Best Noise Cancelling Headphones of 2017

Sometimes listening to the sounds of nature or the sounds of the people around you can be an enlightening experience, but sometimes it isn’t. As people who ride subways everyday, we know how necessary it is to block out the world sometimes just to keep your sanity—and hearing—intact. 

Besides sound quality, a good pair of noise cancelling headphones do two things: provide a comfortable fit for extended use, and also accurately cancel out unwanted outside noise. Without getting too technical, Active Noise Cancelation (ANC) is achieved by using built-in microphones that pick up what is going on around you. The headphones then produce their own out-of-phase sound waves that destroys outside noise.

With so many options out there (and a lot of them quite expensive), how do you know which one is the right choice? For that, we enlisted the aid of the audiophiles over at our partner site, Sound Guys. They do a phenomenal job of diving in deep into the reasons why each noise-cancelling headphone on this list is worthy of your hard earned dollar and we highly recommend giving their full in-depth guide a look.

That said, some of you don’t want to dive so deep, you just want to get to the meat of the question: WHAT SHOULD I BUY. And so this TL;DR version of Sound Guy’s guide was created just for you!


The best noise cancelling headphones are the Sony WH-1000X M2

Be sure to check out the full review!

The Sony WH-1000 MX have great sound quality, impressive ANC, are comfortable, have decent battery life, offer an insanely well-featured app, and cost $50 less than their main competitor. If you're keeping score, Sony runs the table against Bose on this one.

Why the Sony WH-1000X M2 wins over the competition:

  • Superior sound quality over any other ANC wireless headphone
  • Impressive noise cancelling on par with brands like Bose
  • It’s $50 cheaper than their main competitor, the Bose QC 35 II
  • An amazing app that lets you tune bass, granularity adjust the equalizer, and more

Sony WH-1000X M2: Other notable traits and considerations

  • Pressing on the right cup of their ear brings up your voice assistant of choice, with support for Android and iPhone
  • The MDR-1000X M2 offer high-bitrate listening, have great range, excellent features, decent battery life, and are comfortable to boot. In our minds, there’s no contest for this year’s crown.

The best on-ear noise cancelling headphones are the AKG N60 NC

Be sure to check out the full review!

While they’re not going to make you forget our pick for best ANC headphones, these on-ears are surprisingly comfortable and decent at killing outside noise. If you want a pair of headphones that will last you all day and then some, the N60 NCs by AKG won’t disappoint.

Why the AKG N60 NC wins over the competition:

  • Exceptional battery life-to-size ratio compared to the competing on-ear offerings
  • Still very slim and comfortable, despite great battery life

AKG N60 NC: Other notable traits and considerations

  • At $249, these aren’t cheap, but are surprisingly affordable for what they offer

There are other good models, so check these out if they go on sale

During their testing, the Sound Guys found quite a few solid headphones, but ultimately the Sony WH-1000X M2 won out for over-ears due to its overall combination of solid pricing, quality sound, quality ANC, and extras like an exceptional app. That said, there are some other models that came in very close and largely lost out due to pricing.

Let’s take a closer look!

Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless

If the PXC 550 were available for the same price as the Sony WH-1000X M2, it'd be a harder decision, but $50 buys a lot of music; so the WH-1000X M2 won out. That's really the main deciding factor.

Notable traits and considerations

  • These were a very close second to Sony’s WH-1000X M2 headphones, losing out because of a higher price tag only.
  • Sennheiser has a better microphone than Sony and a faeture that prevents sudden volume peaking.
  • Performance-wise the PXC 550s are closer to the Bose QC 35 II but without voice assistant and better sound quality. 
  • They attenuate sound quite well, but keep bass a bit more restrained than the Sony WH-1000X M2.
  • They don’t have a companion app, LDAC support, or voice assistant integration.

Bose QC 35 I & II 

Be sure to check out the full review!

The Bose QC35s may be on everyone’s shortlist if you want one of the best noise-cancelling headphones out there. But are they worth the $399? Heck no.

