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The Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones

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Active noise-cancelling headphones use clever technology to cut out annoying background sounds. Here’s our pick of the best.

If you're sick of your music being drowned out by the hubbub of city life or fancy a little peace and quiet on those interminable transatlantic flights, you need a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. These ingenious gadgets suck out the hum and rumble of everyday living and make sure you can hear your music, or movies, without having to crank the volume to ear-damaging levels.

Here we'll explain how the noise-cancelling technology works and round up our pick of the very best ANC headphones.

The best noise-cancelling headphones to buy

1. Sony WH-1000XM4

These over-ear cans take everything that was great about the previous generation and improve on it: the noise cancellation is smarter and more effective, the audio sounds better and the fit is more comfortable than ever.

The WH-1000XM4’s new features are what really set them apart though. Speak-to-Chat automatically pauses your audio when you strike up a conversation, multipoint Bluetooth pairing allows for simultaneous connection to two devices and wear detection pauses your audio when you take the headphones off. These intelligent new additions elevate what was an already stunning product, though sadly there’s still no water resistance: the WH-1000XM4’s only real weakness.

If you want the best ANC headphones that money can buy, look no further. If £350 is outside of your price range, however, the WH-1000XM3 remain a fantastic option two years after their initial release.

Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear, built-in microphone, touch and physical controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack plug; Weight: 254g; Cable length: 1.2m

2. Philips PH805

The Philips PH805 over-ear headphones are a truly impressive combination of comfort, sound quality, impressive active noise cancellation and affordability. They may not quite be as efficient at cutting out background noise as some of Bose and Sony’s line up but they’re significantly cheaper and in terms of audio output, they compete with their more expensive competitors.

In addition to their great sound, the PH805s utilise intuitive touch controls, support the latest version of Bluetooth (5.0) and are compatible with both Siri and Google Assistant. Fully charged they’ll give you 25 hours of playtime with ANC switched on and a handy travel case allows for safe storage and easy transportation.

Key specs - Headphone type: Over-ear; built-in microphone and music control buttons; Plug type: 3.5mm jack (optional) Weight: 280g; Cable length: 1.3m

3. Anker Soundcore Life Q30

The Life Q30 may not be the best-looking noise-cancelling headphones around but they've got plenty going for them. Their ANC is highly effective given their budget price and there are three modes available catering for different circumstances: Transport, Indoors and Outdoors – all of which successfully help mitigate environmental sound.

The Soundcore companion app lets you freely switch between those modes is one of the most comprehensive around, with 22 different EQ presets to choose from and an eight-band graphic equaliser to create your own EQ. Those audio customisation options are particularly welcome as the Life Q30's default sound profile is overly bassy to the point where the earcups vibrate and things sound rather muddy. But tone down the low-end a bit and things start to sound much better.

The Life Q30 also deliver an outstanding battery life of up to 40 hours with ANC turned on. With that stamina, impressive noise-cancelling capabilities and audio you can tweak to suit your own preference, the Life Q30 are the ultimate budget ANC headphones.

Key specs – Headphone type: Over-ear, built-in microphone, touch and physical controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth, 3.5mm jack plug; Weight: 265g; Cable length: 1.2m

4. NuraLoop

While the NuraLoop will rightly receive plaudits for their ability to create you an amazing-sounding, personalised EQ profile, their noise-cancelling capabilities should not be underestimated. Pop these earphones in your ears and activate ANC and you’ll cut out a significant proportion of the noise going on around you, allowing you to focus on the exceptional sound quality.

ANC mode is easily switched on and off with a single press on the outside of your left earbud and the Social mode works well if you need to hear important announcements or converse with a friend. The stable fit provided by the looped earhook design means you never have to worry about the earbuds falling out and sweat resistance makes the NuraLoop a solid choice to wear when exercising. Microphone quality is also impressive and there’s even Immersion Mode, which lets you boost the bass if you want a bit more low-end oomph.

All in all, the NuraLoop are an outstanding pair of earphones.

Key specs – Headphone type: In-ear, built-in microphone and touch controls; Connectivity: Bluetooth (aptX HD), 3.5mm jack connector; Weight: 27g, Cable length: 1.3m

How to buy the best noise-cancelling headphones for you

What types of noise-cancelling headphones are there?

There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones: active and passive. Passive noise cancellation just means blocking out external noises, which is why some companies call it “sound isolation” – for instance, closed-back, over-ear headphones and earphones both reduce outside noise to a greater or lesser extent. Active noise cancellation (ANC) is much smarter, using clever technology – as we’ll explain below – to silence ambient noise, so nothing disturbs your listening pleasure.

The only downside of the technology is that it can come with a hefty price.

What is active noise cancellation (ANC)?

ANC relies on a combination of tiny outward-facing microphones that are built into the headphones and clever digital signal processing. The microphones constantly listen to the ambient sound around you, while the digital signal processor takes that audio and plays the exact inverse of that sound alongside your music. The result is that those outside noises are effectively cancelled out: distracting hums and rumbles are dramatically reduced (if not silenced completely), allowing you to enjoy your music as it was meant to be heard.

ANC is a very impressive technology, but it doesn’t completely eliminate every type of background noise. As high frequencies have a much shorter wavelength than lower tones, they’re harder to eliminate in real time. The technology is most effective at blocking out lower-frequency sounds, such as the rumble of aeroplane engines.

Be aware that ANC can very slightly affect the overall sound quality because the noise-cancelling wave can interfere with the frequencies in the song you’re listening to. The effect is usually minimal, though, and far preferable to putting up with background noise.

You might also hear a slight high-pitched hiss in the background when nothing is playing – but, again, it’s a small price to pay for the ability to enjoy your music untroubled by intrusive external sounds.

Are there any other advantages of ANC?

ANC doesn’t just help you enjoy your music: it can protect your hearing. Without noise-cancelling technology, the only way to drown out ambient noise is to crank up the volume. Done on a regular basis, this can lead to permanent hearing damage. ANC lets you listen at lower volumes, meaning it's far gentler on your eardrums.

ANC is also useful if you have hypersensitivity, hyperacusis or a similar health condition, as the technology can help reduce the strain on your ears.

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