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Music On, World Off: The Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Of 2021

Published 10th June 2021
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Since they were first created, the mortal enemy of headphones was background noise. Even with a pair of large headphones that cover our ears completely, noise like traffic whizzing by, the hum of engines, and the burble of strangers’ conversations will bleed through, making it hard to appreciate our music properly. Raising the volume too high for too long will damage your hearing, so it’s just something you’ll have to put up with... unless you buy a pair of noise cancelling headphones, that is!

Noise cancelling headphones use a neat piece of applied physics to cut down on unwanted sound waves invading your ears. A once luxurious piece of tech that was only ever used in aircraft cockpits, noise cancelling cans are now more accessible than ever before, with everyone from big name brands to smaller independent retailers producing these nifty gadgets en masse. 

Of course, with so many exciting noise cancelling headphones on the market, finding the perfect pair can be harder than it seems - and that’s where we come in! Our team of tech buffs has searched high and low to discover five of the best noise cancelling headphones on the market today and compiled them together in this handy guide. From household names to hidden gems, we’ve included something to suit every music maven among this tempting line up. 

So, whether you want to concentrate on noise cancelling power, a rich tonal sound for your music, or a pair of headphones with exciting tech built into their cups, you’ll find the cans for you in our guide to the best noise cancelling headphones of 2021!

How do noise cancelling headphones work?

woman listening to headphones at a bus stop

Before we go any further, let’s explain what the difference between noise cancelling and noise isolating headphones is. All that noise isolation means is that the headphones provide a physical barrier between your ears and your environment, which muffles ambient sound. Most headphones use large cup cushions that fully envelop your ears to provide some level of noise isolation. For many years, noise isolation was all we had to cut down on background noise - until the development of active noise cancelling headphones!

Active noise cancelling (or ANC for short) is a system that breaks up the background noise before it can reach your ears. It works because all sound, whether it’s a piece of music or the whine of an electric drill, is a pressure wave travelling at a specific frequency. Active noise cancelling headphones have a microphone built into their case that records the sounds coming from your environment. Then the headphones generate a sound wave that has the opposite frequency of the background noise. When these two sound waves collide, they break apart, cancelling out the background noise.

Are all noise cancelling headphones wireless?

man working wearing headphones

Because of the energy needed to power the microphone and the sound wave generator, noise cancelling headphones need to have a battery built in. This battery used to be a disposable alkaline cell battery (normally AAA), but these days rechargeable lithium-ion batteries are much more popular. 

That means that nearly all noise cancelling cans are wireless. As such, only wireless headphones have made our shortlist. That said, many wireless noise cancelling headphones come with a detachable headphone wire in their packaging so you can still use them when the battery runs low. Stick this wire into the proper port and you’ll be able to use them as wired headphones - you just won’t have access to the active noise cancellation if they’re turned off.

Are active noise cancelling headphones bad for my hearing?

man relaxing with headphones on the couch

This is a rumour that’s lasted for a long time, spread around by social media and word of mouth. Thankfully, it’s just not true. The sound waves generated by active noise cancelling headphones are not powerful enough to damage your hearing. Really, it’s the opposite: One of the benefits of using noise cancelling headphones is that by reducing the amount of background noise, you aren’t tempted to increase the volume of your music to unsafe levels.

The best noise cancelling headphones let you adjust how loud the noise cancelling waves are. Even at the maximum level, the noise cancelling waves shouldn’t be powerful enough to damage your hearing. But it’s important to know that the volumes of the noise cancelling waves and your music are controlled differently. Make sure you always keep the volume of your music at a safe level, which is no more than about 60% of the maximum volume.

Press play

woman enjoying headphones in the sun

It’s finally time for us to unveil our picks for the best noise cancelling headphones of 2021! As this is a list of the best noise cancelling headphones on the market, we haven’t included any budget wireless noise cancelling headphones, as the performance of cheap active noise cancelling headphones is pretty sub-par. The RRPs of the headphones included do vary, but you won’t find any on offer for less than £100. If you want low-cost wireless headphones, read through our list of 6 wireless headphones for every budget.

Sony WH-1000XM4

Sony WH-1000XM4

Pros: Great features, impressive sound

Cons: No water resistance, talk-to-speak mode is a little sensitive

We begin our list of the best noise cancelling headphones with the Sony WH-1000XM4. Their name is a bit of a mouthful, but these comfortable, award-winning cans are some of the best noise cancelling headphones on the market. Sony’s experience creating brilliant electronic products means they’ve been able to fill the 1000XM4s with a couple of cool features that you’ll struggle to find elsewhere.

One example is the speak-to-chat feature. When you engage this mode, the headphones will use the noise cancellation microphone to listen out for your voice and recognise when you’re talking. It’ll then activate the ‘ambient aware’ noise cancellation profile, which lets background noises in so you can have a quick conversation with someone without having to remove the headphones from your ears. There’s a slight delay, and the mode might be occasionally activated by a cough or two strangers chatting near you, but it’s a useful feature that works flawlessly most of the time.

