The best noise-canceling earbuds for 2020

Of the many, many true wireless earbuds in the world today, active-noise-canceling (ANC) buds are among the most coveted. And of the many active-noise-canceling buds floating around, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are the best.

No other earbuds available today have the rock-solid combination of features, sound, and ANC that the Sony WF-1000XM3 possess at their price point. But we understand that no one bud fits all, and we’ve picked several of our favorite alternatives to the almighty Sony’s, depending on your individual needs.

The best noise-canceling earbuds at a glance:

The best noise-canceling earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3

Why you should buy them: They’re the uncompromising option for getting excellent noise cancellation in earbud form.

Who they’re for: Folks willing to pay for the best noise-cancellation technology available in earbuds.

Why we picked the Sony WF-1000XM3:

The Sony WF-1000XM3 were one of the original leaders in active noise cancellation when it came to true wireless earbuds, and that has not changed with time. They’re still the best earbuds you can buy for the purposes of active noise cancellation, and they’ve got plenty more to offer.

As with their newer headphone counterparts, the WH-1000XM4, the WF-1000XM3 showcase truly noteworthy noise-canceling abilities, plus impressive sound quality thanks to features like Sony’s DSEE HX engine, which is meant to improve the audio from every sound source you can throw at them.

You’ll be able to use these buds for six hours with active noise cancellation on and eight with the feature off, with three extra charges built into the included charging case. Apart from that, the WF-1000XM3 are highly customizable thanks to an available EQ, the option to adjust noise cancellation levels, and the ability to select your preferred voice assistant. It amounts to the closest thing you can find to being the total package, at least until the majorly anticipated WF-1000XM4 finally surface.

Read our in-depth Sony WF-1000XM3 review

The best noise-canceling earbuds for music: Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2

Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They represent some of the best true wireless sound we’ve heard to date.

Who they’re for: Those who refuse to compromise on audio quality, regardless of the price.

Why we picked the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2:

The first generation Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless were the best wireless earbuds we’ve ever heard, so the next edition had large shoes to fill. The $300 Momentum True Wireless 2, fortunately, lived up to expectations.

The Momentum True Wireless 2 bring back the incredible clarity, impressive low end, and masterful stereo imagery from the first generation, making you notice parts of tracks that are completely missing when listened through other earbuds. The major difference here is the introduction of active noise cancellation, which is nearly as remarkable as the sound itself. It’s the perfect complement to this kind of audio quality, since it doesn’t let anything get in between you and your music.

The features of the True Wireless 2 are a bit of an after-thought, but they are still decent parts of these buds. The Momentum boast about seven hours of playback per charge and 28 hours total, plus an IPX4 weather resistance rating to help these earbuds withstand harsh weather.

Read our in-depth Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2 review

The best noise-canceling earbuds for Apple users: Apple AirPods Pro

Why you should buy them: Apple built a pair of premium noise-canceling earbuds that are tailor-made for its own community.

Who they’re for: Apple users in the market for immensely effective active noise cancellation.

Why we picked the Apple AirPods Pro:

As popular as the cheaper Apple AirPods are, the AirPods Pro certainly approach another level. According to our experienced reviewers, the active noise cancellation in these high-end earbuds is on par — and several of our editors argue is better — than the Sony WF-1000XM3. That’s incredibly high praise, and the AirPods Pro have the added benefit of being very well suited for Apple users.

The AirPods Pro feature super-simple pairing and hands-free Siri access when connected to an iPhone, as well as an IPX4 water resistance rating that protects against sweat and splashes during workouts. Plus, Apple has an adaptive EQ technology that adjusts the frequency response to match a user’s ear, which helps make these earbuds sound especially remarkable.

Battery life is a sore spot for the AirPods Pro, which get around five hours per charge and 24 hours of total life with the earbuds’ included case. Additionally, there’s no doubt that these buds are pricey at $250. But for Apple users, they represent the best combination of noise cancellation and operating system integration available today.

Read our in-depth Apple AirPods Pro review

The best noise-canceling earbuds for Android: Audio-Technica ATH-ANC300TW

Why you should buy them: They’re the best pound-for-pound competitor to the Sony WF-1000XM3 we’ve seen so far.

Who they’re for: Anyone looking for a similar product to the Sony’s, with the bonus of weather resistance.

Why we picked the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC300TW:

First, time to come clean: The 300TW aren’t buds explicitly built for a specific operating system or device the way AirPods are for iPhones or the way Google Pixel Buds are for Pixel phones. That said, these earbuds have plenty of features that would suit any Android user well.

The 300TW have an IPX2 weather-resistance rating, which is better than the Sony WF-1000XM3 can say, making them a better option than the Sony’s against the elements. Battery life isn’t great, with the 300TW getting up to 4.5 hours on a single charge. But technology like Qualcomm cVc and True Wireless Stereo Plus help round things out by improving call quality and audio streaming.

