This definitive guide to the best active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones explores everything you need to know before buying your next pair of over-ear headphones, including how the technology works, debunking common misnomers and the ranking our favorite ANC of 2018 for every type of person.

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The Short List

Best Overall: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

The Headphones 700 are the company’s new flagship noise-canceling headphones and they have a host of modern features that the QuietComfort 35 Series II lack, including a new transparency mode, customizable noise canceling, swipe gestures for playback and USB-C charging. Aside from the completely new design, the biggest upgrade is a six-microphone array that enables the Headphones 700 to be, by far and away, the best noise-canceling headphones for phone calls.

Read our full review of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, here.

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Best Overall: Sony WH-1000XM3

The WH-1000XM3 headphones are Sony’s newest noise-canceling headphones, which were released mid-2018, and even though they look similar to their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM2, they’re better in pretty much every way. They sound better. They have better noise-cancellation – four times better than the 1000XM2. And they can fast charge thanks to USB-C.

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Most Comfortable: Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II

The QuietComfort 35 Series II are very similar to the slightly older Bose QC35 headphones. They sound nearly identical. They offer the same, great noise-canceling ability. And, like their precedessor, they’re the lightest adn most comfortable ANC over-ear headphones you’ll find. The big difference is that the Series II models have a dedicated button so you can access Google Assistant without taking out your phone.

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Introduction

Outside noise interferes with the enjoyment of music and movies, whether you’re flying across the Pacific or mowing the lawn. Eliminating these distractions is the reason Bose released the first commercially available active noise-canceling (ANC) headset in 2000. Because this tech makes it so much easier to hear hushed dialogue in movies or the pianissimo finale of a favorite symphony, ANC headphones have become standard items to pack for any serious traveler (especially anyone with a window seat next to the plane’s engine). They’ve also become favored with office workers who want to eliminate the chatter of colleagues and other workplace noise. And what otherwise-boring lawn-mowing session isn’t improved by adding a clear, blasting soundtrack?

At Gear Patrol, we review a lot of active noise-cancellation (ANC) headphones and for good reason. They’re among the most popular types of headphones and they come in over-ear or in-ear models. They block out ambient noise: turn on a pair and you hear almost nothing. It’s serenity at the touch of a button — pretty darn cool, especially if you’re a frequent traveler or work in a noisy office.

For this buying guide, we focused exclusively on wireless and over-ear ANC headphones. All the best and newest models hover somewhere near the $300 price range or above, but if you don’t want to spend as much you can find older, wired models of the Bose QC25 or Sony 1000XM that are both excellent and significantly more affordable. Also don’t be scared of manufacturer-refurbished models on eBay, Amazon or the company’s own website; you can get a really good deal and all of those reliable websites have fairly lenient return policies in case the headphones don’t meet your expectations.

How Do Active Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?

Active noise-canceling headphones are different from traditional headphones because they search and destroy ambient noise frequencies that would disrupt your listening session. They have miniature microphones built into each ear cup that listen to ambient noises, and then electronically generate new sound waves that are the exact opposite to those ambient sound waves — called an antiphase — which in effect “cancels” out both sets of sound. It’s like sending an antivirus for sound. The term “active” simply means that the headphones have a built-in battery that’s dedicated to power these noise-canceling microphones. Passive noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, don’t have powered microphones that actively seek out ambient frequencies.

When switched on, active noise-canceling creates a pressure against your ears that’s similar to driving through a tunnel or reaching a certain in-flight elevation. If the headphones aren’t playing music and you’re in a noisy environment, the active noise-canceling tech makes it sound like you’re in an empty room: quiet. Additionally, ANC makes it easier to listen to music. When wearing passive headphones amidst ambient noise, your brain has to work hard to prevent it from interfering and distracting you from the music. Because ANC actually reduces the amount of sound that you hear, it is, overall, easier on the brain and, in theory, makes listening to headphones a more pleasant experience.

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Buying Guide

Sony WH-1000XM3

What are they? The WH-1000XM3 headphones are Sony’s newest noise-canceling headphones. They look similar to their predecessors, the Sony WH-1000XM2, but they’re better in pretty much every way. They sound better. They have better noise-cancellation – four times better than the 1000XM2. And they can fast charge thanks to USB-C.

When were they released? July 2018.

Who should buy? The Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones are neck and neck with Bose’s Headphones 700 in terms of noise cancellation. They obviously lack the voice pickup ability of the Bose’s, but they arguably sound better (less flat) and they’re cheaper. Anybody who wants the best but doesn’t to drop $400 should buy the Sony WH-1000XM3.

Read our full review of the Sony WH-1000XM3, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9 ounces
Battery: 30 hrs (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Charger: USB-C

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Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

What are they? For the first time in seemingly forever, Bose’s QuietComfort line isn’t its flagship for noise-canceling headphones. The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 deliver similar sound quality and more customizable noise-cancellation settings as the QuietComfort 35 Series II, and significantly better voice pickup for calls. They also a radically different hardware redesign and modern features, such as swipe gestures and USB-C charging.

When were they released? June 2019

Who should buy? The Headphones 700 are the best noise-canceling headphones for phone calls – and it’s no contest. If you’re somebody who talks on the phone while wearing headphones and you’re willing to pay the $400 premium, these headphones are wonderful.

Read our full review of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9 ounces
Battery: Up to 20 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.0
Charger: USB-C

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Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II

What are they? The Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II headphones are identically in almost every way to the QuietComfort 35 Series I, in terms of noise-canceling ability, audio quality and design. That difference is the addition of Google Assistant and a dedicated button for it.

