Best noise-cancelling headphones 2020: the top headphones for travel and commuting
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The best noise-cancelling headphones can help you slip into a state of pure audio nirvana, whether you're heading to work and trying to escape the sound of traffic and sniffling commuters, or you just want to get away from everything and dive into your favorite music at home.
Noise-cancelling headphones are true wonders of the modern era because they can totally tune out any unwanted sounds, while making your music sound even better than any old pair of in-ear earbuds (except for the fantastic Sony WF-1000XM3s, of course).
There are so many styles and brands to choose from these days, and our latest entry, the JBL Tune 750BTNC prove that you don't have to spend loads to achieve truly accomplished noise cancelation.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 are the best noise-cancelling headphones in the world two years running. Sure, they might be a small refinement of last year's excellent WH-1000XM2, but subtle tweaks like using USB-C instead of microUSB and adding padding along the bridge help make Sony's award-winning cans even better.
So why does everyone love these Sony headphones so much? Well, it's exceptionally good at cancelling outside noise. Put a pair on while vacuuming and you'll barely hear the motor running.
For music lovers, the Sony WH-1000XM3 features aptX HD and Sony LDAC, two of the best ways to listen to Hi-Res music from your phone without a wire. Finally, all of Sony's flagship headphones offer both Google Assistant and, starting in 2019, Alexa support, making them not only the best noise-cancelling cans on the market but some of the smartest, too.
We could see the Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Headphones in the near future; rumors of an imminent release date have been circling since an FCC filing from Sony revealed the model number of the new noise-cancelling headphones. For now though, the WH-1000XM3s are still the cream of the noise-cancelling crop.
Read more: Sony WH-1000XM3 review
They don't quite beat the Sony WH-1000XM3s in terms of battery life and price, but the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are still a brilliant pair of over-ear cans – and the best Bose headphones we've reviewed.
Traditionally, noise-cancelling headphones have been designed to block out the environmental sounds around you, so that you can hear your music more clearly (or catch some shut-eye on a noisy flight).
This can be really effective if you’re listening to music. If you’re making a phone call however, the person you’re speaking to can still hear everything that’s happening around you, whether you’re standing on a busy street or trying to speak on a rumbling train.
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 seek to remedy this, by applying noise-cancellation to phone calls as well as music, which is fantastic feature.
The sound quality is undeniably good, with a vibrant, lively character and well-balanced soundstage.
If you’re trying to decide between buying the Sony WH-1000XM3s and the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, we’d recommend going for the former because of that lower price and better battery life. That being said, you wouldn’t be making a mistake if you opted for the Bose cans instead (and we wouldn’t blame you if you did) – they sound great, look stunning, and the noise-cancellation is out of this world.
Read more: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review
If you can find a pair, the Sony WH-1000XM2 are still some of the best noise-cancelling headphones around: They sound great, deftly wield noise cancellation technology and cost just as much as a pair of Bose QC35s.
They might have a slightly shorter battery life than Bose’s flagship over-ear headphones, but Sony’s WH-1000XM2 outclass the QC35 in terms of performance and feature-set.
You’d want to pick these Sony headphones over the Bose because not only do they provide the same level of awesome noise-cancellation, but they have three neat tricks that Bose just doesn't have on its older headphones.
One is an ambient noise mode that only lets in mid-to-high frequency tones (announcements over a loudspeaker, for instance) and another is Quick Attention mode that allows you to let in all outside noise without taking off the headphones.
The last trick Sony has up its sleeve is the LDAC codec. Alongside the widely adopted aptX HD standard, LDAC enables Hi-Res Audio playback using the 1000XM2.
Great-sounding, feature-packed and just as affordable as the competition? The Sony WH-1000XM2 are a solid all-around pick for noise-cancelling cans.
Read more: Sony WH-1000XM2 review
Coming in at number four are the Bose QuietComfort 35 II – a nearly identical product to the already-excellent Bose QuietComfort 35 but updated for 2018 with Google Assistant. This means you still get the class-leading noise cancellation Bose is known for, good sound quality and incredible comfort, plus a convenient assistant to answer any inquiries you might have while traveling.
