Anc in headphones. Best noise-cancelling headphones
What is ANC Technology How Does it Work?
Increasingly ubiquitous in the audio industry, active noise cancellation (ANC) (also known as active noise reduction (ANR)) technology is no longer a luxury reserved for just the most expensive headphones. In fact, ANC headphones are more popular than ever because technological innovation has enabled the integration of ANC into more platforms at lower price points.
Despite the submission of a patent application describing the principles of ANC technologies all the way back in the 1930s, I’m sure Dr. Lueg never envisioned noise-cancelling technology would advance to the point it’s reached today. Even as few as five years ago, it wasn’t possible to stick truly wireless earbuds with active noise cancellation into your ears. But now, countless articles are published detailing the “best noise-cancelling true wireless earbuds of 2020.”
Evolution of ANC Technology
Initially, analog circuitry was included in the electronics of a device because digital technologies weren’t yet far enough along, active noise cancellation/reduction requires a very fast response to external noise in order to be useful. Unfortunately, these early analog circuits were not all that accurate at reducing the noises.
We could achieve a certain amount of noise reduction with analog circuits and filters, using transistors, but it wouldn’t work well when trying to listen to music in an unobtrusive manner. And let’s be honest, that’s the primary consumer application for noise cancellation.
Fortunately, advances in digital technology have revolutionized active noise cancellation, enabling further miniaturization to the point where we’re now seeing noise-cancelling earbuds because we’re able to move ANC processing into either a digital signal processor (DSP) engine on a Bluetooth chip or into very small DSP chips running custom algorithms.
How Does Active Noise Cancellation Technology Work?
Active Vs. Passive Noise Cancellation
First, let’s put aside the active aspect of noise cancellation. Passive noise cancellation is not so much cancellation as it is noise reduction. When discussing passive noise cancellation, consider someone wearing a bulky pair of earmuffs or earbuds on a construction site or in a workshop or industrial setting. Unwanted ambient noises are blocked out based on the physical design of the earcups, earmuffs or earbuds. As such, shape and fit are crucial to protect ears from the external noise in passive applications. If there’s a leak point, you’re less likely to get effective noise protection.
Active noise reduction, on the other hand, uses electronics to aid in preventing undesirable or excessive volume from reaching someone’s eardrums. Because sound travels in waves through the air and into your ear canal, vibrating your eardrum, if a sound wave meets another sound wave with the exact same frequency but the opposite amplitude, the two largely cancel each other out (see image below).
ANC uses tiny microphones listening to the ambient noise around you, and then the electronics in the device create a sound that is the exact opposite of that sound wave, cancelling it out so that all you should hear is the music coming from your headphones — not any external sounds. ANC headphones are more expensive than many of the passive noise reduction headphones on the market because they involve more sophisticated engineering design to produce, as well as batteries to power the active noise cancellation.
There is also impulse noise reduction, which reduces amplification for sudden, brief noises by using (usually) a single microphone to make the electronics in the device aware there is a loud external sound. Impulse noise reduction adjusts sudden loud noises, dropping outside sounds so you can experience them at a more comfortable level or carry on a conversation while protecting your hearing in a passive mode. Essentially, impulse noise reduction requires a circuit in the device that detects when a sound is skewing toward hitting the threshold, then turns that sound off.
Now that you’re thinking about active noise cancellation as using electronics to prevent unwanted sounds from reaching your eardrums, it’s important to understand there are multiple types of ANC.
Basic Types of Active Noise Cancellation
Likely the simplest type of active noise cancellation, feedforward ANC puts a microphone on the outside of the earpiece to detect ambient noise. This type of ANC is typically used for two functions:
- To hear what’s going on outside of the headphones, which is also known as “sidetone.”
- To hear your own voice during a phone conversation. When you can’t hear yourself when talking to somebody, it can be confusing.
Feedforward ANC uses a DSP or other ANC processing hardware to map the noise signal to the frequency response you will actually hear on the inside of your headphones. Whether it’s an impulse noise or continuous external loud sounds, the feedforward microphone picks up the noise before your ear does and adjusts the signal given to your ears by the internal speaker, cancelling out the noise being sent to your ear. Basically the same as impulse noise reduction, but feedforward ANC is better for more complex sounds because it’s a more complex algorithm. However, feedforward ANC is not as accurate as placing a mic inside the ear.
That’s where feedback ANC comes in. The opposite of feedforward, feedback ANC places the microphone inside your earpiece. The feedback microphone detects noise that has made it into your ear/ear canal, working with electronics to remove the noise from the signal while also adding a signal that cancels the noise that’s getting into your ear.
With feedback ANC, we’re taking passive noise reduction, impulse noise reduction and feedforward active noise cancellation a step further. The feedback microphone detects the actual noise that’s in the ear, leveraging even more effective algorithms to provide additional decibels (dB) of noise reduction by putting an extra signal in the ear that cancels out the noise that’s actually getting into the ear. The big bonus is that noise captured by the feedback microphone more accurately reflects noise you hear, regardless of the exact positioning and fit of the headphones.
