Whether you want to sleep on a plane, get some work done without having to listen to the office banter, or simply want a more peaceful commute, you need a pair of noise cancelling headphones, and we’ve tested dozens to bring you the finest designs whatever your budget.
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If you’re unfamiliar with noise cancelling headphones you’re in for a treat. Originally designed to minimise engine noise for pilots, Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) is a technology that – and please excuse
How we test noise cancelling headphones
Chris Haslam is one of the leading consumer journalists in the UK, with almost two decades of experience. He specialises in audio technology and as a result listens to more headphones in a year than most people will buy in a lifetime.
Chris travels a lot for work and never gets on a plane or train without a pair of noise cancelling headphones. As a freelance journalist he also spends hours in shared offices spaces and coffee shops stealing the free wifi, so knows better than most what makes a good pair of headphones to block out the background chatter.
What is the best pair of noise cancelling headphones in 2019?
It’s a close call, but the Sony WH-1000XM3 just pip the excellent new Jabra Elite 85h to the title of best noise cancelling headphones 2019. The combination of excellent noise cancelling tech, great sound and pillowy comfort is impossible to beat. If you’re looking to spend less, but still get the features, the JBL Live 650BTNC are well worth investigating.
Best noise-cancelling headphones 2019
1. Sony WH-1000XM3 – best noise-cancelling headphones for all-round performance
They’re not the most stylish headphones in the world – see the Beoplay H9i for a bit more wow factor – but the Sony WH-1000XM3 are the best noise canceling headphones money can buy. You’ll need plenty of cash to afford them, but if you travel a lot, or work in a noisy office environment it’s an investment you won’t regret.
Not only do they sound great, but they have a long-haul 30 hour battery life and the most enjoyable noise cancelling we’ve heard. Some noise cancelling technology creates the feeling of having your head in a vacuum, with air pressure being different inside the ear-cups, but if it wasn’t for the eerie silence created by the headphones you’d never know they were switched on.
We also love the fact that if you want to temporarily let outside noise in such as an announcement at a station, you can just cover the right ear and the headphones will amplify the outside noise instantly. It’s a great feature and one you’ll sue more than you realise.
Well made, comfortable and reasonably light (255g) the design has touch sensitive ear cups, so you can control the playback, adjust the volume and take calls with a simple tap of the headphones. They also have NFC so a compatible smartphone can be tapped on the side for an instant Bluetooth connection, they charge far quicker than most and feature aptX HD, which is the finest audio quality of Bluetooth streaming available.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 also sound superb, which makes them almost the perfect all-round headphone package. The detail is exceptional, they’re fun, with a great sense of timing and rhythm and everything we played through them sounded great.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
2. Jabra Elite 85h – best noise-cancelling headphones for a busy office
As a standalone pair of noise cancelling headphones the Elite 85h are brilliantly designed, very comfortable, have great sound quality and a class-leading 36 hour battery life, but Jabra has taken things a step further by creating the Sound + (Android and iOS) app that enables you to adjust the level of noise cancelling to suit your surroundings.
You can choose where you are – travelling, in private or in public – and either full noise cancellation, off or something called HearThrough, which lets ambient sound into the headphones. What’s more, you can also turn on SmartSound which is a mode that measures the background noise (there are eight microphones built into the headphones) and adjust the level of noise cancelling to maximise your peace and quiet. Oh and you can even adjust the sound – increase bass, add treble etc. – to suit your tastes.
It’s a bit of a gimmick for sure , but the active noise cancellation is extremely good. As an example, we can barely hear the clatter of keys as we type this review, and have been startled several times by co-workers who we simply didn’t hear come in the office.
The ANC doesn’t feel as natural as on the Sony’s, and there’s a bit of a stuck-in-a-goldfish-bowl feel about it at times, but there’s not much in it in terms of silence.
Switch to HearThrough mode and the world comes flooding into our ears, which is great if you’re out and about, but also handy if you want to keep an ear on what’s happening in the office, but look like you’ve got your headphones on.
Oddly the headphones don’t have a power button, instead they power down when they realise you’re not wearing them, and boot up – and connect automatically to your phone – when you put them on your head. They also pause the music when you take them off, which is a great feature.
And to top it all, the Jabra Elite 85h sound great, with a big, bold performance. Instruments can be clearly heard in the mix, vocals are very present and the bass is punchy without being overly dominant.
Ideal Home’s rating: 5 out of 5 stars
3. JBL Live 650BTNC – best noise-cancelling headphones for value for money
Costing half the price of the Bang & Olufsen, and at least £100 cheaper than many noise cancelling headphones, the JBL Live 650BTNC are still not cheap, but offer an excellent alternative to the top-end designs. They boast good noise cancellation, 20 hour battery life, comfort and plenty of features including voice control. If you demand quality but don’t have big bucks to spare, they’re well worth seeking out.
