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Best noise cancelling headphones 2020: the best wireless noise cancelling headphones from Bose, Sony and more

T3 logo T3 05/07/2020 Duncan Bell
Ibrahim Baaith talking on a cell phone: Best noise cancelling headphones © Provided by T3 Best noise cancelling headphones

Travel a lot with work? Got a long commute? Have annoyingly chatty colleagues? You need the best noise cancelling headphones – and you need them fast. They'll suppress outside noise, preventing your music, podcasts and audiobooks from being ruined by the outside world, and enable you to listen at lower volumes on average, potentially preserving your hearing.

The best noise cancelling headphones don’t just passively block sound by providing a physical barrier, as you get with all in-ear and over-ear headphones. They use tech to add an additional level of active noise cancelling (ANC) that's especially invaluable on planes, trains and city streets – anywhere with constant noise at lower ranges. The best noise cancelling headphones from the likes of Bose, Sony, Marshall and others are currently by some distance the most popular and profitable parts of the over-ear headphone market.

• Read more: Noise cancelling headphones: what you need to know before buying

In this guide, we’ve picked the best noise cancelling headphones at a range of different prices. You’ll find brilliant wireless noise cancelling headphones (and wired models too); the best over-ear, on-ear and in-ear options; and if you’re looking for a specific manufacturer – Sony, Bose and so on – we’ve got you covered as well. If you just want to know today's best noise cancelling headphones deals then head straight for that. Bargain-hunting? Keep an eye on our Amazon Prime Day page.

What are the best noise-cancelling headphones?

I've got to admit, this list has not been updated for a while and the landscape has shifted quite a bit. However one thing hasn't changed: Sony's superb MDR-1000XM3 are still the best noise-cancelling headphones available to humanity. 

If you want the best noise cancelling headphones, in terms of call quality, Bose NC 700 are way ahead. They are also very good with music, of course. Those looking for a slightly more 'classic' sound profile could opt for Bowers & Wilkins PX7

Those wanting noise cancelling in-ear buds are currently likely to favour one of three true wireless options: Sony WF-1000XM3 for pure audio quality, Apple AirPods Pro for fit and slickness, and Amazon Echo Buds for affordability. 

At the moment however, this list is devoted to the over- and on-ear brethren of the Order of Noise Cancellation. Go in peace. 

The best noise cancelling headphones right now

1. Sony WH-1000XM3

The best noise cancelling headphones you can buy

Type: Over ear | Battery life: 30 hours | Weight: 8.99 oz | Frequency response: 4Hz to 40kHz | Sensitivity: 104.5 dB | Impedance: 47 ohm | Cable length: 3.94 ft | Wireless range: 30 meters (98ft) | NFC: Yes

Superb noise cancellation
Stunning sound 
Great battery life
Very comfortable
Could look more exciting

Sony's flagship active noise cancelling 1000X headphones have been very good ever since version one, but the third iteration is where Sony has really nailed it. They're incredibly comfortable, sound superb, and the ANC is next level. They've won the prize for best noise cancelling headphones at the last two T3 Awards.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling headphones are lightweight at 255g, and feel it. The broad, soft ear cups compare favourably to the thinner, harder pointier pads of our former champ the PX, too, as does the remarkably soft headband. They still make your ears toasty over time, but we're not sure there's a solution to that. They also fold neatly away, and the fabric case is among the smartest of its breed.

Onto the audio, and noise-cancellation is simply brilliant. Best in class. With no music playing, the moment you put them on it’s like entering another world, or having a thick sack thrown over your head. It makes the M2 incarnation of the WH-1000X seem antiquated when it comes to dealing with massive challenges like roadworks on streets streaming with traffic. The sound quality? That's also brilliant. Bass seems even richer than the PX, and music always seems lively, exciting and involving.

Okay looks-wise, they’re less interesting than the PX7, Bose or Beats efforts below,  but they look better than the Bose QC35 II, and feel more substantial than any rival other than KEF and Porsche Design's Space One. 

The touch/gesture controls aren't something we're entirely keen on, but they work well enough once you've practiced a bit. Holding a cup to let in ambient sound works especially well, even if you do look a little special when doing it. You can also use the app to change the noise-cancellation button to work with Google Assistant or Siri.

So there we have it: the best noise cancelling headphones are Sony's WH-1000XM3. If premium noise cancelling headphones are the Champion's League of portable audio, these are Real Madrid, Barcelona, Man City and Juventus rolled into one.

2. Bowers & Wilkins PX7

The best alternative noise cancelling headphones to the Sonys

Battery life: 30 hours | Wired option: Yes

Great sound with ace ANC
Handy motion-sensing features
Stylish and comfortable
Don't fold up

Though this looks quite dull compared to Bowers & Wilkins' first noise cancelling headphones (the PX), it is still more chic than the Sony WH-1000XM3. The audio quality and noise cancelling are also extremely close to that of the Sonys. 

