Here’s a fact that every business traveler, public transit commuter, or coffee shop-inhabiting professional is woefully aware of: The outside world is loud and full of distractions. Thankfully, technology for noise cancellation has been steadily developing over the last few years, with hundreds of headphones now occupying shelves around the globe, designed to eliminate the the sounds you don’t want to hear.
Thanks to simultaneous advancements in wireless technology — and the demand for fewer wires from frequent travelers — the best new noise-cancelling headphones are most often wireless these days, too. But never fear, wire lovers: All of the headphones on this list are dual threats, allowing you to plug in and save some battery life, or unplug and let the good times roll.
With so many options on the market, the real struggle here is to figure out which headphones are right for you. That’s where we come in. Our list will help you cut through the noise in more ways than one, providing you with the best noise-canceling options around.
Why you should buy them: Excellent sound, plush comfort, and top-tier noise canceling make the Sony MDR-1000x the headphones to beat.
Who’s it for: Those who are looking for total sonic isolation, but don’t want to give up high fidelity sound to get it.
How much will they cost: $400
Why we picked the Sony MDR-1000x:
Sony’s most technologically advanced headphones ever, the MDR-1000x take direct aim at Bose’s longtime buyers, offering advanced touch controls, extreme comfort, and — most importantly — the highest audio fidelity we’ve heard in their class.
Elegant and understated, the 1000x are a thoroughbred pair of headphones. Designed with the business class in mind, they offer 20 hours of battery life and extremely soft padding that make them an absolute dream on long flights.
Two microphones on each earcup (one inside and one outside) analyze the sound around you to provide a whisper-quiet interior, and the superbly tuned drivers offer remarkably impressive performance for a wireless headphone. Music is dynamic and beautiful, with punchy bass tones and a shimmery treble, held together by a well-rounded midrange. Sony employs its special LDAC technology here as well to deliver audio at what it claims is three times the quality of standard Bluetooth streaming, and the headphones “up-scale” wireless music from high resolution audio devices using a special chip.
The 1000x also allow for various levels of ambient noise to come in, should you desire to hear announcements in an airport or train station, and even let you choose a voice-only mode, designed to filter through vocal frequencies so you can hear your music and the voices around you at the same time.
Comfort, excellent noise canceling, and incredible audio fidelity make the Sony MDR-1000x one of the only pairs of headphones we have ever awarded a perfect 5/5. If you have $400 to spare, we’re sure you’ll love these cans as much as we do.
The best active noise canceling technology
Why you should buy these: You’re looking for the best noise-canceling tech that money can by.
Who are they for: People who frequently listen to music on airplanes, trains, or in other noisy settings.
How much will they cost: $350
Why we picked the Bose QC35:
When it comes to noise-canceling technology, the Quiet Comfort line from Bose has long been the industry leader in both comfort and silence. The company’s current flagship, the QC35, is no exception on either of those fronts.
Light and extremely well-padded, the QC35 will remain comfortable even when they spend the whole day on your head. They’re also even more understated than their nearest rival, the Sony MDR-1000x, with a jet black appearance and a slimmer overall profile.
The noise canceling itself also bests the MDR-1000x by a tad, with the longtime industry leader showing exactly how it made it to the top of the pile in the first place.
Overall sound quality is extremely high with the QC35s, though they do offer the same boosted-bass signature that Bose has prided itself on for a generation — something that has proven divisive among audiophiles.
That said, those looking for a high-performing pair of wireless on-ear headphones will find what they are looking for in the Bose QC35s, and take comfort in the fact that the brand has long been considered the industry standard in the genre.
The best feature-packed headphones
Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2
Why you should buy them: In terms of features, comfort, and sound quality for the money, the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 are the best you’ll find.
Who’s it for: Those who want noise canceling, great battery life, and solid sound, but don’t want to break the bank to get it.
How much will they cost: $200
It’s hard to find an affordable pair of wireless on-ear headphones with quality active noise canceling, which is what makes the Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2 so special. Along with their impressive noise canceling, the Backbeat Pro 2 also throw in quality sound, sleek looks, and the best cost-to-features ratio you’ll find on the market.
Rarely affordable features like pressure-sensitive earcups — which pause the music when you remove the headphones — come standard, as does a class-leading wireless range of 100 feet, and an impressive 24 hours of battery playback time per charge.
As expected from a company known for wireless headsets, call quality via the built-in mics is excellent, and solid padding makes the Backbeat Pro 2 comfortable for hours of listening. Like the Sony MDR-1000x, the noise canceling tech employs two microphones for better cancellation, and offers multiple levels of ambient awareness so you can allow airport announcements or other important ambient sounds to sneak through.
And while the Plantronics don’t quite offer the same whisper-quiet noise cancellation as the Bose QC35 or Sony MDR-1000x, they do offer a solid amount of noise reduction at almost half the price. Overall audio quality is also impressive for the money, including clean mids and highs, and a slightly restrained low end.
Those looking for the most headphone for the money will find a friend in the Backbeat Pro 2, a feature-packed pair of cans which do more than many pricier alternatives.
The best for comfort and warm sound
Sennheiser PXC 550
Why you should buy them: Impressive noise cancellation, luxurious comfort, and exquisitely warm and present sound make the Sennheiser PXC 550 a great choice.
Who’s it for: The business traveler who wants to shut out the world, but doesn’t want to give up great sound or ever-lasting comfort.
