The world is a noisy place filled with screaming children, coughing commuters and your work colleagues clacky mechanical keyboards. If you’re looking to drown those sounds out or if you’re a frequent flyer that just wants to get the roar of jet engines out of their ears, noise cancelling headphones should be at the top of your To Buy list. Here are five of the best for your consideration.
But first, what exactly are noise cancelling headphones? Maybe you’ve heard of passive noise cancelling and active noise cancelling? What’s the difference?
Noise cancelling headphones work to reduce the ambient noise entering your ear – things like jet engines, traffic and those pesky neighbours. Passive noise cancelling works by physically blocking sounds from entering your ear, exactly like cupping your hand over your ear does. For example, in-ear headphones block the ear canal and over-ear headphones use padding and insulation to completely cover your ear.
On the other hand, active noise cancelling uses the laws of physics. Active noise cancelling headphones are able to block out ambient noise by sending out an inverted sound wave that counters the incoming sound wave, effectively ‘cancelling’ it out. To do this, the headphones have to be pretty smart, so you’ll find that active noise cancelling headphones are equipped with one or more microphones that are listening to the ambient noise in the environment, in addition to a speaker that sends out the inverted sound wave.
The trade off is that there’s a lot of technology packed into the headphones which generally means, compared to non-noise cancelling models, the price is higher and the audio quality isn’t quite as good. That problem is lessening with time, but for audiophiles or those working in a studio, I’d be looking at headphones designed to accurately replicate sound, rather than try and block ambient noise.
For the purposes of this round up, I’ve only included headphones that specifically feature active noise cancellation. Also, I’ve only gone with circumaural headphones – ones that completely encapsulate your ears – instead of on-ear or in-ear. There are certainly noise cancelling models available in these styles – the AKG N60NC and Bose’s QuietComfort 20 come to mind – but those won’t be featured here.
Despite being a couple of years old, these are a superb set of headphones that provide a really crisp, clean audio experience but the noise cancellation technology that isn’t quite as impressive as their direct competitors.
The Momentum certainly are a striking pair of headphones when you compare them to most others in this list – they have a unique minimalistic design that stands out from the crowd. Sennheiser’s active noise cancelling technology, which they call NoiseGard, isn’t quite as astounding as their rivals, but it does what it’s supposed to do. The only negative is that it’s always switched on if you’re using Bluetooth though this doesn’t adversely affect battery life – you’ll still get 22 hours which is very similar to other models we’ve looked at here.
I love that the earcups are collapsible and fold into a compact package because my current pair of headphones aren’t quite as malleable and, though I try to take care of them, there are times when I just throw them into my bag without a second thought. The Momentums are built well, and that goes a long way to increasing their lifespan, which I can appreciate.
Sennheiser also have a slightly cheaper model – the PXC 550 – that also feature their NoiseGard technology but I’m not as big a fan of those, mainly because they don’t seem to fit quite as snugly over my (huge) ears.
I have to admit, I was surprised by the Backbeat Pro 2. It’s one of the value buys in this list, which usually means you see a marked loss in audio quality, but the Backbeats hold their own against some of the most expensive noise cancelling headphones in the market and are well worth a look.
From an audio point of view, you get some real vibrant trebles coupled with great bass without the mix sounding too muddy. It’s not sound that the audiophile in you is going to build a shrine to, it’s just really well-rounded sound for the price you’re paying. There’s no noticeable hiss, which you sometimes get with lower-range noise cancelling headphones and that’s a huge plus.
The big positives are the 24 hour battery life and the built-in sensors that detect when you’ve taken the headphones off your ears, automatically pausing your music, though they did act a little finicky for me, intermittently. As a ‘budget’ option for noise cancelling though, these are the headphones you should be looking at.
The most expensive on the list, B&O's luxury H9s are definitely comfortable (even for my weird, large, elven ears) but they don't quite match the quality of their less-expensive counterparts.
For me, I like the highs and the mids a lot more than deep bass and unfortunately, that's where the H9s put a lot of their energy. It's not necessarily a bad thing, especially if you are a fan of deep, booming bass and have had experience with, say, the Beats range of headphones but for me, I can't get past those balance issues. In terms of noise cancellation though, the H9s give you bang for your buck, with two microphones working to cancel ambient noise. I still don't think they're quite on par with Bose, who are definitely top of this game, but they still comprehensively block out anything you don't want to hear.
The battery life leaves a little to be desired, especially because of the price, at 14 hours where most comparable models are operating at the 20 hour range. Durability is excellent though - the H9s use high-quality materials that can be replaced if anything untoward were to happen, so that does help justify their pricing and increases their lifespan.
One of the most expensive items on this list but also one of the best, the MDR-1000X provides excellent noise cancellation without skimping on providing quality audio.
The right earcup is touch-responsive, so you can control music and calls by running your hand across the speaker in various ways. Forward skips song, up increases volume and double-tapping answers calls. But the coolest feature is what Sony have called ‘Quick Attention Mode’, whereby cupping the right speaker with your hand will quieten the music and channel outside noise into the headset so you can hear what’s going on in the real world without taking your headphones off. Touch doesn’t seem practical, but it works well enough to not have too many complaints.
If you’re going to spend this sort of money on headphones, you want to be sure that you are getting a pair that aren’t going to end up in the bin in a year’s time. To be honest, 4 years down the track, I’m still using Sony’s MDR-10RNC, a pair of noise-cancelling headphones originally released back in 2013. The design of the 1000X is markedly better than my old pair from a rigidity point of view, but the major issue is that the battery inside them isn’t replaceable – once it starts to wear down, you’re going to have to replace the headset. That battery is rated for approximately 20 hours of use out of the box, but over time that will certainly lessen.
Overall, you can’t get much better quality than this, you just have to be prepared to drop seven hundred dollars on ‘em.
The Gold Standard. The QuietComfort 35s are top of their class for noise cancellation and they provide excellent audio that Bose is world-renowned for. Audio quality can be pretty subjective from person to person, but if it’s noise-cancelling you’re looking for, then this is absolutely the way to go.
I’ve routinely told myself that if my current Sony’s were to give up the ghost that I’d switch to the QuietComfort 35s because they are just so good. They provide some of the most balanced audio you’ll find in the market and easily the best noise-cancellation I’ve come across so far. What really convinced me though is their durability. You can literally pick them up and twist them into most any configuration and they just twist back into place. For those who aren’t careful with their headphones and don’t put them back in the designated carry case, the QuietComfort 35s are ideal.
If wireless isn’t your thing, you could always go for the QuietComfort 25s which are a little cheaper, but be aware that they run off of a single AAA battery for noise cancellation and I can tell you, it’s super easy to forget to replace that before a long flight.
Are there any noise cancelling headphones you've found that bring you silence and thus, great joy? Let us know!