Noise-cancelling headphones reviews

There’s a certain irony to the fact that, with noise-cancelling headphones, you have to pay a lot of money to hear absolutely nothing.

Active noise cancelling (ANC) tech has been available in consumer headphones for over a decade now, but it still generally costs a premium.

ANC works by having a dedicated piece of hardware generating an inverse sound wave into the earpieces, which is designed to nullify outside audio, and it’s particularly effective for dulling things like the drone of air-conditioning or the hum of plane engines.

The effect can be a boon in noisy offices, but it’s particularly great for travel — where I think we’d all appreciate that a bit of quiet time can reduce the stress involved.

For this feature, we invited vendors to submit both in-ear and over-ear models for review, and while the prices are higher here than for ‘regular’ headphones, not all those we tested will set you back an arm and a leg.

Whether you go for a budget option or a top-shelf pair, one thing’s for sure: once you’ve lived with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, it can be hard to go back.

What to consider

Active vs passive noise cancelling

Some headphones try to pass themselves off as having ‘passive’ noise cancelling: this just means they’re designed to physically block out external sound.

‘Active’ sets have dedicated electronics that seek to neutralise outside audio by generating their own sound.

Battery type

All active noise cancelling cans need a dedicated power source.

Most over-ear ANC headphones have an internal battery that can be recharged via USB. In-ear models vary, however: some use standard AAA cells, which you’ll have to provide yourself.

Carry case or bag

If you’re paying a premium for ANC tech, you should expect some kind of case or bag to keep them protected when they’re rattlingly around in your luggage, especially for in-ear models.

In-ear vs over-ear

As with regular headphones, choosing between these largely comes down to personal choice.

In-ears are more portable and thanks to their tight-fitting design, provide some noise isolation, but they are slightly fiddlier to take on and off.

Over-ear and on-ear sets are bulkier and often a bit heavier than their normal counterparts, thanks to the requirement of built-in batteries to power the ANC electronics.

Over-ear sets generally provide more natural noise isolation than their smaller on-ear counterparts.

Wired vs wireless

There are some quite affordable wireless ANC headphones, but the trade off is usually a shorter battery life: running Bluetooth wireless and noise-cancelling chews through power much quicker.

Most wired sets will also continue to operate if the battery dies.

How we tested

For testing, each set of headphones was compared against others of its type in an open-plan office with a relatively noisy air-conditioning system.

Sets were rated on their ability to dampen both the aircon drone as well as general office chatter and external music.

For audio testing, each pair was used to listen to a wide variety of music across a range of genres.

In-ear headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC40BT

ATH_ANC40BT_accessThese Bluetooth wireless earphones use a new ‘neck band’ design, which means the noise-cancelling electronics, batteries, integrated mic and playback controls are all in the band, which wraps around your neck.

We do really love this design — all the controls (for play/pause, volume and switching ANC on or off) located on the left near your collar bone and the earbuds aren’t being pulled on by the headphone cable.

Acoustically, this set’s also extremely well-balanced — a fairly even mix of bass, mids and treble that makes anything you throw at it sound good.

The buds provide good noise isolation, but the noise-cancelling hardware goes even further. It completely neutralised the sound of our office aircon and even slightly muffled speech and other environmental sounds.

The rechargeable li-ion battery is rated for 8 hours of music playback with noise-cancelling, or 12 hours and 24 hours, respectively, of just one or the other. There’s also a micro-USB to 3.5mm audio adapter cable for unpowered use. Very nifty.

Price: $249
From: Audio Technica

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Bose QC20M

bose qc20Bose is the go-to name when it comes to ANC headphones, but it charges big money for that expertise — and many people will immediately balk at paying $400 for a pair of in-ears like these.

If you do have the cash to splash however, you’ll get just about the best noise-cancelling money can buy, with very clean, effective dampening of external sounds. It even minimises background talking.

And the audio’s great, too: a bit deeper and richer than the wireless Audio-Technicas, with clear and precise detail and enough low-end oomph to please.

