Over the last year, AFAR editors relied on noise canceling headphones more than ever. Even though we weren’t flying, we used them to stay focused during loud construction across the street, sirens blaring by outside, and yes, even our WFH partner’s Zoom calls.
Unlike regular earbuds, active noise canceling headphones use battery-powered technology to cancel out unwanted noise. Without getting too technical, these types of headphones typically use external microphones to detect noise in the general environment around you, and then send mirrored sound waves into your ears to effectively cancel out that noise. While this technology can’t silence the baby crying in the airplane seat ahead of you, it does drastically cut back on ambient noise whether you’re on a plane or sitting at home.
Because of this battery-powered technology, noise canceling headphones tend to be more expensive than regular ones—but many of them are on sale right now. The following are reviews of the best wireless noise canceling headphones we’ve actually used ourselves. And in our humble opinions, they’re worth every penny.
Sony WH-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Over-Ear Headphones
Buy Now: $228 (was $350), amazon.com
I’ve found that Sony headphones last a shockingly long time. If I’m counting correctly, my last set traveled around the world with me for a whopping six years. So when the time came to start looking for a new pair of headphones, I was thrilled to see the Sony WH-1000XM3 Wireless Noise-Canceling Over-Ear Headphones, were getting a lot of love from the reviewers and audio nerds on the internet.
Sony followed the M3s up with the WH-1000XM4, which are marked down 35 percent right now on Amazon. They don’t have the millennial pull power of Beats or the uber cool style of Sennheisers, but the sound quality and noise-canceling technology is excellent and that modest look belies some seriously fancy features. The right ear cup is actually a touchpad, so you can tap to stop a song or swipe to skip to the next one. You can even press and hold against the touchpad, like a spy speaking into an earpiece, to briefly pause any music or noise canceling. It’s a great feature if you want to catch a captain’s announcement on a flight, or if you have a tendency to eavesdrop.
You can use ambient sound mode to filter in a little outside noise—say when you’re strolling through a city and want to stay aware of traffic around you. The noise canceling is also adaptive, adjusting to the surrounding soundscape and even to different cabin pressure when you’re at cruising altitude. Best of all? The M4s have a battery life that lasts 30 hours, and you can get 5 hours of charge in as little as 10 minutes. Oh, and did I mention that they have a headphone jack? Hello, in-flight entertainment system. —Maggie Fuller, AFAR contributing writer
Apple AirPods Pro
Buy Now: $170 (was $249), amazon.com
I had resisted wireless in-ear headphones because of my Tiny Ears Problem and feared I would instantly lose any expensive set I bought. But the AirPod Pros have delivered on two fronts—true noise cancellation and customizable fit—making them the best pair of headphones I’ve ever owned.
Using both an outward-facing microphone and an inward-facing microphone, these tiny but powerful earbuds create a noise-canceling environment that blocks out everything. Pre-COVID, the earbuds got rid of all the office ambient noise—the meeting in the room next door, the plates clacking in the kitchen—and made commuting on the racket-producing subway something close to serene.
Each set of AirPods Pro also comes with three sizes of flexible silicone tips—small, medium, and large—to customize the fit. Even though the silicone tips make the seal in your ears tighter, the buds themselves are vented in and out to get rid of any sense of suction in the ear. (Those who hate earplugs or feel claustrophobic easily will know what I’m talking about.) This also means the likelihood of them falling out on a bus, plane, or train is much lower.
But my favorite new feature is the Ear Tip Fit Test, which you’ll find in your iPhone settings once you complete the iOS update. You try different-size earbuds and your phone will tell you if the fit is good [green] or just OK [yellow] for each ear. You might be encouraged to try different sizes for different ears, like needing a right shoe that’s a half size bigger than your left. It’s a feature I didn’t realize I’d been living without, and now I can’t imagine not having.
—Laura Dannen Redman, digital content director
Sennheiser HD 450BT Wireless Noise Canceling Headphones
Buy Now: $149 (was $200), amazon.com
I picked up a pair of Sennheiser HD 4.50 SE over-ear headphones for half off during Amazon Prime Day in 2018, but for an updated version you’ll want to try the newer Sennheiser HD 450BT headphones, which came out in 2020. Both come with wireless Bluetooth technology and provide active noise cancellation with an over-ear design, but the newer version holds a full 30 hours charge (an 11-hour improvement over my older headphones).
When I need to block out all the sounds, I rely on my Sennheisers. They truly cancel out everything—including the construction noise across the street that has started up since New York started coming out of lockdown. The sound quality is so good it makes me feel like I’m right there at Dolly Parton concert instead of holed up in my apartment listening to “Jolene” alone, yet again. One con: Since the headphones rest on top of my ears instead of going completely around them, the top edges of my ears start to ache after I wear them for more than a couple of hours. And while they fold down into a carry case just larger than my iPhone Plus, another con is that they take up more space than my AirPods. Still, I bring them along on long-haul flights when I need to focus on work. —Lyndsey Matthews, senior commerce editor
Bose QuietComfort 45 Wireless Headphones II
Buy Now: $229 (was $329), amazon.com
Back in the days of “offices,” sitting-close-to-me colleagues shrewdly assessed that I had two working modes: Putting my Bose over-ear headphones on meant I didn’t want to be bothered. Bose headphones on, and noise-canceling feature switched on, meant I seriously didn’t want to be bothered—and that I couldn’t hear them, anyway. I can see your mouth moving, but all I’m getting is . . . white noise.
Bose headphones are so dangerously effective in blocking out the world that I bring them with me wherever I go. I wear them on the subway. I wear them to wash dishes. I wear them when I’m out for a walk. I wear them when my husband wants to “talk.” Because they have “synthetic protein leather” pillows that cover your ear, the headphones are too big to fit into a pocket, and instead come in a carrying case. If sleekness and size are your thing, then Bose headphones maybe aren’t. But I’ll take comfort over cool any day.
Where I find Bose headphones most valuable is on a flight, when the din of the cabin can make it hard to hear my second viewing of Notting Hill and the groans and whirs of the plane itself are enough to set my heart racing (anxious flier, I am). No thank you! Once I sit down, I unpack my Bose headphones and switch them on. Noise, canceled. Now only 19 more hours left to go. —Katherine LaGrave, digital features editor
This article originally appeared online in 2020; it was updated on July 12, 2022, to include current sale information.