The best of both worlds, hybrid ANC combines both feedforward and feedback microphones and processing to achieve maximum effectiveness by augmenting whatever passive noise reduction your ear protection device is giving you.
At the end of the day, it’s important to understand the three main types of ANC because that knowledge helps inform the best option for your application. Challenges with feedback or not enough high-frequency cancellation could mean you would be better suited to go with feedforward. Alternatively, if the noise cancellation leaves a bit to be desired, you might want to switch from feedforward to feedback or hybrid. When done right, hybrid ANC should ensure a nice quiet listening environment without any issues.
At Cardinal Peak, we’re well versed in all three types of ANC and possess the expertise to successfully deliver consumer audio products that use all three ANC types and leverage signal processing to achieve the highest level of performance. Stay tuned for additional blog posts that discuss ANC at the mic and intellectual property (IP) options for implementing ANC.
Best noise-cancelling headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones aren’t just for travel, they will isolate you from all sorts of audio distractions so you can concentrate on your music. We’ll guide you to the best models.
When you’re in the market for headphones, you’ll see that noise-cancelling headphones are becoming the most popular variety. There’s a good reason for that: They block out ambient noise that can distract from you enjoying your favorite tunes. While they’re particularly useful for air travel and daily commutes—especially via mass transit—they’re also great at isolating you from at-home noise pollution, whether that be the whoosh of your HVAC system, the whir of your computer’s cooling fans, or your neighbor’s lawn mower.
Many people, on the other hand, don’t like active noise cancellation, believing that it compromises audio reproduction. Indeed, that was a much bigger problem a few years ago, and we’d encourage you to check out a modern set. Still not interested? No worries, you’ll find our top picks in conventional headphones at the preceding link.
Updated July 24, 2023 to add a link to our hands-on preview of the Sony WF-1000XM5 in-ear noise-cancelling headphone. Sony provided us with the product in advance of its shipping to retail; unfortunately, the company was unable provide us with a working beta copy of its latest software. So, we decided against publishing a review of what the product might be like when that software becomes available. That said, we predict the WF-1000XM5 will be a great set of earbuds when it does ship to consumers, and we’ll have a detailed review at that time.
Sony WH-1000XM5 — Best over-ear noise-cancelling headphone
- New carbon fiber driver delivers intoxicating sound
- Best-in-class noise cancellation is better than ever
- Outstanding adaptive noise-cancelling performance
- Beam-forming mics make near-perfect calls in noisy environments
- Noise cancellation subject to the occasional audible artifact
- No support for aptX codecs
Sony didn’t just refine its previous generation of noise-cancelling headphones, they redefined what was possible. The WH-1000XM5 are the finest noise-cancelling headphones Sony has ever made, and they’re the best noise-cancelling headphones we’ve ever reviewed. They’re supremely comfortable to wear for long listening sessions, they deliver unparalleled noise cancellation, and–most importantly–they sound absolutely fantastic. These are the noise-cancelling over-ear headphones to beat.
Bowers Wilkins Px7 S2 — Best over-ear noise-cancelling headphone, runner-up
- Exceptional audio performance
- aptX Adaptive support for hi-res audio
- Very good active noise cancellation
- Excellent build quality
- BW trails Sony in terms of glitzy features
- No support for surround sound formats, including Dolby Atmos
- Slightly bulkier than the Sony WH-1000XM5 they compete with
Sony takes the crown in terms of whizbang features, support for surround sound formats like Dolby Atmos and its own 360 Reality Audio, and superior active noise cancellation. But BW’s cans sound every bit as good, and they’re certainly no slouch when it comes to active noise cancellation.
Apple Airpods Max — Best over-ear noise-cancelling headphone for Apple users
- Clear, well balanced sound
- Solid noise cancellation and stellar transparency mode
- Terrific controls for volume, playback, and ANC
- Tightly integrated with Apple ecosystem
- Still uses Lightning rather than USB-C
- Wired listening requires a pricey adapter
- Smart Case offers minimal protection from the elements
- Relatively short battery life
There’s a lot to love about Apple’s Airpods Max, including the elegant design, the best-in-class physical controls, the solid ANC, and the superb transparency mode. Most importantly, the sound is sublime. Then there’s the quirks, including the silly-looking and minimally protective Smart Case, Lightning instead of USB-C, no out-of-the-box wired listening, and so-so battery life. But if you’re deeply invested in the Apple ecosystem, the Airpods Max will be a thrill for your ears.
Focal Bathys — Most luxurious noise-cancelling headphone
- Amazing audio fidelity, wired or wireless
- AAC, aptX, and aptX Adaptive codec support
- Onboard 24-bit/192kHz DAC
- First-class materials and build quality
Very good active noise cancellation nonetheless takes a backseat to audio fidelity in Focal’s exquisite Bathys wireless headphone, and we’re just fine with that.
