Noise-canceling headphones feel like they were made for travelers. If you’ve ever spent a dozen hours trapped in an airplane cabin with a screaming child, or listening to every groan and squeak of your overnight bus, I suspect you’ll agree.
Of course, you don’t need to be away from home to benefit from cutting out the background hum of the world. Nearby traffic, loud neighbors, family members who won’t keep it down when you’re trying to work or study: wherever the audio barrage is coming from, a good set of noise-canceling headphones makes an enormous difference.
For a long time, these types of headphones didn’t work very well, cost a fortune, and didn’t last long on a single charge. In recent years, however, noise-canceling technology has improved dramatically, as has the battery life of devices that use it. Some models are up to their fourth or fifth version, and the refinements are showing.
While you can still pay several hundred dollars for premium gear, and will definitely notice the difference when you do, you no longer have to. It’s possible to get decent noise-canceling headphones for under $100, and not-terrible ones for under sixty bucks.
It seemed like a good time, then, to take a close look at where things sit with this type of gear right now, and what the best noise-canceling headphone options are in 2021. We’ve covered both over-ear headphones and in-ear versions, since there are some definite pros and cons for both when it comes to travel.
- Type: Headphones
- Weight: 9.0 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 30 hours
- Input: Bluetooth, 3.5mm cable
- Type: Headphones
- Weight: 9 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 20 hours
- Input: Bluetooth, 2.5mm cable
- Type: Earbuds
- Weight: 1.6 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 16 hours
- Input: 3.5mm cable
- Type: Earbuds
- Weight: 0.3 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 8 hours
- Input: Bluetooth
- Type: Headphones
- Weight: 12.8 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 16 hours
- Input: Bluetooth, 3.5mm cable
- Type: Earbuds
- Weight: 0.02 ounces
- Battery Life: Up to 5 hours
- Input: Bluetooth
Best Noise-Canceling Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4
If you’re looking for headphones with the best mix of sound quality, noise-canceling ability, battery life, and features, you can’t go past the Sony WH-1000XM4.
After weeks of research and a lengthy in-store trial, I choose a predecessor of these headphones (the XM2) as my constant companion for airports, coffee shops, and endless bus rides. They’ve been fantastic, and the latest version is even better.
They’re a premium device that builds on the strengths of the previous models. Super-comfortable, even after extended use, they’re headphones that most people will be happy to wear for hours at a time.
Music is simply exceptional, with a warm, natural quality that doesn’t sound boosted or enhanced. That’s true even over Bluetooth, although as always true audiophiles will likely prefer to use the 3.5mm cable instead.
Battery life is up to 30 hours depending on noise-cancelation and wireless settings, which easily covers even the longest flights. The headphones are chargeable using a standard USB C cable, and a ten minute boost gives an extra five hours of use. A full charge takes three hours.
They come with a bunch of other travel-friendly features, too. As well as that bundled 3.5mm cable, there’s a two-prong adapter for plugging into older in-flight entertainment systems.
Speaking of planes, there’s also an inbuilt pressure sensor that detects your altitude. Sony says air pressure affects frequency response and noise cancelation quality, so you can calibrate your headphones inflight for better sound.
One of the buttons on the left earpiece controls power and Bluetooth settings, while the other switches noise-cancellation modes. You can use that same button to activate Alexa or Google Assistant instead, but since you can then only change noise-canceling modes within the smartphone app, it’s not something I’ve bothered with.
The noise cancelation itself is some of the best in the business, noticeably better than almost all of the competition except the Bose 700 (below), and gets rid of rumbling engines and noisy cafe patrons at the touch of a button.
If you do need to pay attention to your surroundings, simply cup your hand over the right headphone to silence playback and pull in ambient sound instead. Removing the left headphone cup pauses the audio entirely, replacing it starts things back up again.
New in this version is Speak-to-Chat, which automatically pauses your audio playback and puts the headphones into ambient mode as soon as you start speaking. It switches back again after a (customizable) period of time, or if you touch the earcup.
Another new feature lets you pair and connect to two Bluetooth devices at the same time, and switch between them at will. Even more usefully, the headphones will detect an incoming call or notification on a connected device and switch over automatically if needed.
The headphones fold up flat, to fit into a travel case that’s smaller than you might expect. Of course, they’re still far larger than any earbuds and not ideal for sleeping with, but that’s the case with all headphones.
If you’re happy to trade that extra bulk for better sound, noise cancelation, comfort, and battery life, you’ll be very happy with the Sony WH-1000XM4.Buy on Amazon
Runner-Up, Best Noise-Canceling Headphones: Bose 700
Bose was the market leader in noise cancellation for years. Sony’s 1000XM range stole that particular crown for a while, but the company has come rampaging back with the Bose 700 over-ear headphones to take the top spot once again.
With eight microphones and 11 different noise-cancellation settings, Bose has gone all-in. The end result is best-in-class noise cancellation that’s adaptable enough to handle almost any situation you find yourself in, from busy streets to quiet rooms.
Available in white, black, or silver, Bose has significantly changed the design from its earlier premium models, the QC 35’s. The new 700s look sleek and stylish, with a padded headband and soft earpads that positively encourage extended listening.
When you switch on the noise cancellation, the world just disappears. Everything from passing cars to engine rumble, noisy coffee machines to chattering passengers, becomes almost imperceptible, especially once the music starts. It’s not quite magic, but at times, it feels like it.
The headphones are lightweight, and comfortable to wear for many hours, although as with other headphones, you’ll struggle to sleep in them. Although they don’t fold up as much as the Sony’s, the hard travel case protects them from damage on the move.
