The world is a noisy place. There are mobile phones ringing, motorcycles roaring by, 19-year-olds with bad taste 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 coworkers 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 your risk of heart attack, stroke, obesity, insomnia, stress, and related mental health disorders, according to Harvard Medical School.
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.
Passive noise-canceling headphones are designed to physically block as much ambient noise as possible. Over-ear headsets do this by firmly cupping your ears with layers of sound-dampening foam padding.
But when most people refer to noise-canceling headphones, they’re talking about active noise cancellation. Active noise cancellation (ANC) was designed for pilots, who suffered long 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 a clever 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 those health problems, but don’t have hundreds of dollars to drop on cutting-edge noise-cancellation technology? Don’t worry.
1. Mpow H10 (Top Pick)
For the best all-around value for active noise-canceling headphones under $100, it’s hard to beat the Mpow H10. They offer well-rounded, quality sound for the price point. They also sport a comfortable fit and long battery life, which is essential since active noise cancellation requires extra power.
Their noise-canceling technology isn’t as robust as some of the more expensive options on this list, but it does a great job with low-frequency sounds.
As a nice perk, these headphones work either wirelessly or with a cord. That’s great 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 H10, beyond the usual price point limitations, it’s their appearance. They look and feel a little plastic-y and cheap. But it’s what’s under the hood that counts, and on that score, the Mpow H10 delivers.
2. Anker SoundCore Space NC
For slightly better noise canceling and a significantly better look, check out the Anker SoundCore Space NC. They boast great battery life and intuitive button controls, and like the Mpow H10, they can operate either wired or wirelessly. They also come with a handy little carrying case.
The downside of the Anker SoundCore Space NC is that their sound quality is bass-heavy. For fans of bass-centric music genres, they’re a fantastic value. But the bass drowns out more instrument- or vocals-led music, making the Anker SoundCore Space NC more of a niche headset.
3. Mpow H5
If you’re tight on money and want the most bang for your buck, look to the Mpow H5. They cost half as much as their big brother the H10 and still pack in 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.
4. Anker SoundCore Life 2
Costing slightly less than the Space NC, the Anker SoundCore Life 2 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 2 also feel comfortable and have a strong battery life. Like the other options above, you can use them either wirelessly or with a cord.
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 might not be your best choice.
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 that deliver great sound among these mid-range options.
5. Bose QuietComfort 25 (Top Pick)
The Bose QuietComfort 25 was the top ANC headphones in the world in 2014 when they cost $300. Now, they cost less than half that, but most of what made them so great then still applies.
They’re extremely comfortable and fold well for travel. Their sound quality is outstanding across the board, with clear lows, mids, and highs. The noise cancellation was state-of-the-art in 2014 and still works great, even if the technology has improved incrementally since then.
There are two interesting and related points worth mentioning about the Bose QuietComfort 25. First, they’re wired-only, unlike most modern ANC headphones. Second, they still work when the battery runs out after an astounding 35 hours of life. They may not work as well, but they essentially convert to a high-quality passive headphone set when the battery dies.
In this price range, Bose’s QuietComfort 25 headphones are hard to beat.
6. JBL Live 650BTNC
Another strong contender for middleweight champion ANC headphones, the JBL Live 650BTNC offer excellent sound and modern features, such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for sending easy commands to your smart home devices.
With 20 hours of battery life on wireless and 30 hours on wired use, they’re no slouch when it comes to battery life, either.
Where the JBL Live 650BTNC fall slightly short of their high-end competitors is noise-canceling technology and comfort. For short and intermediate sessions, they’re comfortable enough, but for multi-hour use, the on-ear foam starts to irritate.
Still, at its price point, it makes a compelling option.
7. AKG N60NC Wireless
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 are extremely 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 to you, and you don’t want earbuds, go for these headphones.
8. Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC Wireless
Also folding up for more compact travel, the Sennheiser HD 4.50 BTNC Wireless are a great mid-range 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 mid-range options above.
For longer sessions, these headphones fall a bit short on comfort. While not unbearable, they start to press and ache after long continuous use.
Still, as a travel-friendly over-ear option, they’re a good 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.
9. Sony WH-1000XM3 (Top Pick)
The Sony WH-1000XM3 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 (more on them shortly).
Aside from the jaw-dropping noise cancellation, the Sony WH-1000XM3 offer brilliantly clear sound across the spectrum. You won’t miss a note. And they’re comfortable too, with better padding along the bridge than the previous-generation model.
At this price point, headphones dispense with AAA batteries and come with a fast-charging built-in battery. You can get five hours’ worth of charge in 10 minutes over a USB-C cable.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are Google Assistant- and Amazon Alexa-compatible, which you can expect from any modern top-tier headphones these days.
While these headphones do fold, they don’t fold down to a particularly slim profile. They’re arguably the best noise-canceling headphones on the planet, but they’re not the smallest. However, they do come with a travel case for easy packing.
Aside from the high price, the only downside is that these headphones offer only mediocre call quality. At this price point, consumers expect better VOIP and phone call sound.
10. Bose QuietComfort 35 II
If any headphones could steal the top title from Sony, they’re the Bose QuietComfort 35 II. They match or even exceed the Sony WH-1000XM3 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 Noise Cancelling Headphones 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-1000XM3, they match or even surpass them in other ways. If comfort is key for you, they’re worth a look.
11. Jabra Elite 85h
To spend less but still get an outstanding ANC headset, check out the Jabra Elite 85h.
With no fewer than eight microphones to detect and cancel ambient noise, Jabra claims their Elite 85h has 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, it detects the type of noise, such as traffic or office conversation, and automatically switches to the appropriate setting to negate it.
The sound quality is great 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 pause your music automatically 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 lower price, a strong feature set, and great call quality make them a great pick. But if you’re an audio purist planning on listening 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.
12. Bose QuietComfort 20
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 you’ll find in 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 as well, and they take up virtually no space when you’re traveling light with just one bag.
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.
As you might expect, 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.
If you’re in the market for high-end noise-canceling earbuds, the Bose QuietComfort 20 are the way to go. 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.
Have you ever tried active noise-canceling headphones? Which ones? How did you like them?