How much will they cost: $400
Why we picked the Sennheiser PXC 550
Long revered as one of the best producers of high-end headphones, Sennheiser has been slowly upping the quality of its active noise cancellation technology to compete with Bose in recent years, and the PXC 550 are the closest the company has ever come.
Similar in many ways to the Sony MDR-1000x, Sennheiser’s PXC 550 offer a myriad of great features — ambient awareness, touch controls, and a sleek, businesslike exterior — in their latest champion. But, like the MDR-1000x, the best reason to check them out is the sound quality.
Rich, balanced bass meets warm and detailed mids, with a clean upper register completing a perfectly spiced dish of sound. Few brands craft sound profiles as well as Sennheiser, and the brand’s sonic muscles are well-flexed for the excellent sounding PXC-550.
These are also among the most comfortable headphones we have tested, with thick ear pads and a light-weight design that makes them virtually unnoticeable even after hours of wear.
While the MDR-1000x do slightly edge out the PXC 550 for our top slot in the genre, the two pairs of headphones are extremely competitive. Both offer slightly different designs and sound signatures, but share extremely similar usability and comfort, making it worth a head-to-head comparison before you pull the trigger on either.
The best customizable sound
JBL Everest Elite 700 Platinum
Why you should buy them: Solid noise canceling and an extremely customizable sound profile that can tackle any genre with ease.
Who’s it for: Those who listen to an extremely varied array of music in multiple locations, and want cans which can shapeshift with their daily tastes.
How much will they cost: $300
Why we picked the JBL Everest Elite 700 Platinum:
JBL’s most technologically advanced headphones ever, the Everest Elite 700 use an app to allow listeners to customize their sound profile at any given moment.
The app allows the headphones to calibrate the sound signature and noise canceling to your specific head shape, as well as letting you choose between various levels of ambient awareness. But the real pièce de-résistance is a customizable 10-band EQ, which makes it possible to adjust the sound signature for any genre of music you desire at a moment’s notice.
Even without adjusted equalization, the Everest Elite 700 show off a well-balanced sound signature, but with a little tinkering, they’ll fit any style of music — from death metal to classical — like a glove. Comfort is also impressive, with sculpted ear cups that provide even pressure around your ears.
Though the noise canceling itself isn’t quite as high quality as pricier competitors, the Everest Elite 700 create a clean slate that allows your music to shine. If you’re looking to swap styles often, or have a particular EQ profile that you can’t live without, these are the cans for you.
The best stylish cans
Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless
Why you should buy them: You want noise cancellation to help create a blank canvas for excellent sound, rather than to drown out the world.
Who’s it for: The discerning listener who is willing to compromise a bit on noise cancellation in favor of great looks and superior sound.
How much will they cost: $300-500
Why we picked the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless:
We’ll be the first to admit that Sennheiser’s NoiseGard noise cancellation used in the Momentum 2.0 doesn’t reach the same level as others on this list in terms of sheer ability to silence the world. And while it will definitely help you drown out the world on a noisy flight, the feature is best for helping to melt away ambient annoyances while you’re deep in the music, creating a sort of calming serenity.
Beautifully designed for serious listeners, the Momentum 2.0 Wireless are a high class pair of headphones for those who absolutely will not compromise on sound.
The audio feature of envy with the Momentum Wireless is the headphones’ exceptional talent for dimensionality. They create an expansive soundstage, broadly spreading out musical instrumentation throughout spherical space. And unlike many wireless headsets, there’s no audible amplifier noise to speak of here, allowing the cans to expose stark clarity in their silence.
If your musical happy place isn’t consistently a plane, train, or automobile, but an office or study, these are the noise canceling headphones for you.
The best wired noise cancelling
Bose QC 25
Why you should buy them: You want the best noise-cancelation on the market for the money.
Who’s it for: Those looking for excellent noise cancellation, but who don’t care about cutting the cord.
How much will they cost: $300
Why we picked the Bose QC25:
Taking the place of a legend is never easy, and with 30 odd years of pioneering research behind it, Bose’s QC15 was just that. So it was no small feat that the QC25 replaced the old timer with upgraded noise canceling tech, better audio chops, and more style to boot.
That said, Bose’s wired flagship takes this slot for good reason. After all, most of us probably don’t need wireless connection, and foregoing that near-standard option these days can save you some real green. The QC25 is full of a similar array of Bose’s famed noise killers as it’s pricier sibling, the QC35. Both pair offer an emphasis on low frequency cancellation, thanks to microphones both inside and outside the well-padded earcups.
Of course, you still won’t be able to kill every sonic nuisance around you, but Bose gets closer than anybody else, and does so with a relatively clean sound signature, and solid battery life for an excellent overall package at a relative bargain.
How we test
We test headphones the way normal people live.
We run every pair of headphones through a rigorous process over the course of several days. That includes playing them in all sorts of scenarios — be it on a bus, in the listening room, or at the office — and playing back from a wide array of sources. We know most people use their headphones with a smartphone, often with lower quality MP3 resolution tracks, so we do too.
However, we also move up to high-resolution audio files, as well as a wide variety of sources, including plugging in directly to a PC or Mac, using USB DACs (digital-to-analog converters), and employing high-quality dedicated portable players and amplifiers. Finally, we compare the headphones to some of our go-to models, both in their class and price point, as well as a level or two above to find out if they can punch above their weight.