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The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones You Can Buy In 2018


April 9, 2018 Tech By Photo by Jarry Truong

This definitive guide to the best active noise-canceling (ANC) headphones of 2018 explores everything you need to know before buying your next pair of over-ear headphones, including how the technology works, debunking common misnomers and the ranking our favorite ANC of 2018 for every type of person.

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Table of Contents
The Short List

Introduction
How Do Active Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?
Buying Guide

The Short List

The New King of Active Noise-Canceling Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM2


Verdict: The Sony 1000XM2s were released in late 2017, replacing the Sony MDR-1000Xs as the company’s flagship wireless ANC headphones. Compared to predecessors, these new headphones are way upgraded. They’re more powerful and offer more ways to customize the audio settings through a companion app. The audio quality is fantastic, too, with a neutral profile that isn’t too bass-heavy — the midrange is where these Sony’s really deliver. Its ANC tech’s ability to really block out ambient noise is incredible — so much so that the Sony WH-1000XM2s manages to edge out the Bose QC 35 IIs in terms of audio quality and ANC performance (albeit barely). However, Bose’s QC35 IIs are still the undisputed king of comfort.

Read our full review of the Sony WH-1000XM2, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9.7 ounces
Battery: 30 hrs (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro USB

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Best Active Noise-Canceling Headphones for Most People: Bose QC35 II


Verdict: The Bose QC35 II headphones aren’t absolutely groundbreaking because, frankly, they’re pretty close to Bose’s previous QC35 headphones in terms of noise-canceling ability, audio quality and design. That said, Bose didn’t need to change much. The QC35 II still sets the bar in terms of how good it is at active noise-cancellation — no other headphones can beat THese from Bose. They are also the most comfortable, lightweight and travel-friendly (compactable) of any ANC over-ear headphones I’ve tested. The addition of Google Assistant is neat and a little bit helpful, and it’ll probably improve over time, but it’s not a gamechanger. The QC35 II headphones are, in my opinion, the best ANC over-ear headphones for most people.

Read our full review of the Bose QC35 II, here.

Form: Over-ear
Weight: 10.9 ounces
Battery: 20 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Best Active Noise-Canceling Headphones for the Office: Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC


Verdict: The Voyager 8200 UCs are Plantronics’s wireless ANC headphones designed for business professionals. They have a four-mic array that makes taking calls crisp and easy; if you’re listening to music and a call comes in, a voice will say “Incoming call” and to answer it you just touch the right ear pad once. The headphones have great Bluetooth connectivity so it can sync to multiple devices — say your iPhone and Macbook — simultaneously. And the headphones are also Skype for Business certified. However, if you just want to use them as standard ANC headphones, they work perfectly fine for that. The ANC performance is very good and the sound quality is impressive and neutral, too. They’re not as comfortable or as bespoke as other ANC headphones on this list, but at roughly $100 less, they’re a pretty great deal.

Read our full review of the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 10.2 ounces
Battery: up to 24 hours (Bluetooth and ANC); one month in standby mode
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Introduction

O
utside noise interferes with the enjoyment of music and movies, whether you’re flying across the Pacific or mowing the lawn. Eliminating these distractions is the reason Bose released the first commercially available active noise-canceling (ANC) headset in 2000. Because this tech makes it so much easier to hear hushed dialogue in movies or the pianissimo finale of a favorite symphony, ANC headphones have become standard items to pack for any serious traveler (especially anyone with a window seat next to the plane’s engine). They’ve also become favored with office workers who want to eliminate the chatter of colleagues and other workplace noise. And what otherwise-boring lawn-mowing session isn’t improved by adding a clear, blasting soundtrack?

At Gear Patrol, we review a lot of active noise-cancellation (ANC) headphones and for good reason. They’re among the most popular types of headphones and they come in over-ear or in-ear models. They block out ambient noise: turn on a pair and you hear almost nothing. It’s serenity at the touch of a button — pretty darn cool, especially if you’re a frequent traveler or work in a noisy office.

For this buying guide, we focused exclusively on wireless and over-ear ANC headphones. All the best and newest models hover somewhere near the $300 price range or above, but if you don’t want to spend as much you can find older, wired models of the Bose QC25 or Sony 1000XM that are both excellent and significantly more affordable. Also don’t be scared of manufacturer-refurbished models on eBay, Amazon or the company’s own website; you can get a really good deal and all of those reliable websites have fairly lenient return policies in case the headphones don’t meet your expectations.

How Do Active Noise-Canceling Headphones Work?

Active noise-canceling headphones are different from traditional headphones because they search and destroy ambient noise frequencies that would disrupt your listening session. They have miniature microphones built into each ear cup that listen to ambient noises, and then electronically generate new sound waves that are the exact opposite to those ambient sound waves — called an antiphase — which in effect “cancels” out both sets of sound. It’s like sending an antivirus for sound. The term “active” simply means that the headphones have a built-in battery that’s dedicated to power these noise-canceling microphones. Passive noise-canceling headphones, on the other hand, don’t have powered microphones that actively seek out ambient frequencies.

