Noise canceling headphones have been around for quite some time, but Bose still remains on top of the market with their QuietComfort series, particularly their latest QC 35.
After extensive research (which we'll get into below), the QC 35s came out on top. The market for noise canceling headphones has been growing, and in the future we'll likely see some smart noise canceling headphones, or even earbuds that can compete.
In addition to reviewing and ranking the best noise-cancelling headphones, our team of audiologists has also answered questions specific to what noise cancelling is, why to use it, and how these style of headphones can be used for more than just listening to your favorite tunes, but also protect your hearing (if used properly).
Before we get to the why, let's first quickly talk about the what. What are noise-canceling headphones?
Noise-cancelling headphones can be either active or passive. To use an analogy, think of a refrigerator versus and ice cooler. Your refrigerator is actively cycling refrigerant in and out of the fridge in order to keep your food cold, while an ice cooler is passively cooling your food or drinks until the ice melts and it can no longer cool them.
That's pretty much how active noise control (ANC) works. Headphones with ANC (see picture below) have a built in processor that cycles an “anti-noise” to cancel unwanted sound (in this case ambient sound). On the other hand “regular” headphones rely on passive noise control, which is essentially just the additional insulation of the foam headphone over the ear.
In a very quiet environment, passive noise control (PNC) is enough. Unfortunately if you're on the plane, or in the gym, ambient noises are just too loud, and that's where ANC comes into play.
So, there are two main reasons to go with noise-canceling headphones:
- To block out unwanted sound
- To protect your hearing
For most people, the first reason above is the priority, but ultimately protecting your hearing should be the priority. When you use regular headphones people have a higher tendency to turn the volume up in order to drown out the sound around them. But, with ANC that's not necessary. The World Health Organization recommends limiting noise exposure to 85 dB throughout the course of the day, and noise-canceling headphones make that possible.
If you're still deciding if noise-canceling headphones are for you, check out Headphones Help GuideAmazon's guide here.
Top 10 Noise-Canceling Headphones
Bose QuietComfort 35
Sennheiser HD 280 Pro
Bose QuietComfort 25
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
AKG N60 NC
A Closer Look At Our Favorites
The table above ranks the headphones based on which ones are the best. That's not specific to value, or specific to a particular activity such as traveling. It's just an overall rank. However, we know many of you might be on a budget, or just looking for ones to take on the airplane, etc. So, below we've listed some of our favorites that cater to more specific purposes.
Best on a budget. My first pair of noise-canceling headphones was actually the wired Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. Most people don't need a wireless pair, and if you're on a budget you can usually find a pair under $100. The Sennheiser HD 280 Pro are another option here.
Best for the gym. Many people are tempted to go with earbuds in this situation, but I would strongly urge against going with noise-canceling earbuds for the gym. Until they can find a way to reduce the size of the technology you're going to be dealing with an in-line battery pack. This doesn't seem like a big deal until you're running on the treadmill or lifting weights and the battery pack is slinking and bouncing around. Your best bet is a low profile over ear headphone like the Bose QuietComfort 25.
Best for traveling. We travel quite a bit, so we understand the need for an amazing pair of noise-canceling headphones that also fit in a tight space. Once again, the winner is the Bose QuietComfort 25, which collapse to fit in a small rectangular case (see picture below) you should be able to fit in any carry-on luggage.
The Future of Noise-Canceling Headphones
As we mentioned above we're likely to see more “smart features” included in noise-canceling headphones. At CES 2017, JBL released the “industry-first smart programmable headphones” with their JBL Everest Elite. You can read more about them here.
We also saw Audio Technica release the ATH-DSR9BT, a wireless version if its popular wired noise-canceling headphones. You can read more about them here.
Monster also released some information about ANC version of their Clarity Around Ear headphones.
With Apple's decision to remove the headphone jack, I think the future should be very bright. In a space where wireless technology has really come in the last 1-2 years, we should be seeing more improved versions of that may also include methods of noise protection as well as sound quality. We're excited!
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Does noise-canceling technology protect your hearing?
Unfortunately because people have different shaped ear canals, it is more difficult to get a perfect seal as opposed to over-the-ear headphones on our list. In addition, as you'll see in the picture below, there will also be an in-line battery pack similar to what wired bone conduction headphones use.
One last thing to consider about earbuds is many will promote or label them as “noise-canceling,” but make sure you read the fine print, as most are just noise isolating and do not utilize ANC.
3. Can I wear glasses with these headphones?
This is a popular question, but a difficult question to answer because there are so many combinations of glasses and headphones. Ultimately it's possible to wear glasses with the headphones on our list below, but you should expect a slight decrease in the noise-canceling effect if the glasses prevent the headphone cushion from “sealing” around your ear.
We also talked about wearing glasses with hearing aids, and that may give you some information as well.
4. Can I wear hearing aids with them?
We've talked about wearing hearing aids with headphones in depth here. But a quick recap is that yes, you can wear hearing aids with most of these headphones. They will work best with completely-in-canal (CIC) and invisible-in-the-canal (IIC) style hearing aids, but can also be used for in-the-ear (ITE), in-the-canal (ITC), behind-the-ear (BTE), and receiver-in-canal (RIC). One word of caution is that non-circumaural headphones (i.e. on-ear and not over-ear headphones) may cause feedback because of the proximity of the hearing aid microphone to the headphone speaker, this is why IIC and CIC often work better.
5. Is noise-canceling the same is noise-isolating?
The short answer is no.
Noise isolation is a form of PNC where the seal of the headphone or earbud is used to prevent ambient sound. This technology is more prevalent in ear buds that fit into the ear canal, and it does not work as well as ANC.
It's difficult to go wrong with anything by Bose, Sennheiser, or Audio Technica (even though we don't have any on the top 10 list). These have been the big 3 in noise-canceling tech for the past few years, and will likely continue to be.
If for any reason you've got some questions be sure to leave a comment below and we'll get back to you.
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