Update: Please read our updated buying guide on the best noise canceling headphones of 2014. Read More »
This post has been updated to reflect the best sleeping bags of 2014. Our earlier selections are on the following page.
How’s this for a quick history lesson: noise canceling tech dates back to the 1950s, when pilots used specially designed aviation headsets to block out the engine noise dispersed in airplane and helicopter cockpits. Since then, the technology’s evolution has been amazing, shifting first to an integral facet for both the airline and auto industries and now to a product sought by everyone from frequent fliers to music junkies. At stake is the transformation — thanks to exceptional sound profiles and external sound blocking capabilities — of chaotic surroundings into a personal sanctuary.
Sure, that respite sounds thin on paper, but spend a few hours in a cramped airplane seat with howling babies, heaving, green-faced passengers or even a chatty cathy neighbor and get back to us on what you’re willing to pay for a little peace and music. Considering the vastly small market for noise-canceling headsets available at the moment, the problem isn’t necessarily narrowing down the field — it’s choosing the best one for your audio needs. From pioneering audio staples to buzzing newcomers, these are the noise cancelers worth turning your ears to.
PSB M4U 2
Best NC Headphone for Seasoned Music Lovers: Rarely do you stumble upon a pair of headphones that are sonically tuned to perfection for every music genre, especially in the noise-cancellation category. Looks like the M4U 2 might be the only option available right now to accomplish such a feat while also supporting incredible bass, midrange, and treble response. A “low noise linear amplifier” is used to eliminate ambient sound, delivering better results than the standard class D amp found in most other noise cancellers. The Canadian speaker maker also integrates its Tri-Mode archetype and offers three listening modes: active, passive, and active noise-canceling. Best of all, the cans still function and sound great after the batteries drain.
Bose Quietcomfort 15
Best Overall Noise-Canceling Headphone: The market leader in noise cancellation has done something most assumed was impossible: enhanced its critically acclaimed NC technology. Balancing the bass and clarity and smoothing out the mid-range, Bose has brought down the noise levels for low- and high-frequency ranges to improve audio on all levels; this can mostly be attributed to the built-in mics found on the inside of the ear cups. To say the QC 15s will leave you feeling cut off from the entire world (or the unsettling crowd on your flight back home) is an understatement. Aesthetically, this model sports a solid shell and makes for a relaxing on-ear fit when snoozing above the clouds. Expect up to 35 hours of playback on single AAA battery.
Harman Kardon Noise-Canceling Headphones
Best NC Headphone for Sophisticated Listeners: HK’s nostalgia-inspired receivers combine style and substance — fashioning a premium and sleek finish that can only be complimented by great sound quality. The close-fitting ear cup design is surprisingly effective, to the point of stifling your inherent urge to max out the volume. In fact, the listening experience is so rich and stabilized that performance quality is hardly changed by enabling or disabling the noise-cancellation feature. Bundled accessories include a swanky carry case and inline remote and mic suited specifically for the iPod, iPhone, and iPad.
Best Digital Noise Canceler: Featuring the company’s patented AI noise-canceling system, Sony’s digital headset has the ability to analyze and reduce all droning by 99 percent at 160Hz. Once it’s registered all atmospheric clatter, the MDR-NC500D automatically adjusts sound by enabling one of its airplane, bus or office NC modes. Sound reproduction is stellar and clarity remains sharp. The built-in rechargeable battery is capable of lasting up to 28 hours a single charge, and the ear cushions are constructed from a memory foam that molds to a listener’s head. Overall construction is lightweight and sturdy, allowing users to sit comfortably and take in music for long stretches.
Polk Audio UltraFocus 8000
Best All-Purpose NC Headphone: Superior build quality and sound engineering best define Polk Audio’s bass blasters. A stainless steel frame with aluminum accents provides the opulent feel most audiophies desire from a top-of-the-line headphone, but it’s the manufacturer’s “Optimized Active Tuning” system found in the 40mm dynamic balance drivers that steals the spotlight by generating 15dB of noise cancellation. The end result is a refined sound stage that produces clean midrange and distortion-free output when playing all media formats. While the plush pads feel soft on the ears, they also do a great job of concealing sound and removing all outside interference. A number of useful adapters for airplane, mobile, stereo and Skype use come bundled with the headset, rounding out this formidable package.