Mark Levinson No. 5909 — Most luxurious noise-cancelling headphone, runner-up
- Best-in-class audio performance
- Premium materials and build quality
- Bluetooth 5.1 with support for LDAC, AptX Adaptive, and AAC codecs
- Noise cancelling can’t be engaged during phone calls
- Buggy on-head detection
- Very expensive
If you’ve got it, flaunt it–knowing that the lofty price Mark Levinson expects to fetch for its 5909 noise-cancelling headphones is justified by its performance and exquisite craftsmanship. These headphones sound as luxurious as they feel wrapped around your ears.
Anker Soundcore Space Q45 — Best mid-priced over-ear noise-cancelling headphone
- Excellent, well-balanced sound
- Highly effective active noise cancellation
- LDAC codec support
- Handsome industrial design
- ANC minutely diminishes top-end frequencies
- No support for aptX codecs
- Some Bluetooth lag
Great sound, great comfort, great looks: Anker has gone lux and made the Soundcore Space Q45 one of the best headphone experiences in its price range.
Wyze Noise-Cancelling Headphones — Best budget-priced over-ear noise-cancelling headphone
- Excellent active and passive noise cancellation
- Super comfortable
- Very good sound overall
- Extremely affordable
- Tiny degradation in frequency response when using active noise cancellation
- 1/4-inch and airline adapters not included
It’s hard to believe how inexpensive these noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones are, but that’s par for the course for Wyze Labs, a company that never seems to fail to package the most bang for the buck in every product they make. While their audio quality doesn’t compete with the higher-end models, and they might not be as durable as some of the more expensive brands, you won’t be too upset if they break and need to be replaced after a few years.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II — Best in-ear noise-cancelling headphone overall
- Custom ear measurements guarantee great sound
- The best noise-cancelling skills I’ve encountered
- Industrial design is small, comfortable, and attractive
- Bluetooth 5.3 radio serves stable streams over surprisingly long distances
- No aptX or LDAC audio codec support
- Six-hour playtime and 18-hour backup battery capacity isn’t top of the class
- Bigger and heavier than Apple’s Airpods Pro
- Price tag might put you off
With CustomTune sound calibration, best-in-class noise cancellation, and a smaller, smarter physical design, Bose isn’t just reaching for the crown with the QuietComfort Earbuds II, it’s already seized it.
Sony WF-1000XM4 — Best noise-cancelling in-ear headphone overall, runner-up
- Exceptionally rich, mature, and reliable tech
- Best-in-class noise cancelling and adaptive noise cancelling
- Superb sound signature
- Solid, secure fit
- Long battery life
Sony’s true wireless headphones are a phenomenal choice for anyone looking for active noise-cancellation from a high-end in-ear headphone. Boasting exceptional performance with music and phone calls, an impeccable fit, and–of course–best-in-class active and adaptive noise cancellation, no other manufacturer can beat Sony’s effort today. Let’s see how long that situation lasts.
Anker Soundcore Liberty 4 — Best budget-priced in-ear noise-cancelling headphone
These outstanding in-ear headphones deliver noise cancelling, customizable EQ; AAC, aptX, and LDAC codec support; and even a health-tracking feature.
Google Pixel Buds Pro — Best in-ear noise-cancelling headphone for Android users
Android users envious of the tight integration that Apple Airpods Pro offer iPhone users will be overjoyed with the flawless integration and solid audio performance that Google delivers with its best in-ear noise-cancelling headphones.
Apple Airpods Pro (second-generation) — Best in-ear noise-cancelling headphone for Apple users
- Top-tier sound reproduction
- Much improved ANC
- Better battery life
- Case works with a variety of MagSafe chargers
- Lacks user customizable EQ options
- IPX4 splash resistance for buds and case is just so-so
- Geared primarily toward the Apple ecosystem
- No lossless playback
The original Airpods Pro were pretty decent for their time, but the second-generation version tops the original in almost every way, boasting greatly improved sonics and bass response, twice the ANC, a new Transparency mode that blunts excessively loud exterior noises, better battery life, and a MagSafe-enabled carrying case that now works with Apple Watch chargers. Of course, the best Airpods Pro features will only work within the Apple ecosystem, which means Android users would be better off looking elsewhere.
Shopping for active noise-cancelling headphones
Headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) identify sound waves associated with noise and electronically generate an inverse sound wave that cancels it out. Here’s what we mean: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond, then introduce ripples of the opposite pattern, and you’ll smooth the pond’s surface. Active noise cancellation (ANC) works in a similar manner. Microphones mounted on the headphone analyze ambient sound waves and then produce inverse sound waves that will cancel them out.
As you might expect, the ANC technologies from some manufacturers are incredibly effective; others, less so. We’ve tested models from AKG, Bose, Bowers Wilkins, JBL, Libratone, and Sony and found them to be very good.
Adaptive noise cancellation is the most sophisticated type of ANC. It operates on the same principles, but adapts to your surroundings to apply more or less of the effect and to even bring in sounds from the outside world.
