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Noise-cancelling headphones, at their best, are almost magical. They use an electronic system to listen to the world, create a sound wave that is the opposite and the two cancel each other out.
It means you can hear your music or movie soundtrack above the roar of a jet engine or the train hubbub, and at a lower volume, too.
Recently, there’s been a new trend in noise cancellers: transparency mode. This means that the headphones can be configured to let in the noise of the world so you can have a conversation with someone without a) taking off the headphones or, b) shouting.
Though, we’d say it’s more respectful to remove headphones while you’re having an in-depth conversation with someone.
Battery life is important in noise-cancelling headphones, and since most are now wireless, you need to make sure you charge your headphones before a long flight, say. In every case, you’ll get extra battery life with noise cancelling turned off, but where’s the fun in that?
NFC, short for “near field communications”, is a neat extra feature which makes for quicker, more secure Bluetooth pairing between headphones and your smartphone, for instance. We’ve listed which headphones have this feature.
We’ve tested these headphones for audio quality above all, including how pleasant the noise cancelling is. Poor noise cancelling can give you a headache. But we also judged the design, build quality and ease of use.
Best noise-cancelling headphones for 2021:
Best over-ear noise-cancelling headphones: Bose headphones 700: £249, Johnlewis.com
Best in-ear noise-cancelling headphones: Apple AirPods pro: £215, Johnlewis.com
Best noise-cancelling headphones for comfort: Sony WH-1000XM3: £233.03, Amazon.co.uk
Best wireless noise-cancelling headphones: X by Kygo xenon: £87.41, Amazon.co.uk
Best budget noise-cancelling headphones: JBL tune 750BTNC: £99.99, Currys.co.uk
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-life testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
Bose headphones 700
Best for: Over-ear
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 20 hoursWeight: 250gBluetooth? YesNFC? YesWired or wireless? Wireless
Bose traditionally had the best noise-cancelling technology you could find. But when the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones were released, Bose slipped behind. These headphones put Bose back in the lead where noise-cancelling is concerned, able to quell the engine of a 747 effectively or to make phone calls easily heard even in noisy situations. They’re also highly adjustable, with 11 different noise-cancelling settings. Tap the left headphone to reach transparency mode to let the outside world in. Like with the AirPods pro, here the effect is almost as good as taking them off. They are among the most luxuriously designed headphones you’ll come across, with no visible joints, a stainless-steel headband and adjustable earcups. The build quality of these headphones is also extraordinary: lightweight and comfortable even for long use. A new version has just been announced with a battery in the case, too (£399.95), enough for two full charges, that is, extending battery life by an extra 40 hours.
Buy now £249.00, John Lewis & Partners
Best for: Comfort
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 30 hoursWeight: 255gBluetooth? YesNFC? YesWired or wireless? Wireless
Even if Sony has lost its crown to Bose in terms of noise cancelling, these headphones still sound amazing and have a lively, effective noise-cancellation that’s inviting and attractive. They also beat the Bose for overall sound quality, when noise cancelling is turned off, for example. They are almost exactly the same weight as the Bose, too, which is part of why they feel so comfy to wear. Sony’s transparency mode is achieved by touching an earcup, which is easier than removing the headphones, even if the other person doesn’t know you can suddenly hear them perfectly.
Buy now £233.03, Amazon
Apple AirPods pro
Best for: In-ear
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? In-earBattery life: 4.5 hours plus 14.5 hours from charging caseWeight: 5.4g per earbud, charging case 46g Bluetooth? YesNFC? YesâWired or wireless? Wireless
Apple’s newest in-ears are a revelation. Unlike previous AirPods, they have a silicone ear tip that fits the ear perfectly. There are three sizes of ear tip to choose from and a clever ear tip fit test in the app on the iPhone which plays music and listens to judge if the fit is right. The battery shape has changed so the AirPods pro feel more secure in the ear. The noise-cancelling is fantastic, working as effectively on a train or Tube as on a plane. Although in-ear headphones can’t beat over-ears for noise-cancelling efficacy, these come pretty close. There’s a transparency mode here, too, on a par with that on the Bose above. If you do take one earbud out, the music pauses automatically, resuming when you put the earbud back. They also work brilliantly for phone calls, effective with either one or both buds. Pairing with any phone is straightforward, but completely simple and very fast with an iPhone (you just open the case near the iPhone and that’s it, you’re done).
Buy now £215.00, John Lewis & Partners
Best for: Sound quality
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? In-earBattery life: 6 hours plus 18 hours from charging caseWeight: 8.5g per earbud, charging case 77gBluetooth? YesNFC? YesâWired or wireless? Wireless
Until Apple’s AirPods Pro came along, these were the best in-ear noise cancellers by a country mile. They’re still sensational, and noticeably cheaper than the Apple competition. The design is great, and though they are heavier than AirPods, they fit comfortably and securely. Ear tips come in three sizes and two materials, non-slip rubber and foam. The sound quality is exceptional even without noise-cancelling turned on, with a decent amount of bass considering these aren’t over-ear headphones. Like other in-ears here, a quick charge gives a decent amount of playback. In this case, a 10 minute charge equates to 90 minutes of play.
