Sony XM5s being used in subway
Sony
Update, 01/27/2023: We’ve reviewed our recommendations and are confident these are still the best ANC headphones you can buy.

What to Look For in Noise-Cancelling Headphones in 2023

One of the first things you’ll want to think about when it comes to any set of headphones is sound quality. This may seem obvious, but different people have different needs, so don’t dismiss this right away.

Are you listening to classical, jazz, or another type of music with plenty of nuances and dynamic range? If so, you’ll want a pair of headphones that can capture that range. Are you mainly listening to podcasts and audiobooks? If that’s the case, overall sound quality isn’t as big an issue for you, so you might prioritize other features.

Next comes the actual noise cancellation. While all of the headphones we’ll look at here feature noise cancellation, some are better at it than others. Depending on how much time you spend in noisy environments, it may be worth spending more for better noise cancellation. On the flip side, if you just need to filter out some noise at home or in the office, you can save a bit of money with a product with serviceable noise cancellation.

Another major consideration is the form factor. Over-ear and in-ear headphones (more commonly known as earbuds) have their own benefits and drawbacks. In this article, we’re mainly focusing on over-ear headphones, so don’t forget to check out our list of the best earbuds if you’re leaning more toward in-ears.

Battery life is another important element to keep in mind. If you’re mainly listening at home where a charger is always handy, you don’t necessarily need the same battery life as if you’re always on the go.

Similarly, a microphone is a must-have feature for some, while others will never use it. If you plan to use your headphones for calls, you’ll want to make sure that they do indeed have a built-in mic, as they won’t do you much good otherwise.

Once you’ve figured out what you need in your noise-cancelling headphones, check our recommendations for the best below.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do noise cancelling headphones work?
Active noise cancellation (ANC) uses microphones inside the headphones and a concept known as phase cancellation to effectively cancel out noise. For a more in-depth look, see our article that tells you everything you need to know about active noise cancellation.
Do noise cancelling headphones protect hearing?
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While noise cancelling headphones can help you filter out unwanted background sounds, they’re not protective devices. If you’re concerned about protecting your hearing around loud sounds, wear protective earmuffs or another form of hearing protection.
Can noise cancelling headphones cause tinnitus?
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Noise cancelling headphones don’t cause tinnitus any more than regular headphones do. The issue that causes tinnitus is often listening at too high a volume a long time, so make sure to avoid this if you’re concerned about tinnitus.
Are noise cancelling headphones safe?
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Noise cancelling headphones are safe and don’t pose any more of a risk to your hearing than other headphones. That said, some people find active noise cancellation can bother their ears.
What does active noise cancellation mean?
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When it comes to noise cancelling headphones, you have passive and active noice cancelling. Passive isolation comes from the padding on the ear cups and the shape of the headphones, while active noise cancellation is much more complex and requires power.

Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Overall: Sony WH-1000XM5

Sony WH-1000XM5 headphone handing in a tree
Kris Wouk / How-To Geek

Pros

  • Noise cancellation is some of the best you'll find anywhere
  • Comfortable to wear all day
  • Excellent sound quality
  • 30 hour maximum battery life

Cons

  • Touch controls aren't for everyone

Sony has been ahead of the game when it comes to noise-cancelling headphones, repeatedly topping its own previous best efforts with each new iteration of its flagship headphones. With the Sony WH-1000XM5, the company has extended its previous lead even further.

Noise cancellation seems to have reached a plateau in recent years, with offerings from Bose, Apple, and others offering relatively similar performance levels. The XM5s take noise cancellation even further, using an eight-mic array controlled by two processors to push those would-be distractions even further into the background.

Sony’s previous flagship noise-cancelling over-ear headphones offered an impressive claimed 30 hours of playback time. This model doesn’t extend that maximum playback time, but it does match it. That said, a three-minute charge will give you three hours’ worth of battery.

While the look of Sony’s beloved line has taken a step forward with the latest model, the controls have mostly stayed unchanged. If you’re a fan of capacitive touch controls, you’ll find them well-implemented. Still, if you’re the type that prefers physical buttons, you’ll like the XM5 about as well as the XM4.

Unique features of the XM4 have made their way to the XM5, like Speak to Chat. This feature automatically disables noise cancellation when you start talking, making it an alternative to more traditional Transparency modes, and it’s better than ever in the XM5.

You get two color options with the Sony WH-1000XM5—black and an off-white option named Silver.

Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Overall

Sony WH-1000XM5

Read How-To Geek's Full Review

With the WH-1000XM5, Sony has shown once again why it is the current king of noise-canceling wireless headphones. These headphones are better than ever with gestures, improved noise cancellation, and better battery life.

