Enjoy distraction-free audio with our pick of the best noise-cancelling headphones on the market
If you want to enjoy audio free from the distractions of the outside world, you need a pair of the best noise-cancelling headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones (often referred to as active noise-cancelling or ANC headphones) reduce environmental sound to ensure you can hear your music, movies or podcasts without having to crank the volume up to ear-damaging levels.
ANC technology has come on leaps and bounds in recent years but how effectively headphones dampen external sound varies greatly from product to product. With hundreds of options to choose from, working out which pair to buy can be a little overwhelming.
That’s where we come in. We’ve tested countless pairs of noise-cancelling headphones and below, you’ll find a list of our favourites across a range of styles and price points, along with a buying guide arming you with all the information you need to make the right purchase.
How to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones for you
Video of How to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones for you
With prices starting from around £50 and soaring well over £300, there’s a pair of noise-cancelling headphones out there for everyone, no matter their budget. But which style is right for you and what features should you look out for? The answers to both of those questions can be found in the buying guide below.
What types of noise cancellation are there?
Headphones can feature two types of noise cancellation: active and passive. Passive noise cancellation simply means physically blocking out external noises. It’s often referred to as “sound isolation”, and the style of headphones you choose will have a significant impact on how effective it is.
Active noise cancellation is a much smarter process using clever technology to reduce ambient noise so nothing disturbs your listening.
The only downside of the technology is that it’s rather expensive, though we’re seeing more affordable options emerging. If you can’t stretch your budget to a pair of ANC headphones, you may want to take a look at our roundups of the best Bluetooth headphones and best cheap headphones for some less dear alternatives.
What style of noise-cancelling headphones should I buy?
Noise-cancelling headphones come in all shapes and sizes, and their ability to passively block out ambient sound varies greatly from style to style.
Over-ear headphones of the closed-back variety offer the best passive noise-cancellation as their earcups are sealed and envelop your ears. Open-back over-ear headphones actively let sound in, so you won’t find any noise-cancelling headphones sporting an open-back design.
On-ear headphones let some sound in owing to the way they sit on your ears. This doesn’t make ANC redundant, but there aren’t nearly as many on-ear headphones with ANC as there are over-ear options.
In-ear headphones do passive noise cancellation slightly differently: they use silicone eartips to seal your ear canals and isolate sound that way. There are some in-ear noise-cancelling headphones that use an open-fit design – where the earpieces rest just inside your ears – but we recommend you steer clear of these if you’re after decent ANC as they let too much sound in.
Ultimately, the style you choose will be the style you find most comfortable and most practical for the conditions in which you plan to use your noise-cancelling headphones.
How does active noise cancellation work?
ANC relies on a combination of outward-facing microphones built into the headphones and clever digital signal processing. The microphones constantly listen to the ambient sound around you, while the digital signal processor takes that audio and plays the exact inverse of that sound alongside your music. The result is that those outside noises are effectively cancelled out, allowing you to enjoy your music as it was meant to be heard.
ANC is a very impressive technology, but it doesn’t completely eliminate every type of background noise. As high frequencies have a much shorter wavelength than lower tones, they’re harder to eliminate in real-time. The technology is most effective at blocking out lower-frequency sounds, such as the rumble of aeroplane engines.
What are the benefits of noise-cancelling headphones?
Noise-cancelling headphones don’t just help you enjoy your music: they can protect your hearing. Without noise-cancelling technology, the only way to drown out ambient noise is to crank up the volume. Done on a regular basis, this can lead to permanent hearing damage. Noise-cancelling headphones let you listen at lower volumes, reducing the impact on your eardrums. ANC is also useful if you have hypersensitivity, hyperacusis or a similar health condition, as the technology can help reduce the strain on your ears.
It’s worth noting that ANC can affect the overall sound quality of your headphones because the noise-cancelling wave can interfere with the frequencies in what you’re listening to. The effect is usually minimal though, and preferable to putting up with background noise. You might also hear a slight high-pitched hiss in the background when nothing is playing – but, again, it’s a small price to pay for the ability to enjoy your music untroubled by intrusive external sounds.
How we test the best noise-cancelling headphones
Our testing of noise-cancelling headphones focuses on two key areas: audio quality and sound attenuation.