Also neat is the slim in-line control box, which has a built-in li-ion battery that’s recharged via micro-USB plug. A crocodile-clip on the cable helps counteract the extra weight (and slight drag) that it adds.

Note that there are two versions of the QC20 — one for iPhone and one for Android (or ‘Samsung Galaxy’ devices) — which changes the in-line controls to work with those different platforms.

Yes, these do cost a bomb, but if you want the best noise-cancelling, this is undeniably the set to get.

Price: $400
From: Bose

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Sennheiser CXC 700

sennheiser-cxc-700Sennheiser claims this set is “engineered for discerning business travellers and frequent fliers”, with three noise-cancelling modes and a ‘digital talkthrough’ function, which lets you use the external mic to pass-through outside audio to the buds.

There’s a slightly bulky in-line control box powered by a single AAA battery, with playback controls and noise-cancelling hardware inside. The latter feature’s fairly clean, and it’s quick and easy to skip between the three modes to get the best one for your environment (commuting, flights/air-conditioned rooms, or crowded areas).

Two of them do generate a small amount of background hiss, but with music playing this isn’t really noticeable, and switching modes doesn’t affect audio playback at all.

Speaking of the latter, the CXC 700’s are generally pleasing: there’s a fat bottom end and a nice amount of top-end detail, plus a strong lower-midrange. They can sometimes struggle a little with more complex arrangements.

The big question mark is over price and ultimately, these don’t do enough to justify being three times the cost of the entry-level Audio-Technica ANC33iS.

Price: $300
From: Sennheiser

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC33iS

ath_anc33is_1_sq (1)This $99 in-ear set is quite similar to the Sennheiser’s in overall design, with a largish control box that uses a single AAA battery for power, claimed to last 16 hours. If you want recharging, you’ll need to BYO.

That need for a battery makes the in-line control box heavy, which can pull on the earbuds, but a peg-like plastic clip on the side of the box means you can attach it to a pocket and minimise this.

The ANC works adequately, effectively nullifying aircon noise, but isn’t the cleanest: when not playing music, we found a very slight buzz was often discernible.

And if you’re looking to dull background speech, look elsewhere: the noise-cancelling tech inside doesn’t seem to cover voice frequencies, which came through much-clearer here.

The sound-signature is fairly neutral — not nearly as bassy as the Sennheiser’s, but flexible enough that they pass muster with most music types. They sound similar to their wireless siblings, albeit with a little less clarity and mid-range punch.

These aren’t perfect, but do deliver more than the low price suggests.

Price: $99
From: Audio-Technica

Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5

Over- and on-ear headphones

Audio-Technica ATH-ANC9

ath_anc9_1_sqThe ANC9 and the QC25s are the leaders of the pack in this over-ear category, but for different reasons.

The Audio-Technicas have a warmth and vibrancy to them that the QC25s can’t match out of the box, but the noise cancelling (despite the claim on the packaging that it’ll block up to 95% of noise) isn’t up to Bose’s impressive standard. They’re also troubled by a barely-there hiss when the volume’s low or off.

They do, however, have three modes, blocking noise at different frequencies and strengths depending on your situation (on a plane, in the office or studying).

The ANC9 also sound better than the Bose when the battery goes dead, but the QC25s are the comfier of the two — after a couple of hours you’ll want to shift the ANC9s to give the top of your head a break. Plus, they’re quite bulky, but when they’re going full tilt they’re utterly engrossing and commanding.

Ultimately, for their price — $170 cheaper than the QC25s — they’re a very smart buy.

Price: $229
From: Audio-Technica

Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5

Bose QC25

BoseQC25Be warned, there are actually two models of QC25 headphones available. One set is made for Android, the other for iOS, and the only difference between them is that the inline call/volume remote for one won’t work on the other.

Regardless, both models offer astounding noise cancelling capabilities in an attractive package.

That evaluation comes after a so-so introduction. Apart from a soft microfibre and denim headband, the QC25s are quite plastic-y, a trait common across Bose’s recent range. However, the material keeps the weight down, and looks handsome.