Audio, by the way, is really what sets the 300TW apart. The 5.8mm drivers skillfully replicate music at a level that rivals the 1000XM3, and the buds themselves support Android-friendly audio codecs like aptX, AAC, and SBC. When you add in the active noise cancellation built into these Audio-Technica earbuds, which relies on hybrid noise-canceling that analyzes and dampens sound both in front of and behind each driver, it effectively closes the gap with the Sony buds and makes the ANC300TW a great alternative for Android users.

Read our in-depth Audio-Technica ATH-ANC300TW review

The best noise-canceling earbuds for working out: Sony WF-SP800N

Sony WF-SP800N
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They’ve got many of Sony’s signature features in an athletic package.

Who they’re for: Athletes who don’t want to compromise when it comes to active noise cancellation.

Why we picked the Sony WF-SP800N:

Sony accomplished quite a lot with the WF-SP800N. It implemented class-leading battery life, an athlete-friendly design, and great active noise cancellation for $30 less than the Sony WF-1000XM3.

The SP800N has a larger footprint than the 1000XM3, both with the earbuds and the accompanying charging case. But silicone earfins on the SP800N help them stay comfortably secure in your ears when working out. With the benefit of an IP55 weather-resistance rating, these buds are truly designed to withstand whatever an athlete can throw at them.

Then there’s the massive battery built into these buds. The SP800N can play for up to nine hours with active noise cancellation on, and 13 hours with the feature turned off. That’s better than nearly any other set of true wireless earbuds we’ve tried, especially when we’re talking about listening without noise canceling turned on. As far as the athlete is concerned, you’ll be able to get a full day’s worth of activities in without these buds missing a step.

While the SP800N doesn’t get the top-of-the-line ANC tech found in the 1000XM3, it still employs very effective active cancellation, as well as superb passive cancellation thanks to the tight seal of the eartips. It makes for an amazing combo when paired with the sound of the SP800N, with warm, rich tones and a well-defined frequency range highlighted by an immersive low end.

Read our in-depth Sony WF-SP800N review

The best noise-canceling earbuds for your budget: Edifier TWS NB

Edifier TWS-NB
Nick Woodard/Digital Trends

Why you should buy them: They offer affordable and effective active noise cancellation.

Who they’re for: Any budget-minded listener who still wants to be in the active-noise-canceling conversation.

Why we picked the Edifier TWS NB:

The Edifier TWS NB are the only buds on this list under $200, and they come well under that number at that. At $120, it’s a price that had previously meant ANC just wasn’t a possibility. But these buds changed that expectation.

To be fair, the ANC of most other earbuds on this list are better. But, as we’ve said, every other pair on this list is at least $80 more expensive. In addition to these savings, you get feed-forward technology in the TWS NB that does an effective job of erasing the unwanted sounds in your surrounding environment.

Other than valuable ANC, the TWS NB come with exceptional audio quality driven by 13mm graphene diaphragms and bolstered by aptX support. Battery life is perfectly adequate at this price, with five hours of playback with ANC and 11 hours without, and the TWS NB come with an IPX4 weatherproof rating to protect against splashes and sweat. For what these buds cost, they’re truly giving you a lot to like.

Read our in-depth Edifier TWS NB review

Research and buying tips

Can earbuds damage your ears?

Yes, because of their isolation and because the drivers are closer to your eardrums, it is not recommended to listen at higher volumes for extended periods of time.

Are earbuds waterproof?

Many are water-resistant; few can be fully submerged. We recommend checking for an IP rating if you want to make sure you are treating them properly.

Can earbuds sound as good as over-ear headphones?

Yes, at the high end, in-ear monitors can sound as good as virtually any headphones on the market. That said, you’ll have to pay a hefty premium to get top-tier sound.

How should earbuds fit?

Comfortably and securely. You may want to find a pair with earfins or earclips if you are planning on working out.

Should I use earbuds when driving?

No. It is dangerous and illegal in many regions.

Glossary

  • Driver: The unit that produces sound in a headphone, made up of magnets, voice coils, and other materials. Typically, the larger the driver, the more power a headphone has, and generally bigger drivers in in-ear headphones indicate a better range of frequencies can be reproduced.
  • Dynamic driver: A single driver capable of covering the entire frequency range. The diaphragm is connected directly to a voice coil in the headphone, with the voice coil moving between magnets to produce sound.
  • Balance armature driver: In a balanced armature driver, the headphone’s diaphragm is connected to the armature, with micro-vibrations producing the sound. Most balanced armature drivers are best within a specific frequency range, which is why many headphones contain multiple balanced drivers, with certain frequencies divided between drivers for full-spectrum sound.
  • Soundstage: The perceived size and depth of the sound coming through the headphones.
  • Passive noise isolation: Noise that is blocked out by the headphone based on its physical shape and size in your ear.
  • Frequency response: The spectrum of frequencies that a headphone can reliably reproduce.

How we test

We test headphones and earbuds the way normal people live.

We run every pair of earbuds through a rigorous process over 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 test that, 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 earbuds 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.

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