The world is a noisy place. There are mobile phones ringing, motorcycles roaring by, teens blasting EDM over their car speakers — and that’s just on your morning commute. It gets worse when you get to the office and your co-workers start chattering about having “a case of the Mondays.”
Noise at any level can be horrible for your health. Beyond causing hearing loss, consistent exposure to noise raises the risk of multiple health and cognitive issues. According to a 2013 review of over two decades of scientific research published in the journal The Lancet, noise exposure can cause annoyance and disturb sleep, causing daytime sleepiness, and reduce kids’ cognitive performance. It can also increase incidences of hypertension and cardiovascular disease. It even negatively impacts health care-setting patient outcomes and leads to longer hospital stays.
Enter: noise-canceling headphones. You don’t even have to play music over them. Some people simply use them as expensive earplugs.
Noise-canceling headphones aren’t cheap by headphone standards. However, you have a range of options at prices ranging from $50 to over $400. But before we dive into the top picks at each price point, it’s worth understanding how they work.
Active Noise Canceling vs. Passive Noise Canceling
Technically speaking, there are two types of “noise-canceling” headphones: passive and active noise-canceling.
But when most people refer to noise-canceling headphones, they’re talking about active noise cancellation (ANC). Active noise cancellation was designed for pilots, who dealt with prolonged exposure to loud airplane engines. The technology assesses ambient noise through a tiny microphone, then cancels it out by generating sound waves at the same wavelength, just inverted by 180 degrees. The new waves nullify the original incoming sound waves in an innovative application of wave theory.
ANC works best with lower-frequency sounds and consistent sounds, such as the drone of airplane engines. But it dampens other sounds as well, reducing ambient noise by 20 to 45 decibels (dB). The best passive “noise-canceling” headphones only reduce background noise by 15 to 20 dB. For context, a whispered conversation is about 30 dB, while a plane taking off is about 120 dB.
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Under $100
Want to avoid all the health problems associated with noise but don’t have hundreds of dollars to drop on cutting-edge noise-cancellation technology? Don’t worry.
1. Anker SoundCore Life Q30 (Top Pick)
Offering strong sound quality and noise-canceling technology for the money, the Anker SoundCore Life Q30 headphones make an excellent budget pick. They offer relatively well-balanced sound at this price range, including a BassUp feature if you want more thump in your eardrums.
The SoundCore Q30 headphones also boast strong battery life at 40 hours — or 60 hours with noise-canceling off. The battery also charges fast, with a five-minute charge yielding four hours of battery life.
With several noise-canceling modes, including transport, indoor, and outdoor, Anker tries to compete with big boys like Bose and Sony. While they can’t compete on technology, the headphones still work reasonably well, especially given the affordable price point.
They can operate either wired or wirelessly and come with a handy carrying case.
2. Mpow H21 Hybrid
For the best overall value for active noise-canceling headphones under $100, it’s hard to beat the Mpow H21 Hybrid headphones. They offer well-rounded, quality sound for the price point. They also sport a comfortable fit and an astonishing 65 hours of battery life.
Their noise-canceling technology isn’t as robust as some of the more expensive options on this list, but they do an excellent job with low-frequency sounds.
As a nice perk, these headphones work either wirelessly or with a cord. That’s fantastic news for people like me, who get paranoid about wireless radiation right next to their brain, as well as for audiophiles who prefer the clearer sound of wired headsets.
If there’s a downside to the Mpow H21, beyond the usual price-point limitations, it’s their appearance. They look and feel a little plasticky and cheap. But it’s what’s under the hood that counts, and on that score, the Mpow H21 headphones deliver.
3. Anker SoundCore Life Q20
Costing slightly less than the SoundCore Life Q30, the Anker SoundCore Life Q20 headphones also provide balanced sound without sacrificing power on the bass. Lovers of all music genres will appreciate the sound quality for the price point.
The Anker SoundCore Life Q20 also feel comfortable and boast a similarly strong battery life of 40 hours. You can use them either wirelessly or with a cord.
The noise-cancellation technology works reasonably well, though it lags slightly behind the Q30. The SoundCore Life Q20 also look cheaper and more plasticky than their big brother. They don’t offer total noise cancellation, however. They work, but not as well as the Space NC, so if you have a loud office or commute, they probably aren’t the best choice.
4. Mpow H5
If you’re tight on money and want the most bang for your buck, look to the Mpow H5 headphones. They cost half as much as their big brother, the H21, and still pack plenty of features. Across the board, their specs are decent: reasonably good sound quality, comfort, battery life, and even a carrying case.
Where they fall short is full noise cancellation. They’re the cheapest ANC headphones on this list, and you can tell when the ambient noise is loud.