Notable traits and considerations

  • QC 35 I and II are essentially the same, with the later having integrated Google Assistant support.
  • Doesn’t have super-heavy bass or accurate sound compared to the competition.
  • Bose offers solid 20+ battery life with ANC and Bluetooth on, via rechargeable battery.
  • Ultimately these are great, just not $399 great.

But what if I’m shopping on a tight budget?

There are a lot of options that cost much less than $350, $250, or even $100. Unfortunately, they also often aren’t particularly great. The good news is that in our testing we determined that the CB3 Hush is a worthwhile consideration, balancing sound quality, ANC, and pricing into a package that’s under $100.

CB3 Hush

A photo of the CB3 Hush over-ear wireless Bluetooth active noise canceling headphones and its package contents.

The CB3 Hush don’t exactly have premium build materials, but that doesn’t mean they're not a great pair of headphones. At less than $100 these are a no-brainer if you want your headphones to do a little bit of everything and do it passably.

Notable traits and considerations

  • Price! At just $90, hard to go wrong here.
  • These are comfortable and while the sound and ANC don’t compare with the big boys, they are pretty close for the savings.
  • Offers around 15 hours of playback time, less than more expensive solutions but still pretty solid battery life.
  • Voices and dog barks will still slice through, but the low hum of trains and even nearby air conditioners get noticeably less audible when you switch it on.

 


Okay, but why should we trust what the Sound Guys have to say?

Because we said so? No, not good enough? Simply put, Chris and Adam have a ton of cumulative knowledge in the audio industry. Plus they like music, like a lot. 

Chris is an audio industry expert, having covered the segment for the better part of a decade. Earning his stripes at a subsidiary of USAToday, he’s been around the block more than a few times—spending over 1,000 hours in test labs. For years, he objectively tested headphones, and then contextualized the resulting data for mass-market relevance. There are very few people out there with the experience he has. 

As for Adam? He’s been with SoundGuys for about three years now, and has covered all segments of the industry in his time there. On top of that, he’s spent time in the trenches of Best Buy, helping customers figure out what the best products for them are. An audio enthusiast, he’s bathed in the best—and worst—the market has to offer, and knows how to separate wheat from chaff.

How they picked the winners

For more on the testing process or how exactly they determined the winners, we recommend heading over to the full guide. The short of it, the candidates we determined by looking at the most obvious choices with a reputation in this segment. Sound Guys also hit to social to get a better idea of what their readership looks for a quality pair of NC headphones. 

After gathering up all the candidates, the guys went to work testing sound quality, comfort and features. Due to the subjective nature of these three things, they largely had to rely on their first-hand experience to agree on how each of the headphones rated in this three areas.

As for the noise isolation? Things are a bit more technical but essentially the process goes a bit like this:

  1. Insert testing microphone into human analog head, with diaphragm where the entrance to the ear canal would be*
  2. Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones OFF (control curve)
  3. Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones ON (variable 1 curve)
  4. Play and record ~90dB of pink noise over a speaker about 1m away from the test head with the headphones ACTIVATED (variable 2 curve)
  5. Subtract variable curve from control curve

*Note: without an accurate way to simulate an ear canal, measuring at the estimated eardrum position would be problematic.

Once they had all the data they could gather, it was a matter of averaging each of the important factors and determining which ones stood out in the long-run. 

Some categories like “Best on-ears” exist because not everybody likes the same thing in their ANC headphones, and while our list is dominated by over-ear headphones: it’s nice to have options if that’s not your cup of tea. 

Wrapping up

Whether you have $350 of under $100, there are ANC options that will work for you. It’s worth noting that due to the nature of active noise cancelling, a wired pair of ‘traditional’ headphones are always going to sound better. This also applies to some of the higher end Bluetooth solutions that don’t include ANC. Of course if you are the type that is subjected to lots of background noise – airplanes, buses, noisy co-workers, kids (ha!) — ANC makes a lot of sense.

What do you think of the options presented above? Let us know your thoughts down in the comments.