Buy now £169.00, Amazon
Beats studio 3 wireless
Best for: Apple devices
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 22 hoursWeight: 260gBluetooth? YesNFC? NoWired or wireless? Wireless
Apple bought Beats some years back and as a result these headphones have the same Apple W1 chip found in the original AirPods. This means if you have an iPhone and other Apple devices, it will switch between them seamlessly and pairing is as simple as with the AirPods Pro above. Beats headphones work with any phone, of course, but better with iPhone. The audio is strong, with lots of bass, for which the brand is known, and they have a warm, lively sound. The battery recharges quickly: ten minutes of charge yields three hours of playback. These headphones come in several colours.
Buy now £299.95, Apple
X by Kygo Xenon
Best for: Wireless
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: Up to 24 hoursWeight: 320gBluetooth? YesNFC? NoWired or wireless? Wireless
DJ, songwriter and producer Kygo’s range of headphones include the lush xenon cans which cost much less than their appearance would suggest. There’s an illuminated X logo on each earcup, though you can turn this off. Battery life is not outstanding, just 16 hours with noise cancelling on, but 24 with it turned off. Performance is good, with a rich and detailed sound, and plenty of bass. The headphones come in three colours: black, white and silver.
Buy now £87.41, Amazon
Best for: Well balanced sound
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 20 hoursWeight: 292gBluetooth? YesNFC? NoWired or wireless? Wireless
Slick design and great build quality are nothing new for Technics but are certainly in evidence here with these sophisticated-looking headphones. The soft earcups have enough pressure to hold them in place snugly, but are still very comfortable. Noise cancelling is adjustable to three different levels and works well, including at the highest level. Like the Sony over-ear headphones, you let ambient noise in by touching the right earcup. The audio is immersive and punchy, with a well-balanced sound across a wide stage. There’s a decent amount of bass, too.
Buy now £251.00, John Lewis & Partners
Huawei FreeBuds 3
Best for: Value
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? In-earBattery life: 4 hours plus 16 hours from charging caseWeight: 4.5g per earbud; charging case 49gBluetooth? YesNFC? YesWired or wireless? Wireless
If the FreeBuds 3 look too much like AirPods, you could choose a black version instead, or even the just-released red option. These are open-ear wireless headphones, meaning they don’t jam all the way into your lug holes. You’d think this would mean that noise cancelling was incompatible, but Huawei manages to keep most ambient noise at bay, without sacrificing comfort. These are easily good enough to work on a plane, for instance, though the noise cancelling is a little more direct than some headphones. General audio is impressive with a complete soundstage that’s convincing and comprehensive, though bass isn’t as strong as on some here. These headphones are excellent value, too.
Buy now £109.99, Argos
Best for: Immersive sound
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 20 hoursWeight: 329gBluetooth? YesNFC? YesWired or wireless? Wireless
Nuraphone headphones are unique – as well as being over-ear fitting, an internal piece juts into your ears as with in-ear buds. The feel takes some getting used to, but the sound is tremendous, once you’ve set it up. You have to train the Nuraphone sound. That’s done by the companion smartphone app playing test tones while a microphone inside hears your ears’ faint responses. The app then optimises the results for your personalised hearing profile, and the difference is striking. Noise cancelling works well and a “social mode” turns on an external microphone so you can hear when someone is talking to you, controlled by a touch-sensitive panel or the app.
Buy now £229.00, Currys PC World
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2
Best for: Fit
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? In-earBattery life: 7 hours plus 21 hours in charging caseWeight: 6g per earbud; charging case 58gBluetooth? YesNFC? NoWired or wireless? Wireless
The latest in-ears from Sennheiser. The audio quality is extremely good, as is usually the case with their headphones. The sound is versatile, suiting every kind of music, with a wide soundstage, great clarity and warmth. You can adjust the sound in the accompanying smartphone app. Bass is good, but not exceptional. Noise-cancelling is good, though no match for the other two in-ears here, the Sony WF-1000XM3 and Apple AirPods pro. There are four sizes of ear tips to ensure a decent, noise-isolating fit.
Buy now £273.00, Amazon
JBL Tune 750BTNC
Best for: On a budget
On-ear, over-ear or in-ear? Over-earBattery life: 15 hoursBluetooth? YesNFC? NoWired or wireless? Wireless
The JBL Tune headphones sound great and even include excellent noise cancelling, which is pretty remarkable at this price. Audio is great, including solid bass and great clarity. There are also plenty of features such as voice control using your phone’s virtual personal assistant, activated by touching an earcup button. The battery life is lower than some over-ears, at just 15 hours, but is still reasonable. Audio is especially good when it comes to bass, though there is much to like here. Choose from black, blue, white or red finishes.
Buy now £99.99, Currys PC World
The Verdict: Noise-cancelling headphones
The Bose 700 headphones are the winner here because of absolutely top-drawer noise cancelling, but Sony’s over-ears, Sony WH-1000XM3 come very close and are better value. For in-ears, the Apple AirPods pro are unbeaten for noise cancelling, comfort and design.