Some adaptive noise-cancelling solutions even take into account how fast you’re moving, the air pressure around you, and whether you’re likely in a plane, taking a walk, or holding a conversation. Many operate in conjunction with a mobile app on your smartphone.
Some individuals find that ANC headphones exert pressure on their ears, creating a similar sensation to being under water. If you find ANC headphones to be uncomfortable, you’ll prefer a model with good passive noise cancellation. That type of headphone deliver other benefits, too: They’re the least likely to color the music you’re listening to, and they don’t need batteries. On the other hand, not all headphones with passive noise cancellation are wireless.
Pros and Cons of Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Noise-cancelling headphones were designed to accomplish one thing and one thing only– cancel noise, or at the very least, muffle it so much so that it becomes harmless. Every other thing they do is dependent on how well they can rid us of the noise.
But apart from the promise of relief and quiet that noise-cancelling headphones promise, what other benefits are there to it? What are the disadvantages that come with being able to “cancel’ noise and how much harm do these disadvantages cause us?
In light of all these, it might be helpful to break down the pros and cons of owning and using a noise-cancelling headphone; that way current users can become more aware and more cautious while future users can become less naive and more prepared.
It helps to boost your concentration
Noise does more harm to your concentration, output and by extension, your productivity and satisfaction much more than you realize. For quite some time now, researchers have opined that noise, especially loud intermittent noise, reduces our cognitive performance.
Psychologist Nick Perham, who does research on how sound affects the way we think, has reported that something as seemingly harmless as office noise can impair workers’ ability to recall information, or even do basic math.
Who would have thought office noise could be that pernicious? But here’s where your noise cancelling headphones come in, not only does it help you block out noise, it also sends a message to your co-workers that you’re trying to concentrate and would appreciate it if you were left alone.
It gives you better audio entertainment
Ever tried listening to audio entertainment in a noisy environment? You’d hate yourself, I was on a flight recently, a pretty long one (7 hours) and I didn’t go with a noise-cancelling headphone, so as you can imagine, I was at the mercy of the loud continuous drone from the aircraft engines. I tried to sleep but couldn’t.
So I decided to see a movie on the in-flight entertainment using one of the normal headphones the airline provides. But no matter how hard I tried I couldn’t hear the dialogue, it was so bad I literally had to read the lips of the characters to catch a faint glimpse of what was going on. It was definitely a struggle and before long I gave up and settled for another movie that had subtitles displaying on the screen.
Now imagine trying to enjoy audio or audiovisual entertainment using normal headphones close to a construction site where a jackhammer is running, that would be nothing short of torture.
With a noise-cancelling headphone, however, whether you’re in a plane or on a construction site, the noise vanishes leaving you with just the awesome audio experience.
Enjoy your conversations better
And just like my ugly experience with in-flight audiovisual entertainment, making or answering calls in a noisy environment can be a nightmare, you can hardly get anything in edgewise because the place is a buffet of noises and you can tell that your caller is struggling to make sense of what you’re saying because there’s usually lots of “excuse me”, or “I’m sorry I didn’t quite get that,” or “sorry can you please repeat that?”
So much so that you have to leave that environment briefly (if you can) answer your call and then come back in.
Noise-cancelling headphones helps you remove almost all the background chatter, so you no longer have to get out of noisy coffee shops just because you want to answer a call.
Protects your health
Exposure to noise for an extended period of time has been found to pose serious threats to human health, threats ranging from cardiovascular diseases, to sleep disruption and deprivation, to brain damage, to noise-induced hearing loss and tinnitus etc.
If you must remain in a noisy environment that puts you at risk for these diseases then you should consider investing in noise-cancelling headphones.
They are expensive
As the adage goes: you get what you pay for, this particularly holds true for noise-cancelling headphones because they definitely do not come cheap, some of them like the new Bose 700 would set you back by as much as 400.
If you’re looking for something much more affordable, I’d say you can something decent for about a 100. You can get some for cheaper but I really can’t vouch for their ability to deliver the kind of noise cancellation you would want.
They make you unaware of your surroundings
For safety reasons, it’s not advisable to wear noise-cancelling headphones when you’re on the road, because it blocks out noises such as car horns, train horns, and sirens and makes you unaware of your surroundings.
And if you’re also jamming to music in addition to the noise cancellation, you won’t even hear when people are shouting for you to get out of the way. If you’re lucky, you might get cursed out by angry drivers but if not, you run the risk getting in an accident or getting run over by some careless driver.
It can spread ear infections
Ear infections are certainly not contagious, however, the microorganisms (bacteria and viruses) that cause ear infection can spread from person to person via a number of ways and one them is through sharing headphones. So it’s important that you’re careful about who gets to borrow or use your headphones. And if you absolutely have to lend it out to someone make sure you wipe it with disinfecting wipes before using it again.
Short battery life
Because of the work they do, noise-cancelling headphones tend to consume a lot of power, for most of them (provided your device is in tip-top condition) you only get about 20 hours of up time before your battery goes flat and that’s a hassle, if for whatever reason you happen to find yourself in some remote parts of the world where power goes out for many hours at a time.