Taken as a whole, the Bose QC35 II NC are an excellent pair of headphones for travelers and commuters. Bose has found a good balance of features that will satisfy most mainstream listeners. While we don't love them as much as the better-sounding Sony WH-1000XM2, they're still top of the class for noise cancellation.
Despite the popularity of the QC35s, Bose has shaken things up by releasing a totally new wireless noise-cancelling headphones model, with a focus on sleek design and “breakthrough” audio tech: the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. They may not have pipped Sony to the top spot of the best noise-cancelling headphones, but they're still a fantastic pair of over-ear headphones, coming in at number two.
Read more: Bose QuietComfort 35 II review
It's not often you'll find a pair of wired earbuds, let alone a pair of true wireless earbuds on a list of the best noise-cancelling headphones; considering it's still rare to find the technology in earphones at all, the Sony WF-1000XM3s are very impressive indeed, and fully deserve a place in this roundup.
The Sony WF-1000XM3s manage to offer a level of noise cancellation that's very good for a pair of earbuds – they won't offer the same isolation as a pair of over-ear cans, but if you're after a sleek form factor then the compromise is worth it.
Not only are these hands down the best-looking true wireless headphones out there, but they combine serious noise-cancelling tech with fist-pumping musicality. If you don’t want the inconvenience of carrying full-size cans, they’re a persuasive alternative.
Read more: Sony WF-1000XM3 review
Offering class-leading battery life, terrific style and plenty of personalization when it comes to sound profiles, the Elite 85h is easy to recommend. That said, purists will bemoan the lack of high-end codec support and there are punchier headphones on the market at this price point.
When you consider that Jabra’s Elite 85h headphones are the company’s first attempt at premium wireless ANC headphones, the result is quite commendable. We can’t wait to see what the company’s next premium ANC headphones will accomplish.
If you want an alternative to Sony's WH-1000XM3, these are a great option.
Read more: Jabra Elite 85H review
Philips presents a more elegant noise-cancelling solution with its NC1. These on-ear headphones aren't wireless like our top pick, but that's hardly a reason to knock them. Coming in at $299/£195, the NC1 are a compact set that's high on comfort and battery life.
You get a lot for the money here. In the box comes the headphones, a hard case for storage and the headphones rock a rechargeable battery that provides noise cancellation for close to 30 hours. But best of all, the sound performance is extremely well balanced and warm.
(A quick note for our Australian readers: Philips sadly no longer sells the NC1's down under, so you'll need to import a pair if you're keen.)
Read more: Philips Fidelio NC1 review
The Marshall Monitor II ANC are undoubtedly the brand’s best headphones yet; the audio quality on offer here far surpasses any of its previous models, with a balanced presentation, smooth mids, and a generally powerful, rock-ready sound.
They feel comfortable, come with tons of cool rock heritage, and look stylish. That, alongside their good noise cancellation, easy controls and accompanying app, makes the Marshall Monitor II ANCs a compelling alternative to the Sony WH-1000XM3.
They don't quite win out in terms of sound quality or noise cancelation, but these over-ear headphones are still very good indeed.
Read more: Marshall Monitor II ANC review
Bowers and Wilkins are a little late to the noise cancellation game, but their first foray impresses.
The PX Wireless aren't just a great sounding pair of headphones, they've also got a number of other interesting tricks up their sleeve. They'll turn on and off automatically depending on whether you're wearing them or not, and they also feature the future-proof USB-C charging standard.
In our opinion their only downside is the sound quality, which we felt lacks the depth of the flagship headphones from Bose and Sony.
That said, if you've been a fan of the look of B&W's headphones in the past then the PX Wireless are certainly worth a listen.
Read more: Bowers and Wilkins PX Wireless review
In terms of sheer sound quality, the Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless headphones sound brilliant, with high levels of detail, warm bass, and natural-sounding highs.
The customizable noise cancellation on offer here is also good, but it doesn’t quite reach the class-leading standards set by the Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless headphones.
They have nowhere near the battery life of Sony’s headphones, and are more expensive – which begs the question, why buy the Sennheisers when you could have the WH-1000XM3?
