The ability to block sounds like a nearby furnace, dogs barking or loud keyboards isn't new, but with so many of us working from home alongside our partners or kids, it's time for almost everyone to get a pair of active noise cancellation, or ANC, headphones for themselves.
Not only do ANC headphones block out unwanted noise, but most of them have a dedicated mode that allows ambient noise through when needed, while also offering long battery life.
Which ones do you get, though? There are a lot of options. Too many, if I'm being honest. To help you narrow down your choices, I tested five of the top ANC headphones available right now: Apple(AAPL) - Get Apple Inc. Report Sony(SNE) - Get Sony Corp. Report, Bose(BOSE) , Beats, and Anker. All of them are worthwhile choices, but each one can be labeled for a specific user or use case.
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Best headphones for Apple fans: Apple AirPods Max ($479, originally $549; amazon.com)
Apple's AirPods Max are by far the most expensive ANC headphones on the list of those we tested, but that's expected when it comes to Apple products.
The AirPods Max have a unique design with metal ear cups and a mesh headband. The headphones don't fold down, but instead, the cups rotate to lay flat on your desk or slide into the included cover. Let's be clear, what's included with the AirPods Max is a cover, not a case. In addition to minor protection, the cover also puts the AirPods Max into a deep sleep mode — effectively turning them off — when not in use. Which is a good thing, because there isn't a power button to turn them off yourself.
If you forget to put them in the cover, our experience is that it's hit or miss whether or not the headphones will stay powered on and drain your battery or automatically go to sleep and preserve as much power as possible.
Sound Quality: The AirPods Max sounds downright fantastic to my ears. In fact, I'd argue they offer the best sound quality and active noise cancellation to drown out environmental sounds when compared to the rest of the lot I tested. Add in special features like Spatial Audio that makes it sound as if you're surrounded by musical instruments and as you move your head around, the sound adjusts. It's like listening to music in 3D, and it even works with compatible TV shows or movies.
Drawback: All of the "magic" that makes the AirPods so appealing is more or less limited to using them with an Apple device. You can still use the AirPods Max with an Android phone or Windows computer, but there are some core features you'll lose out on, like spatial audio.
Final verdict: The AirPods Max are arguably the best ANC-capable headphones for those who love all things Apple. They sound great, battery life consistently hits close to the 20-hour mark, and they directly integrate with all things Apple with minimal effort on your part. The biggest downside is the overall cost. Ouch.
Best headphones for frequent travelers: Sony WH-1000XM4 ($248, originally $349.99; amazon.com)
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The Sony WH-1000XM4 have on-ear detection that automatically passes whatever you're listening to when you take them off, and can even automatically detect when you're talking and enable transparency mode so you can hold a conversation without yelling at the person and hear their response without them yelling back at you.
The right ear cup is touch-sensitive for controlling playback and volume, while the left cup has a couple of physical buttons for adjusting noise cancellation and power.
Sony's Headphones app is the key to getting the most out of the WH-1000XM4s. Through the app you can see which devices the headphones are connected to, control how aggressive noise canceling is or even allow the headphones to make automatic adjustments based on what you're doing at the time.
For example, the headphones will take into account whether you’re sitting, walking or even moving at a high rate of speed during your commute. Environmental sounds and even atmospheric pressure also impact the approach that the WH-1000XM4's take when adjusting active noise cancellation.
Sound quality: I took a flight during my time testing the WH-1000XM4's and they drowned out the constant hum of the engines, and the adorable baby sitting a few rows ahead of us as she cried off and on.
Drawback: My loudest gripe about the WH-1000XM4's is how they fold down and go into the included case. I have yet to get it right on the first try, and even then, I'm still not certain I have collapsed them down properly.
Final verdict: The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones can be named the best of several different categories, including best overall if one were so inclined. They offer long battery life, excellent noise cancellation, solid sound quality and are comfy. If you frequently travel or want the best and most versatile ANC-capable headphones available, then the WH-1000XM4's are made for you.
Most comfortable: Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 ($379; amazon.com)
The Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700 offer everything you'd want in a pair of ANC-equipped headphones. They're lightweight, with a minimal design that lays flat and shrinks down to fit into the included protective case. The ear cups are big enough to completely fit over my ears and are soft enough to be comfortable to wear for extended listening sessions.
