If you’re a commuter or work in a busy environment, you’re likely in the market for some of the best noise-canceling headphones. Drowning out all that background noise comes in the form of active noise-canceling (ANC) technology, and it’s become a highly sought-after feature now that it’s no longer exclusive to expensive headphones. The Sony WH-1000XM4’s ANC heads up a group of class-leading headphones through their excellent performance and battery life.
Best Overall: Sony WH-1000XM4
Sony has been in the top spot before with its WH-1000XM3, which were the best ANC headphones on the market before they were replaced by the WH-1000XM4. Sony’s flagship cans have become the benchmark for the industry as a whole, forcing others to catch up. What makes them so good is the unique QN1 processor and a dual noise sensor that work together to block out ambient sound. For a daily commute on a bus or train, walking on a busy street, or sitting on a flight, the WH-10000XM4 are up to the task.
If you’re confused about why they look like their predecessors, don’t be. It’s just Sony not bothering to change anything about the overall design. These headphones are almost carbon copies of their predecessors, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
What is different is that you get improved ANC performance plus the ability to pair with two devices simultaneously. This way, you can listen to music on one device and take calls on another, for example. Phone calls also sound better because of Sony’s Precise Voice Pickup and Speak to Chat features that optimize sound and volume during conversations.
Otherwise, much of what made the WH-1000XM3 so good remains in good standing for this pair. They will last up to 32 hours per charge, with fast charging always an option when they’re dead. You still can’t listen to the WH-1000XM4 when they’re charging, however, whether wired or wireless.
Sony chose not to tweak or alter the sound signature, so the same bass-heavy sound comes through. It can sometimes drown out the mids and highs, but Sony’s Connect app has a trusty equalizer you can use to offset that. It also has a “clear bass” slider to affect the overall thump of the bass itself. With those tools, you can make these headphones sound more to your preference.
Now that the WH-1000XM4 are Sony’s flagship, look for the WH-1000XM3 to eventually drop in price and become more of a value option. Sony’s noise-canceling tech has been so good that you can even find it crammed into wireless earbuds.
- Class-leading ANC performance
- Long battery life
- Customizable sound
- Fast charging capable
- Great phone call quality
- Pair with two devices at once
- No simultaneous charging & listening
- No difference in design
- No improvement in overall audio quality
$348 at Amazon $350 at Best Buy $348 at B&H
Best in class
The WH-1000XM4 take ANC up a notch and maintain the same great sound, battery life, and comfort from their predecessors.
Best Runner Up: Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700
Bose has positioned itself into the conversation among the best in the business in this category, which is where the NCH 700 belong. Taking over from the highly-acclaimed QC35 II, these cans are equal or better in almost every way. First, sound quality gets a boost with Bose dialing back sibilance from the treble to make them sound less piercing, without changing anything else about the rest of the sound signature. Needless to say, the NCH 700 aren’t lacking in sound.
It doesn’t hurt that the ANC performance is so good, too. They don’t quite hit Sony’s level, but they’re a solid alternative that does a solid job of blocking out most persistent noises, like engines, and some mid-range sounds like people talking. Higher-pitched sounds are a challenge for any pair of ANC headphones, and that’s where the NCH 700 are a bit shaky. However, you do get up to 11 steps of ANC, making this one of the most versatile ANC experiences available.
The NCH 700 are also one of the most comfortable pairs to wear. A softer headband and ear cups don’t feel too constricting, so you may not even notice how long you’re wearing them. The trade-off in doing that was Bose had to actually make these headphones bigger than the QC35 II. They also don’t fold, which may be an issue when traveling or commuting, taking up more space in your bag.
At up to 20 hours per charge, battery life is above-average. A quick 15-minute fast charge through USB-C will deliver up to two hours of playback, ensuring you can listen to some tunes in a pinch.
- Superb ANC performance
- Excellent sound quality
- Very comfortable
- Great battery life
- Fast charging
- Non-foldable, bulky design
- Competitors beat battery life
- More expensive than top pick
Best Runner Up
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700
$379 at Amazon $379 at Best Buy $379 at Walmart
Bose covers a lot of good ground with the NCH 700, including excellent ANC performance, sound quality, and comfort.
Best Sound Quality: Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
Sennheiser’s pedigree in sound quality is well-known, and the Momentum 3 Wireless carry that same torch. A rich soundstage helps deliver the kind of definition associated with the brand. Bass is slightly boosted, with clear midrange and smooth treble to balance it all out. It’s wide enough to suit almost every musical genre — instruments, vocals, and electronic elements never sound out of place.