And when your battery empties, you’re left with just a normal everyday headphone without noise cancelling abilities.
If you choose to buy noise cancelling headphones, you can upgrade their noise cancellation by getting a noise cancelling app along with it. There’s such noise cancelling app called Krisp which removes background noise during calls in real time. With its help you’ll be able to have a noiseless productive call from both sides, since it cancels noise bidirectionally.
That’s technology for you, it always comes to solve a problem. But mind you it’s not without its merits and demerits so your job as a current or potential end user is to acquaint yourself with as much information as you can about the product and then on the basis of that hopefully make an informed decision.
The 9 best noise-canceling headphones of 2023
Consider battery life, audio quality and comfort when shopping for noise-canceling headphones.
Choose between over-the-ear headphones or in-ear models from brands like Sony, Apple, Bose and more. Kara Birnbaum / NBC News
Whether you’re trying to FOCUS at work, watch your favorite streaming show or get a good outdoor exercise session in, using the right pair of headphones for your situation can make or break your experience. That’s where noise-canceling headphones come into the mix; they help block out unwanted sounds while you’re listening to music, podcasts or calls through your headphones.
Active noise cancellation technology (also known as ‘ANC’) is now a common feature in over-ear headphones, and increasingly smaller in-ear models (like wireless earbuds) too. While it adds a price premium, it’s a hugely useful feature. Below, we walk you through what to know about noise cancellation, how it works and which headphones use the technology best.
How we picked the best ANC headphones
To select the best ANC headphones on the market, I drew on years of experience using and comparing high-quality audio equipment. I’ve tried headphones from major headphone brands, including Sony, Apple, Sennheiser and Bang Olufsen. As a freelance reporter and gadgets writer, I tracked the growth of ANC audio in consumer gadgets as well. Here’s what I considered in making these picks:
- Battery Life: If you’re using these for long-haul flights or conference calls, then you’ll need a battery that can last for long periods of time — especially since using ANC drains it much faster than normal playback does. Look for 20-30 hours of ANC usage in over-ear headphones. (That number should be higher when ANC is not in use.)
- Comfort: Look for earcups with adjustable positioning and Band lengths to account for different head sizes to maximize comfort so you can wear them for long periods of time
- Driver size: Drivers are the small speakers inside a pair of headphones that actually emit sound. The bigger the driver is, the bigger the sound it can make. Earbuds are more limited on this front, though drivers in over-ear models should sit somewhere between 30mm and 40mm.
The best noise canceling headphones in 2023
As a technology journalist, I’ve tried dozens of noise canceling headphones in various environments. Below are some of my favorite over-ear headphones and earbuds. (All of the over-ear models I recommend are fully adjustable so you can be comfortable no matter how long you keep your headphones on.)
For a truly premium experience, consider Sony’s WH-1000XM5 headphones. These over-ear headphones are known for their comfort, audio quality and effective ANC. The brand’s newest model has a 30-hour battery life and a vast frequency range for showcasing detail at both high and low frequencies. In my experience, they’re comfortable enough for long journeys, too, thanks to soft leather ear cups designed to reduce pressure on the ears.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 4-40,000Hz | Battery life: 30 hours | Weight: 250g | Drivers: 30mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds Series II
In my experience, these QuietComfort earbuds do an astonishing job of implementing ANC on a smaller scale. You’ll find a secure fit in these earbuds, alongside exceptional clarity and volume touch controls for a seamless interface. They’re pricey for in-ear headphones, but they are easily some of the best ANC buds on the market right now.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 6 hours | Battery life with charging case: 24 hours | Weight: 6.24g | Drivers: 9.3mm | Water- and sweat resistant: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds Series II
Bang Olufsen Beoplay HX
If style is as important to you as sound quality, the Beoplay HX from Bang Olufsen are a great option. With an aluminum exterior, lambskin accents and memory foam earcups, these headphones look and feel like a million dollars — but only cost a few hundred. You can get stronger ANC for less money elsewhere, but the design excellence of BO really comes through, from the construction materials to the excellent mobile app for adjusting ANC implementation to your desired level.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 20-22,000Hz | Battery life: 35 hours | Weight: 285g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Bang Olufsen Beoplay HX
Apple Airpods Pro 2
Apple’s latest Airpods Pro earbuds, which won a Select Wellness Award for best wireless earbuds, match the price of the original Airpods Pro while upping audio performance, improving battery life to a total 30 hours (with the charging case, according to the brand) and offering standout noise cancellation. You’ll also get spatial audio features for a slight surround sound effect. For Apple users who prefer an in-ear silhouette, these are the best ANC headphones you can buy.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 6 hours | Battery life with charging case: 30 hours | Weight: 5.3g | Drivers: 11mm | Water- and sweat resistance: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
Apple Airpods Pro 2
Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless
Sennheiser’s long-running Momentum range has been a high point in consumer audio for a while now, and this wireless ANC model is no exception. It offers the brand’s top-quality sound, with effective noise cancellation and modern Smart features (like a transparency mode to hear your environment at a single click). The real highlight, in my opinion, is its 60 hours of battery life (even with ANC activated), according to Sennheiser, which knocks most of the models on this list out of the water.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 6-22,000Hz | Battery life: 60 hours | Weight: 290g | Drivers: 42mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700
Bose pioneered noise-canceling technology decades ago, and it’s still one of the top brands when it comes to ANC headphones. The Bose 700 has some of the most powerful noise canceling you can get today — not to mention good, balanced sound quality and a super comfortable fit. Most useful, however, is the ability to adjust how much noise cancellation you want using Bose’s app. Add in Alexa and Google Assistant, touch controls, and 20-hour battery life, and you’ve got some of the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 20 hours | Weight: 250g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700
Apple Airpods Max
After so much success with their Airpods earbuds, Apple launched the Airpods Max, a set of over-ear noise-canceling headphones to compete with the likes of Bose and Sony. The noise cancellation is incredibly effective, though some reviewers say that while they excel at drowning out hums like airplane noise, they aren’t as good at canceling out people talking nearby, and may be uncomfortable to wear for some people. However, it offers an easier, more stable pairing process with Apple products. Top that with fancy features like spatial audio for surround sound movies and games for an especially fancy pair of headphones.