To test audio quality, we listen to a broad range of content across multiple platforms and whichever connection types the headphones in question support. This content includes music from Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music, videos from YouTube, and TV shows and films on Netflix, Amazon Prime or Disney Plus. We test across the full range of supported Bluetooth codecs and audio formats and explore any audio options a pair of headphones may have, such as in-app presets and customisable equalisers.
These audio tests are undertaken in a range of environments, as are those focussing on the effectiveness of active noise cancellation. At-home tests with kettles and washing machines are used to assess a pair of headphones’ ability to dampen the impact of common household appliances, and we’ll also test headphones in noisy public environments such as crowded London streets, the tube and our bustling office. We try out every single ANC option, including various levels of attenuation and transparency modes where available, and run side-by-side comparisons with similarly priced models for context.
Sound quality and attenuation aren’t the only things we test, however. We evaluate build quality and comfort by wearing the headphones for extended periods of time, while headphones with an IP rating will be exposed to rain and sweat. We keep a close eye on playtime to assess manufacturers’ battery life claims. ANC headphones with microphones are used on calls – both over the phone and using web platforms like Zoom and Teams – while we also make audio recordings to better assess voice pickup and background noise reduction.
The best noise-cancelling headphones to buy in 2023
1. Sony WH-1000XM5: Best noise-cancelling headphones overall
Price when reviewed: £379 | Check price at Amazon
Although the fifth-generation model of Sony’s flagship over-ear headphones look rather different to their predecessors, they demonstrate all the same quality, with a few notable upgrades. They deliver greater detail across the frequency spectrum, external sound is attenuated more effectively, and the new “noiseless” design is supremely comfortable.
Add a whole host of useful features such as Adaptive Sound Control, Quick Attention mode, Speak-to-Chat, wear detection and DSEE Extreme upscaling, and you have a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that tick just about every box. We say “just about”, as the WH-1000XM5 have no water resistance – so aren’t cut out for gym use – and can’t be folded, which will be offputting for some.
Despite those minor grumbles, the XM5 are the new undisputed noise-cancelling kings. Their predecessors the WH-1000XM4 still remain a viable option, however, and are a more budget-friendly option.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM5 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear headphones, built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3,5mm jack; Weight: 250g; Cable length: 1.2m
2. Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II: Best noise-cancelling wireless earbuds
Price when reviewd: £279 | Check price at Amazon
The original QuietComfort Earbuds were our favourite noise-cancelling earbuds for the best part of two years due to their exceptional attenuation, and the second-gen model is even more effective in that department. This is thanks to Bose’s new “CustomTune” technology, which measures and monitors sound escaping from your ears and tweaks noise cancellation accordingly. As a result, mid-range frequencies are dampened slightly better, though to be honest, the margins are pretty fine.
Bigger improvements have been made on the design front: the QC Earbuds II are 30% smaller than their predecessor, lighter and look far more ergonomic when worn. They’re still very comfortable and sonic performance has received a boost, too. The absence of wireless charging and Bluetooth multipoint and the occasional connectivity issue are small blots on their copybook, but not nearly enough to prevent them scooping the crown as the best noise-cancelling earbuds around.
Read our full Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless earbuds, built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.3; Weight: 6.2g per earbud, 60g charging case; Cable length: N/A
3. Anker Soundcore Life Q30: The best budget noise-cancelling headphones
Price when reviewed: £80 | Check price at Amazon
The Life Q30 may not be the best-looking noise-cancelling headphones around but they’ve got a lot going for them. Their ANC is highly effective given their budget price and there are three modes available catering for different circumstances: Transport, Indoors and Outdoors, all of which successfully help mitigate environmental sound.
The Soundcore companion app that lets you freely switch between those modes is one of the most comprehensive around, with 22 different EQ presets to choose from and an eight-band graphic equaliser to create your own EQ. Those audio customisation options are particularly welcome as the Life Q30’s default sound profile is overly bassy to the point where the earcups vibrate and things sound rather muddy. But tone the low-end down a bit and things start to sound much better.
The Life Q30 also have an outstanding battery life of up to 40 hours with ANC turned on. With that stamina, impressive noise-cancelling capabilities and audio you can tweak to suit your own preference, the Life Q30 are the ultimate budget ANC headphones.