The company’s audio fidelity isn’t always matched by the most advanced ANC performance, and that contrast is evident here, to some degree. That’s not to say that the ANC here is bad. They block out a decent amount of low-end noise, but struggle to fully block every sound around you. You can mitigate that a bit by playing music a little louder, though within reason so you don’t damage your ears.
The Momentum 3 Wireless are really comfortable to wear, even after long periods. You feel much of a squeeze with these, thanks to a well-made headband and ear cups that feel soft enough to enjoy whenever you listen to audio.
Sennheiser also isn’t an industry leader in battery life, which is an obvious limitation for the Momentum 3 Wireless on this list. You can expect up to 17 hours on a single charge, which is on the lower end for ANC headphones in this price range. One saving grace is that you can use the USB-C port for simultaneous listening and charging when connected to an Android phone or tablet.
- Great, slightly bass-boosted sound
- USB-C for charging
- Simultaneous listening & charging
- Excellent comfort
- Decent ANC performance
- ANC isn’t the best
- Battery life should be better
Best Sound Quality
Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
$324 at Amazon $350 at Best Buy $350 at B&H
Sounds just about right
The Momentum 3 Wireless make up for gaps in ANC and battery life with excellent sound quality and comfort.
Best Budget Over-Ear Headphones: COWIN E7
Good ANC headphones don’t have to be expensive to sound good, and that’s a point the COWIN E7 make because of their great battery life and solid ANC at a very low price.
It seems almost criminal for the E7 to manage a whopping 30 hours on a single charge when far more expensive pairs sometimes don’t even come close. With that kind of time to play with, you’ll be playing music for days without juice becoming an issue. ANC performance isn’t too bad, either. They compare favorably to expensive models that are good at blocking out consistent noises but struggle with more inconsistent ones.
Sound quality is average, which is probably to be expected. Bass gets a boost, but it’s sometimes overdone with a little too much thump and rumble. COWIN did the same with the mid-range to compensate, which is one reason why these feel loud out of the box. That won’t do much for the treble — muted and subdued, as it is.
The E7 are a bit on the heavier side, but won’t suffer too much in comfort. They’ll sit comfortably on your head, so fatigue or comfort issues shouldn’t be a problem.
- Good ANC performance for the price
- Long battery life
- Great comfort
- Affordable price
- Treble is subdued
- Heavier than most over-ears
Best Budget Over-Ear Headphones
From $50 at Amazon From $60 at Walmart From $60 at Newegg
Excellent battery life at a low price
If battery life and cost savings are your primary concern, the E7 from COWIN are your best bet.
Best Battery Life: Jabra Elite 85h
Jabra is good at making headphones, and the Elite 85h are a solid pair that do a lot of things right. The long battery life certainly stands out among those features, getting you up to 35 hours on a single charge. They also feel comfortable for longer stretches, complementing the outstanding battery performance. It’s also a nice touch that they can play and charge all at once through the USB-C connection.
Sound quality is also good, but you’ll get the best results when you tinker with the profile. The default sound signature plays it safe by keeping the entire spectrum at a dull level. Jabra’s Sound+ app has an equalizer that can change that, helping bring out more of the sound these cans are capable of. The app also has options to access the ANC, which isn’t amazing but not terrible either. What hurts them is the audible hum that works to cancel consistent sounds, like what you would hear on a plane, train, or bus.
The Elite 85h are pretty crafty in other useful ways. They will automatically pause when taking them off. Swiveling the right ear cup turns the headphones off. The onboard controls are pretty easy to manage, and they can still work with a wired connection if Bluetooth isn’t an option.
- Ridiculously long battery life
- Customizable sound
- Excellent comfort
- Smart features
- Play and charge simultaneously
- ANC is average at best
- Default sound needs tweaking
Best Battery Life
Jabra Elite 85h
$250 at Amazon $200 at Best Buy $200 at Walmart
Good sound that lasts
The Jabra Elite 85h do a good job sounding the right notes with incredible battery life and comfort, despite so-so ANC.
Great Battery Life on a Budget: Anker Soundcore Life Q30
Budget headphones sometimes punch way above their weight, or carry a particular feature or performance aspect that stands out. For the Anker Soundcore Life Q30, it’s battery life. Lots of it. These can play for up to 40 hours on a single charge — and that’s with ANC enabled. Disable it and they can play for an outlandish 60 hours.
