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Lead image

How to choose the best noise-canceling headphones

Block out the world and get closer to your music


n my decade-plus here at Crutchfield, noise-canceling headphones have taken a leap in quality and popularity. They’ve always been a slam-dunk choice for air travel, but I now recommend them for everyday use. Their sound quality has vastly improved. And they've gotten much better at blocking out the daily commotion.

So, could you use a moment of peace while you’re in the sky, bus, or office? Now is a great time to buy. This guide will help you pick the right noise-canceling headphones for your situation.

Jeff in NYC.

I’ve tested noise-canceling headphones in a lot of places, from our Virginia headquarters to the middle of Times Square. (Photo by Doug Henderson,

How do noise-canceling headphones work?

Noise-canceling headphones don’t simply seal out noise with thick ear pads or heavy-duty earcups. There is special, sophisticated technology at work. 

They have built-in circuitry that counteracts exterior sound by emitting an out-of-phase sound wave. This wave effectively cancels out the incoming sound. 

Diagram of noise-canceling.

The result: music that's much clearer, even at lower volumes.

Who invented noise-canceling headphones?

Many customers associate noise-cancelling headphones with Bose. Makes sense. They pioneered and popularized the category.  

According to company lore, Dr. Amar Bose sketched out the original concept back in 1978. While listening to music on a flight, he was annoyed at the amount of engine noise that leaked into his headphones. He mapped out his noise-cancelling idea on an airplane napkin.

The latest Bose model, the QuietComfort® 35 wireless II, is among our most popular products. They are super-comfortable, sound great, and block noise as effectively as any headphones we’ve heard.

It wasn't long ago that my recommendation would begin and end with Bose. But now there are some very formidable rivals out there — all with different strengths and features. Your choice will ultimately depend on how you plan to use them. That’s where I can help.

What to look for

I usually test out headphones at Crutchfield HQ, where I work in an open-plan workspace. But I recently had a chance to try them in much noisier conditions — I traveled to New York for the CanJam NYC 2018.

Jeff in NYC.

Photo by Doug Henderson,

I took along some of our top-selling models along to see what features matter most:

1. Wired vs. wireless

Our most popular noise-canceling headphones are also Bluetooth headphones — they play music wirelessly. I personally appreciated the extra freedom on my trip. It was so much easier maneuvering around the airport and the Big Apple without a wire in the way.

If you can live with a cable connected to your phone, you can save some money by choosing wired noise-canceling headphones.

2. Battery life 

Wired or wireless, you must remember to recharge noise-canceling headphones. You should be aware of the listed battery life. These days, most models offer at least 25 hours of noise cancellation on a full charge.

Many models let you listen with the noise-canceling circuitry turned off. This comes in handy when the battery runs dry before you have a chance to recharge. If you're in a quiet place, you can use this "passive mode" to save your battery power for later.

3. Fit

Most models use an over-ear design to offer a plush fit and a tight seal to help keep out noise. We also recommend them for office use (lots of Crutchfield folks use them every day).

Bose QC35 headpones at work

Butler, a Crutchfield inventory handler, uses noise-canceling headphones to block out warehouse distractions while he works.

If you’re looking for headphones to use on a daily commute, something smaller might be more convenient. There are several earbud-style models available that offer powerful noise-cancellation without the bulk.

4. Adjustable/adaptive noise cancellation                                

Perhaps the coolest recent innovation in noise-canceling headphones? Their ability to tailor their performance to your surroundings. Many can adjust their noise cancellation to your environment.

Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones take this to another level. Not only did they account for the level of external sound, but also for altitude on my flight out of Charlottesville.

As the plane left the runway and ascended above the clouds, the level of noise cancellation took off, too. While the sound of engine noise increased, the Sony headphones adjusted themselves. I was able to keep my travel playlist at the same, safe volume throughout the flight. 

Screen shot of the Sony App.

My fellow writer Emily S bought the WH-1000XM3 headphones for her brother who lives in Colorado. He appreciates the altitude setting.

5. Quick access to the "outside world"

All the headphones I tested on the sidewalks of New York City reduced the hustle and bustle of Manhattan to a murmur. But there were times I needed to be more aware of my surroundings. Some of the headphones I tried were designed with this in mind.

The Sennheiser PXC 550s (now the PXC 550 II) let me just double-tap the earcup to pick up environmental sound.

6. Voice control with the Google Assistant

I’ve gotten used to using voice control at home, so I appreciated the dedicated Google Assistant button on the Bose QuietComfort 35 II. Since Google picked up my flight info from my Gmail account, I was able to ask the Google Assistant questions like, “Is my flight on time?” and get real-time answers.

You can use Google Assistant to select songs, send texts, make dinner reservations, and more. You might think it seems out of place in headphones, but it quickly becomes second-nature.

Need help deciding?

Call our expert advisors at 1-888-955-6000. They can give you the scoop on headphones or any other products that we offer.

  • SamWow from Pleasanton, CA

    Posted on 2/13/2020

    I see you guys are selling the new IQbuds2 MAX from Nuheara. As far as wireless earbuds go, they look really promising from a noise-cancellation perspective. Since they only appear to be available for pre-order right now, curious to know if you or anyone from Crutchfield has been able to test them out yet. Some of the early press suggests they are the real deal, but would love to hear what you guys think before buying.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 2/21/2020

    We haven't had a chance to try the Nuheara IQbuds 2 MAX yet, but Crutchfield Web Editor Jim Ralston (who has tried out the original IQbuds BOOST) says he will give his impressions as soon as he gets a sample. We'll follow up directly with you when that happens.
  • Michael from Littleton

    Posted on 3/7/2019

    Just an FYI, I bought the MDR-XB950N1 Sony headphones. Had them for 3 months. Battery died, won't recharge. No way to fix it. Can't even find a replacement battery to do it myself. Extremely disappointed with Sony on this one.