Our assessment is that the XM3 sound slightly more open and natural, although there is nothing wrong with the PX7 mix. There is slightly less bass weighting, which we don't like quite so much – but if you prefer a less prominent bottom end, you will have the opposite reaction, of course.

That is not to imply the B&W PX7 is overly polite – which is a criticism I'd make of the Bose NC 700. In fact with some types of rock music they sound more meaty and aggressive than the Sonys. It's B&W's usual exciting, but well balanced signature sound basically.

The noise cancelling on the PX7 is excellent, but fractionally less so than the Sony. On trains, for instance, a low rumble is just detectable on the PX7, while the Sony, with the NC on high, blocks it out. 

In terms of comfort, it's again the case that the PX7 is excellent, while the WH-1000XM3 is… excellenter. Slightly lighter. However, it's still a pleasure to wear the PX7 on a Transatlantic flight – and with 30 hours of battery life, there are no worries on that score either. 

As with the old PX, the level and type of ANC can be varied via an iOS and Android app, or turned off entirely off – although we wouldn't advise that as it sounds noticeably worse. You can lift an ear cup away from your ear to mute the PX7 and listen to announcements or talk to people.

Finally, unlike the Sony there are proper physical controls here rather than earcup touch sensors. Being old-fashioned at heart, I prefer proper physical controls. 

3. Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Best noise cancelling headphones for call quality

Battery life: 20 hours | Wired option: Yes

Astonishing voice pick up
Generally excellent noise cancelling
Very good sound quality
Slightly less good than Sony and B&W but cost slightly more

If you want a pair of noise cancelling headphones for making calls and using voice assistants, Bose's ridiculously-named cans – usually referred to as NC 700, which reads a bit sexier – are the best choice.

Not only do they cancel noise coming from the other end, they can also do an astonishingly good job of quelling background sound in your location. This is also very handy when trying to use Siri, Alexa or Google Assistant, reducing the number of times you have to repeat yourself to your bumbling virtual PA.

In terms of sound quality with music, the Bose NC 700 – sorry, Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 – are excellent, close rivals to the Sony and B&W options above. Now personally, I don't see how anyone could listen to all three and conclude the Bose sound better, but that is not to say they sound bad. They are a bit flatter overall, which makes them less exciting to listen to, but on the other hand also very easy to listen to for hours on end. So if you are easy like Sunday morning maybe these are your babies. 

There is also support for Bose's audio AR… thing. This uses movement sensors in the headphones to detect where you are looking and adjusts what you hear accordingly. Applications for this include a kind of sonar for golf players and some surround sound type things. It's clever and interesting but maybe not all that essential, at this point in its evolution.

Funnily enough, I think the Bose NC 700 is a sexier looking pair of headphones than either the Sony or Bowers efforts, which is not something you could have said about the old QuietComfort 35. 

This is another great pair of ANC headphones; clearly the Bose NC 700 are well worth your consideration. 

Really, my advice would be to try this, the Sony WH-1000XM3, Bowers & Wilkins PX7 and Beats Studio3 Wireless and decide which sounds, feels or looks best to you – or, alternatively, just buy whichever happens to be cheapest today. 

They're all very high quality headphones that won't let anyone down.

4. AKG N60NC Wireless

Best cheap noise-cancelling headphones

Battery life: 15 hours | Wired option: Yes

Great sound
Good looks
Foldable and compact
Naturally less good noise insulation than over-ears
The active noise cancelling is less advanced too

If you want the best cheapo noise cancelling headphones, and don't mind having on-ears, rather than the more comfortable over-ears, look no further than the N60NC.

As usual with AKG, audio quality is really excellent for what you pay, and consistently good whether you're wired or wireless, and with or without noise cancelling. These are great headphones in short. Of course, the noise cancelling is less perfect than on the newer, more expensive, over-ear options here, and on ears are intrinsically more uncomfortable than over ear – and more so if you wear spectacles.  

On the other hand, the on-ear form does make them more portable, especially as they fold up. And the price usually is way lower than the 'Big Three' above.

5. Beats Studio3 Wireless

Don't underrate these superb sounding Beats noise cancellers either

Battery life: 22 hours | Wired option: Yes

Remarkably effective ANC
Great sound
Rapid charging
Rather iffy looks

The Beats Studio3 Wireless noise cancelling headphones are a match for the Bose, Bowers and Sony cans in most respects. The killer feature here is the way the noise control adapts to the sounds around you, whether that's engine noise, chit-chat or even wind. A stiff breeze is usually the nemesis of noise-cancelling headphones because of the way they use microphones to monitor ambient sound. Beats, in conjunction with Apple, has developed some sort of algorithm to fade it out within a few seconds and it actually works.