Sony’s electronics know-how also makes these some of the best sounding wireless noise cancelling headphones around. Sony uses a custom audio processing chip called the DSEE Extreme engine. This processor contains AI technology that can analyse audio files and upgrade their quality using predictive algorithms. 

The result is a rich, textured sound that’s amazing to listen to, and a tight bass response ensures that your music sounds punchy without overwhelming the rest of the mix. The active noise cancellation works exceptionally well too. You don’t have to switch between different noise cancelling profiles, as these headphones adjust their levels automatically depending on the noise they pick up on.

Something to be aware of before you place an order for these headphones is their total lack of water resistance. Many of the best noise cancelling headphones have some sort of limited water resistance that protects them from splashes of water or light showers. It means that you should really think first before stepping out in the rain while wearing these headphones. As long as you use them while it’s dry, these are certainly one of the best pairs of noise cancelling headphones around.

Bose 700

Bose 700

Pros: Next level noise cancellation, balanced sound

Cons: Less features than the WH-1000MX4 at a similar price, relatively weak battery

A guide to the best noise cancelling headphones wouldn’t be complete without at least one entry from Bose, as they were the company who invented the first active noise cancelling headphones in the 1980s. Their latest pair, the Bose 700, deliver on almost every sense.

These stylish headphones look like something out of a science fiction movie thanks to their sleek stainless steel headband, and the internals are just as futuristic. Most wireless noise cancelling headphones use one or two microphones to detect background noise: The Bose 700 uses eight. Combined with new digital signal processing techniques that Bose have developed themselves, this leads to the Bose 700 having the best noise cancelling response of all the headphones in this buyer’s guide.

Even the loudest background noises can be dulled when the 700s noise cancellation system is active, although unlike the Sony WH-1000XM4s these headphones won’t do everything for you. You’ll need to switch between 11 different noise profiles to find the best balance for your environment. That said, cycling through the levels is quick via a button on the side of the headphones or from Bose’s app, so it’s just a minor inconvenience.

Using active noise cancellation drains your headphone’s batteries, so most manufacturers give their devices a hefty battery. According to Bose’s tests, the 700s should last for approximately 20 hours of playback time. This is plenty for most users, but it’s not as long as the 30 hours offered by the similarly priced Sony headphones.

The Bose 700 competes more effectively against Sony’s premier wireless noise cancelling headphones in the sound department. While the WH-1000MX4s have a very rich sound, the Bose 700s focus on clarity and instrumental separation for a sober, finely detailed performance. If you want to prioritise the basics of sound quality and noise cancellation power over smart features, the Bose 700s are a great choice.

Sony WH-1000XM3

Sony WH-1000XM3

Pros: Low cost compared to newer models, still has a great sound quality

Cons: Less cool features, touch controls can be difficult to use

Haven’t we included these Sony headphones already? Not quite: these are the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones, the predecessors to the WH-1000XM4. We don’t blame you for the mistake though - both headphones look very similar, and there’s only one number’s difference between their names!

So why have we included two Sony headphones, particularly if they’re so similar? Simply put, though they’re not as amazing as the WH-1000XM4, these Sony headphones are cheaper and are still some of the best noise cancelling headphones available in 2021. 

Sharing the same design as the WH-1000XM4s, these are a pair of undeniably comfy headphones thanks to some extra-thick cup cushions. The ear cups themselves might be made out of plastic, but they’re reassuringly tough. The right ear cup features a small touch-sensitive panel rather than physical buttons. These controls are accurate but the panel is small, so it’s easy to hit the wrong section by mistake - you’ll need a little practice before you can start skipping tracks at a moment’s notice. The feature set is thinner - there’s no speak-to-talk, for example - but that’s to be expected from an older pair of headphones.

While the WH-1000XM3 headphones don’t benefit from the intelligent musical upscaling of the DSEE Extreme engine, they still sound exceptional - even among this price range. You still benefit from a warm and rich bass, while vocal performances are wonderfully forward and focused in the mix. The same can be said about the noise cancellation. You lose some of the effectiveness for mid-range and high frequency noises, which means that more noise from conversations will pass through the WH-1000XM3s filter, but these older headphones can still process low frequencies like traffic very well.

Apple AirPods Max

Apple AirPods Max

Pros: Incredible sound, 3D Spatial Audio compatible 

Cons: More expensive than its competitors, no headphone cable

We’re moving from some of the cheaper headphones in this guide to the most expensive. At time of writing, the Apple AirPods Max retail for almost £550 - twice as expensive as their competitors. Can Apple really justify that cost? In our opinion, yes! 