Well, if built-in Tile tracking appeals to you, and you like the industrial design and premium materials of the Momentum 3 Wireless, that could be reason enough – and if you do opt for them over the Sony model, you won’t be missing out on any audio quality. In that respect, they’re truly matched.
Read more: Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless review
JBL is a popular name in the world of headphones and Bluetooth speakers, and rightly so. Solidly dependable, consumers know what to expect from the brand – decent sound quality for a decent price.
That's what we found with the JBL Live 650BTNC last year – and now, ready to take their place are the JBL Tune 750BTNC, a superior successor to the 650BTNC's as a high-spec and well-priced set of over-ear headphones.
The JBL Tune 750BTNC sound great, look great, and they fit well. Reliable and easy to use, you might miss waterproofing and a few minor features – but at this price, it feels foolish to complain too readily.
Read more: JBL Tune 750BTNC review
While they're not quite up to par with the flagship noise-cancelling cans from Sony and Bose, Microsoft’s Surface headphones are surprisingly good, with a stunningly warm sound, and generous bass frequencies.
Problematically, the active noise-cancelling works pretty well, although it won’t block out all ambient noise in your environment, especially if you're somewhere noisy. That being said, if you have the noise-cancelling turned on while listening to music, you can pretty much get lost in the experience without being disturbed by your noisy shared office of the rumbling of the train on your commute.
Although we were initially unconvinced by the high price (particularly when you can buy quality cans from heritage audio brands for less), most of the Surface Headphone's features work so seamlessly that it feels justified.
Read more: Microsoft Surface Headphones review
If you haven't found something quite to your liking so far, we have one last option for you to look at – the all-new Nura Nuraphone over-ear/in-ear hybrid. Their form factor means you’ve not only got an earbud sitting at the entrance of your ear canal, but also an over-ear cushion sitting over your entire ear. This effectively means you’ve got two physical barriers meaning that the noise from the outside world can’t get to your ears. While more traditional over-ear headphones do a better job offering useful features at a reasonable price, the Nuraphone will appeal to the more experimental audio crowd looking to be on the bleeding-edge of the next big thing.
Read more: Nuraphone Headphones review
Best noise-cancelling headphones at a glance
- Sony WH-1000XM3
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Sony WH-1000XM2
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Sony WF-1000XM3 True Wireless Earbuds
- Jabra Elite 85H
- Philips Fidelio NC1
- Marshall Monitor II ANC
- Bowers and WIlkins PX Wireless
- Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless
- JBL Tune 750BTNC
- Microsoft Surface Headphones
What is noise cancellation?
Noise-cancelling headphones use analogue and electronic methods to block out the environmental sound around you, allowing you to listen to your music in peace without distraction. Most noise-cancelling headphones make use of the following two approaches:
Passive noise cancellation
This is when the headphones physically block outside sound from reaching your ears, and this can be achieved in a number of ways. Noise-cancelling over-ear headphones typically have heavily padded earcups to achieve this, while in-ear headphones need to fit snugly in your ear to create a tight seal, stopping environmental sounds from entering.
Active noise cancellation
This method uses inbuilt microphones to analyze environmental noise and create 'anti-noise' frequencies that are mixed in with your music playback. This effectively cancels out the sound of your surroundings using analogue or digital filters.
How to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones
We believe that noise-cancelling headphones are just as vital as your laptop, TV or mobile phone when it comes to tech that'll change how you live, work and play – especially if you have a long commute each day or a flight ahead of you. That means that choosing the right pair for you is important – the demands of a good pair of headphones for a flight are different to those you'll only ever use at home.
Design is hugely important, as a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones need to be comfortable for long listening sessions – look out for padded earcups and headbands in materials like memory foam for ultimate comfort.
Padded earcups also help with passive noise cancellation – in other words, they physically block sound from entering your ears. This works in tandem with active noise cancellation, with the best noise-cancelling headphones using a combination of the two methods to get rid of outside noise.
As with any pair of headphones, the sound quality needs to be good, even if your focus is blocking out the world around you. How you define good sound quality depends on your personal taste. Do you like a warm, well-rounded sound, or do you prefer ultra high-fidelity that allows you to hear every single detail of your music? Are you a dedicated bass head or a classical music junkie?