We live in a busy and loud world so it can be nice to have some peace and quiet, even when you’re out and about. Luckily this is possible thanks to the invention of noise cancelling headphones and these are the best ones you can buy.
Headphones come in all manner of shapes, sizes and types and although noise cancelling used to be fairly rare, it’s now widely available with lots of choice. While many fetch a high price, there are some cheaper options too.
Bose and Sony are well-known for it but there are various alternatives out there. We also have round-ups for overall best headphones, wireless headphones, true wireless earbuds and cheap headpones if you're looking for something else.
What do noise cancelling headphones do?
Noise cancelling shouldn’t be confused with noise isolation. The latter is simply the way putting some headphones on - no matter the type - creates a physical barrier and blocks out some of the sound around you.
Using earplugs to sleep is an example of noise isolation. You may see it described as ‘passive noise cancelling’ on headphones.
In contrast, noise cancelling headphones are doing something more than just physical. They are digitally playing sound into your ears - other than the music or audio book you’re listening to - to negate the sound around you.
This is called ‘active noise cancelling’ (ANC) and is what you need to look out for when buying proper noise cancelling headphones.
The headphones listen to the world around you with microphones and play an inverted waveform of whatever they hear. So if the ambient sound is a number, say 5, the headphones play -5 to you equalling 0.
This is all done and processed in real-time so you get the effect of not hearing the things around you.
In practice, you’ll never fully get 0 and some headphones offer better noise cancelling than others. Regardless, it makes listening to audio or speech a lot easier as you don’t need to pump the volume to counteract the sound around you.
These days many noise cancelling headphones are more advanced than simply switching the feature on or off. Some will allow you to control how much noise cancelling there is so you can adjust it depending on where you are. This helps with battery life as you can save power when somewhere less demanding like an office.
Some also have modes that help you hear announcements so you don’t miss something important like a call to gate at the airport or have a conversation with someone without removing your headphones. This feature goes by many names such as ‘aware’ and ‘social’ mode.
Now you know how they work, here are the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy. All fully tested, reviewed and ranked.
Best noise-cancelling headphones 2020
1. Sony WH-1000XM3
Sony has really smashed it out of the park with these headphones, apart from some slightly awkward touch controls there's nothing to complain about. Perhaps only the awkward model number instead of a friendly name.
These have unrivalled noise cancelling combined with top-notch sound quality and intelligent Adaptive Sound Control. There's also long 30-hour battery life, USB-C charging and a reliable Bluetooth connection.
Throw in great build quality and you've got some amazing headphones. They're not cheap, but you have to pay to get the best.
Read our full Sony WH-1000XM3 review
2. Bose QC35 II
These 2nd-gen headphones from Bose are almost perfect and are easily among the most comfortable we've ever tested making them a great choice for long commutes and flights.
Noise cancelling is great including three levels to choose from, sound quality is crisp and clean with even the option to use the cans wired if you like. Battery life is a little off Sony at 20 hours (wireless) and the QC35 II use the older micro-USB port.
They include NFC for easy set up and a digital active EQ so you can adjust the sound.
Read our full Bose QC35 II review
3. Sony WF-1000XM3
True wireless earbuds with noise cancelling are rare and these are the ones to beat for anyone trying.
This 3rd-gen edition, still with the clunky model name, have improved noise cancelling as you would expect from Sony along with useful touch controls and fantastic sound quality.
A charging case can recharge the earbuds three times giving you a battery life of 24 hours. They're a little chunky compared to rivals but they're very lightweight so it doesn't matter too much.
They might be expensive for wireless earbuds but in the noise cancelling world, they're fairly affordable.
Read our full Sony WF-1000XM3 review
4. Bowers & Wilkins PX
They're not a comfortable as Sony or Bose rivals, but there's still little to complain about here with B&W's first attempt at noise cancelling headphones.
The PX bring elements of the premium P9 Signature into a portable design with luxurious build quality. These are one of the best sounding pairs of wireless headphones we've tested and the noise cancelling is decent, too, with three different modes and adjustble voice-pass.
There are also wear sensors so the PX know when you take them off to pause the music automatically.
Read our full Bowers & Wilkins PX review
5. Libratone Track Air+
If Sony and Apple noise cancelling wireless earbuds are too pricey then look to Libratone and the Track Air+ which are under £180.
They offer all-round versatility and value for money with very good sound quality and effective noise cancelling. Pretty essential to make this chart.
What you might not expect is all the extras such as water-resistance and wireless charging case. We're also impressed with the build quality and battery life.
Read our full Libratone Track Air+ review
6. AirPods Pro
Noise cancelling is one of the main new features of the AirPods Pro and these wireless earbuds do a great job of cutting out the likes of traffic, trains and appliances. They're not so good at higher frequencies such as kids screaming but that's tough for any in-ear headphones.
You can't adjust the strength of the noise cancelling manually but the automatic adjustment works well. There's also a transparacy mode you can toggle with a squeeze of the stem which allows you to pipe in some sound from the outside world to have a converstation or listen out for dangers. It's one of the best we've tested.
These are great wireless earbuds with noise cancelling if you can afford them.
Read our full AirPods Pro review
7. Bose QuietComfort 20
They're not exactly new (having come out in 2013) but the Bose QC20 remain an excellent pair of noise cancelling headphones for anyone wanting wired in-ears. They're one of the only decent options on the market.
We find the QC20 to be extremely comfortable and the noise cancelling is excellent too, including an aware mode so you can keep tabs on what's around you when needed. Battery life is also strong so they won't run out quickly.
Since they've been around a while, you can get them at a cheaper price.
Read our full Bose QuietComfort 20 review
8. AKG N700NC M2
AKG has taken what made the original N700NC headphones so great, and refined it.
Sound quality is superb, with a great mid-range supplemented by balanced bass and treble. There's even the option to customise this to your liking via the companion app.
There great virtual assistant implementation, and we had the option to choose between Google, Alexa or Bixby (if using a Samsung phone). Battery life is also fantastic.
However, these headphones are a worthy rival to Sony and Bose's offerings, even if they do fall just short in noise cancellation and sound isolation.
Read our full AKG N700NC M2 review
9. Microsoft Surface Headphones
They might only come in grey but Microsoft has done a pretty decent job with its first pair of headphones.
The Surface Headphones are insanely comfortable and we love the smooth analogue dials on each ear cup along with accurate touch controls. These allow you to quickly control volume and noise cancelling, the latter with more levels than rivals.
We're mainy let down by battery life and sound quality being slightly short of rivals that cost the same amount.
Read our full Microsoft Surface Headphones review
Nura has made an impressively unusual and unique pair of headphones here. If you can get on with the strange design which incorporates in-ear and over-ear parts at the same time, they're worth a go.
The Nuraphones main feature is the incredible way they can tune the sound to your personal hearing. It sounds like a gimmick but really does work and will likely blow your mind. Good battery life and a range of cables (as well as wireless) are bonuses.
The G2 software update brought along noise cancelling which is welcome. It's not up to the standard of Bose or Sony though and you need the app to switch it off.
Read our full Nuraphone review