  • Bob Foss from Las Vegas

    Posted on 12/28/2018

    Few NC headphones offer the longer-life AAA batteries, which having both rechargeable and consumer-friendly replaceable, I find the 30 seconds it takes to replace a AAA battery beats waiting several hours for a 20-hour charge. But as others have said, the headphone makers sell more headphones with rechargeables as most will not pay the near $100 it cost for them to replace the lithium-ion batteries...planned obselescence I guess. Thanks for the good review. I fear the QC45 coming out soon will still have a rechargeable.

  • Todd from GAINESVILLE

    Posted on 11/23/2018

    Jeff - I really appreciated your article. I'm in the market for Noise Canceling Headphones. But I'm not much of a Jet Setter more of a Lawn Mower. I've got 10 acres to knock down on a constant schedule, I also do a fair amount of shooting, both rifle and pistol. Wondering if the Noise Canceling Headphones made for playing music will work for the gun range? Or do you have to be playing music for the Noise Canceling technology to work. I would definitely play music while cutting the grass on the tractor, but listening to music on the Shooting Range is not safe in my opinion. Do you have to be listening to music for the NC technology to work with the Bluetooth models your recommending? - Best Todd

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 11/26/2018

    Hi Todd,

    Most models let you use the noise-canceling circuitry without playing music. There are some noise-canceling headphones that automatically shut off when music isn't playing. It is a power-saving feature that can usually be defeated.

    I've forwarded your comments to one of our Product Advisors so they can reach out to you directly.
  • Tim from San Francisco

    Posted on 5/31/2018

    Which have the best ANC for plane travel? I am least concerned with sound quality but do a lot of long-haul flying, and wear them for long periods of time.

    Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    on 6/6/2018

    Tim - most noise-canceling headphones are capable of knocking out the drone of a plane engine (it's a relatively consistent low-frequency sound), so there are no "bad" choices for air travel.

    But since your top priorities are comfort and noise-canceling, I think it is between the Bose QuietComfort® 35 wireless II and Sony’s WH-1000XM2 headphoness. Comfort is subjective, but I wear glasses, and both offer a relaxed fit I could easily keep on for a cross-country flight. I go back and forth between the two on which one is more comfortable -- I usually choose whichever pair I wore last.

    I'll give the very slight comfort edge to the Bose QC 35 - feels a little lighter.

    The QC 35s also have the strongest active noise-cancellation. But it is basically all or nothing: you're getting this absolute, almost-startling quiet at all times. The Sony WH-1000XM2 let you adjust the intensity a bit - both manually and automatically - based on the external noise around you (or even your altitude).
  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 2/20/2018

    Good news! Any Bluetooth headphone will work with the Apple TV for wireless TV watching.

  • Sportsman S.B. from Redlands

    Posted on 2/19/2018

    I'm looking for wireless noise cancelling headphones and was considering the Bose QC35s, however I noted that one review of the Dr Dre Beats headphones said they can also connect to your tv through Apple TV. Do the Bose headphones also have that capability?

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 8/10/2017

    I personally find rechargeable headphones more convenient.

  • Curious listener from Hillsdale

    Posted on 8/10/2017

    Is it better to get headphones that have a rechargeable battery over the ones who require AAA batteries?

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/27/2017

    Thanks for sharing this, Alan. You're right about the Sony MDR-1000X...such a great pair of headphones. There was a lot of good stuff I had to leave on the cutting room floor to fit that 2-page spread.

  • Alan Garcia from San Antonio, TX

    Posted on 7/21/2017

    Hey Jeff, I read your article titled "No Wires. No Noise." on the July/August '17 copy of Crutchfield's magazine and was a bit disappointed on what you had to say about the Sony 1000X in comparison to the Sennheiser PXC 550. Before I go any further let me just clarify that I am an owner of the Sony 1000X. The 1000X also has noise cancelling controls beyond just the SENSE Engine that detects the shape of your head and the external environment to optimize noise cancellation. When you place your hand over the right earcup it also allows you to listen to outside sounds without taking them off, say when somebody is trying to talk to you. Now, of course the Sennheiser does a better job by keeping the external mics on when double-tapping the earcup, but the Sony reserves that feature for answering phone calls. The 1000X also has an Ambient mode in Normal and Voice modes to help you listen to overhead announcements made at airports and train/bus stations without needing to take them off. These features (apart from slightly better overall sound quality IMO) are specifically why I went with the Sony 1000X over the Bose QC35 and why they're known as the "Bose killers" right now. If I'm not mistaken the Sennheiser PXC 550 wasn't available when I purchased my 1000X a few months ago so I can't attest to their sound quality but I would assume they are quite excellent as well given that I've owned Sennheiser audio products in the past. Thanks for hearing me out Jeff!

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/14/2017

    Here are my picks --

    Over-ear: Sennheiser PXC 480

    On-ear: AKG N60NC

    In-ear: Bose QC 20

  • Matt from Lincoln

    Posted on 6/21/2017

    What do you recommend for wired noise cancelling over the ear head phones with a mic in the cord? Thanks.

  • Commenter image

    Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 3/8/2017

    Kathryn -- I've personally had the most success with over-ears. Check out the Bose QC 35s or Sennheiser PXC 550s.

    If you prefer in-ear, the Bose QuietControl 30s have adjustable noise-cancellation that works very well. Also, the Shure "Sound Isolating" series do about the best job you can do without active noise-cancellation.

  • Kathryn Lyons from Bellingham

    Posted on 2/26/2017

    What is the difference between noise cancelling function between over-, on- and earbud designs? Do they all work equally well?