This definitive guide to the best active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones explores everything you need to know before buying your next pair of over-ear headphones, including how the technology works, debunking common misnomers and the ranking our favorite ANC of 2020 for every type of person.
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Table of Contents
- Best Overall: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Runner Up: Sony WH-1000XM3
- Most Comfortable: Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II
The Short List
Best Overall: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
What are they? The Headphones 700 are the company’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones and they have a host 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 phone calls.
When were they released? June 2019
Who should buy? The Headphones 700 are the best noise-canceling headphones for phone calls – and it’s no contest. If you’re somebody who talks on the phone while wearing headphones and you’re willing to pay the $400 premium, these headphones are wonderful.
Read our full review of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, here.
Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9 ounces
Battery: Up to 20 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Best Overall: Sony WH-1000XM3
What are they? Sony’s newest noise-canceling headphones look similar to their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM2, but they’re better in pretty much every way. They sound better. They have better noise-cancellation – four times better than the 1000XM2. And they can fast charge thanks to USB-C.
When were they released? July 2018.
Who should buy? The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are neck and neck with Bose’s Headphones 700 in terms of noise cancellation. They obviously lack the voice pickup ability of the Bose’s, but they arguably sound better (less flat) and they’re cheaper. Anybody who wants the best but doesn’t want to drop $400 should buy the Sony WH-1000XM3.
Read our full review of the Sony WH-1000XM3, here.
Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9 ounces
Battery: 30 hrs (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Most Comfortable: Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II
What are they? 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 ANC over-ear 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.
When were they released? June 2018
Who should buy? The Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are the best noise-canceling headphones for travelers, thanks to their foldable and lightweight design. They’re also the most comfortable noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested, even when compared to the newer Bose Headphones 700.
Read our full review of the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II, here.
Weight: 10.9 ounces
Battery: 20 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Why Noise-Canceling Headphones Matter
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 favored 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?
At Gear Patrol, we review a lot of active noise-cancellation (ANC) headphones and for good reason. They’re among the most popular types of headphones and they come in over-ear or in-ear models. They block out ambient noise: turn on a pair and you hear almost nothing. It’s serenity at the touch of a button — pretty darn cool, especially if you’re a frequent traveler or work in a noisy office.
For this buying guide, we focused exclusively on wireless and over-ear ANC headphones. All the best and newest models hover somewhere near the $300 price range or above, but 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. Also don’t be scared of 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.
How Active Noise-Canceling Headphones Work
Active noise-canceling headphones are different from traditional headphones because they search and destroy ambient noise frequencies that would disrupt your listening session. They have miniature microphones built into each ear cup that listen to ambient noises, and then electronically generate new sound waves that are the exact opposite to those ambient sound waves — called an antiphase — which in effect “cancels” out both sets of sound. It’s like sending an antivirus for sound. The term “active” simply means that the headphones have a built-in battery that’s dedicated to power these noise-canceling microphones. Passive noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, don’t have powered microphones that actively seek out ambient frequencies.
When switched on, active noise-canceling creates a pressure against your ears that’s similar to driving through a tunnel or reaching a certain in-flight elevation. If the headphones aren’t playing music and you’re in a noisy environment, the active noise-canceling tech makes it sound like you’re in an empty room: quiet. Additionally, ANC makes it easier to listen to music. When wearing passive headphones amidst ambient noise, your brain has to work hard to prevent it from interfering and distracting you from the music. Because ANC actually reduces the amount of sound that you hear, it is, overall, easier on the brain and, in theory, makes listening to headphones a more pleasant experience.
How Does Noise Cancellation Affect Audio Quality?
Find out the answer, along with other frequently asked questions about active noise-canceling headphones. Read the Story
Master & Dynamic MW65
What are they? Master & Dynamic’s first noise-canceling headphones marry the company’s signature industrial design (anodized aluminum and genuine leather) with active noise-cancellation. They’re beautiful and comfortable headphones, with above average noise-cancellation. They charge via USB-C but also lack several premium features, such as a companion app to adjust EQ settings, and swipe gestures to control audio playback.
When were they released? April 2019
Who should buy? At nearly $500, 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.
Read our full review of the Master & Dynamic MW65, here.
Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 8.6 ounces
Battery: up to 24 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Bowers & Wilkins PX7
What are they? The PX7 are essentially an upgraded and redesigned version of B&W’s previous PX noise-canceling headphones. The new models are lighter thanks to a carbon fiber design, but deliver similar acoustics and noise-canceling abilities.
When were they released? October 2019.
Who should buy? The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 are definitely luxurious noise-canceling headphones and they’re in the same price bracket as Bose’s high-end Headphones 700. The advantage that the PX7 headphones have is a neat industrial design and Bowers & Wilkins’s truly excellent sound.
Read our full review of the Bowers & Wilkins PX7, here.
Weight: 10.72 ounces
Battery: 30 hours
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3
What are they? These are Sennheiser’s flagship noise-canceling headphones and the successor to the Momentum Wireless 2. The new “3” headphones still have Sennheiser’s cool retro-industrial design, but they have a ton of new features. They have optical sensors so they automatically play/pause music when you place/remove the headphones on/from your head. There’s now a companion app that lets you adjust EQ and levels of noise-cancellation. There’s a new transparency mode. They charge via USB-C and there’s Tile integration to help you find them when misplaced.
When were they released? fall 2019.
Who should buy? Sennheiser’s new-and-improved noise-canceling headphones are for anybody who’s looking for something that looks and sounds great, and is willing to spend a little extra for style and sound quality.
Read our full review of the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless 3, here.
Weight: 10.7 ounces
Battery: 17 hours
Sennheiser HD 450BT
What are they? The HD 450BT are Sennheiser’s first real pair of budget noise-canceling headphones. They’re exactly half as expensive as the 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.
When were they released? February 2020.
Who should buy? These are the best budget noise-canceling headphones currently available. 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.
Read our full review of the Sennheiser HD 450BT, here.
Weight: 8.4 ounces
Battery: 16 hours