ANC on the Life Q30 is a little better than it was on the Life Q20, and with some extra support through the excellent Soundcore app. There, you can adjust ANC between three modes: Indoor, Outdoor, and Transport. Where the Life Q20 was surprisingly adept at muffling higher-pitched noises, the Life Q30 improved in blocking the more consistent background sounds, like engines, fans, heaters, and more.
Not surprisingly, the bass is still abundant in how they sound. It’s boosted to a point where it may be an acquired taste, but anyone seeking an extra boom won’t be disappointed with how low these go. At least the midrange is balanced enough to add some depth and help carry the treble, which is only slightly boosted. Plus, the Soundcore app has an EQ, with several presets already available to try out. If you prefer, you can also set up your own.
You should be comfortable wearing these over longer periods, including for larger heads. What stands out is Anker did a better job crafting them than they did with the Life Q20. They’re sturdier, with a more premium look and feel that belies their price.
- Ridiculously long battery life
- Comfortable fit
- Made for bass-lovers
- Solid ANC performance for the price
- Affordable price
- Great app support
- Too much bass for some
- ANC could be better
Great Battery Life on a Budget
Anker Soundcore Life Q30
$68 at Amazon $80 at Walmart
Battery for days
Anker’s Soundcore Life Q30 excel at battery life, playing for up to 40 hours with ANC enabled, and 60 hours without.
Most Stylish: Bowers & Wilkins PX7
Bowers & Wilkins is a luxury brand, and its products come with an expectation of looking good. The PX7 are easy to look at, even if you don’t consider yourself the type to put design over all else.
On top of the slick aesthetic, they also come with a pretty unique feature set. One standout is the ability to use the headphone’s USB-C port for audio. Just plug them into your phone’s USB-C port, and not only will you get audio, but power as well. That’s right, a single cable lets you listen and charge simultaneously.
The PX7 have a decidedly balanced sound signature that plays well with every genre, making these ideal for most listeners. The sound is spacious and pronounced while instruments and vocals feel warm, resonant, and full. There’s a lot to like about how these headphones perform in the audio arena.
Unfortunately, that’s not really the case with the ANC. It’s decent, but not at the level it should be for noise-canceling headphones at this price range. It impacts the sound signature too much when it’s on, and struggles with higher-pitched background noise. Ironically, passive isolation is excellent, meaning you won’t always have to turn ANC on to immerse yourself in the music. Be mindful that comfort is likely going to be more subjective here because of how much tighter they generally feel.
Battery life is excellent, with up to 30 hours per charge. The USB-C port is always convenient, as is the fast charging support. If the PX7 are dead, a 15-minute charge will get you a good six hours of listening time.
- Superb sound quality
- Great passive noise isolation
- USB-C for charging and listening
- Great battery life
- Premium build / stylish design
- Can get uncomfortable after longer periods
- ANC performance could be better
Bowers & Wilkins PX7
From $380 at Amazon $400 at Best Buy $400 at B&H
Sounding off in style
The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 will give you an exceptional soundstage but at the cost of similar comfort and ANC performance.
Best Earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3
More true wireless earbuds are coming with ANC on board, including at different price points, but the Sony WF-1000XM3 are the pair to beat. They benefit from the same ANC tech found in Sony’s over-ear WH-1000XM3, which is a big reason why they’re so effective. Despite their size, they prove to be more than capable of blocking out a good amount of noise, including consistent sounds you would come across while commuting.
Sony also preferred to go with a more neutral soundstage, leaving plenty of room to customize it through the equalizer settings in the Headphones Connect app. The mids come through with greater detail, while the highs feel warm, standing out on their own. The bass is less pronounced out of the box, and that’s why the EQ may be necessary to deepen and balance the sound further.
The fit may not be for everyone because of the bulkier form factor, while the Adaptive Sound Control mode isn’t as effective as Sony claims it is. Plus, with no official water or sweat resistance, it’s not worth using them when water is too close. For the reverse of ANC, the WF-1000XM3 do have an ambient sound mode that uses the onboard mics to filter ambient sound in and hear your surroundings without taking them off.
Battery life is excellent. You’ll get up to six hours alone and an additional 18 hours with their charging case. The USB-C port is convenient, as is the fast charging ability. A quick 15-minute charge can provide a few hours of playback in a pinch.
- Class-leading ANC
- Solid sound reproduction
- EQ in companion app
- Long battery life
- USB-C for charging
- Buds are a bit large
- Lacks wireless charging case
- Adaptive Sound Control is just OK
- No official water resistance rating
$228 at Amazon $230 at Best Buy $190 at Walmart
True wireless ANC
The WF-1000XM3 are the best ANC earbuds on the market, period.