Best Budget Noise Cancelling Headphones: Philips SHP9600

Perons using Philips SHP9600 in living are
Philips

Pros

  • Wide sound signature
  • Good noise isolation
  • Soft earpads are very comfortable

Cons

  • Technically these are noise isolating, not noise canceling
  • Anyone nearby may hear what you're listening to

If you’re always listening to music, a good set of noise-isolating headphones can be just as useful as a set of noise-cancelling headphones. The Philips SHP9600 is a great example of this.

Unlike active noise cancellation, noise isolation doesn’t require mics or processing. Instead, it just provides an amount of passive isolation between your ears and the world around you. These headphones don’t do much when they’re not plugged in but start listening to a song and everything else melts away.

Sure, this won’t drown out a crying baby on a plane, but if you’re looking to block out a distracting conversation nearby, these headphones are perfect. As a bonus, because you’re not paying for noise cancellation, the extra money you do pay is going more toward the overall audio quality of the headphones.

One issue to mention is that these are open-back headphones. For the listener, that means a wider soundstage and a better overall stereo image. However, that also means everyone nearby can hear what you’re listening to, albeit quietly. If you’re in a normally quiet environment, these headphones may not be the best.

If you’re looking for an affordable set of headphones with a focus on sound quality, go for the Philips SHP9600, but remember they’re noise isolating, not noise-cancelling.

Best Budget Noise Cancelling Headphones

Philips SHP9600

Okay, so they're technically noise isolating, but they sound so good for the price that you'll be busy paying attention to your music.

Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Under $100: 1MORE SonoFlow

SonoFlow using 1MORE music app
Kris Wouk / How-To Geek

Pros

  • Great sound quality for the price
  • Up to 70 hours of battery life
  • Fast charging capable of five hours playback from a five-minute charge
  • Wired mode for battery-free listening

Cons

  • Noise cancellation isn't on par with more expensive headphones
  • Call quality isn't the best

If you’re looking for noise-cancelling headphones for less than $100, you’ve got countless options, but they’re not all great. The 1MORE SonoFlow not only offer solid noise cancellation, but also some great features that help them stand out from the pack.

While most noise-cancelling headphones in this price range stick to the basic Bluetooth codecs—SBC for most devices and AAC for Apple devices—the SonoFlows add another option. With support for Sony’s LDAC codec, certain Android phones and other devices can stream audio with higher fidelity.

Regarding sound quality, 1MORE enlisted Grammy-winning engineer Luca Bignardi to tune the headphones’ sound signature. They sound great alone, but you can also use the 1MORE Music app (for iPhone and iPad and Android) you can access 12 EQ presets to fine-tune the sound.

The SonoFlow have good noise cancellation for the price, particularly when it comes to higher frequencies, but lower frequencies like trucks can make it through at times. They also have a Transparency mode, letting you hear what’s happening around you when walking or in public.

Battery life is one of the most impressive aspects of the SonoFlow. With ANC engaged, you can get up to 50 hours of playback. Turn off the noise cancellation, and you can get up to 70 hours. On the rare occasion your battery runs out, you can plug them in and use them like standard wired headphones.

When it comes time to charge up, a simple five-minute charge can get you up to five hours of listening time.

Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Under $100

1MORE SonoFlow

Read How-To Geek's Full Review

The 1MORE SonoFlow headphones are not only affordable, but offer a fantastic combination of sound quality, good noise cancellation, and incredible battery life, making them a great fit for plenty of people.

Best Wireless Noise Cancelling Headphones: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Person wearing Bose 700s outside
Bose

Pros

  • 11 different types of noise cancellation
  • Adaptive mic is great for frequent calls
  • Easy to use touch controls

Cons

  • Bose QC45 have longer battery life

With its latest bid to reclaim the noise-cancelling crown, Bose might not have dethroned Sony, but they might be getting close. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 might well be the most feature-packed set of headphones from the brand to date.

Instead of a “one size fits all” style of noise cancellation, Bose opted to use 11 different types of noise cancellation in the 700, meaning you can tailor it to what you’re listening to. Various modes favor music, podcasts, videos, or calls, letting you choose precisely what works best for you.

Bose advertises the 700s as a home office system in a box, letting you effortlessly switch between listening to music and taking calls. To that end, the company focused on the voice communication aspect. The adaptive mic system aims to make sure that your voice is heard, regardless of where you might be at a given time.

Bose claims a maximum playback time of up to 20 hours, which is more than enough if you’re regularly charging the headphones overnight. Keep in mind that listening at higher volumes will reduce that battery life, so you may not get that much out of these headphones.

While the Bose QC45s might be newer, the addition of Bluetooth 5.1 and four more hours of battery life isn’t a major upgrade, and you end up missing out on the touch controls. If you really need the additional battery life, though, the QC45s are also a good replacement.

