If you’ve yet to experience the joy of a quiet plane journey or commute, you’re in for a treat. Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) headphones use microphones in the earpiece to pick up ambient sound which is then cancelled out, muting background hubbub.
What to look for in noise-cancelling headphones
Wireless headphones are now really good – look for the latest Bluetooth versions (current best is 5.2) and codecs including aptX Adaptive or LDAC (for Sony) to enjoy better-than-CD quality audio.
Bluetooth streaming and ANC can burn through batteries, but the best designs have advanced cells with fast-charging 30+hr lives. Sennheiser’s excellent Momentum 4 Wireless has a massive 60hrs.
The beauty of over-ear headphones is that you can try before you buy at a decent hi-fi retailer. Quality is subjective, and you may like one tuning more than another.
Best noise-cancelling headphones to buy
Best headphones for travelling
With grown-up looks, premium materials, hi-res-loving Bluetooth 5.2 and a neat, folding design, these headphones are a treat. And with a 50hr battery life, they should appeal to anyone who travels, or simply forgets to charge their gadgets. Sonically, Technics’s 40mm dynamic drivers do a superb job.
The control app offers plenty of settings – there’s 100 stages of Active Noise Cancellation available, and you can play at being a sound engineer all day with the EQ settings. There’s even Alexa and Siri voice control built-in. But its noise cancelling, although good, is outclassed by Sony (see below).
Best headphones for noise cancelling
The Sony WH-1000XM5 noise cancelling headphones boasts the best ANC I’ve experienced. Dead quiet when in full ANC mode, they are also adjustable to enable you to bring in ambient sound; plus, you can also set up speak-to-chat via the Sony headphone app, which reduces both music volume and ANC when you say something.
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Remove them, and music pauses instantly too. At 250g, they’re light for over-ear headphones and the vegan leatherette ear cups and headband are extremely comfortable. As with the Px7 S2, they come with a generous 30hr battery.
Best noise cancelling headphones for sound quality
Bowers & Wilkins Px7 S2
Apologies to anyone looking for a bargain, but there has recently been a flurry of new, premium-priced active noise-cancelling (ANC) wireless headphones. So if you want to invest in the best, the Px7 S2 offers everything you’d expect from the British Hi-Fi stalwarts. Beautifully made from memory foam, sumptuously soft leather, metal and high quality plastics, they feel expensive – as they should – but there’s also a reassuring robustness. The wide headband is ultra-comfortable and I’ve been working in them for hours without complaint.
Carefully angled inside each ear cup are 40mm drive units to focus the sound more accurately, while Bluetooth 5.2, aptX Adaptive, SBC and AAC means 24bit hi-res audio is well catered for. Four microphones create excellent noise cancellation, if not as impressive as the Sony (see above), and when it comes to sound quality, they’re a class apart, with the sort of expansive soundstage and level of detail that has me daydreaming at my desk and missing train stops.
With Francesca Dego’s new recording of Mozart Violin Concertos (Chandos), the headphones handle the most delicate and dramatic passages with consummate ease. In fact, no recording I played felt strained. If sound quality and wireless convenience are the most important factors, you won’t be disappointed.
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.