Best for Apple Users: AirPods Pro
The AirPods Pro join the Sony WF-1000XM3 as among the best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds available. They’re not as good as Sony’s pair, but do a solid job of blocking out most low and mid-range ambient noise. They will struggle with higher-pitched tones. but that’s typical of ANC headphones and earbuds.
Sound quality is solid, with noticeably better bass and mids than the regular AirPods 2 can ever manage. The soundstage focuses more on the mids to create the illusion the sound is moving closer to you. Consequently, the highs suffer, thus creating an uneven profile that may be more pronounced with certain genres. Unfortunately, Apple doesn’t offer an EQ to tweak the sound further, but you could try third-party ones.
Comfort is nice, due in large part to the unique design at play here. The proprietary ear tips attach directly to the bud’s speaker through a special locking mechanism. That makes the tip more malleable to mold itself into the shape of your ear for a proper fit.
Battery life is pretty pedestrian for something at this price. They can go up to 4.5 hours of playback with ANC on — five hours with ANC off — though that’s at the default volume level. Thankfully, the charging case can offer another 20 hours of additional listening time. Apple users won’t mind that it charges over the company’s proprietary Lightning connector, whereas Android users certainly might. You could get around that, to some degree, by making use of the wireless charging support.
- Superb comfort
- Great sound
- Excellent ANC performance
- Wireless charging case
- Lack of convenience features on non-Apple devices
- Bud battery life could be better
- Proprietary ear tips
Best for Apple Users
$249 at Apple $219 at Amazon $250 at Best Buy
By Apple, for Apple users
Apple outfitted the AirPods Pro with superb ANC, sound quality, and comfort, but sacrificed battery life to get there.
Best Neckbuds: 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro
Neckbuds are not as easy to find nowadays, but they’re still out there, and the best available now would be the 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro. With solid ANC onboard, these neckband earbuds are equipped with two levels of noise cancelation that can work in louder or quieter confines to block out as much ambiance as possible. You can also apply it to phone calls — so long as you turn it on before making or answering the call. Just bear in mind that the neckband doesn’t vibrate for incoming calls.
They’re also comfortable because the neck portion rests on the neck, taking much of the weight off the cables going to the earbuds. For that reason, they’re easy to wear for longer periods, and when you’re done listening, they can just dangle around your neck with little fuss.
1More did make sound quality a priority by including support for good Bluetooth codecs, like AAC and LDAC. Overall, you get a balanced sound signature, with a small boost for the bass. That includes solid playback when ANC is on, too. What’s also interesting is the IPX5 rating, which makes these perfectly usable for running or gym workouts.
Battery life is good at up to 16 hours with ANC on, and 20 hours with it off. Your mileage will vary based on what level of volume you’re listening to, not to mention what codec you’re listening to. For example, if it’s purely LDAC tracks, battery life is cut in half. Either way, they should hold up for a day with ease. With USB-C charging, a quick 10-minute charge could get you up to three hours of playback.
- Solid ANC performance
- Superb sound quality
- Comfortable design
- Good battery life
- Water and sweat resistance
- Codec support
- Smartphone app could be better
- Neckband doesn’t vibrate for notifications
1More Dual Driver ANC Pro
$150 at Amazon $150 at Best Buy
ANC around the neck
There aren’t many neckbuds with ANC out there, so the 1More Dual Driver ANC Pro are an easy choice if you like that look.
The headphone jack has been pulling a disappearing act for the last couple of years, putting the onus on wireless Bluetooth headphones to keep the audio flowing to your ears.
If you’re willing to pay the price, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are the best noise-canceling headphones you can get right now. They’re fully-loaded with fantastic noise-canceling technology, great sound, long battery life, handy controls, and a comfortable fit. Finding great wireless headphones or wireless earbuds with equally good ANC performance isn’t as easy as it may seem, despite how ubiquitous the feature is now becoming.
What makes Sony’s pair so good is that the ANC supports everything else that’s good about the WH-1000XM4. They don’t look or sound all that different from their predecessors, but phone calls are better. As is any average commute once you can drown out all that background chatter and boring noise.
Credits — The team that worked on this guide
Ted Kritsonis loves taking photos when the opportunity arises, be it on a camera or smartphone. Beyond sports and world history, you can find him tinkering with gadgets or enjoying a cigar.