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones From $100 – $200
In the $100 to $200 range, you start getting more premium sound. These aren’t the best ANC headphones in the world, but audiophiles can find headsets among these midrange options that deliver great sound.
5. JBL Tune 750BTNC (Top Pick)
A top contender for middleweight champion ANC headphones, the JBL Tune 750BTNC headphones offer excellent sound and modern features, such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for easily sending commands to your smart home devices.
With 15 hours of battery life on wireless and 30 hours on wired, they represent a step down from their predecessor, the Live 650BTNC. But what the new generation Tune 750BTNC lacks in longevity, it makes up for in fit, sound quality, and modern features.
Where the JBL Tune 750BTNC fall slightly short of their high-end competitors is noise-canceling technology and advanced perks like waterproofing. Still, at this price point, they make a compelling option, with balanced sound and typical JBL dependability.
6. AKG N60NC Wireless (On-Ear Headphones)
Are you looking for a more compact, on-ear headphone design than the traditional bulk of over-ear headsets? AKG has you covered — and at a reasonable price point.
The AKG N60NC wireless headphones are incredibly comfortable, at least within the on-ear headphone category. The sound quality is outstanding — although, as with most headphones, it drops slightly when you switch from wired to wireless.
Because of their smaller size, they also fold up much better than the over-ear headsets on this list. If size matters and you don’t want earbuds, go for these headphones.
7. Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC Wireless
Folding up for more compact travel, the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC wireless Bluetooth headphones are a superb midrange option with almost all the perks you expect from top-tier models.
The sound quality is stellar, with crisp lows, mids, and highs. Their noise cancellation is almost as effective as more expensive competitors’, and it’s just as good as any of the other midrange options herein.
For longer sessions, these headphones fall a bit short on comfort. While not unbearable, they start to press and ache after prolonged use.
Still, as a travel-friendly on-ear option, they’re a value alternative with sharp sound.
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Over $200
Want the best noise-cancellation technology available? Welcome to the big leagues of active noise-canceling headphones. These headphones deliver superior quality, but you’ll pay up to $400 for it.
8. Sony WH-1000XM4 (Top Pick)
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones block ambient noise like a boss. The only headphones that could possibly compete with Sony’s noise-cancellation technology are Bose’s two high-end ANC headsets, also featured on the list.
Aside from the jaw-dropping noise cancellation, the Sony WH-1000XM4 wireless headphones offer brilliantly clear sound across the spectrum. You won’t miss a note. Sony included its exclusive DSEE Extreme (digital sound enhancement engine) technology to “enhance the sound quality of compressed audio files by restoring high-range sound removed by the compression process.”
Oh, and they’re comfortable too, with plush padding along the bridge to keep you listening for hours.
Like other high-end headphones, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are Google Assistant- and Amazon Alexa-compatible. But where these Bluetooth headphones surpass their excellent predecessor, the WH-1000XM3, is on phone call clarity. While the earlier model suffered from mediocre call quality, the WH-1000XM4 headphones not only improve the microphone sound but allow multipoint pairing, allowing you to pair to several devices wirelessly at once. That makes it easy to switch between your laptop, tablet, or phone for media or traditional phone calls, all with crisp recording.
The WH-1000XM4 also charge quickly. You can get five hours’ worth of charge in 10 minutes over a USB-C cable. If they come with one weakness, it’s the lack of waterproofing.
All in all, they represent the best active noise-canceling headphones in the world.
9. Bose 700 Headphones
Bose’s QuietComfort line represented their high-end noise-canceling headphones effort for years, but Bose recently tried a new direction. They designed a new line of ANC headphones from scratch, releasing a unique design with their 700 series as an alternative line. They don’t replace the QuietComfort line — they merely offer another option in the premium end of the market.
The noise-cancellation technology proves top-notch — among the best in the world. Despite the completely different design, Bose maintained excellent comfort in their 700 series. The touch controls work intuitively and well.
And yes, the sound quality is fantastic. But the Bose 700 noise-canceling headphones fall slightly short of Sony’s WH-1000XM4 while costing more money. In particular, the treble can sound a bit harsh, with no in-app equalizer to let you tweak sound settings.
Make no mistake: They’re outstanding headphones. But for the money, I went with the Sony headphones instead.
10. Sony WH-1000XM3
Before the latest model dropped, the Sony WH-1000XM3 reigned supreme as the best in the world.
Expect near-perfect audio quality from muscular bass through crystal-clear highs. The snootiest audiophile will be hard-pressed to find fault with these beauties.
The ear cups are comfortable, as is the padded headband. I’ve worn mine literally all day, and while I was still glad to take them off come 5pm, not many headphones allow such marathon sessions without serious discomfort.
