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

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

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, than 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 and 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 it out. Here’s what we mean: A sound wave is similar to the ripples in a pond. Toss a pebble in the pond and 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 April 5, 2021 to add our Monoprice BT600ANC noise-cancelling headphone review. Our review score reflects a degree of faith that Monoprice will be able to resolve the Bluetooth connection issue we encountered with two review units the company sent; apart from that, these are the best ANC headphones we’ve heard for the price.

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.

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