On the right ear cup, you'll find two physical buttons. One is the power/pairing button, the other will trigger the connected device's personal assistant. For example, as I sit here writing this very section using these headphones connected to my Mac, I can press the button to trigger Siri. The outside panel of the right ear cup doubles as a touch surface that you can use to turn the volume up, down or control music playback. The left cup has a single button that will adjust between three different levels of active noise cancellation. You can change what those specific levels are in the Bose Music app.
Within the app, you can also view the battery level, connect other personal assistants like Alexa or your Spotify account to the headphones.
Sound Quality: When it comes to sound quality, I enjoyed using the 700s. The ANC wasn't as aggressive as I would've liked. Even at a setting of 10, I was still able to hear the clickity-clack of my mechanical keyboard, and the steady hum of my office heater running. These were noises the other headphones I tested easily blocked out.
Drawback: One frustration point I have with the 700s is that they don't automatically pause when you take them off. On more than one occasion I took off the headphones, placed them on my desk, and walked away only to come back sometime later and realize they were still streaming music from my iPad or Mac.
Final verdict: I wish all headphones I tested were as comfortable as the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700. In addition to comfort level, I rather enjoy the fact that every time you power on the headphones a voice tells you how many hours worth of charge you have left. It's a solid touch to the overall experience.
Best headphones to bring the bass: Beats Studio3 Wireless (starting at $199; amazon.com)
Beats by Dr. Dre's Beats Studio3 Wireless headphones bring the bass, but that's to be expected by any Beats product. Even though Apple owns the Beats brand, and at first glance, the specifications of the Studio3 would lead you to believe these headphones are designed for Apple lovers — that's not entirely the case.
The Studio3 headphones use the same type of chip as Apple's AirPods for easy pairing and device switching between Apple devices, but Beats has also integrated Android's Fast Pair feature that makes connecting the headphones to an Android phone just as quick and painless as it is with an iPhone.
The Beats logo on the left ear cup is how you control playback or trigger your device's personal assistant. There's a power button with indicator lights on the right cup, just above a series of small LED lights that make it easy to check the battery life. The headphones collapse down into themselves to fit into the included carrying case.
Controlling noise cancellation can be done by double-pressing the power button, or by using the Beats Android app. There isn't an app for iPhone users.
Drawback: One complaint I have about the Beats Studio3's is the ear cups themselves. They aren't big enough to cover my ears, so instead, they put a fair amount of pressure on my ears and after a while, I experience some soreness.
Sound quality: Noise cancellation and sound quality are both really good with the Studio3, although as I said earlier, they're a little bass-heavy — which has always been a common critique of Beats products.
Final verdict: If you're the type who is drawn to Beats products and want something that will drown out a noisy roommate or colleague, the Beats Studio3 Wireless will certainly do just that.
Best affordable option: Anker SoundCore Life Q35 ($129; amazon.com)
Anker's SoundCore Life Q35s are not only impressively affordable, but they're impressively capable, too. They offer a lot of the same features found in the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones for half the cost.
For example, you can place your palm on the side of the right ear cup to automatically enable transparency mode so you can have a conversation with someone. You will need to use the same gesture to go back to noise cancellation, however, something you don't have to do on Sony's offering. The Life Q35s also have on-ear detection that can be enabled by using the SoundCore app, but in my testing, it's not as accurate or quick to pause music as the AirPods Max or Sony headphones.
The design of the headphones is mostly made of plastic, and it feels like a less expensive product than the others I tested. There are buttons on both ear cups that also lend themselves to a cheap, but functional, feeling.
The right ear cup has a few physical buttons for controlling playback, while the left cup is where you can find the power button as well as a toggle for transparency mode and noise cancellation.
The included case will do a good job protecting your headphones while traveling or when in a backpack, and it's easy enough to figure out how to collapse the headphones down to fit inside it.
Sound quality: One feature the Life Q35's offer that none of the other headphones have is the ability to play ambient sounds — like a rainstorm — to help you fall asleep through the SoundCore app.
Drawback: Active noise cancellation isn't as strong as the rest of the headphones we tested, letting in the sounds of my keyboard or my dog barking outside my door begging to be let in. That said, they'll work well enough to block out a noisy kid or coworker.
Final verdict: For someone who wants ANC headphones on a budget, the Life Q35's will more than fit the bill.
There's a pair of ANC headphones out there for nearly everyone. Whether you want to save some cash (Life Q35), you're looking for an Apple-first approach (AirPods Max), or you want something that offers the best experience all around (Sony WH-1000XM4) — you don't have to look very far.