For anyone that regularly travels by air, active noise cancellation technology in headphones is a boon. This helps to make things quieter by blocking out the loud hum of the airplane engines, and it also makes it a lot easier to listen to audio on the headphones. Although the technology tends to work best in an airplane cabin, there are plenty of other use-cases where it works as well, including on a commuter train or bus, or even in the office environment.
If you like the idea of active noise cancellation in headphones, know that the technology does not come cheap. A good pair of active noise cancelling headphones is usually priced at a significant premium over typical wireless or wired headphones. However, this is something that promises a significantly better listening experience, or simply some peace and quiet so you can take a nap on your next flight. We've reviewed a bunch of active noise cancelling headphones over the ears, and here's our definitive list of the best you can buy today.
What is active noise cancellation?
We should start with an explanation. Active noise cancellation works by listening to the surroundings and creating a ‘reverse' frequency — it emits a sound of the same amplitude but with an inverted phase to the original sound. This combines with the first sound to form a new wave in a process called ‘interference', which effectively cancels out the sound going into your ears.
As a result, you hear less of the primary ‘noise', and in some cases with good active noise cancellation, you may hear nothing at all. It works best with sounds that are steady, since the microphones can pick up and reverse these frequencies. Irregular sounds such as voices, honking or anything that isn't regular won't get cancelled by the system, and you'll still be able to hear it. Therefore, active noise cancellation isn't the same as sound-proofing; it simply reduces the noise in certain environments.
For a more detailed explanation, check out our guide on getting starting with active noise cancellation.
Why should I buy active noise cancelling headphones?
The best way to listen to music is with no other sounds in the background, so you can concentrate on what you're listening to. Unfortunately, and especially with headphones, this isn't always possible; outside sounds will filter in and take away from the experience. Noise cancellation aims to improve that, by cutting out loud noise that can slip through even the best padding and noise isolation.
It's also a good way to get some sleep in a noisy environment. Active noise cancellation works particularly well in airplanes, but can also function properly in trains, cars, or in rooms with a constant and droning hum coming from machinery or air-conditioning. Frequent flyers tend to swear by active noise cancelling headphones, but the technology works in many situations on the ground as well.
The best active noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3
Although a lot of people might consider our runner-up in this list to be better, we believe that there is no better pair of active noise cancelling headphones today than the Sony WH-1000XM3. These over-ear headphones are priced at Rs. 26,990 and take a modern and scientific approach to noise cancellation, powered by a dedicated noise cancellation processor and optimisation settings for the feature through the app. The resulting noise cancellation is, in our opinion, better than anything else on the market today.
The Sony WH-1000XM3 offers an impressive level of noise blocking, working well in most noisy environments. The headphones are most effective on an airplane, but do a decent job just about anywhere. You can also tweak settings from the Sony Headphones Connect app to set up the noise cancellation according to your environment and comfort using the noise cancellation optimiser.
Looking beyond noise cancellation, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is also a very capable pair of wireless headphones, and is what we consider the best pair of wireless headphones you can buy today. With support for all the popular codecs including aptX and LDAC, the headphones sound excellent. And despite all of the technology under the hood, the headphones still return an impressive battery life figure of 30 hours on a single charge with both noise cancellation and wireless connectivity enabled.
Runner-up: Bose QC35ii
As we mentioned earlier, a lot of people consider the Bose QC35ii to be the best active noise cancelling headphones, but we're of the firm belief that it is second-best in this competition. That's still a significant achievement, and the QC35ii is the most advanced pair of headphones from Bose you can buy today. Years of experience with active noise cancellation has helped Bose product these excellent headphones that offer a level of noise cancellation that is almost as good as that of the Sony WH-1000XM3.
The active noise cancellation on the Bose QC35ii isn't quite as good as Sony's. The padding and fit also isn't as good, which makes the noise isolation also a tad less. The Bose headphones match the Sony headphones on the quality of noise cancellation in typical noisy environments, and a lot of people may prefer the more gentle effect of silence on the Bose headphones as compared to what we felt was more stark silence on the Sony WH-1000XM3.