Best Wireless/Bluetooth Noise Cancelling Headphones

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Bose is a latecomer to the wireless game with its flagship headphones, but the 700s more than make up for the company's hesitation.

Best Wired Noise Cancelling Headphones: Sony MDRZX110NC

Sony MDRZX110NC on pink and yellow background
Sony

Pros

  • Lightweight and easy to carry foldable design
  • Full sound considering the 30mm drivers
  • Good noise cancellation for the price
  • 80 hour battery life

Cons

  • Sony admits the noise cancellation is more effective in lower frequencies
  • Short cable may need an extension

Wired noise-cancelling headphones are getting difficult to find as more and more are cutting the cord to go fully wireless. That said, if you need a wired set of noise-cancelling headphones, the Sony MDRZX110NC are a great option that is also super affordable.

The drivers in the headphones are on the smaller side at 30mm. That said, Sony quotes a frequency response of 12-22,000 Hz, meaning that bass won’t suffer from the smaller driver size. The midrange and highs are just as well represented.

When it comes to noise cancellation, it’s a slightly different story. On the Amazon listing for these headphones, Sony says the noise cancellation is most effective in the lower frequency ranges and isn’t as effective in higher frequencies. This noise cancellation means the headphones need a battery, but with 80 hours maximum playback time, you won’t think about it too often.

If you’re looking to drown out the background noise on a flight or subway ride, the Sony MDRZX110NC should do an admirable job. You’ll hear some noise around you, but it won’t be overpowering the way it would without the headphones on. Because the headphones fold, it’s easy to find space in your bag to keep them with you at all times.

These are clearly meant to plug into your phone or another nearby device, as the cable is just under four feet long. This will work fine for your phone or laptop, but you may need an extension cable if you want to plug these into your stereo and kick back.

Best Wired Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Sony MDRZX110NC Noise Cancelling Headphones

Wired headphones are becoming more rare these days, but the Sony MDRZX110NC are great wired, noise-cancelling headphones that won't break the bank.

Best In-Ear Noise Cancelling Headphones: Sony WF-1000XM4/B

Person setting up XM4 earbuds
Sony

Pros

  • Noise cancellation is nearly as good as their larger sibling
  • Excellent overall sound quality
  • Comfortable despite somewhat larger size
  • Great call quality

Cons

  • Fit is an important factor in how well noise cancellation works

The model numbers can be a little confusing here, but we’re not talking about our best overall pick. The Sony WF-1000XM4/B have the same noise cancellation technology and similar features, but unlike their larger sibling, these are a set of earbuds, not over-ear cans.

These are true wireless in-ear earbuds, so you don’t need to worry about a cable dangling around your neck. They’re somewhat larger than Apple AirPods, for example, but still small enough that you’re not going to feel the weight of them while you’re wearing them.

If call quality is paramount to you, this could be the best entry on this list for you. Not only does Sony’s beam-forming microphone zero in on your voice, but it also uses bone conduction to get a clear signal of what you’re saying, even in noisier environments.

The noise cancellation is slightly less effective than the larger siblings, but that is only because of the smaller size of the drivers. If you compare the Sony WF-1000XM4/B to other similar models of in-ears in their price range, the noise cancellation is still tough to beat.

Considering the smaller overall size, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the battery life is lower than its over-ear counterpart. That said, it offers eight hours of playback on a single charge, and Sony says the charging case adds up to 16 hours to that time.

Best Noise-Canceling Earbuds

Sony WF-1000XM4

Read Review Geek's Full Review

If active noise canceling is at that top of your list for earbuds, you'll want to get with Sony. The WF-1000XM4s have an integrated processor and special tips to take the ANC to the next level.

The Best Headphones of 2023

Sony WH-1000XM5
Best Headphones Overall
Sony WH-1000XM5
Philips SHP9600
Best Budget Headphones
Philips SHP9600
Sony WH-1000XM4
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones
Sony WH-1000XM4
Sennheiser Momentum 4
Best Wireless Headphones
Sennheiser Momentum 4
Sennheiser HD 650
Best Wired Headphones
Sennheiser HD 650
Adidas RPT-01
Best Workout Headphones
Adidas RPT-01
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO Headphones
Best Studio Headphones
Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO Headphones
Profile Photo for Kris Wouk Kris Wouk
Kris Wouk is a freelance tech writer and musician with over 10 years of experience as a writer and a lifetime of experience as a gadget fan. He has also written for Digital Trends, MakeUseOf, Android Authority, and Sound Guys. At MakeUseOf, he was Section Editor in charge of the site's Mac coverage.
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