When switched on, active noise-canceling creates a pressure against your ears that’s similar to driving through a tunnel or reaching a certain in-flight elevation. If the headphones aren’t playing music and you’re in a noisy environment, the active noise-canceling tech makes it sound like you’re in an empty room: quiet. Additionally, ANC makes it easier to listen to music. When wearing passive headphones amidst ambient noise, your brain has to work hard to prevent it from interfering and distracting you from the music. Because ANC actually reduces the amount of sound that you hear, it is, overall, easier on the brain and, in theory, makes listening to headphones a more pleasant experience.

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Buying Guide

Best All-Around: Sony WH-1000XM2


Verdict: The Sony 1000XM2s were released in late 2017, replacing the Sony MDR-1000Xs as the company’s flagship wireless ANC headphones. Compared to predecessors, these new headphones are way upgraded. They’re more powerful and offer more ways to customize the audio settings through a companion app. The audio quality is fantastic, too, with a neutral profile that isn’t too bass-heavy — the midrange is where these Sony’s really deliver. Its ANC tech’s ability to really block out ambient noise is incredible — so much so that the Sony WH-1000XM2s manages to edge out the Bose QC 35 IIs in terms of audio quality and ANC performance (albeit barely). However, Bose’s QC35 IIs are still the undisputed king of comfort.

Read our full review of the Sony WH-1000XM2, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 9.7 ounces
Battery: 30 hrs (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro USB

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A Close Second: Bose QC35 II


Verdict: The Bose QC35 II headphones aren’t absolutely groundbreaking because, frankly, they’re pretty close to Bose’s previous QC35 headphones in terms of noise-canceling ability, audio quality and design. That said, Bose didn’t need to change much. The QC35 II still sets the bar in terms of how good it is at active noise-cancellation — no other headphones can beat THese from Bose. They are also the most comfortable, lightweight and travel-friendly (compactable) of any ANC over-ear headphones I’ve tested. The addition of Google Assistant is neat and a little bit helpful, and it’ll probably improve over time, but it’s not a gamechanger. The QC35 II headphones are, in my opinion, the best ANC over-ear headphones for most people.

Read our full review of the Bose QC35 II, here.

Form: Over-ear
Weight: 10.9 ounces
Battery: 20 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Best for Big Sound: Bowers & Wilkins PX


Verdict: Without a doubt, the PX headphones by Bowers & Wilkins have the most distinct sound signature of any ANC headphones on this list. The soundstage is epic and grandiose, like if you were listening in a big concert venue, but it’s also very directional — you can pinpoint where on the stage where instrumentals and vocals are coming from. These headphones have the same angled drivers in B&W’s high-end P9 Signature headphones and are compatible with aptX HD (hi-res audio up to 24bit/48kHz), so the sound is incredible as long as you like that big soundstage. The active noise-canceling ability isn’t as strong as others, but you can fine-tune it through an app. The design of the headphones is unique, too, with lots of leather, polished-silver color and curved, almost slithering, arms — these headphones are gorgeous. They’re more rigid and not as comfortable as others on this list, and they aren’t travel-friendly (you can’t fold them up), but if you’re looking for big and accurate sound, these are great.

Read our full review of the Bowers & Wilkins PX, here.

Form: Over-ear
Weight: 11.8 ounces
Battery: up to 22 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: USB-C

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Best Active Noise-Canceling Headphones for the Office: Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC


Verdict: The Voyager 8200 UCs are Plantronics’s wireless ANC headphones designed for business professionals. They have a four-mic array that makes taking calls crisp and easy; if you’re listening to music and a call comes in, a voice will say “Incoming call” and to answer it you just touch the right ear pad once. The headphones have great Bluetooth connectivity so it can sync to multiple devices — say your iPhone and Macbook — simultaneously. And the headphones are also Skype for Business certified. However, if you just want to use them as standard ANC headphones, they work perfectly fine for that. The ANC performance is very good and the sound quality is impressive and neutral, too. They’re not as comfortable or as bespoke as other ANC headphones on this list, but at roughly $100 less, they’re a pretty great deal.

Read our full review of the Plantronics Voyager 8200 UC, here.

Form factor: Over-ear
Weight: 10.2 ounces
Battery: up to 24 hours (Bluetooth and ANC); one month in standby mode
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.1
Charger: micro-USB

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Honorable Mention: Sennheiser HD1 Wireless


Verdict: The Sennheiser HD1 Wireless are the same headphones as the Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless that were released in 2015, just rebranded for the US markets. And they have a lot going for them. They’re the lightest of any of the ANC headphones on this list, and they’re comfortable, with huge, plush padded ear cushions. Their collapsible design also makes them good for travel. Soundwise, they support Bluetooth aptX for high-res streaming and, different from B&W’s PXs or Bose’s QC35 IIs, the HD1 Wireless have no distinct sound signature — the music just sounds extremely accurate, with crisp highs and not overly heavy bass. There are two caveats with the HD1 Wireless. One, there’s no companion app to adjust EQ or other ANC settings so they’re very much no-frills headphones. And two, the ANC is always on — you can’t turn it off even if you wanted to. That said, Sennheiser’s HD1 Wireless are very good headphones that sound great and have a unique design, but be aware that they aren’t nearly as feature-packed as other headphones on this list.

Read our full review of the Sennheiser HD1 Wireless, here.

Form : Over-ear
Weight: 9.4 ounces
Battery: up to 22 hours (Bluetooth and ANC)
Connectivity: Bluetooth 4.0
Charger: micro-USB

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