The 650BTNC come in three different colours – black with copper trim, very white, blue and silver – the headband is made from a durable cloth, while the ear cups are made of a super comfy faux leather. The JBL logo might be a bit too prominent for some, but the quality of the headphones is solid. OK so the buttons are a bit rattly, but you can’t expect swanky touch controls for under £200.
One of the new features JBL has introduced is the ability to work with either Google Assistant or Amazon Alexa voice assistant, so you can simply press a button and ask to change songs, skip, increase volume, ask about the weather etc. And like the Jabra there’s an app that allows you to adjust sound and check battery life. It’s fairly rudimentary, but a nice extra nevertheless.
The headphones fold flat and come with a cloth pouch to protect them from the bottom of your bag, and while we would have appreciated a hard case for extra protection, it shouldn’t be a deal breaker. They also come with a 3.5mm cable for using when you’re on a plane, or they run out of battery.
When it comes to giving you some peace, the noise-cancelling is good but not a patch on the Bose or Sony. It will drown out the loudest person in the office and eliminate engine noise on a plane, but if you’re not listening to music you will be able to hear a gentle hiss.
Combine the long list of features and solid noise cancelling with a bright and engaging sound and you’re in for a treat that won’t cost the earth.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
4. Lindy BNX-100 – best noise-cancelling headphones for style on a budget
Lindy is a brand you’ve probably not come across unless you’ve been buying cables and connectors for TV and Hi-Fi, but their range of headphones prove you don’t have to spend big to get the latest features.
At £120 the BNX-100 can’t be described as cheap, but thanks to the faux leather earcups, nice silver trim and elegant headband you could be mistaken for thinking they cost a whole lot more. They’re comfortable too, with just enough pressure on the ears and nice soft ear cups and the battery will last a respectable, if not remarkable 12 hours.
The headphones also come with a well-designed hard case, 3.5mm cable for plugging them in and a travel adapter for plugging them into older airplane seats.
The noise cancelling technology here is good, and while not a patch on the Bose or Sony, it will get rid of unwanted train carriage or office noise, and if you do need to hear what’s going on, there’s a button that turns the music and ANC off instantly, and if you remove the headphones at any time the music will automatically pause. Again, both features generally reserved for more expensive designs.
And as for sound quality, the headphones perform significantly better with the noise cancelling turned on, and there’s plenty of bass if that’s your thing. They’re not the most accomplished sounding headphones available, especially if you turn them up loud, but if you listen to a lot of podcasts you’ll appreciate the clarity of voices, and the same goes for receiving and making hands free calls using the built-in microphone.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
5. Bose QuietControl 30 – best in-ear noise-cancelling headphones
Bose invented noise-cancelling technology back in 1986 and continue to develop excellent headphones such as the QC30 that, despite being an in-ear design, still squeeze in exceptional ANC technology, hugely enjoyable sound and a 10 hour battery life, and what’s more, there’s a button that lets you adjust the level of noise cancelling to suit your surroundings, which is very handy if you need to hear more of the world around you, or simply block everyone out!
This neckband design might not be to everyone’s tastes, and having something rest on your shoulders does take a bit of getting used to, but it has the great advantage over standard wireless in-ear headphones of reducing the weight on the ear buds so gravity doesn’t work them loose as easily.
The earbuds come with small silicone wing tips that push into the folds of your ear, keeping them very secure. Again, it takes a little getting used to, and some ears will be better suited than others – try before you buy if you can – but we had no problems and found them exceptionally comfortable, even over long periods.
The sound quality is everything you should expect for a £300 pair of headphones, with plenty of detail, and a lovely open and enjoyable listen, and while they won’t satisfy anyone looking for super heavy bass, they’re not designed to. They’re a very upmarket design aimed squarely at professionals, and is ideal if you travel a lot but like to pack light as they offer the same noise cancellation – engine noise melts into the background – in a design that takes a fraction of the space in your suitcase.
They’re expensive and we would ideally like a longer battery life, but if you need a big performance in a small package, you’ll not find better.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
6. Audio-Technica ATH-ANC500BT – best budget noise-cancelling headphones
Small, light (only 180g) and extremely comfortable – especially on petite heads – these affordable headphones from Audio Technica do a great job at tackling unwanted background noise while being thoroughly entertaining.
The memory foam earpads are smaller than most on test, so may well sit on your ears rather than fully cover them, but however they fit, they’ll stay in place and while the plastic construction may not feel especially premium, it keeps the weight down, so you can wear them for longer without needing a break.
