluminum frame, so they’re far from uncomfortable. And as far as sound quality, their 50mm drivers have no problem handling deep bass and high frequencies. The ANC on these Symphony 1’s also works well, and their rechargeable battery lasts up to 15 hours — even when ANC is turned on.
How ANC Works
Not to be confused with passive noise canceling, which literally blocks out sound with enclosure-optimized earbuds and earcups, active noise canceling fights ambient noise with sound waves. Noise-canceling headphones use built-in microphones to pick up outside noise like plane engines and street traffic, then electronically generate identical sound waves that are 180 degrees out of phase, which is what “cancels” out the sound. The result sometimes feels like a bit of air pressure on your ears, but it actually reduces overall sound, which is not only easier on your ears, but also on your brain, since you won’t be processing and trying to eliminate all this noise distraction on your own.
Plantronics BackBeat PRO+
The Plantronics BackBeat PRO+ offers defined bass and lucid mid and high ranges, and has a USB Bluetooth adapter for even easier pairing than its predecessor, the Backbeat PRO. The headset works with or without ANC. A nice touch: The music pauses automatically when you so much as lift one of the earpieces off your ear, and, of course, when you take them off. The wireless range is an impressive 330 feet, and the rechargeable battery will last for up to 24 hours of continuous streaming battery life. The one con: they’re quite large. So you’ll have to stuff them into a larger compartment on your carry-on.
AKG N60 NC
These are great travel headphones. Lightweight, at only 150 grams, with a frame that folds down completely, they easily fit into your backpack, carry-on or even coat pocket. They work both passively or with the ANC switched on, and switching between songs is easy and simple with their one-button remote. Their noise-cancellation function doesn’t fall short either.
Samsung Level Over
If you have big ears, then Samsung’s first noise-canceling headset is for you. With a 50mm speaker on either side, the ear pads are huge, big enough to fit over most ears without actually resting on them. The size has its drawbacks, though: since it doesn’t fold up in any way, the Level Over can be challenging for travelers. Still, for office or home use, they deliver warm expansive sound: the bass is uncompromising and just right, while the noise canceling is excellent both mid-flight and while riding the subway, and it’s all capable of high volumes. Touch-sensitive controls for volume and music are on the outside of the right earbud, which works well enough once you get the hang of the sliding and tapping gestures. Android users can also tweak audio settings using a grid-style equalizer in the Samsung Level Over app.
Polk UltraFocus 8000
Polk Audio’s over-the-ear model offers powerful bass and clear, expansive sound — and a vast range of volume — in everything from movie dialogue and audiobooks to classical and bass-heavy dance music. Its sound quality was bested only by the PSB MSU 2, but the Polk has better noise canceling and a lower price tag. Controls for volume, play and pause, and answering phone calls are on the right side, while a detachable, anti-tangle cable makes it easy to get up from your seat mid-flight without having to disconnect and find the plane’s audio input again. Unfortunately, this cable has a proprietary input, so if anything happens to it you’ll have to order a new one. One other caveat: the audio won’t work unless the power is on. But this may not be a deal-breaker since will last up to 60 hours on its two AAA batteries.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 2.0
Available in two colorways, black and white, this second iteration of Sennheiser’s Momentum Wireless headphone is solid. And despite what its name suggests, the 2.0 works wireless and wired. Its ANC utilizes four microphones and lets in nearly no outside noise, even in bustling environments. It also boasts a 22-hour battery life, even when Bluetooth and ANC is turned on — which is damn impressive. Also, the 2.0’s come with built-in voice prompts, which will alert you when the headphones are shutting down (or turning on) and when the battery is nearly depleted.
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H8
The H8’s are unique. They feature an aluminum touch interface that allows listeners to control everything — from switching songs to turning up the volume and answering calls — by lightly touching around the ear cup. And because it works with gloves, it’s not stifled by cold weather. With its 40mm drivers, the H8’s deliver the premium audio you’d demand in a $500 headphone, and at only 255 grams they barely feel there.
Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphone 10010
Even without active noise canceling on, these budget headphones from direct-to-consumer site Monoprice sound surprisingly good. They offer full and focused bass and clarity in the mid and upper ranges. Sound is less subtle once you turn on the ANC, which can add some bass distortion in dance music. A single AAA battery will power the ANC for up to 50 hours. (And unlike many headphones, these feature a battery compartment in the right earpiece that’s refreshingly easy to access by simply swiveling open the cover.) The included cable has a microphone for phone calls and an iPhone-optimized controller, and the headphones fold up flat into a box that’s too big. Minor drawbacks aside, these headphones offer better sound quality and extras than many competing models that cost twice as much. The bang for the buck is unrivaled.