The best noise-cancelling headphones
We've all been there. You're trying to get work done, but the ambient noise is so distracting that it grinds your productivity to a halt. That's when you need a quality pair of noise-cancelling headphones. These handy gadgets not only filter out unwanted sounds, they can protect your hearing, help you get a better night's sleep, and even help lower your blood pressure by blocking out annoying noises around you.
The best models are comfortable enough so you can wear them for extended periods of time and feature easy-to-use controls. Our favorite, the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II Wireless Headphones, raises the bar for noise-cancelling headphones. You can read all about this model of headphones below, and our other favorites.
Considerations when choosing noise-cancelling headphones
Two types of noise-cancelling headphones
There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones: passive and active
Passive: Passive noise-cancelling headphones block out sound via physical means. The headphones cover the ear (circumaural) and stop ambient sounds from reaching the ears with high-density foam along with other sound-absorbing materials.
Active: Active noise-cancelling headphones actually produce sound that cancels out certain frequencies, so they never reach your ear. These types of headphones are more expensive and require batteries. Depending on the model, active noise-cancelling headphones may or may not include the properties of passive noise-cancelling headphones as well.
After you have decided which type of noise-cancelling headphones you want, there are a few other options available that can enhance the user experience.
Wired or wireless
Whether you want to be tethered to a device or not is up to you, as Bluetooth technology is available in both low-end and high-end noise-cancelling headphones.
You can get noise-cancelling headphones that insert into the ear (earbuds) or fit over the ear. The over-the-ear models are heavier, but can block out more sound. Whichever type of noise-cancelling headphones you get, however, they should be comfortable enough that you can wear them for extended periods of time.
You will likely want an on/off button for the noise-cancelling feature in active noise-cancelling headphones so you can turn off the feature in quieter environments to use them as regular headphones. A volume control is also a necessity. If you want the best, look for a pair of noise-cancelling headphones that offer variable noise cancelation so they are effective in different environments.
At the budget end of the price spectrum, between $20 and $50, you can find mostly passive models, but also a few lower quality active noise-cancelling headphones, as well. From $50 to $150, you can get a decent pair of active noise-cancelling headphones that will please the average user. The audiophile should look for satisfaction in the $150 to $300 and above range.
Q. How well do noise-cancelling headphones work?
A. A pair of passive noise-cancelling headphones can effectively reduce ambient noise by up to 20 decibels. A pair of active circumaural noise-cancelling headphones can increase that reduction by up to another 20 decibels. Because of the way decibels are measured, that can be up to a 70% difference. It is important to remember that active noise-cancelling headphones work best with ambient noise and sudden loud sounds may still be audible.
Q. My ears feel funny when using active noise-cancelling headphones. Is that normal?
A. Unfortunately, that pressure you are feeling is a common complaint that tends to get glossed over. It is a reaction to the inaudible sound that the noise-cancelling headphones produce. For most people, the feeling fades away over a brief period of time. For others, it can cause dizziness, motion sickness, and headaches, but those symptoms will fade after removing the noise-cancelling headphones. Currently, this is not believed to cause any long-term damage to an individual's hearing.
Noise-cancelling headphones we recommend
Best of the best: Bose: QuietComfort 35 Series II Wireless Headphones
Our take: A high-end pair of active noise-cancelling headphones that can last for up to 20 hours per charge.
What we like: Bose's QuietComfort Series II offers a marked improvement over the company's Series I noise-cancelling headphones. One-touch Bluetooth connection, Alexa-enabled, and dual-microphone noise-rejection technology combine to make these headphones an impressive purchase.
What we dislike: This model is a bit pricier than other noise-cancelling headphones, but it offers a level of quality you can't find in other models.
Best bang for the buck: Sony: Noise-Cancelling Headphones
Our take: A budget-priced pair of active noise-cancelling headphones that offer the user true value.
What we like: Sony's lightweight noise-cancelling headphones fold flat for easy storage. These wired units can last as long as 80 hours on a single charge while providing a full spectrum of sound (12 to 22,000 Hz).
What we dislike: The overall noise-cancellation effect may not be as dramatic as you are hoping.
Our take: A sturdy pair of noise-reducing safety headphones that also allow you to listen to music.
What we like: These headphones can reduce workplace noise by up to 24 decibels and come equipped with a built-in AM/FM radio, which can store up to 50 stations for quick access. The unit also features a jack so you can connect to your music-playing devices for greater variety.
What we dislike: There is no display that visually lets you know which radio station you are on. If you are in a loud environment, it may be hard to hear your music.
Allen Foster is a writer for BestReviews. BestReviews is a product review company with a singular mission: to help simplify your purchasing decisions and save you time and money. BestReviews never accepts free products from manufacturers and purchases every product it reviews with its own funds.
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