Read our full Anker Soundcore Life Q30 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear, built-in microphone, touch and physical controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack plug; Weight: 265g; Cable length: 1.2m
4. Sony WF-1000XM4: The smartest noise-cancelling earbuds
Price when reviewed: £250 | Check price at Amazon
The Sony WF-1000XM4 sound great and are comfortable too, but what really sets them apart is ambient sound control, which automatically adjusts noise cancellation based on your actions and surroundings.
You can set specific sound profiles for staying (sitting or standing still), walking, running and transport, and the buds will pick up on what you’re doing and switch to the relevant profile. But their smarts don’t end there. They’ll also learn about the places you visit over time and the noise-cancelling requirements when in those locations. From there you can register sound settings for specific areas within the Sony Headphones Connect app. Such personalisation options are unmatched in the earbuds world, although the technology is also incorporated by the WF-1000XM4’s over-ear stablemates, the WH-1000XM4.
If the WF-1000XM4 are a little out of your price range, it’s worth checking out their predecessors the WF-1000XM3, which also offer high-quality ANC but are available for significantly less.
Read our full Sony WF-1000XM4 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless earbuds with built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth; Weight: 6g per earbud, 41g charging case; Cable length: N/A
5. Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3: Sennheiser’s best noise-cancelling earbuds
Price when reviewed: £220 | Check price at Amazon
They may not be as smart as the Sony WF-1000XM4 or attenuate external sound quite as well as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, but the Momentum True Wireless 3 are highly impressive all-rounders. Sound quality is excellent, the new design more ergonomic than its predecessor’s, and the price more competitive, too.
Sennheiser has taken a leaf out of Sony’s book by incorporating a feature called “Sound Zones”, which automatically switches audio and noise-cancelling settings based on your location. As you move into or out of a registered zone, your settings will change to your preferred level of noise cancellation and specified EQ. It’s a feature that works well, though you do have to create a Sennheiser account to make use of it, and is one of a number of things the Momentum True Wireless 3 have going for them.
Read our full Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless earbuds; built-in microphone and touch controls; Plug type: N/A; Weight: 6.5g per earbud, 67g charging case; Cable length: N/A
6. Apple AirPods Max: Best noise-cancelling headphones for iPhone users
Price when reviewed: £549 | Check price at Argos
They may be the most expensive entry on this list, but Apple’s AirPods Max deliver where it matters most: noise cancellation and audio quality. The ANC uses six external microphones and two internal mics and does a superb job at reducing external sound, while the transparency mode works extremely well, too.
When it comes to their sound signature, the AirPods Max are relatively laid back. Their soundstage is nice and wide and this provides plenty of room for you to make out different elements of more complicated musical arrangements. Top-end frequencies are slightly rolled off so the AirPods Max never become fatiguing to listen to.
But what really sets the AirPods Max apart from the competition is their incorporation of Spatial Audio. This uses head tracking to deliver surround sound and works wonderfully while watching content that supports the technology. Sound comes from different directions based on your head’s position and the result is a truly immersive experience.
If you own an iPhone and are after the most luxurious over-ear noise-cancellers around, the AirPods Max should be top of your wishlist.
Read our full Apple AirPods Max review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear headphones with built-in microphone; Connectivity: Bluetooth; Weight: 384g; Cable length: N/A
7. Anker Soundcore Life P3: Best cheap noise-cancelling earbuds
Price when reviewed: £70 | Check price at Amazon
The Life P3 are the most effective ANC earbuds we’ve tested costing less than £100 and, like their over-ear counterparts the Life Q30, offer three different noise-cancelling levels: Transport, Indoor and Outdoor. The difference between them isn’t huge but each attenuates sound to an impressive degree given the P3’s very reasonable price tag.
The Life P3 also offer a huge range of EQ options, with 20 preset EQs available within the companion app along with the ability to create your own custom profile. Customisation options are also available for the P3’s touch controls but while the commands the controls cover are comprehensive, executing is a little hit-and-miss.
Still, if you can live with occasionally having to tap them a few more times than should really be necessary, you’ll be getting a pair of earbuds capable of cutting out a significant chunk of external sound and delivering decent audio while they’re at it.
