Best noise-canceling headphones for 2021
Our top picks for over-ear headphones and true wireless earbuds
In this article: I’ll share my top noise-canceling headphone picks...
- Best budget pick — Cleer Enduro ANC
- Best for running and workouts — Jaybird Vista 2
- Best travel companion — Bowers & Wilkins PI7
- Best noise cancellation in earbuds — Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
- Best all-around — Sony WH-1000XM4
...plus, some advice for how to choose the right in-ear or over-ear noise-cancelers for you.
ir travel is back in a big way! And it’s so thrilling to actually, you know, go places again that I almost forgot something: it gets loud — from the airport’s busy energy to the plane engine’s rumble. Luckily, noise-canceling headphones are better than ever.
As great as the Sony WH-1000XM4s are for work, I find they really perform well for travel.
Through my extended pandemic work-from-home stint, I’ve certainly put them to the test — my makeshift office sits cornered between our loud, rumbling HVAC system and the kids’ playroom. And as I ease into more of a hybrid work situation, I find that newer noise-canceling headphones are better able to silence office distractions.
That's because noise-canceling circuitry has gotten more sophisticated over the last couple of years and can knock out a wider range of sounds. On a plane, that means everything from engine noise to chatty seatmates.
Noise-canceling earbuds have taken the biggest leap in quality
While you’ll still get the absolute best noise cancellation from over-ear headphones, newer true wireless earbuds hold their own against them. I used to say things like, “they cancel noise well, for earbuds.” But the best noise-canceling earbuds of 2021 don’t need a qualifier — they simply bring the silence.
In fact, the Sony, Bose, and Bowers & Wilkins models shown here all reduced my lawnmower’s engine noise so much that I barely heard it. Before I even turned on any music! And when I hit play on a podcast, I could listen at a low, safe volume and still follow the conversations.
Of course, there’s more to consider when choosing headphones, like sound quality, comfort, and how you’ll use them. With that in mind, I'll provide some background info and buying tips, before diving into my top picks.
How do noise-canceling headphones work?
Noise-canceling headphones don’t simply seal out noise with ear tips, ear pads, or heavy-duty earcups. There is special, sophisticated technology at work.
They have built-in circuitry that counteracts exterior sound by emitting an out-of-phase sound wave. This wave effectively cancels out the incoming sound.
Many customers associate noise-cancelling headphones with Bose, because they pioneered and popularized the category. I recently had the chance to talk to Bose legend Dan Gauger, one of two engineers who helped create and develop their noise-canceling heaphones.
In 1978, Dr. Amar Bose got on a plane and put on headphones, but they didn’t block out any noise! So he started scribbling equations for how to effectively cancel noise.
He gave me a deep dive on their history, and explained how a napkin drawing led to the development of some ultra-sophisticated circuitry.
But now there are some very formidable rivals out there — all with different strengths and features. That’s where I can help.
How to choose the right noise-canceling headphones for you
There’s a lot to consider when you’re choosing noise-canceling headphones. And perhaps above all — just like with any headphones — it really comes down to how you plan on using them. But here are a few specific features to keep in mind:
Over-ear headphones offer a plush fit and a tight seal to help keep out noise. Many of us here at Crutchfield choose them for work — whatever our current “office” setup looks like.
We know a thing or two about fit, thanks to our headphone comfort tests.
But for a daily commute, something smaller might be more convenient. Earbuds with noise cancellation have less bulk, but can still put distractions on mute. A nice in-ear seal is important for noise isolation, but can also help dial in the sound, particularly the bass.
Almost all of the noise-canceling headphones these days are also wireless. But even when they’re not, you have to recharge noise-canceling headphones. So stay aware of the listed battery life. These days, most over-ear models offer at least 25-30 hours of noise cancellation on a full charge. For true wireless earbuds you might get 5-10 hours.
True wireless earbuds, like the rugged Jaybird Vista 2s, come packed in a case that can bank hours of power to recharge the headphones.
