Active noise-canceling headphones are some of the most popular on the market, and for good reason: using special built-in microphones, they can electronically generate opposing sound waves — called antiphases — that cancel out ambient sounds. The result is that you just hear the music, not your apartment's TV, your colleagues' lunch conversation or the dull buzz of an airplane.
You can buy noise-canceling headphones in a wireless earbud design, but over-ear designs do a better job at passively blocking out noise. The combination of great active and passive noise-cancellation, plus the fact that over-ear headphones are able to have bigger and more powerful drivers, make over-ear headphones the best type of active noise-canceling headphones bar none.
And there are a ton to choose from. Bose and Sony have been the industry leaders for numerous years, and each makes a few different models of noise-canceling headphones. Then there's the fact that seemingly every other audio company — including Apple now — has its own take on the perfect noise-canceling headphones.
Most of the best noise-canceling headphones hover somewhere near the $300 or above; if you don’t want to spend as much you can find older, wired models of the Bose QC25 or Sony 1000XM that are both excellent and significantly more affordable. You can snag an even better deal with manufacturer-refurbished models on eBay, Amazon or the company’s own website; you can get a really good deal and all of those reliable websites have fairly lenient return policies in case the headphones don’t meet your expectations.
Released in August 2020, the WH-1000XM4 improve on the Sony's already excellent WH-1000XM3 headphones. They have improved noise-cancellation; specifically, the Sony WH-1000XM4 are just as good at blocking out lower frequencies like from a vehicle (car, train, plane), but significantly better at blocking out the human voice. They have an improved microphone array to better the phone call experience. Maybe most importantly, they allow you to pair to two devices at one so you don't have to toggle with Bluetooth settings. Sony also tweaked the design (although it is hardly noticeable), by making the ear pads 10-percent bigger and slightly reshaping the headband. In terms of sound quality and active noise-cancellation, these slightly edge out Bose's Headphones 700.
Apple's first pair of over-ear headphones are also very luxurious. Their earcups are made entirely of stainless steel – no plastic — so feel and look very nice, although they are heavier than most other alternatives. The sound quality and noise-canceling ability of the AirPods Max are both excellent, easily making the them some of the best noise-canceling headphones you can buy. The kicker is that because they are baked with Apple's H1 chip, so they have all the same features as AirPods Pro, such as a transparency mode, support for spatial audio and Dolby Atmos, and easy iPhone pairing. If you have an iPhone and can stomach the high price tag, you can't go wrong with the AirPods Max.
Released in February 2020, the HD 450BT are Sennheiser’s first real pair of budget noise-canceling headphones. They’re exactly half as expensive as the Sennheiser's flagship Momentum Wireless 3 and deliver many of the same sound qualities and features. There are some definite tradeoffs, most prominently in their feel and build quality. You can buy decent noise-canceling headphones for even cheaper, but none have the sound quality and noise-canceling skills of the Sennheiser HD 450BT
Released in the fall of 2021, the Bose QuietComfort 45 are the company's newest noise-canceling headphones — and they're essentially a newer and better version of 2017's QuietComfort 35 II. They retain the lightweight and super comfortable design of their predecessors, but Bose improved their noise-cancellation (and transparency) capabilities and gave them new-age features like USB-C charging (so they can fast charge) and a longer battery life. They still aren't quiet on par with the company's more expensive Headphones 700 in terms of sound quality and noise-cancellation.
Released in June 2019, the Headphones 700 are the company’s flagship noise-canceling headphones. They have a number of modern features that the older QuietComfort 35 Series II lack, including a new transparency mode, customizable noise canceling, swipe gestures for playback and USB-C charging. Aside from the completely new design, the biggest upgrade is a six-microphone array that enables the Headphones 700 to be, by far and away, the best noise-canceling headphones for making phone or video calls.
Bose no longer makes the QuietComfort 35 II as it released a new and improved version of them in the QuietComfort 35 II. However, you can still buy these headphones — which are still great and super comfortable— and get a pretty good deal on them to boot. The big tradeoff is that aren't quite as modern, and charging via micro-USB feels really out of date right now.
Bowers & Wilkins's flagship noise-canceling headphones, the PX7, were released in October 2019. They're an upgraded and redesigned the B&W PX, with a lighter feel thanks to a carbon fiber design. They do deliver some incremental improvements in terms of sound and noise-canceling abilities over the PX, but the advantage of the B&W PX7 headphones remains the same: a neat industrial design and a truly excellent sound.
Released in fall 2019, these are Sennheiser’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones are the successor to the Momentum Wireless 2. The new "3" headphones have a similar retro-industrial design, but add a bunch of new modern features like USB-C charging, a transparency mode and a neat Tile integration. There's also support a companion app which allows you to adjust EQ settings as well as the strength of the noise-cancellation. For anybody looking for something that looks and sounds great, and is willing to spend a little extra for style and sound quality, these headphones are great.
Released in April 2019, the MW65 marry the M&D's signature industrial design (anodized aluminum and genuine leather) with active noise-cancellation. They’re beautiful headphones with above average noise-cancellation, and they have a number of modern features: USB-C charging, swipe gestures to control playback and support for a companion app that gives you the ability to adjust EQ settings. At nearly $500, however, the MW65 are considerably more expensive than other flagship noise-canceling headphones. Bottom line: it’s all about whether you like the Master & Dynamic’s signature sound and look; if so, you won’t be disappointed.