When were they released? June 2018

Who should buy? The Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are the best noise-canceling headphones for travelers, thanks to their foldable and lightweight design. They’re also the most comfortable noise-canceling headphones we’ve tested, even when compared to the newer Bose Headphones 700.

Read our full review of the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II, here.

Form: Over-ear
Weight: 10.9 ounces
Battery: 20 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Bowers & Wilkins PX

What are they? The PX are Bowers & Wilkins’s first noise-canceling headphones. They have the same angled drivers in B&W’s high-end P9 Signature headphones and are compatible with aptX HD (hi-res audio up to 24bit/48kHz), so the sound is incredible as long as you like that big soundstage. The active noise-canceling ability can be fine-tuned through a companion app. The design of the headphones is unique, too, with lots of leather, polished-silver color and curved, almost slithering, arms — these headphones are gorgeous.

When were they released? September 2017

Who should buy? The headphones are mostly about premium design and audio quality. They have the most distinct sound signature of any ANC headphones on this list; it’s huge, as if you were listening in a big concert venue. On the downside, they’re not the most travel-friendly because you can’t fold them up. They’re also older headphones, so you can get them for significantly cheaper than their previous $400 MSRP.

Read our full review of the Bowers & Wilkins PX, here.

Form: Over-ear
Weight: 11.8 ounces
Battery: up to 22 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: USB-C

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Anker Soundcore Space NC

What are they? The Soundcore Space NC are Anker’s first-ever noise-canceling headphones and their biggest selling point, no doubt, is price. At $100, these are the best budget noise-canceling headphones you can buy – and you’d be surprised, their noise-canceling ability is pretty darn good. The Soundcore Space NC are pretty light on features, but you’d kind of expect that for less than $100.

When were they released? Fall 2018

Who should buy? If you’re on a budget, these are a best noise-canceling headphones under $100 you can buy. It’s worth pointing out that Anker has released newer and cheaper headphones, the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 ($60), but the noise-canceling isn’t as effective.

Read our full review of the Anker Soundcore Space NC, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9.28 ounces
Battery: up to 20 hours with ANC
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Master & Dynamic MW65

What are they? Master & Dynamic’s first noise-canceling headphones marry the company’s signature industrial design (anodized aluminum and genuine leather) with active noise-cancellation. They’re beautiful and comfortable headphones, with above average noise-cancellation. They charge via USB-C but also lack several premium features, such as a companion app to adjust EQ settings, and swipe gestures to control audio playback.

When were they released? April 2019

Who should buy? At nearly $500, the MW65 are considerably more expensive than other flagship noise-canceling headphones. Bottom line: it’s all about whether you like the Master & Dynamic’s signature sound and look; if so, you won’t be disappointed.

Read our full review of the Master & Dynamic MW65, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 8.6 ounces
Battery: up to 24 hours
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.2
Charger: USB-C

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Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC

What are they? The Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC are older noise-canceling headphones with a four-mic array, and they’re designed to make taking calls crisp and easy; if you’re listening to music and a call comes in, a voice will say “Incoming call” and to answer it you just touch the right ear pad once. The headphones have great Bluetooth connectivity so it can sync to multiple devices — say your iPhone and MacBook — simultaneously. And the headphones are also Skype for Business certified.

When were they released? July 2017

Who should buy? The Voyager 8200 UC are wireless ANC headphones designed for business professionals who take calls on the phone. If that’s what you’re looking for and you don’t mind older headphones, these are a great, affordable option.

Read our full review of the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 10.2 ounces
Battery: up to 24 hours (Bluetooth and ANC); one month in standby mode
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Sennheiser HD1 Wireless

What are they? The Sennheiser HD1 Wireless are the same headphones as the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless that were released in 2015, just rebranded for the US markets. They support Bluetooth aptX for high-res streaming and there’s no companion app to adjust EQ or other ANC settings. One potential downside is that the ANC is always on — you can’t turn it off even if you wanted to preserve battery life.

When were they released? January 2017

Who should buy? The Sennheiser HD1 Wireless are lightweight and comfortable, and have a collapsible design making them good for travel. They’re great for anybody who wants no-frills noise-canceling headphones with a unique design. Also, there’s a good chance you can find a pretty good deal on them because Sennheiser just discontinued the HD1 Wireless in favor of the Septermber 2019-released Momentum Wireless headphones ($400).

Read our full review of the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless, here.

Form : Over-ear
Weight: 9.4 ounces
Battery: up to 22 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0
Charger: micro-USB

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Notable Absentees

Jabra Elite 85h

Jabra’s first noise-canceling headphones were released in April 2019 and deliver similar features as Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II and Sony WH-1000XM3, but at a lower price. Maybe their most defining feature is special eight-mic array, meaning they’re optimized for business professionals who anticipate taking lots of calls. On the potential downside, the soft mesh-y material doesn’t feel or look as premium as other headphones.

Microsoft Surface Headphones

The Surface Headphones have a distinctly “Surface” look and are probably ideal for people who use one of Microsoft’s Surface laptops or tablets. The most standout feature are the two rotating dials on either ear cup; the dial on the right earcup adjusts the volume, while the dial on the left earcup can be used to strengthen or attenuate the noise-canceling (the Surface Headphones have 13 different levels of noise-canceling that you can choose from).

Sennheiser Momentum 3 Wireless

Released in September 2019, these are the next-generation versions of the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless an they a bunch of new features, including USB-C charging, integrated voice assistants, and a companion app to adjust sound settings. One feature that Sennheiser kept that you may like if the three-button array for playback controls.

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