On your head they’re incredibly comfortable, worthy of wearing for a whole day, and the soft cups cover the ear with enough room for figurative breathing space. Being this closed in it does get warm after extended periods of use.

While the noise cancelling is superb and the best in our test, sound quality is fine but lacks a little at the lower end of the scale — a bit of time on the equaliser gives them more of the oomph they need.

Price: $399
From: Bose

Rating: 4 stars out of 5

Audio Technica ATH-ANC70

ATH_ANC70_1_sqWhile these cans share the same family name as their more expensive siblings, they’re half a world apart, and a lot of compromises have been made to get them under the $200 price point.

It’s faint praise that everything about the ANC70’s is ‘fair’, from the noise cancelling performance which suffers at the extreme ends of the spectrum, to the design which betrays its sleek lines with a tacky blue light and superfluous plastic detail.

Sound quality is also just OK, lacking real power that means you’ll have to bump up the higher and lower frequencies on your device’s equaliser to compensate, but it’s no deal breaker.

What is impressive and useful is a volume slider on the left ear piece, and they’re just as comfy as the ANC9’s.

Weirdly, despite being physically bigger, these fold down to be relatively compact, taking up less space than the ANC9.

Overall, we can’t really recommend these, unless you’re really struggling — or unwilling — to stretch the budget.

Price: $169
From: Audio-Technica

Rating: 3 stars out of 5

Sony MDR-ZX550BN

sony MDRWhile we’ve praised Sony headphones in the past, particularly their hi-res audio and other high-end models, the company’s usual refinement and level of excellence is sorely missing here.

Although the labcoats have worked hard to pack as much sound as they can into the on-ear cups, they favour mids and highs, leaving the bass to dribble away.

It might’ve helped if the earpieces were slightly larger and covered your ear, rather than sitting on top, but the soundscape is definitely only acceptable rather than spectacular.

That sentiment applies to the noise cancelling too, which works well at low frequencies but still lets in a lot of mid and upper tones.

While the audio quality bests Sennheiser’s travel-friendly MM 550-X, Sony’s lose out when it comes to comfort. There’s zero padding on the headband, and instead you’ll have to make do with rock-hard plastic that starts to pinch far sooner than you’d expect.

Plus, it’s Bluetooth only — there’s no socket for a cord so when the battery goes dead, that’s it. All of which is a shame, because otherwise these would’ve been fine travelling headphones, rather than also-rans.

Price: $199
From: Sony

Rating: 2.5 stars out of 5

Sennheiser MM550X

sennheiser MM550Billed as being perfect for travel, Sennheiser’s diminutive ‘phones do a lot to fulfil on that claim.

They’re very compact and lightweight, making them easy to wear, and offer flexibility with both corded and Bluetooth capability, so if the rechargeable battery dies they can still be used. They also have great noise cancellation, despite a slight hum, and feel comfortable to wear.

While the cups are small they’re still large enough to cover your whole ear rather than resting on top. Perhaps because of their size, though, sound quality suffers no matter whether you’re using them with the included cord or with Bluetooth.

Price: $499
From: Sennheiser

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

Sennheisser PXC 450

sennheiser PXC-450Whip these Sennheisers out and they look the business. A large, generously padded headband, and cups that look like they’re big enough to give the moon a hug.

Sadly, all of this works against their functionality, as the combination of the large cups and headband forces the cups away from your ears — expect to spend several minutes to get them sitting so that everything is flush against the top and sides of your skull.

Once they’re on you’d better make sure they’re sitting just right, else the high-frequency tweeters will be closer than the beefier drivers, making the sound either sound supremely crisp, or hollow and slightly muffled, as though you’re trying to listen through the walls.

Nor is the noise cancellation up to standard, with a low-frequency ‘shimmer’ rocking around in the background, despite Sennheiser’s heritage in crafting aircraft-quality ‘phones for pilots.

Marry all this to fiddly controls and you’re left with a disappointing — and expensive — set of moon huggers.

Price: $499
From: Sennheiser

Rating: 2 stars out of 5

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