Aside from the high price, the only downside is that these headphones offer only mediocre call quality. At this price point, consumers expect better Voice over Internet Protocol and phone call sound. I usually swap headsets when a call comes in because even my $25 folding headset offers better microphone sound.
Like their successor, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are not waterproof. But these complaints pale in comparison to their gorgeous sound, easy comfort, and stunning noise-cancellation technology. If you find the WH-1000XM3 at a significantly cheaper offer than the latest Sony WH-1000XM4, go ahead and pick them up. The WH-1000XM4 represent only minor improvements over an already stellar set of headphones.
11. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
If any headphones could steal the top title from Sony, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II make a credible bid. They arguably match the Sony WH-1000XM4 in noise cancellation and nearly match their outstanding sound quality.
These headphones offer Google and Alexa compatibility and come with a lightning-fast rechargeable battery. And they’re lighter and more comfortable than their Sony competitor.
The QuietComfort 35 II are not Bose’s latest or most expensive noise-canceling headphones. That title goes to the Bose 700, which offer a completely different design and cutting-edge noise-canceling technology. However, users bemoan the downgrade in comfort and uptick in pricing.
Ultimately, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II can’t quite match Sony headphones’ fantastic sound quality. But at the same cost as the Sony WH-1000XM4, they match or even surpass them in other ways. If comfort is critical for you, they’re worth a look.
12. Jabra Elite 85h
To spend less but still get an outstanding ANC headset, check out the Jabra Elite 85h headphones .
With no fewer than eight microphones to detect and cancel ambient noise, Jabra claims their Elite 85h headphones have better noise-canceling technology than industry heavyweights Sony and Bose. Whether that claim is true is debatable, but the noise cancellation is unquestionably excellent. In SmartSound mode, they detect the type of noise, such as traffic or office conversation, and automatically switch to the appropriate setting to negate it.
The sound quality is excellent too. While it doesn’t quite match the Sony WH-1000XM3, it still offers crystal-clear notes and separation of lows, mids, and highs, although the bass sounds a bit on the boomy side. It beats Sony on call quality.
Like their pricier Sony and Bose competitors, the Jabra Elite 85h have an internal rechargeable battery, which fast-charges by USB-C cable and lasts up to 36 hours on a single charge. They also come with the same smart Alexa and Google features plus one neat trick: They automatically pause your music when you take them off. These headphones also fold up nicely to fit into a travel carrying case.
If you plan to use your ANC headphones for frequent calls, the Jabra’s combination of a lower price, a strong feature set, and call quality make them an excellent pick. But if you’re an audio purist planning to listen for hours on end, you won’t find the Jabra Elite 85h as comfortable as their competitors. And the sound quality doesn’t quite match the Sony WH-1000XM3, though it comes close.
13. Bose QuietComfort 20 (Earbuds)
While over-ear headphones dominate the ANC market, they aren’t the only design option available. And as relatively compact as they are, they still have nothing on a pair of noise-canceling earbuds, which are precisely what you’ll find with the Bose QuietComfort 20.
Not surprisingly, the noise cancellation doesn’t perform quite as well as over-ear headphones. But it’s still impressive given the tiny size and in-ear design. Bose’s earbuds prove incredibly comfortable too, and they take up virtually no space when you’re traveling light.
The sound quality is great but not outstanding, especially given the price point. It’s well-balanced and smooth and doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t blow your mind, either.
Unsurprisingly, the rechargeable battery lacks the stamina of larger, heavier over-ear headsets with larger batteries. But a charge lasts about 16 hours, and after it runs out, the headphones still function passively.
14. Sony WF-1000XM3 (Earbuds)
Sony’s WF-1000XM3 wireless noise-canceling earbuds deliver spectacular sound in a tiny package — along with solid noise-canceling technology.
They won’t block sound as completely as the top-ranked WH-1000XM4 or even low-cost over-hear headphones. But they do an impressive job nonetheless, and with better battery life (24 hours) than the competing Bose QuietComfort 20.
If you’re in the market for high-end noise-canceling earbuds, the Sony WF-1000XM3 true wireless earbuds are the way to go. They make exceptional workout or travel headphones you can simply slip in your pocket. Just don’t expect them to perform at the same level as over-ear headphones many times larger.
Active noise-canceling technology has come a long way in the last 20 years. And in a world louder and more crowded than ever, it’s all the more important to carve out your own little bubble of quiet.
Despite the relatively high price tag compared with conventional headphones, active noise-canceling headphones protect both your hearing and your health. You don’t need to blast your music as loudly to drown out all the commotion around you.
Put like that, it’s a lot easier to justify spending several hundred dollars on a headset. It’s an investment in your long-term health, after all.