Select editorial projects manager Rebecca Rodriguez is a huge fan: “The transparency mode on these headphones is what I was most impressed with,” she says. “I use this setting when commuting and it lets me stay aware of what is going around me without diminishing the sound quality of whatever song I’m listening to. They are also incredibly comfortable; the mesh Band makes it feel like they are conforming to your head shape, and the ear cups are well padded and removable for whenever you want to clean them.”
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: not specified | Battery life: 20 hours | Weight: 385g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Apple Airpods Max
Soundcore by Anker Life Q30
If the above options are out of your budget, Anker’s Soundcore Q30 wireless noise-canceling headphones are a solid alternative for under 100. Their ANC is not as powerful as higher-end choices — though, in my experience, they can block out low-pitched drones. I also found chatter from people nearby me a bit more audible than on the Bose 700 listed above. Having said that, when it comes to long airplane trips, they’ll work nicely without breaking the bank. They also sound better than many of their budget-focused competitors, with some extra thump in the bass that doesn’t overpower or muddy the rest of the range as much as other bass-heavy cans.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 16-24.000Hz | Battery life: 60 hours | Weight: 265g | Drivers: 40mm | Water- and sweat resistant: No | Transparency mode: Yes
Soundcore by Anker Life Q30
Aukey Beyond ANC Hybrid
For an earbud option that costs less than Apple’s Airpods Pro, I recommend Aukey’s EP-N5, also known as the Beyond ANC. It’s priced well for how good it sounds, and while, in my experience, its noise cancellation isn’t on par with more expensive options, it’ll block out low-pitched hums.
ANC: Yes | Frequency range: 20-20,000Hz | Battery life: 7 hours | Battery life with charging case: 35 hours | Weight: 10g | Drivers: 10mm | Water- and sweat resistant: Yes | Transparency mode: Yes
What is active noise cancellation and how does it work?
Many over-ear headphones offer some kind of “passive” sound isolation, thanks to layers of padding around the ear that help to muffle external noise. But the technology behind active noise cancellation is something else altogether.
ANC uses advanced technology to actively counter external noise, according to Richard Trestain, product manager at audio brand Jabra. (Despite working at Jabra, a technology brand that makes headphones, Trestain only provided shopping advice and did not provide any specific headphone recommendations for our list.) “Basically, it detects and analyzes the sound pattern of incoming noise and then generates a mirror ‘anti-noise’ signal to cancel it out,” he says. “The end result is that you hear a drastically reduced level of noise.”.
There are multiple kinds of ANC. Feedforward ANC — common among smaller, in-ear headphones — uses external microphones to record and counteract ambient noise. Feedback ANC, on the other hand, uses internal microphones to FOCUS on counteracting the noise that makes it to your ear.
The most effective kind of ANC is hybrid ANC, which combines both technologies — it uses what Trestain calls “a combination of inward-facing and outward-facing microphones” to cancel noise both inside and outside the ear for clearer calls and listening sessions.
If you’re looking to block out as much noise as possible, you’ll want to opt for an over-ear model. “An over-ear ANC headset fully covers your ears and blocks out most outside sounds,” says Trestain. “It adds passive noise cancellation to the mix and filters out high-frequency noise.” However, since ANC headsets can be heavier and bulkier than other options, some people may prefer earbuds.
In-ear models generally won’t block quite as much outside noise, but ANC versions are designed to create a seal over your ear as much as possible.
Is ANC good for hearing health?
The CDC estimates that 12.5% of children (aged 6-19) and 17% of adults (aged 20-69) in the U.S. experience some kind of permanent damage to their hearing from “excessive exposure to noise” — so it’s important to consider your audio hardware and how you use it.