Listening with the noise-canceling circuitry turned off saves some battery life. And many over-ear models will let you listen with a connected cable. This wired “passive mode” comes in handy when the battery runs dry before you have a chance to recharge.
Adjustable/adaptive noise cancellation
Many of the newer noise canceling headphones can tailor their performance to your surroundings. They use built-in microphones to “read the room” and adjust their noise cancellation to your environment — in real time.
Some noise-canceling headphones offer phone apps that allow you to choose how much ambient sound to let in.
Awareness or transparent mode
Some noise-canceling headphones can also use those built-in mics to allow external sounds in. Different brands have different names for this feature, but it lets you hear ambient sounds or conversations, without removing your headphones.
All noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones offer some type of control over music and calls. But for Apple users, the AirPods Pro take it one step further. Apple’s H1 chip makes the wireless pairing process so easy, and straightforward.
Here's Crutchfield wiring specialist Elaine using the AirPods Pro to quiet the surrounding warehouse machinery, so she can better focus on making ReadyHarness™ connections.
A one-tap connection syncs up the earbuds to your iPhone®, and then you're automatically paired to other devices on your iCloud account (like your Apple Watch®, iMac®, or iPad®). From there, you have touch controls on both AirPods — or just say “Hey Siri” and follow it up with a voice command.
Now that you know what to look for, here's my list of top picks for 2021:
Best budget pick — Cleer Enduro ANC
There are few solid over-ear headphones under $200 that offer Bluetooth and noise cancellation. Even fewer perform as well as the Cleer Enduro ANC headphones. And I haven’t seen any of them that boast this much battery life — a whopping 60 hours.
I personally used them off and on for over a month before I ever had to recharge them. They hit my sweet spot for fit — relaxed, but they stay firmly in place. The noise cancellation isn’t quite on the Sony or Bose level, but it performs well against lower frequency sounds (like a plane engine). And they deliver a spacious, outside-the-head sound that’s clear and detailed.
- closed-back, over-the-ear headphones with Bluetooth 5.0
- aptX® Adaptive and AAC decoding for high-quality music from compatible devices
- active noise-canceling circuitry to minimize external noise
- up to 60 hours of battery life (wireless use with noise cancellation)
- 10 minute quick charge provides enough power for 2 hours of listening
- 40mm dynamic drivers with patented "ironless" magnet array
- spacious sound with clear vocals and strong bass
Best for workouts — Jaybird Vista 2
So far, I’ve focused a lot on the journey, but what about when you get to your destination? Or you’re at the gym more than the airport? If you need headphones for running or working out, the Jaybird Vista 2 true wireless earbuds are an ideal pick. They meet military standards for durability and waterproofing, and can even withstand a rainstorm at 40 mph.
Jaybird is a favorite pick among runners on the Crutchfield staff because of their signature secure fit. They simply stay in place while you move. And they lock in a proper seal for hard-hitting bass.
The Vista 2 earbuds also offer noise cancellation for situations where you might need it — like maybe blocking out the annoying yelps of an overzealous weight-lifter. But Jaybird includes quick access to their "SurroundSense" mode when you need to be more aware. Simply tap the earbud to amplify ambient sounds while you’re out running.
- 6mm dynamic drivers
- proprietary Bluetooth 5.0 chip for a stronger, more stable connection
- active noise cancellation and "SurroundSense" mode for better awareness during workouts
- 3 sizes of silicone soft-gel ear tips with built-in "fins" for secure, stable fit
- 6 hours of listening per charge
- carrying case banks up to 16 hours of power
- IP68-rated waterproof and dustproof
Best travel companion — Bowers & Wilkins PI7
The British audio company Bowers & Wilkins has a knack for blending style and substance. Their PI7 true wireless earbuds have a sleek design and offer a clever travel hack — the charging case can double as a wireless audio transmitter. You can connect it to in-flight entertainment systems or a laptop and send audio wirelessly to the earbuds.