To start with, the style of these wireless noise cancelling headphones is very Apple. A pair of solid, utterly smooth headphone cups is matched with a lightweight mesh headband. It looks fantastic and is resassurlingly strong and hefty. Many of the headphone’s controls, like volume and music playback, are controlled by the same digital crown seen on the Apple Watch, so it’s incredibly easy to navigate if you’re already an Apple aficionado.

Something that’s lacking from the otherwise flawless design is a headphone cable jack. These have been missing from the iPhones for many years now, but its absence means that you can’t use the AirPods Max without turning them on, so make sure to keep the battery topped up!

The noise cancelling performance is excellent, with a similar eight microphone array as the Bose 700s. As a result, the Apple AirPods Max do a superb job of eliminating background noise, and they’re particularly good at subduing conversations, which is something that its rivals often struggle with. Even better, special beamforming microphones can isolate your voice during phone calls. You’ll come through crystal clear even if a breeze is whipping around you.

Where the AirPods Max really shine is in their audio performance, though. While all the headphones on this list sound brilliant, you won’t find a crisper or more authentic listening experience than these Apple headphones. They handle electric and electronic music with aplomb but the difference is clearest with acoustic music. The subtle inconsistencies in tone and timing that are a natural part of acoustic instruments are rendered beautifully on these headphones.

The audio quality gets even better when you pair these headphones with another Apple device. That’s because these wireless noise cancelling headphones come with Apple’s new Spatial Audio codec. These recreate the atmospheric surround sound audio of a 7.1 speaker system in Apple headphones to create a truly 3D listening experience. It's a true upgrade for watching films and TV shows on your commute or late at night when you don’t want to disturb anyone. 

Of course, all of this is moot if you’re not willing to pay the extra cost associated with all Apple produces. But Apple has always prioritised quality over affordability, so no one could have expected the Apple AirPods Max to be on the more budget-friendly end of this list. If you’re already the proud owner of Apple hardware and can afford the expense, the Apple AirPods Max are probably the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy.

Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Pros: Reasonable price, extremely comfortable

Cons: Not as good as the 700s, microphone isn’t great

We’re finishing off our list of the best noise cancelling headphones for 2021 appropriately: The QuietComfort 35 II headphones are the final version of Bose’s famous QuietComfort series, their first noise cancelling headphones for the consumer market. They’ve since been superseded by the Bose 700s, but we’ve still chosen to include them in this guide. Just like the Sony WH-1000MX3, these Bose headphones still represent an amazing choice, and you can pick up a pair for much less than their original asking price.

The QuietComfort 35 II headphones don’t disappoint on the promise of their name. Their ear cups are thickly padded but still soft, so they mould themselves to the contours of your head very well. At 310g, they’re one of the lightest headphones in this buyer’s guide. You could wear them all day if you wanted without the slightest bit of discomfort.

In both sound quality and noise cancelling effectiveness, these Bose headphones share the same qualities as the Bose 700. They have a balanced neutral sound that tries to give all of the instruments in your music space to shine, although there is a slight overemphasis on the lower frequencies compared to the 700s. Their noise cancelling is more limited than their successors. You only get three profiles - high, low, and off - and the signal processing is more limited. It’s still brilliant for most commuters, but not quite as exceptional as the eight microphone set up found in the Bose 700s. 

The Bose Quiet Comfort QuietComfort 35 II’s microphone is noticeably worse, too. It picks up a lot of background noise and it doesn’t record low frequencies well, so if you have a particularly low voice, it won’t register it properly. You’ll still be audible though, you’ll just sound a bit weird. Overall however, this is still one of the best noise cancelling headphones you can buy in 2021.

The sound of silence

man listening to music on the bus

When it comes to enjoying the ultimate immersive experience, you can’t go wrong with a pair of noise cancelling cans. Indeed, whether you love shakin’ your groove thang toe-tapping tunes or prefer podcasts, you’re sure to get a spring in your step on the morning commute with a pair of these music marvels in your amusement arsenal. 

Thanks to our many wonderful verified sellers, the OnBuy headphones category is packed with other active noise cancelling headphones for you to check out. Besides noise cancelling headphones, we have many fantastic wireless and wired headphones, gaming headsets for PCs and consoles, and snazzy volume-limited headphones for children, too. And if you don’t care for the bulk of full-sized headphones, you can buy great earphones on OnBuy as well. 

For more information on these music must-haves, explore our dedicated selection of headphones and earphones guides. Packed with all the info and inspo you need to make an informed decision, you’ll be picking up the perfect pair for you in no time at all.

If you're into fitness, check out our list of the best running headphones, and discover the secrets to why music keeps us motivated when we workout here! Can never get a pair to last more than a few weeks at a time? Find out what common mistakes you could be making here!

Please note: The information in this buyer’s guide is correct at the time of publishing but may be subject to change.

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