When it comes to sound quality, the Rs. 29,363 Bose QC35ii trails behind the Sony by just a bit at music playback, and indeed is a better option for voice calls and listening with videos that rely on dialogue. There's very little to complain about the Bose QC35ii save for the Sony being a hint better in most ways, and it's our second pick in the active noise cancellation segment.
Best mid-range active noise cancelling headphones: Sennheiser HD4.50BTNC
If spending close to Rs. 30,000 is difficult for you, there are more affordable options available as well. While not quite as capable as the Sony and Bose headphones above, the Sennheiser HD4.50BTNC is priced at Rs. 14,990 and does a decent job of cancelling out the noise. Although it isn't as comfortable as the premium options, it still works well in most scenarios, and does so at a much more affordable price point.
The sonic signature is largely inoffensive, and will work for pretty much any genre of music. While it isn't quite as open or detailed as comparable Bluetooth headphones in this price range such as the Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT, the advantage of active noise cancellation and more thump in the bass give it an edge. Battery life is decent as well, and the Sennheiser is a decent overall package for significantly less money than the premium options.
Best noise-cancelling earphones: Bose QuietComfort 20
The three options above are over-ear headphones, but active noise cancellation can be found even on earphones. One of the best options in this category is the Bose QuietComfort 20, which has been around for close to six years now. Despite the age, these earphones are so good at active noise cancellation that they've managed to remain relevant even today.
The fit, comfort, and quality of the noise cancellation makes this an extremely desirable pair of earphones, but the price remains high despite the years passing. The QuietComfort 20 is priced at Rs. 25,200, and is a wired headset with no Bluetooth connectivity. Although sound quality is great and noise cancellation is top-notch, the price is hard to get over; it's worth it only if you know this is what you want.
How we picked these noise cancelling headphones
We've limited our picks for this guide to what we consider the best options for active noise cancellation. While there are more affordable available with the technology as well, we've chosen only the top-rated options in our primary picks, based on reviews and our experience with these products and this technology over the years.
Active noise cancellation is still an expensive technology, and the best options remain relatively pricey as compared to headsets without the technology. Affordable options don't quite offer as good an experience in our opinion, and it may be better to save up and invest in a good option rather than simply buy into the technology with a sub-par performing headset.
Nonetheless, we have mentioned some of the other options in the category below, which may be available at lower prices and could be worth looking at if you're on a tighter budget.
Also consider these noise cancelling headphones
Bose QC25: It took Bose a while to finally include both wireless connectivity and active noise cancellation in a pair of headphones with the Bose QC35. Before that, you could buy the non-wireless Bose QC25, which offers a comparable level of noise cancellation to its successor. It's worth picking up if you're looking to save some money but don't want to sacrifice on noise cancellation quality. It's available for around Rs. 20,000 depending on where you look.
Sony WH-CH700N: This is a pair of headphones we were extremely impressed with, largely for sound quality. Priced at Rs. 13,000 or less, these headphones offer a decent level of noise-cancellation over and above the excellent performance and battery life.
Sony WH-1000XM2: The predecessor to our top pick, the Sony WH-1000XM2 is often available at prices much lower than that of the WH-1000XM3. Performance is nearly as good, so it might be worth keeping an eye out for deals on the WH-1000XM2 instead of picking up the newer model.
Bose QuietControl 30: The Bose QuietControl 30 is the successor to the QuietComfort 20 mentioned above, bringing quality active noise cancellation to in-ear headphones. These earphones are priced at Rs. 27,000, and also feature wireless connectivity and a neckband design. However, the older wired model tends to do better at noise cancellation.
Bowers and Wilkins PX: Priced at Rs. 38,000, the Bowers and Wilkins PX is an audiophile-grade headset from a high-end audio specialist that also does decent active noise cancellation. However, these headphones aren't quite as technically adept as the Sony and Bose options, and you're buying into brand value rather than capabilities.
Sony MDR-ZX110NC: Among the most affordable active noise cancelling headphones you can buy today, the Sony MDR-ZX110NC is a wired headset and is available for Rs. 2,990. However, the quality of noise cancellation isn't great, and it doesn't have a big impact in very noisy environments.
Which are the best budget Bluetooth earphones and headphones in India? We discussed this on Orbital, our weekly technology podcast, which you can subscribe to via Apple Podcasts or RSS, download the episode, or just hit the play button below.