It's fair to say that the best noise cancelling headphones aren't as much a luxury as they are necessity these days. If you're travelling, whether it be in-flight, on the bus, on foot or by some other creative measure, they're perfect: they cut out outside noise, allowing you to focus on whatever media you're playing. With that background noise squashed, noise cancelling headphones typically allow you to listen at lower volumes without needing to blast it away with sound.
The best noise cancelling headphones aren't just for travel: they're perfect for leaning back and chilling out, or for focusing concentration – if you're struggling with an assignment, fighting with the din of a distraction-laden office, or just want to block out (most of) the kids' wailing.
For this best-of list we've selected the finest noise cancelling headphones at a number of distinct price points, including the best noise-cancelling earbuds if you're looking just for in-ears, or best Bluetooth headphones if you're not yet sure.
You can certainly spend a lot on the best noise cancelling headphones if you want to, and you'll generally get better-made headphones with superior noise cancelling if you do, but equally it's possible to get some very creditable active noise cancellation (ANC) at a price which doesn't break the bank.
Best ANC headphones 2022: The top 3
The best noise cancelling headphones for most people are the Sony WH-1000XM5. Just the all-round best designed, best featured, best noise-cancelling and best comfort. Pricey, but worth it.
The best noise cancelling headphones for travel are the Bose QuietComfort 45. If you want folding headphones that are super lightweight but deliver big when it comes to noise cancelling then these are the top choice.
The best in-ear noise cancelling headphones are the Sony WF-1000XM4. Looking for exceptional noise cancelling from your in-ear buds? Nothing can match the Sony XM4. They're a bit big, but they also deliver big on sound and ANC.
The T3 Awards 2022 winner of both Best Headphones and Best Noise Cancelling headphones, it's a no-brainer that the WH-1000XM5 has arrived top of the tree here on this best-of list. These headphones are truly astounding all-rounders and will be best for most people looking to lose themselves in exceptional noise-cancelling.
These over-ears are rather different from their predecessors, too, as they're designed to limit wind noise, meaning they're no longer folding headphones. But as they're not specifically for travel we don't think that matters: there's still a decent carry case included, while the size and weight and quality is robust enough to stand up to the rigours of everyday life.
As we said in our Sony WH-1000XM5 review: "Sony has managed to replace the best all-round wireless active noise-cancelling (ANC) over-ear headphones you can buy with, you guessed it, the best new all-round wireless ANC over-ear headphones you can buy." You'll struggle to beat the quality of these cans at any price point.
Headphones are about listening to music and the Bose QuietComfort 45 are not only great at that, their active noise cancelling is exceptional too. Ideal for blocking out the outside world when on your travels.
Throw is a great carry case and folding design and, for us, that makes the Bose the best ANC headphones for travellers. You could sleep in these things even, making them ideal for flights to drown out the hiss of airflow and some of your fellow passengers' droning.
As we said in our Bose QC45 review: "simple and comfortable, these headphones don’t overcomplicate the design. We were able to listen to these headphones for hours on end without our ears feeling fatigued."
Not everyone loves these in-ears' looks, but one listen is enough to prove that these have precisely what it takes to win you over. During the time we used Sony's top-tier earbuds we found the ANC to be exceptional, hence their position on our list.
The overall sound one of the best, most dynamic and detailed audio experiences we've ever had from earbuds too. This is, at least in part, down to the DSEE Extreme audio processor with Edge-AI to upscale whatever you're listening to.
As we said in our Sony WF-1000XM4 review: these earbuds "are profoundly impressive across the board, and are arguably the best true wireless earbuds you can buy. The all-round package is very hard to beat." So there you have it.
Best ANC headphones 2022: The best of the rest
If you're looking to immerse yourself in music without spending hundreds for the privilege, the JBL Tune 660NC delivers excellent noise-cancelling capabilities. They're genuinely surprising. You wouldn't expect on-ear headphones to block out noise this well, but in our tests, we found that they really do. Pair that with a weighty, punchy sound, and there's basically no hope of the outside world distracting you from your favourite tracks.
This set of cans is proof positive that there's very solid ANC available on the lower end, and reaches so high on our list chiefly for that reason. Don't get us wrong – spending more gets you much more effective noise cancellation and better sound quality but for those on a budget who just need a bit of quiet, they're a top buy.
AirPods Pro on the feature noise cancellation and a whole raft of audio-enhancing features to give a much more immersive musical experience than regular AirPods. The ANC is really effective, plus there's also a Transparency mode, so you can talk to people without removing the earbuds.
Some critics tend to be a bit sniffy about the sound quality of Apple products, but AirPods Pro are definitely up there when it comes to hearing sweet, sweet music. As indeed they should be at their less-than-giveaway price. You do get a wireless charging case as standard, though.
Contrary to what some people think, all AirPods work perfectly well with Android phones and other equipment. But you get lots of extra features when you use them with Apple's ecosystem, including fast-pairing, auto-switching between your Apple products, 3D Spatial Audio support (which is very cool), and Find My support for locating them when they seem lost. Very nice.
If you want a pair of noise-cancelling headphones for making calls and using voice assistants, the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are an outstanding choice. And in terms of sound quality, the Bose NC 700 are equally as excellent, rivals to the brilliant Sony cans but not precisely perfect. We don't see how anyone could conclude the Bose sound better, because they are a bit flatter overall, which makes them less exciting but on the other hand, they're also easy to use for hours on end.
Bose's audio AR… thing uses movement sensors in the headphones to detect where you are looking and to adjust 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. Funnily enough, we think the Bose NC 700 are a sexier looking pair of headphones than Sony's 1000XM5 effort too.
The former top product in this category, the Sony WH-1000XM4 have only sunk down this list due to their more recent XM5 replacement. Nonetheless these over-ears' combination of audio and noise cancellation is simply brilliant.
Even with no music playing, the moment you put these headphones on with ANC active it’s like entering another world. The noise cancelling can cope with massive challenges like roadworks on streets streaming with traffic, and the sound quality is also brilliant.
Looking for in-ear noise-cancelling headphones that you don't have to remember to charge very often? introducing the Philips Fidelio T1. They are pricey but they are also oh so worth it with up to 48 hours of battery life provided by the earbuds and the charging case combined.
That's not the only area they excel in though: we thought that these earbuds sound incredible, so you won't be disappointed. When it comes to ANC, they didn't let us down either. On the High Noise Control mode, they'll block out distracting sounds almost entirely, so you'll barely hear train noise, chatter, or even keyboard taps through your music.
Bowers & Wilkins PX7 is the kind of outstanding product that B&W built a global reputation on. It combines all their hard-won expertise in audio manufacture with cutting-edge noise cancellation and looks stunning as well.
We think the headphones sound great, with B&W's usual exciting, but well-balanced signature sound. In fact, we'd say they sound slightly better than the other big-ticket noise-cancelling headphones, but then they're pricier too.
The PX7 also features motion-sensing, which means if you lift a cup from your ear, the sound is paused, and if you take them off entirely, they go into standby mode. We found that's very useful when travelling, as you'll frequently need to remove them to talk to people.
In our opinion the noise cancelling from Bose's QuietComfort Earbuds is pretty brilliant, which is why they won the T3 Awards 2022 badge for Best True Wireless Headphones.
As we said in our Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review: "As a combination of sound quality, comfort and particularly noise-cancellation, Bose's earbuds take some beating. They do protrude more than many true wireless buds but they fit well and sound great."
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.