Best noise-cancelling headphones of 2021: Reviews and buying advice

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Noise-cancelling headphones are one of the most popular types of cans, and for good reason. They block out ambient noise that can distract from you enjoying your favorite tunes. While they’re particularly useful for air travel and daily commutes—especially via mass transit—they’re also great at isolating you from at-home noise pollution, whether that be the whoosh of your HVAC system, the whir of your computer’s cooling fans, or your neighbor’s lawn mower.

Noise cancellation can be accomplished in two ways: Through active or passive measures. Our focus here is on the former. The latter isn’t isn’t a technology per se; rather, it refers to how much ambient noise a headphone will physically block. Closed-back over-ear headphones and in-ear headphones with memory-foam tips offer the best passive noise cancellation. You’ll find our reviews of all types of headphones here.

Headphones with active noise cancellation (ANC) identify sound waves associated with noise and electronically generate an inverse sound wave that cancels it out. Here’s what we mean: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond, then introduce ripples of the opposite pattern, and you’ll smooth the pond’s surface. Active noise cancellation (ANC) works in a similar manner. Microphones mounted on the headphone analyze ambient sound waves and then produce inverse sound waves that will cancel them out. 

Updated June 18, 2021 to add our House of Marley Positive Vibration XL review. These $100 active noise-cancelling cans sound marvelous, and we dig the manufacturer’s commitment to using sustainable materials to build and package them,  but Wyze Labs’ ANC headphones also sound great and they’re even less expensive (although their price tag seems to mysteriously creep up every time we check on it).

Sony WH-1000XM4 Adam Patrick Murray/IDG

Most ANC headphone manufacturers, including Sony, provide a mobile app that lets you tailor their headphone’s noise cancellation to your preferences.

As you might expect, the ANC technologies from some manufacturers are incredibly effective; others, less so. We’ve tested models from AKG, Bose, Bowers & Wilkins, JBL, Libratone, and Sony and found them to be very good.

Adaptive noise cancellation is the most sophisticated type of ANC. It operates on the same principles, but adapts to your surroundings to apply more or less of the effect and to even bring in sounds from the outside world.

1more triple main 1More

There’s more than one way to block ambient noise, closed-back over-ear headphones and in-ear headphones like the iMore Triple Driver shown here, can perform the task without introducing inverse soundwaves. And in many cases, without batteries.

Some adaptive noise-cancelling solutions even take into account how fast you’re moving, the air pressure around you, and whether you’re likely in a plane, taking a walk, or holding a conversation. Many operate in conjunction with a mobile app on your smartphone.

Some individuals find that ANC headphones exert pressure on their ears, creating a similar sensation to being under water. If you find ANC headphones to be uncomfortable, you’ll prefer a model with good passive noise cancellation. That type of headphone deliver other benefits, too: They’re the least likely to color the music you’re listening to, and they don’t need batteries. On the other hand, not all headphones with passive noise cancellation are wireless.

Best active noise-cancelling headphone

Sony didn’t do a lot to change its approach to noise-cancelling headphones—because it didn’t need to. Its earlier WH-1000XM3 headphones are fantastic, and these next-generation can are even better. If noise cancellation is an important feature for you, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is the absolute best headphone you can buy.

Runner-up

Bowers & Wilkins introduced its PX7 noise-cancelling headphone in 2019, but this Carbon Edition is brand new this year and features a new finish and an even prettier design. Sonically accurate active noise-cancelling headphones might sound like an oxymoron, but leave it to the engineers at B&W to pull it off. All that said, plenty of buyers will stick with Sony’s WH-1000XM4—and not just because they cost less.

Best budget noise-cancelling headphone

It’s hard to believe how inexpensive these noise-cancelling Bluetooth headphones are, but that’s par for the course for Wyze Labs, a company that never seems to fail to package the most bang for the buck in every product they make. While their audio quality doesn’t compete with the higher-end models, and they might not be as durable as some of the more expensive brands, you won’t be too upset if they break and need to be replaced after a few years.

Best noise-cancelling headphone for gamers

Sony and Bose might win in terms of their active noise cancelling tech, but Bang & Olufsen comes close while blending stupendous audio performance with technology that gamers—especially Xbox and Windows gamers—won’t find anywhere else. And they wrap it all in an exquisite package of leather, lambskin, and aluminum.

Our latest active noise-cancelling headphone reviews

We’ll update this list as new models arrive for evaluation.

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