I’ve tried most noise-canceling earbuds, and B&W’s sophisticated technology delivers some of the best results. Each earbud contains two drivers, each powered by its own amplifier. I was struck by the tactile depth and layering I heard.
- Bluetooth 5.0 with multi-point connection for pairing to two devices at once
- six-mic system helps monitor external sound and automatically adjust noise cancellation
- IP54 waterproof design from premium materials (aluminum housings with satin finish)
- hybrid dual-driver system (9.2mm dynamic driver and balanced armature) inside each earpiece
- 4 hours of battery life with noise cancellation
- carrying case banks up to 16 hours of power
Best noise cancellation in earbuds — Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds cancel noise better than any other in-ears I've ever tried. When I first tested them, it was by a longshot. Since then, Sony and B&W have both closed the gap significantly, but when it comes to pure “quiet,” I still give the nod to these earbuds.
And you have precise control over how much external noise these earbuds block out. Just tap the left earbud twice to select between a high or low level of noise cancellation. Or choose a third option, transparency mode, which uses the built-in mics to pick up external sounds and voices.
You can also download the free Bose Music app to your Apple or Android device and pick from 11 discrete levels of noise cancellation.
- 100% wire-free headphones
- built-in Bluetooth 5.1 for music and calls
- 11 discrete noise cancellation levels and "transparency mode" available
- IPX4 sweat- and weather-resistant
- three sizes of soft silicone StayHear™ Max tips
- 6 hours of battery life with noise cancellation
- carrying case banks up to 12 hours of power
Best all-around — Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ear wireless headphones
No surprise here — the Sony WH-1000XM4 over-ears are our best-selling headphones by a long shot. I’ve recommended them more often than any other headphones this past year. And while they remain a great choice for remote work and other uses, air travel is where they can really spread their wings. (Sorry.)
Their relaxed fit and long battery life keeps you listening comfortably on long flights. And their noise cancellation is next-level. When you press and hold a button on the earcup, they will optimize the level of noise canceling to your surroundings. These popular ‘phones were released during the height of travel restrictions, so it’s nice to see them worn all around airports now...and finally taking flight. (Sorry again!)
- closed-back, over-the-ear headphones with Bluetooth 5.0
- LDAC and AAC decoding for high-quality music from compatible devices
- sophisticated, adaptive noise-canceling circuitry adjusts to the level of external sound
- 30 hours of battery life with noise cancellation
- 10 minute quick charge provides enough power for 5 hours of listening
- "Quick Attention" feature turns off noise-canceling and engages ambient mode by covering the right earcup with hand
- 40mm dynamic drivers tuned for clear, detailed mids and highs with deep bass punch
In-ear alternative — Sony WF-1000XM4 true wireless earbuds
Few true wireless earbuds have received such universal acclaim as Sony’s WF- 1000XM4s. These earbuds simply excel at everything they do. The wire-free design is super convenient for travel — just pop them in to listen during your flight, then snap them back in the pocket-sized charging case when the plane lands.
To be clear, their over-ear counterparts do cancel noise better. But as noted, you don’t sacrifice much in terms of noise-canceling prowess thanks to Sony’s cutting-edge processing. Soft foam ear tips contour to your ear canal for a more secure fit and a consistent sound. I dig how the rich presentation expands well beyond the head and is punctuated by quick, powerful bass.
How to choose between the best noise-canceling earbuds
One thing that distinguishes the Bose QC earbuds from the B&W PI7s and Sony WF-1000XM4s is the fit. Bose’s soft silicone StayHear® Max ear tips don’t go in as deeply. Instead, they rest just inside your ear, and lock into place with a flexible wing.
In fact, your choice between the three may hinge on your ear tip preference. B&W also uses silicone ear tips, but they take a more traditional shape and fit further into the ear. And Sony includes three sizes of the malleable foam tips I mentioned.
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