Dr. Gayla Poling, an audiology researcher at Mayo Clinic, is an expert in early identification of hearing loss from noise exposure and says that headphones regularly come up in discussions around hearing health. “There’s a body of evidence that shows if I have headphones that are really good quality, and block out background noise, maybe I don’t have to turn the volume up to hear it,” says Poling. “So in some ways, there’s a sort of protective effect in the sense I don’t have to turn it up as loud to share and enjoy the music.”
However, it’s crucial that ANC headphones aren’t mistaken for actual hearing protection — the kind of professional sound mufflers or earplugs that construction workers, welders and firearm specialists use to protect their ears in high-volume environments. “ANC is really designed to block out ambient sounds, like a fan running,” says Poling. “You’re wanting to cancel out that low-level sound, to make the environment less stressful.
That is not the same as hearing protection in really noisy environments, where we really want to deaden the sound, sound-proof, and reduce the overall exposure to the ears,” she says. ANC, will not do much for hearing protection when it comes fireworks or really loud rock concerts, according to Poling.
ANC is also a very nascent technology in consumer audio, and technology tends to a race ahead of slow, rigorous medical literature so it’s hard to say how ANC affects ear health, good or bad: “Evidence or research in this area is still very much emerging, because the technologies are just now largely accessible,” says Poling. “We don’t really know the effects of active noise cancellation on those things. They just haven’t been studied.”
Ultimately balance is the key, so make sure you aren’t listening to loud music for overly long periods. Eighty five decibels — roughly the noise level of a bustling street corner — is seen as the upper limit of what people can listen to comfortably for 8-10 hours at a time, though this naturally varies according to the individual, according to Poling.
Are there any downsides to ANC?
Yes. In certain cases, blocking out your environment would be unsafe. For example, it would be irresponsible to wear them while driving, and could be dangerous to use while walking down the street (especially when crossing the road), or in the gym, where there is a lot of heavy equipment. Tuning out your surroundings is best when you’re static and unlikely to come into trouble.
It’s important to be able to hear someone call your name or tell you to watch out, says Poling. “You have to have at least situational awareness for your own safety.”
The efficacy of ANC, or dangers of high volumes, will also depend on the person using it. “Everyone’s ears are different,” says Poling. “They’re almost like fingerprints, and every shape and size is very different. And it’s very individual, who’s actually at risk for hearing loss.”
How does ANC affect battery life?
ANC is an energy-intensive process, using built-in microphone arrays to record environmental noise, and then negating that input with an opposing signal. Battery life can drop significantly when ANC is active, just like using your headphones for all-day meetings or long conference calls will run the battery faster than simply listening to music or a podcast.
Meet our experts
At Select, we work with experts who have specialized knowledge and authority based on relevant training and/or experience. We also take steps to ensure that all expert advice and recommendations are made independently and with no undisclosed financial conflicts of interest.
- Richard Trestain is a product manager at audio brand Jabra. Despite working at a technology brand that makes headphones, Trestain only provided shopping advice for this guide and did not provide any specific headphone recommendations for our list.
- Gayla Poling, PhD, is an audiology researcher at Mayo Clinic.
Why trust Select?
Henry St. Leger has been writing about consumer technology for years, extensively trying headphones, soundbars, and home entertainment hardware. They were previously the news features editor at TechRadar and have bylines for Insider, Healthline, T3, Tech Advisor, and Trusted Reviews.
Catch up on Select’s in-depth coverage of personal finance, tech and tools, wellness and more, and follow us on. Instagram and and TikTok to stay up to date.
What Is ANC, and How Does It Improve My Headphones?
Headphones and earbuds used to be pretty simple. They had just one task—playing music. But a relatively new feature called ANC or “active noise cancelation” has turned everything on its head. It’s now impossible to shop for headphones without running into this feature, which claims to cut background noise in any environment. And let me tell you, ANC is awesome.
Here’s the problem; ANC headphones or earbuds tend to cost a lot of money, and nobody wants to spend extra on something that they don’t understand. That’s why it’s time to learn how ANC works and evaluate any limitations or problems you might encounter when using ANC.
What Is Active Noise Cancelation?
Because headphones and earbuds cover your ears, they all offer some level of noise cancelation. But this “passive” cancelation isn’t very effective, especially when you’re on a plane, in a noisy office, or sitting next to an air conditioner.
And that’s where ANC or “active noise cancelation” comes into play. Headphones or earbuds with ANC don’t just cover your ears; they also use digital processing to cancel background noise. The result is genuinely mind-blowing, as ANC can instantaneously turn a noisy environment into a silent haven.
Most high-end wireless headphones and earbuds now come with ANC, though the feature tends to work decently well even in affordable products. Additionally, some headphones and earbuds allow you to adjust ANC intensity through an app, which is a handy feature if you only want to cancel certain sounds.