Read our Anker Soundcore Life P3 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless earbuds, built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0; Weight: 5.5g per earbud, 50g charging case; Cable length: N/A
8. Apple AirPods Pro 2: Best noise-cancelling earbuds for iPhone users
Price when reviewed: £249 | Check price at Amazon
Improving upon some of the most popular earbuds ever made is no mean feat, but the Apple AirPods Pro 2 rise to the challenge admirably. In-ear battery life with ANC enabled now clocks in at around six hours, up from the previous model’s four and a half, and the charging case brings total playtime with ANC disabled up to 30 hours.
Like their predecessors, the AirPods Pro 2 offer unparalleled integration with other Apple products, automatically detecting nearby iPhones when you open the case, allowing you to connect with a single tap on your phone. Noise cancellation is extremely effective, handily attenuating low-level rumbles from trains and planes, nearby conversations, clattering keyboards and all manner of other external distractions.
The AirPods Pro 2 sound excellent too, with the Spatial Audio mode adding a great sense of space and depth. If you use an iPhone, and you’ve got the money to spend, the AirPods Pro 2 are the noise-cancelling earbuds to buy.
Read our Apple AirPods Pro 2 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless, built-in microphone, touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.3; Weight: 5.3g per earbud, 51g charging case; Cable length: N/A
9. Urbanista Los Angeles: Best noise-cancelling headphones for battery life
Price when reviewed: £169 | Check price at Urbanista
We’ve been impressed by Urbanista’s headphones over the past couple of years, with the London earbuds receiving our coveted Best Buy award and the Miami securing a commendable four-star rating. The Los Angeles are essentially a solar-charged version of the Miami, with a headband housing a solar cell that draws power from any light source to top up the Los Angeles’ battery.
Because the cell is always charging the headphones regardless of whether they’re turned on or not, you should never have to charge the Los Angeles using via their USB-C port. They’re the first headphones to incorporate such technology and it’s certainly a unique selling point. The Los Angeles also look good, and sound quality will appeal to those that favour a bass-forward presentation. The noise cancellation isn’t the most effective going but does the job well enough and ultimately, less capable ANC is a sacrifice worth making if you never want to have to charge your headphones again.
Read our full Urbanista Los Angeles review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear, built-in microphone and physical controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0; Weight: 322g; Cable length: N/A
10. Bose NC700: Most stylish noise-cancelling headphones
Price when reviewed: £350 | Check price at Amazon
Bose is well-known for its noise-cancelling tech and the NC 700 are probably its best over-ear headphones yet. These supremely stylish cans have adjustable ANC, touch controls, and have the virtual assistants Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant built-in.
Aside from their design, the NC 700 have excellent noise-cancelling performance – one that slightly betters their predecessors, the QuietComfort 35 Series II. Sonically, they retain the calm and composed sound signature of other Bose headphones, making them easy to recommend.
Read our full Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear, built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack plug (optional); Weight: 250g; Cable length: 1.2m
11. Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2: Dynamic and effective noise cancellation
Price when reviewed: £170 | Check price at Amazon
A successful sequel to an already excellent pair of earbuds, the Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 improve on their predecessors in just about every way. They’re lighter, rated IP54 for dust and water resistance, and audio quality is superb, with codec support extended to include both LDAC and HWA for high-resolution streaming.
Like the original FreeBuds Pro, you get four noise cancellation modes to choose from – Cosy, General, Ultra and Dynamic – with the latter adjusting attenuation based on the intensity of environmental sound. All four work very well, with the buds effectively dampening the drone of a plane’s jet engines and doing a great job reducing the distractions on a busy London tube.
There is one drawback worth highlighting and that’s the FreeBuds Pro 2’s battery life. If you regularly use that top-notch noise cancellation, you’ll only get around four and a half hours of listening time, with the case bringing the total up to 18 hours. Still, if you can keep a charger handy, the FreeBuds Pro 2 are easily some of the best earbuds in their price range.
Read our Huawei FreeBuds Pro 2 review for more details
Key specs – Headphone type: True wireless, built-in microphone, touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.2; Weight: 6.1g per earbud, 52g charging case; Cable length: N/A