Editor’s Note: This post has been updated with new picks for 2017.
The market for active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones is saturated with over-ear headphones, like Bose’s Q25’s and the Sony’s MDR-1A’s. It’s not surprising, as these headphones can block out sound both passively (by physically preventing sound from reaching the ear) and actively (using a built-in microphone to electronically create a counter-signal). But they aren’t for everyone. With their weighty (albeit cushioned) design, they can crush ears, making them impossible to wear for long periods.
For those seeking ANC headphones but don’t find over-ears comfortable, there is a growing collection of great in-ear ANC headphones. It’s a decidedly niche market; audio titans like Plantronics and Bowers & Wilkins don’t even make them. Sony makes a pair (the MDR-EX750NA), but they’re not sold in the States. However difficult they are to find, there are great in-ear ANC headphones available for consumers; we’ve rounded up a few of the best, each at a different price point, so that you can listen to whatever you want in peace, and on your own budget.
Bose QuietControl 30
Bose’s QuietControl 30s promise to be the most advanced pair of in-ear ANC headphones ever. Why? They offer controllable noise cancellation, allowing listeners to adjust the amount of ambient sound they hear. It has the same ANC abilities as the QC20s, only these levels can be lowered to hear more of your surroundings. Adjusting this is as simple as changing the volume — just scroll on your device or hit the button on the headphone’s in-line remote — and if the battery dies, or if you shut off the ANC, you can still listen to music.
The ANC23 noise-canceling in-ear headphones aren’t exactly new. They’ve been around since 2012. But as far as bang for your buck, there’s no better pair. The earpieces, which are interchangeable and come in three sizes (small, medium and large), contain miniature microphones that are able to reduce ambient noise by up to 90 percent. They run on a single AAA battery, but if that dies, the headphones still work in a passive mode.
Phiaton BT 220 NC
The BT 220 NCs by Phiaton cancel out 95 percent of outside noise, but that’s just one line item on the stat sheet. They come with Bluetooth 4.0 (featuring aptX as well), so you can leave your smartphone or hi-fi player in your backpack while you travel, and they’re also decked out with NFC (Near Field Communication) technology, so you can simply touch a smartphone to the headphones’ dongle, and boom, you’re connected. And for the final bonus, the headphones can connect to two Bluetooth-enabled devices at the same time.
AKG’s in-ear noise-canceling headphones boast powerful, high-quality audio in a simple and practical design. When active, the bass presence in these K391NCs is as good as any on this list. In addition, the headphones have a one-button remote that can switch tracks and answer calls. They also run on a rechargeable battery that can handle 35 hours of listening time on one charge.
B&O Play H3 ANC Headphones
These headphones run on a single electrodynamic 10.8mm driver that produces clear, well-balanced audio (unlike the overpowering bass in Beats by Dre). They’re powered by a rechargeable lithium ion battery that, when turned on, gives the headphones 20 hours of ANC play time. Also, the earbuds have memory-foam tips, so even when the ANC is off, the H3s are able to passively block out outside sound very well.
Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Canceling Headphones
The ANC on these headphones is superb. Simply switch them on and you’ll have 16 hours of basically no outside noise. The headphones are equipped with Bose’s proprietary StayHear+ ear tips, which, along with being comfortable, help passively block out ambient noise. If you’re willing to match their $300 price tag, these are probably the best in-ear noise-canceling headphones on the market.