Who should buy this
We need to be clear up front: Buy noise-cancelling headphones only if you need noise cancellation. If you're just looking for a pair of all-around headphones and you think you might occasionally use the noise cancellation, you'll probably be disappointed. No pair of noise-cancelling headphones offers the same sound quality as a similarly priced pair of non–noise-cancelling headphones. And though noise-cancelling headphones do a great job of reducing low-frequency noises like the drone of an airplane engine, they aren't magic. They do little to nothing to reduce voices, baby screams, or similar noises.
How we picked and tested
For the original version of this guide, I interviewed the top headphone reviewers working today, including Steve Guttenberg, Tyll Hertsens, and Brent Butterworth, and asked them to name their top picks. Since then, we've tested many new promising models and several inexpensive models not reviewed elsewhere, including 22 new models just this year.
We objectively measured each model's noise-cancelling performance. If it was anything decent, we gave that pair to a listening panel for a subjective listening test. They also listened to each with airplane-level noise in the background to judge the noise cancelling. Brent helped with our tests using his specialized gear to check for frequency response and noise cancellation.
For the third year running, the Bose QuietComfort 25 are the best noise-cancelling headphones. The amount of noise reduced is significantly more than the vast majority of noise-cancelling headphones. In our tests, they dropped an average of 24.2 dB of noise, including over 30 dB at some frequencies, and had more low-bass reduction than any headphone we've tested.
Of course, noise cancellation isn't the only thing that matters. If these headphones were uncomfortable, horrible sounding, or huge and bulky, that might prompt us to look elsewhere. But thankfully, that isn't the case. The QC25 sounds decent, offers exceptional comfort, and folds into a small case. They can also be used in passive mode (without noise-cancelling), which reduces the sound quality but comes in handy when/if the battery dies.
If you want noise cancellation with Bluetooth
These are basically everything we said about the QuietComfort 25, plus wireless. The Bose QuietComfort 35 fold small, they're comfortable, you can still listen to music if the battery dies, and they offer almost as much noise cancelling as the QC25. Really, Bose just kept everything we liked about the QC25, and made them wireless. Except for one thing—the sound.
It seems Bose wanted to make the sound of the QC35 more ... exciting? So it boosted the bass and treble. In our listening tests there was no consensus as to if this was a good thing, with some panelists preferring the QC25 and others leaning toward the QC35.
A (cheaper) runner-up
If you can't afford the Bose QC25, or in the unlikely event that the Bose models are unavailable, check out the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7b. The sound quality won't blow you away—though neither will that of the Bose—and its noise cancellation isn't quite as good as our top picks', but the ANC7b is a great value and great price. The noise cancelling is less than the others we recommend (with an average of 15.6 dB reduction), but because the price is also a lot lower, that's forgivable.
Budget noise cancelling with Bluetooth
Finally, after years of waiting, we have decent low(er)-cost wireless noise-cancelling headphones. The Samsung Level On Wireless were well-liked by our testers, offer solid noise cancelling, and were quite comfortable. We were surprised at how good they sounded, especially in the mids and lows. They also sounded remarkably similar whether the noise cancellation was on or off.
The noise cancelling is good. Better than the Audio-Technica ANC7b's, but not as good as the Boses' or some of the über-expensive alternate options. In our testing, they averaged 18.8 dB reduction.
A luxury option
If you want a pair of headphones that does it all—Bluetooth, noise cancellation, and sound quality—and excels at the latter two, be prepared to spend a lot of money and receive a fair amount of disappointment. There's just no such thing as the perfect headphones. That said, all our testers liked the Sennheiser HD-1 Wireless (formerly known as the Momentum 2.0). They sound great, offer okay noise reduction, and are Bluetooth. You can use the headphones (but not the mic) when the battery dies, thanks to the an included analog cable. However, we found them exceptionally uncomfortable for people who wear glasses. So if you wear glasses, try before you buy, and make sure you can get a good seal.
This guide may have been updated by Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.
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