That would matter little if these Beats had the failings of many of their predecessors, but they are also easily the best sounding of the Studio range to date. Bass isn't obtrusive; instead you get a detailed, classy sonic signature. This really did feel like Beats 'growing up' when Studio 3 first appeared, and Dr Dre has put out nothing but anthems since, as they were followed by Powerbeats Pro and Solo Pro, both of which are excellent.

Unlike the other options here, there is little difference between the Studio3 Wireless with ANC turned off and with it turned on. They have excellent noise cancelling, but you don't 'hear' the cancellation process as much as you do with the other ANC big hitters.

Apple users also get the same easy pairing and device switching as on the AirPods, thanks to the semi-legendary W1 chip. Although to be honest, it's not as if boring old Bluetooth is too sloppy when it comes to pairing, these days. One final bonus is the quick charge, 'Fast Fuel' feature. This gives three hours of play from a 10-minute charge. You can also turn off the ANC and double your remaining battery life, should you run short. 

The styling on these is quite horrible, admittedly, but you can't have everything. 

5. Beats Solo Pro

Best on ear noise cancelling headphones

Battery life: 30 hours | Wired option: Yes

Remarkably effective ANC
Great sound
Rapid charging
On ear is less cosy than over ear
Some slightly baffling controls

A few years back, Studio3 Wireless (below) proved conclusively that Beats by Dr Dre could do noise cancelling headphones. This follow up builds on that success and tones down the looks to the extent that they may have more appeal overall.

As ever, these on-ear headphones block out less sound and are less comfy than most over-ears – for specs wearers they are just not suitable for really long-term wear. However their ANC is stunningly good and sound quality continues to follow Beats' much more sophisticated sound profile of recent years. They sound truly excellent. 

An interesting note about pricing: Beats Solo Pro have a higher RRP than the AKG N60NC above but you see certain of its colourways going for very low prices from time to time. So keep an eye on our live pricing widgets and deals pages…

7. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Splendid pair of premium noise-cancelling cans with Google Assistant

Battery life: 20 hours | Wired option: Yes

Great noise cancelling
Very good sound
Timeless, if dull, looks
Its rivals are a bit snazzier, audio- and looks-wise
Google Assistant is hard of hearing and limited of use

The QC35 is the headphone that kick-started the ANC revolution, being Bluetooth-connecting, with a long battery life (about 20 hours), very solid audio and – for the time – jaw-dropping noise-cancelling.

Its successor, the Bose QC35II kept all that, but added Google Assistant – accessed via that button on the right ear cup. The QC35 II never looked especially exciting, but it has a timeless, unobtrusive quality to its design. 

The noise cancelling is timeless in its own way as well – Bose admitted that the system used in the much newer NC 700 at #3 in this list, is basically the same as that of the QC35 II. When you flip the switch, city roar all but disappears, while transport hubs, planes, tubes and trains are uncannily silenced. If you turn it off, as with the Sony and B&W headphones, sound quality diminishes noticeably. But handily, Bose updated its software a while back, so you can now vary the amount of ANC applied. You can't move through 11 levels of ANC as you can with the NC 700 but I'm not sure anyone really needs to do that.

The right-ear-based volume/play/pause,etc controls work, and the zip-up carry case is functional. We're not sure what the purpose of Google Assistant was in this context, because it really struggles to hear you a lot of the time, but if you don't mind persevering/shouting, you could find its music controls and phone call-handling abilities quite useful.

Bottom line: given that you can often find it way cheaper than the Sony, B&W and Bose's own, newer headphones, the QuietComfort 35 II remains an attractive option. There is a reason that Bose didn't discontinue it as soon as the NC 700 came out.

8. Sennheiser PXC 550

The nearest thing to an 'audiophile' ANC headphone

Battery life: 20-30 hours | Wired option: Yes

The best sounding of all ANC headphones
Long battery life
Irritating controls
Annoying app

If you're looking for purely the best-sounding ANC headphones around, look no further. Sennheiser's PXC 550 noise cancelling headphones look dull, and have some fairly iffy design ideas, but for pure sound quality they just can't be faulted. Certainly, the ANC is not on the same level as the Beats, Bowers, Bose or Sony rivals. It's not bad, but we'd consider these more a great-sounding pair of headphones that have ANC as a fairly minor side benefit. 

More seriously, we could barely contain our rage at the on-ear touch controls for skipping tracks and changing volume – you'll need to be highly dextrous or patient to get the desired effect. We also weren't crazy about rotating the earcups to turn the PXC 550 on and off. The choice of (button-controlled) EQ settings do nothing but muck up the sound in a variety of exciting ways, apart from the Speech mode which, to be fair, does a good job with spoken word.

