Active noise-canceling headphones are some of the most popular on the market, and for good reason: using special built-in microphones, they can electronically generate opposing sound waves — called antiphases — that cancel out ambient sounds. The result is that you just hear the music, not your apartment's TV, your colleagues' lunch conversation or the dull buzz of an airplane.
You can buy noise-canceling headphones in a wireless earbud design, but over-ear designs do a better job at passively blocking out noise. The combination of great active and passive noise-cancellation, plus the fact that over-ear headphones are able to have bigger and more powerful drivers, make over-ear headphones the best type of active noise-canceling headphones bar none.
And there are a ton to choose from. Bose and Sony have been the industry leaders for numerous years, and each makes a few different models of noise-canceling headphones. Then there's the fact that seemingly every other audio company — including Apple now — has its own take on the perfect noise-canceling headphones.
Most of the best noise-canceling headphones hover somewhere near the $300 or above; if you don’t want to spend as much you can find older, wired models of the Bose QC25 or Sony 1000XM that are both excellent and significantly more affordable. You can snag an even better deal with manufacturer-refurbished models on eBay, Amazon or the company’s own website; you can get a really good deal and all of those reliable websites have fairly lenient return policies in case the headphones don’t meet your expectations.
Released in August 2020, the WH-1000XM4 improve on the Sony's already excellent WH-1000XM3 headphones. They have improved noise-cancellation; specifically, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are just as good at blocking out lower frequencies like from a vehicle (car, train, plane), but significantly better at blocking out the human voice. They have an improved microphone array to better the phone call experience. Maybe most importantly, they allow you to pair to two devices at one so you don't have to toggle with Bluetooth settings. Sony also tweaked the design (although it is hardly noticeable), by making the ear pads 10-percent bigger and slightly reshaping the headband. In terms of sound quality and active noise-cancellation, these slightly edge out Bose's Headphones 700.
Apple AirPods Max
Apple's first pair of over-ear headphones are also very luxurious. Their earcups are made entirely of stainless steel – no plastic — so feel and look very nice, although they are heavier than most other alternatives. The sound quality and noise-canceling ability of the AirPods Max are both excellent, easily making the them some of the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy. The kicker is that because they are baked with Apple's H1 chip, so they have all the same features as AirPods Pro, such as a transparency mode, support for spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, and easy iPhone pairing. If you have an iPhone and can stomach the high price tag, you can't go wrong with the AirPods Max.
Sennheiser HD 450BT
Released in February 2020, the HD 450BT are Sennheiser’s first real pair of budget noise-canceling headphones. They’re exactly half as expensive as the Sennheiser's flagship Momentum Wireless 3 and deliver many of the same sound qualities and features. There are some definite tradeoffs, most prominently in their feel and build quality. You can buy decent noise-canceling headphones for even cheaper, but none have the sound quality and noise-canceling skills of the Sennheiser HD 450BT.
Bose Headphones 700
Released in June 2019, the Headphones 700 are the company’s latest flagship noise-canceling headphones. They have a number of modern features that the QuietComfort 35 Series II lack, including a new transparency mode, customizable noise canceling, swipe gestures for playback and USB-C charging. Aside from the completely new design, the biggest upgrade is a six-microphone array that enables the Headphones 700 to be, by far and away, the best noise-canceling headphones for making phone or video calls.
Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II
Released in June 2018, the QuietComfort 35 Series II are very similar to the slightly older Bose QC35 headphones. They sound nearly identical. They offer the same, great noise-canceling ability. And, like their predecessor, they’re the lightest and most comfortable noise-canceling headphones you’ll find. The big difference is that the Series II models have a dedicated button so you can access Google Assistant without taking out your phone. Even though they're a little older, the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are still our pick for best noise-canceling headphones for travelers, thanks to their foldable and lightweight design.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7
Bowers & Wilkins's flagship noise-canceling headphones, the PX7, were released in October 2019. They're an upgraded and redesigned the B&W PX, with a lighter feel thanks to a carbon fiber design. They do deliver some incremental improvements in terms of sound and noise-canceling abilities over the PX, but the advantage of the B&W PX7 headphones remains the same: a neat industrial design and a truly excellent sound.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3
Released in fall 2019, these are Sennheiser’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones are the successor to the Momentum Wireless 2. The new "3" headphones have a similar retro-industrial design, but add a bunch of new modern features like USB-C charging, a transparency mode and a neat Tile integration. There's also support a companion app which allows you to adjust EQ settings as well as the strength of the noise-cancellation. For anybody looking for something that looks and sounds great, and is willing to spend a little extra for style and sound quality, these headphones are great.
Bang & Olufsen Beoplay HX
Released in spring 2021, B&O's newest pair of noise-canceling headphones prioritize two things: luxury and battery life. The Beoplay HX have a mostly aluminum design, with earcups that are made of lambskin and memory foam, and a cushy leather headband. And they have a 35-hour battery life, which is great. They also sound exceptional, with custom 40mm drivers and support for high-resolution audio (Qualcomm's aptX Adaptive), and have powerful noise-cancellation. One unique feature is that they support multipoint pairing over Bluetooth, so you can switch seamlessly between your smartphone and computer without having to toggle with settings. If you're looking for a bonafide alternative to Apple's AirPods Max, these are them. (And they are $50 cheaper.)
Released in July 2018, the Sony WH-1000XM3 have now been antiquated by the company's newest flagship headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4. The two headphones look basically identical, and they share similar sound and noise-canceling abilities (although the new WH-1000XM4 slightly win in both categories). They're still undoubtedly some of the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy, but just don't pay full price — you should be able to find a good pair under $300.
Master & Dynamic MW65
Released in April 2019, the MW65 marry the M&D's signature industrial design (anodized aluminum and genuine leather) with active noise-cancellation. They’re beautiful headphones with above average noise-cancellation, and they have a number of modern features: USB-C charging, swipe gestures to control playback and support for a companion app that gives you the ability to adjust EQ settings. At nearly $500, however, the MW65 are considerably more expensive than other flagship noise-canceling headphones. Bottom line: it’s all about whether you like the Master & Dynamic’s signature sound and look; if so, you won’t be disappointed.
Released in spring 2020, the Sony WH-CH710N are the company's new pair of budget noise-canceling headphones. They don't really compare the Sony WH-1000XM4 in terms of sound or build quality, but the WH-CH710N actually have pretty impressive noise-canceling abilities and they have exceptional battery life. For the price, however, which is sometimes under $100, they're actually an incredible deal.