The look is very much in keeping with Audio Technica’s more expensive designs, and while not the most exciting, is understated and functional. Controls are all nicely located on the right ear cup and the raised profile helps to avoid pressing the wrong one, which is a nice touch. There’s no travel case and they don’t fold up which is a bit of a shame, but the earcups do lie flat to save space in your bag.
The noise cancelling technology used in the ATH-ANC500BT is effective at blocking out general office bustle and commuter noises, but it doesn’t offer the same cloak of silence you’ll find on the more expensive designs like the Sony or Jabra. If you’ve not tried noise cancelling headphones before, they’ll still be an absolute treat to your ears, and with a 20hr battery life you shouldn’t need to keep remembering to charge them every night.
Sound quality is as impressive as we’ve come to expect from Audio Technica, with bags of detail and plenty of bass. The bass can dominate the middle and high frequencies at times, but if you listen to lots of classic pop and dance music – rather than guitar rock for instance – you’ll really enjoy these headphones, especially for the price.
Ideal Home’s rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars
7. Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9i – best luxury noise-cancelling headphones
If you can ignore the fact we’ve bought second-hand cars for less, the flagship headphones from Danish audio giants Bang & Olufsen are simply wonderful. Available in a host of gorgeous colours, the H9i are as luxurious as it gets with pillowy memory foam earpads covered in the softest imaginable lambskin.
All the hinge components are brilliantly engineered brushed aluminium and the fabric padded headband is finished in hardy cowhide. Admittedly they’re not great for vegans.
But thankfully it’s not all about looks; you get 18 hours of noise-cancelling playback, or 24 hours when plugged in using the included 3.5mm cable, so they’ll keep you entertained all the way to Australia.
Be warned though, choosing the latest colourway may cost you extra. We were able to find the black and natural colours for as little as £300, but the green and bronze designs come in at the full asking price of £450. Ouch!
But are they worth the money? The noise cancelling isn’t quite as impressive as the Sony, but there’s not a huge amount in it. Sonically we think they’re just as good, if not slightly better, with an outstanding amount of clarity, texture and detail.
The combination of ANC technology and great audio tuning by the sound engineers means you’re not only treated to a calm and quiet bubble, but get to enjoy the most intimate concert at the same time.
Take the headphones off – not that you’ll want to do that very often – and the built-in proximity sensors will kick in and pause the music, which is a feature we love.
Touch controls are on the right ear and to change the volume you need to move your finger in a circle, to change track, swipe right or left. It’s slick, but does that a bit of getting used to and we guarantee you’ll skip a track when you meant to pause them. Again, practice makes perfect, but it could irritate some people.
Unlike some designs you can’t adjust the amount of noise cancelling available, but again, this isn’t too much of an issue. We’d never suggest you ride a bike or go for a run with these on, so hearing the outside world isn’t vital.
Ideal Home’s rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Noise cancelling headphones – everything you need to know
By investing in a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones, even the most boring long haul journey will fly by. At home, quality headphones can be just as impressive. You’ll be able to hear every detail from your favourite songs and avoid arguments about the volume.
How does noise cancelling work?
Simply put, microphones in the headphones pick up on the sounds around you, then emit signals to cancel them out.
How are noise cancelling headphones powered?
Gone are the days when noise-cancelling technology was powered by AA batteries. Like standard wireless headphones, most charge via a USB Type C cable (some more affordable or older ‘phones might use Type B, but the charging cable will always be provided). Battery life can be anywhere between 8 and 85 hours, and can be extended if you turn the noise cancelling feature off.
The vast majority of noise cancellers these days are wireless, but a few are attached to cables that plug into a old-school 3.5mm headphone jack on older phones and tablets. Where this is the case, the ‘phones will be able to draw extra power from your device to keep those bad sounds out.
What style should I choose?
Over-ear headphones envelop your entire ear, offering top-quality sound through their larger speakers – and doubling as earmuffs when it’s cold! This provides extra noise-cancelling benefits.
On-ear headphones sit lightly on your ears and combine decent sound with fashion-forward design.
In-ear phones ‘plug’ the entrance of your ear canal, sealing in the sound. Their snug fit makes them ideal for exercising, and they won’t mess up your ‘do, but the audio quality can’t compete with a decent set of ‘cans’.
Are they truly portable?
Most headphones are designed to be worn on the move. If you’re risking them in the depths of your handbag, see if they come with a case to protect them from scratchy keys, crumbs or sweaty gym kit.
On- and over-ear cans can sometimes fold down to take up less room, and in-ear designs might have tangle resistant cords and magnets that hold the ear buds together, automatically shutting any music or podcast off when you need to take pause.