Download the CapTune iOS/Android app and it lets you do personalised EQ setting for individual tracks. Nice idea huh? Well… not when it involves doing A-B comparisons of what songs sound like while trying umpteen different settings. You say which you prefer, until CapTune finds your 'perfect' EQ for you. We sat through the process twice and on both occasions it transpired our favoured EQ was… completely flat response with no frequencies boosted or lowered at all. How we chuckled. We also don't like the 'Lufthansa Business Class, 1987' styling. BUT…

With wonderfully punchy, detailed sonics and 20 hours of Bluetooth playback with ANC – or a mighty 30 hours if you use the included mic/remote cable instead of going wireless – these noise cancelling headphones are going to be very appealing to discerning listeners.

9. KEF Porsche Design Space One Wireless

The best looking noise cancelling cans for business-class folk

Battery life: 30 hours | Wired option: Yes

Great sound
Humungous battery life
Icily elegant Teutonic styling
Noise cancelling is less full-on than its price-bracket rivals

The KEF and Porsche Design Space One wireless noise cancelling headphones are a great option if you want to stand out. KEF knows a helluva lot about audio; Porsche Design knows a thing or two about making things look nice and then flogging them to rich people in airport shops. Put them together and you have a winning proposition.

The noise cancelling here seems of a slightly more old-fashioned type than the likes of the PX7, NC 700 and MH-1000XM3. It does a good job on flights – it really is aimed at the business class frequent flyer, we think it's fair to say – but is less effective on trains or at tuning out urban and office noise.

Where the KEF Porsche Design Space One really stand out is in terms of their musical quality – when the ANC is turned on anyway; they sound borderline awful with it off, which is not an unusual trait in noise cancelling headphones. The comfort, look and feel are also spot on, and they have possibly the the most chic and stylish carry case of all the premium ANC cans, if that's important to you. 

If you turn the ANC off, the audio immediately changes in character almost entirely, becoming really quite raucous and wild. We think that's because of the way the noise-cancelling tends to reduce certain treble and bass frequencies, so when it's turned on they sound normal, but when it's off the treble and bass are wildly hyped for a sound that is rather more punk rock than Porsche Design's customers probably crave. Thankfully for them, 30 hours of battery life means they will seldom need to go without ANC.

Noise cancelling cans: what you need to know

A few years back, noise cancellers were wired affairs with big batteries, big carry cases, and a distinct lack of style. Now, they're increasingly Bluetooth rather than wired, and the batteries have shrunk, whilst battery life has got longer. But you do still usually get a carry case. There are also more in-ear options and even some true wireless ones.

As a result, where noise cancellers used to be sold very specifically on their ability to quell background sounds – specifically aeroplane noise – they're now more universal, with the line blurring between ANC and Bluetooth headphones. 

There is still a bit of mild controversy over active noise cancelling headphones. They just don't generally sound as good as standard cans, when it's quiet. Obviously they come into their own where there is background noise. 

I don't want to overstate this, because the best ANC headphones sound really, very good. But if you're in search of a more refined audio experience, a wired headphone without ANC, at the same price, will almost invariably sound better.

Because of the way they're engineered, they also generally sound less good with the ANC turned off – deactivating noise cancelling is more a battery-saving measure than anything.

That said, the most recent candidates are a big improvement over what was around a few years back, when ANC cans tended to feel a bit like listening to music in a vacuum chamber. For noisy environments – from trains to planes to, well, just life in general, really – they offer a better overall experience than standard headphones.

Oh, and why are they called 'active' noise cancelling? Because they use technology to cancel out sound. This is on top of the usual 'passive' noise cancelling, which means using padding on headphone ear-cups, or simply filling your ear canal, with in-ear headphones, in order to keep out sound. 

ANC cans fit into two categories. The ones at the top of the chart below are noise cancellers first and foremost. With the exception of the Beats Studio3, which was made by witches, the best over-ear ANC headphones all sound somewhat worse with the noise cancelling turned off.

The other category of best noise cancellers could be more described as excellent headphones that happen to have ANC as a bonus feature. The noise cancelling is not as awe-inspiring as on the market leading cans, but it is handy where there's a lot of background noise. The headphones also tend to sound pretty damn good with the cancelling turned off.

Most noise cancellers, and particularly the on-ear ones, can be used with a wire, without noise cancelling – that's handy for when the battery runs out. Some can even cater for wired listening with noise cancelling, just like it's 2009 all over again. 

As noted above, the audio does suffer with the more high-end noise cancellers when you turn ANC off, but at least you won't have to stop listening entirely, until you can recharge.

• Now return to our Top 10 noise cancelling headphones


Gallery: Best true wireless earbuds 2020 for wire-free Bluetooth audio (Pocket-lint)

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