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How to choose the best noise-canceling headphones

Block out the world and get closer to your music

David Brown is a member of Crutchfield's Home A/V writing team. He studied writing and politics at Ithaca College in upstate New York, where he grew up. He spent 12 years in Washington, D.C., where he earned a Masters degree in journalism and wrote an award-winning humor column. David relocated to Charlottesville, VA, in 2012. He enjoys listening to music, playing the guitar and piano, and hiking with his wife and children.

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The endless drone of an airplane engine. The hustle and bustle of a busy train. The chatter of coworkers in a busy office. All these sounds can instantly melt away when you slip on a pair of noise-canceling headphones.

Bose noise-canceling headphones

I’ve traveled on planes and trains many times with noise-canceling headphones. They consistently impress me with how they shut out external sound. The technology has improved in recent years, so now is a great time to buy. Read on to learn how to find the perfect pair.

How do they work?

While most headphones reduce some level of external noise, noise-canceling headphones do a far better job. 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. The result: music that's much clearer, even at lower volumes.

 
How noise-canceling headphones work

Our best-selling noise-canceling headphones

Bose® invented noise-canceling headphones, and their QuietComfort® headphones are still the biggest seller. Their latest model, the QuietComfort® 35 wireless, is among our most popular products. They are super-comfortable, sound great, and block noise as effectively as any headphones we’ve heard.

For lots of customers, Bose® is all they need to know. But if you want to explore other options, read on.

PRO TIP

Noise-canceling headphones can help protect your hearing. When there’s a lot of background noise, you’re likely to play your music louder. Though it may not sound like it, you could be listening at levels that damage your hearing.

Where are you going to use them?

Most people associate noise-canceling headphones with air travel. Indeed, they make indispensable companions on long flights. Most models use an over-ear design to offer a plush fit and a tight seal to help keep out noise. We also recommend them for office use (lots of Crutchfield folks use them every day).

Bose QC35 headpones at work

Butler, a Crutchfield inventory handler, uses noise-canceling headphones to block out distractions from our warehouse and focus on his work.

If you’re looking for headphones to use on a daily commute, something smaller might be more convenient. There are several earbud-style models available that offer powerful noise-cancellation without the bulk.

In-ear noise-canceling headphones

In-ear noise-canceling headphones like the Bose® QuietControl® 30 offer a lighter, more compact design for on-the-go use.

If you plan to use your headphones on a train, bus, or busy city street, you may not want to shut out ALL external noise. Sometimes it's smart to be aware of your surroundings. That’s why many headphones offer “adaptive” noise cancellation. This feature allows you to let in some noise while still blocking more noise than most headphones.

Sennheiser PXC 550 headphones and CapTune app

Sennheiser's PXC 550 headphones let you dial in the amount of noise cancellation with their NoiseGard technology and a free app.

Wired or wireless?

More and more headphones are going wireless. That’s true for noise-canceling headphones, too. Wireless is a great feature for commuting, or office work where dangling wires are a nuisance. But remember: simultaneous noise cancellation and wireless connectivity will run the battery down more quickly.

Speaking of battery life…

All noise-canceling headphones require power. Most use a built-in rechargeable battery. Newer models have batteries that can last for more than 20 hours. Recharging is easy with a cable and an AC adapter.

What happens if you’re 30,000 feet above the Atlantic Ocean and your battery runs out? Chances are, you can still listen. Most noise-canceling headphones offer passive listening mode. That means that battery power is not required to listen to music. You’ll be able to continue listening without noise cancellation.

What about control?

Many noise-canceling headphones offer built-in controls for skipping tracks and adjusting the volume. Some take this a step further and have touch-sensitve earcups. Just tap on the earcup to pause and play your music. Or swipe up to raise the volume. That’s a pretty cool feature that’s easier than trying to locate a tiny button.

Have more questions?

If you want to learn more about noise-canceling headphones, or ask about specific models, call our expert advisors at 1-888-955-6000. They can give you the scoop on headphones or any other products that we offer.

Last updated 4/27/2017
  • Kathryn Lyons from Bellingham

    Posted on 2/26/2017

    What is the difference between noise cancelling function between over-, on- and earbud designs? Do they all work equally well?

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 3/8/2017

    Kathryn -- I've personally had the most success with over-ears. Check out the Bose QC 35s or Sennheiser PXC 550s.

    If you prefer in-ear, the Bose QuietControl 30s have adjustable noise-cancellation that works very well. Also, the Shure "Sound Isolating" series do about the best job you can do without active noise-cancellation.

  • Matt from Lincoln

    Posted on 6/21/2017

    What do you recommend for wired noise cancelling over the ear head phones with a mic in the cord? Thanks.

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/14/2017

    Here are my picks --

    Over-ear: Sennheiser PXC 480

    On-ear: AKG N60NC

    In-ear: Bose QC 20

  • Alan Garcia from San Antonio, TX

    Posted on 7/21/2017

    Hey Jeff, I read your article titled "No Wires. No Noise." on the July/August '17 copy of Crutchfield's magazine and was a bit disappointed on what you had to say about the Sony 1000X in comparison to the Sennheiser PXC 550. Before I go any further let me just clarify that I am an owner of the Sony 1000X. The 1000X also has noise cancelling controls beyond just the SENSE Engine that detects the shape of your head and the external environment to optimize noise cancellation. When you place your hand over the right earcup it also allows you to listen to outside sounds without taking them off, say when somebody is trying to talk to you. Now, of course the Sennheiser does a better job by keeping the external mics on when double-tapping the earcup, but the Sony reserves that feature for answering phone calls. The 1000X also has an Ambient mode in Normal and Voice modes to help you listen to overhead announcements made at airports and train/bus stations without needing to take them off. These features (apart from slightly better overall sound quality IMO) are specifically why I went with the Sony 1000X over the Bose QC35 and why they're known as the "Bose killers" right now. If I'm not mistaken the Sennheiser PXC 550 wasn't available when I purchased my 1000X a few months ago so I can't attest to their sound quality but I would assume they are quite excellent as well given that I've owned Sennheiser audio products in the past. Thanks for hearing me out Jeff!

  • Jeff Miller from Crutchfield

    Posted on 7/27/2017

    Thanks for sharing this, Alan. You're right about the Sony MDR-1000X...such a great pair of headphones. There was a lot of good stuff I had to leave on the cutting room floor to fit that 2-page spread.

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