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If you’re ever in a noisy environment that’s uncomfortable or distracting, ANC is an essential feature that you should look for in a new pair of headphones. But how does ANC work, and is it always a good thing?
How Does Active Noise Cancelation Work?
You probably know that sound, like light, travels in “waves.” And while light and sound are two very different things (light is radiation, sound is pressure), their respective waveforms function in similar ways.
We’re going to FOCUS on waveform frequency, since that’s the most important part of understanding ANC. In un-scientific terms, frequency is the speed at which a wave jiggles. Light waves of a low frequency are red, for example, and low-frequency sound has a low pitch.
Oddly enough, low-frequency waveforms are also really good at traveling through space. That’s why the sky looks red in the evening. And unfortunately, it’s also the reason why your neighbor’s music rumbles through your home. An old-fashioned pair of headphones may “passively” block out high-frequency sounds, but it can’t defend your ears from low-frequency noise, hence the need for something advanced like ANC.
Now that you know a bit about waveforms, the science behind ANC is actually quite simple. Basically, headphones or earbuds with ANC use microphones to capture external noise. They then reverse the polarity of this noise (they turn the waveform upside down) and pump it into your ears. Because sound is a form of pressure, the “anti-noise” wave physically cancels out any obnoxious background noise that manages to penetrate your headphones.
The efficacy of ANC headphones or earbuds can vary depending on their design. A high-end pair of headphones may use external and in-ear microphones, for example. The external mics allow your headphones to quickly react to noise, while the in-ear mics can “hear” any low-frequency rumble that manages to reach your ears. (Some headphones use in-ear mics to detect if an ANC signal isn’t working properly.)
Earbuds rarely have any room for in-ear mics, so they’re often less accurate than full-sized ANC headphones. So, ANC earbuds may react quickly to external noises, they have a harder time canceling low-frequency rumble and cannot self-correct if something goes wrong.
Does ANC Affect Sound Quality?
Unfortunately, you can’t use ANC without sacrificing some sound quality. The technology isn’t 100% accurate, so you can expect a slight hissing noise when you activate ANC on most headphones or earbuds. You will also notice a decrease in sound quality if the headphones can’t create a proper seal over your ears.
And if you’re a natural-born audio sleuth, you may notice a change in audio fidelity when you activate ANC. That’s because your headphones need to add an “anti-noise” ANC signal to your music, which requires digital processing. While this processing shouldn’t hurt your music, it does call for extra power consumption, which can present some problems.
In a pair of wireless headphones or earbuds, using extra power will significantly reduce battery life. Manufacturers are forced to split the difference. Otherwise, customers will complain that their headphones don’t work long enough. So, when ANC is active, the drivers in your headphones receive less power, which reduces dynamics and frequency range but extends battery life.
Headphones and earbuds usually apply an EQ to music when ANC is active, which may combat the change in audio quality. Often times, this trick doesn’t work, though high-end headphones that undergo a ton of development may sound the same whether ANC is active or not. (The change in audio quality is most noticeable in budget earbuds, mainly due to cheaper hardware and a lack of RD.)
Wired headphones aren’t free from this problem, by the way. Most wired ANC headphones contain a battery, as the “passive” signal from a 3.5mm cable can’t power a digital audio chip. When this battery activates, it alters the amount of power that’s available to the headphones’ drivers, which changes their sound profile.
Are ANC Headphones Comfortable?
When people first try ANC, they may feel a strange “pressure” on their ears. It’s a weird phenomenon that can be painful to some people, though it usually goes away once you get used to the feeling of ANC.
As with all things in life, the human brain is responsible for this problem. Our brains partially rely on our ears to detect changes in air pressure, so when a pair of ANC headphones cancels out a rumbling sound (especially one that’s loud and persistent), it can trick our brains into thinking that the air pressure has suddenly changed.
Humans usually pop their ears to deal with shifts in air pressure. But doing so won’t change the feeling of wearing ANC headphones. As a result, you may feel a bit of discomfort while using ANC.
Again, this problem usually goes away once you’re used to wearing ANC headphones or earbuds. But some people just aren’t built for ANC. Thankfully, the ANC mode on your headphones is optional, so you can turn it off at any time.
The Opposite of ANC: Transparency Mode
Now that ANC is a relatively common feature, headphone manufacturers are searching for other ways to help their products stand out. One new feature, which is actually the opposite of ANC, is usually called Transparency or Ambience mode.
Transparency mode takes external noise and pumps it into your ears, allowing you to hear your surroundings. It may sound unintuitive, but Transparency mode can help you avoid unwanted or dangerous situations while walking outside, going to the gym, or riding on public transportation.
Of course, this feature isn’t just for safety. You can use Transparency mode to hear family or friends without pausing your music, for example. I actually use it while cooking because it lets me hear food that’s sizzling in the oven or simmering on the stove.
I should also mention that, like ANC, Transparency mode is usually customizable. In some cases, headphones or earbuds even have a Transparency setting that focuses on voices and ignores other external sounds.