There’s some basic splash protection as well (IPX4), which won’t save you in a deluge but is better than nothing. Battery life (using Bluetooth) is ok at around 20 hours, but could be better.
So if they’re comfortable, with decent battery life and great noise cancelation, why did the Bose 700s lose out to the Sony’s as our top pick? Well, because the XM4’s have all that as well, and sound better while they’re doing it.
While the audio quality on the Bose is pretty good, it’s just not quite up there with the 1000XM4. To my ears, and those of many other reviewers, the Sony sounds a little better across the board, with clear, spacious sound, and perfectly-boosted bass that enhances rather than overwhelms.
The 700’s retail for more than Sony model, which makes some missing features harder to stomach. There’s no ability to silence music or pull in outside sound by cupping one of the headphones, for instance. The headphones don’t pause playback when removed from your head either, which is something you find in many cheaper models.
On the upside, call quality is noticeably better than the Sony’s, due to that class-leading noise cancellation tech being applied to surrounding sounds when you’re talking. If making calls in noisy locations is something you’ll regularly do, this is definitely something to bear in mind.
Even with the small caveats mentioned above, these are exceptional headphones. If you see them on sale, they’d very much be worth picking up. When paying full price, I’d personally pick the Sonys, but chances are high you won’t be disappointed with either.Buy on Amazon
Best Wired Noise-Canceling Earbuds: Bose QuietComfort 20
If you’re traveling carry-on, where every extra inch of luggage space matters, you simply might not have room for a pair of over-ear headphones no matter how good they are.
For excellent noise-cancellation and battery life in a fraction of the size, check out the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear headphones instead.
Assuming you’ve got a phone with a headphone jack (or you somehow haven’t lost your headphone dongle yet,) these are the best noise-canceling earbuds on the market by far.
They’re able to drop certain lower frequencies, like those produced by plane engines, by as much as 45 decibels. That’s a remarkable amount even compared to other high-end models, and you’ll notice the difference immediately.
Because they’re not wireless, the QC20’s have great battery life, too. Bose rates them at 16 hours of use, and some customers get even longer. In practical terms, that’ll get you through almost any long-haul flight.
Even if you’ve booked one of those awful 36-hour journeys with an overnight layover in an airport you’ve never heard of in China, getting back to full charge only takes two hours. You can still use the earbuds when the battery is flat, you just lose the noise cancelation.
While the comfort level can’t compare to over-ear headphones for extended use, the QC20’s are about as comfortable as you can hope for from earbuds. The unusual design doesn’t push on your ears like others do. They’re also better to sleep in than over-ear headphones, which is important on long journeys.
Sound quality, though, is a bit of a disappointment. While you’ll be amazed at the amount of outside noise that disappears, you won’t be as impressed with the quality of the music that replaces it. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not as good as you’d hope from an expensive set of earbuds that does everything else so well.
Like all earbuds with active noise cancelation, the fancy circuitry has to live somewhere. In this case, it’s in a flat, rectangular box that also houses the battery and power button. Controls for answering calls and toggling noise-cancelation are on the inline remote.
There’s a small travel case included in the packaging, and a range of soft silicone tips.
Overall, if you’re after great noise cancelation in a tiny package and don’t need Bluetooth support, the QC20’s are the best you’ll find. Note there are different models for Apple and Android devices, so be sure to buy the right one.Buy on Amazon
Best Wireless Noise-Canceling Earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM4
Essentially the earbud version of our top headphone pick, Sony's WF-1000XM4 earbuds get a lot right. With great battery life, the best noise cancellation in their class, and impressive sound quality, they’re hard to beat for travelers who just can’t justify the size and weight of headphones.
Battery life is as good as it gets right now. You’ll typically see around eight hours per charge with noise cancellation turned on, and up to 12 if you turn it off. That’s dramatically better than anything else on the market.
The case holds two extra charges, giving 24+ hours of listening time before you need to find a power socket. It takes around an hour and a half for the earbuds to go from empty to full, with a five minute quick charge giving an hour of listening time.
Noise cancellation typically isn’t great on wireless earbuds, thanks to the small size and limited battery life. While the WF-1000XM4’s still won’t block out as much low-end sound as the equivalent over-ear models, they’re surprisingly good at it, and noticeably better than almost all of the competition.
While they probably won’t eliminate the engine drone on an overnight flight entirely, they still do a very good job of blocking outside noise and will make a big difference to your “enjoyment” of long plane and bus rides.
Sound quality, too, is impressive for a set of wireless earbuds. Bass is strong and distinct, while mid notes are crisp and clear for music and podcasts. Whatever you’re listening to is likely to sound surprisingly good with these earbuds.
Other useful features from the over-ear model include adjustable levels of Ambient Sound (which lets in some outside noise when you want to hear it,) for instance, and a “Quick Attention” mode where long-tapping the left-hand earbud brings in outside sound like boarding calls.
Take either earbud out, and playback pauses automatically. Stick it back in, and your music, podcast, or audiobook resumes where it left off.
Pairing is seamless via either NFC or Bluetooth, and connections remain reliable even at some distance. Each earbud maintains its own Bluetooth connection to the source device, making for better audio syncing when watching a video.
New on this model is official sweat/moisture protection, the IP42 rating giving at least some degree of comfort during a heavy workout or when you get caught in the rain.
The XF-1000XM4’s aren’t quite perfect, however. You probably shouldn’t buy them if you plan to make a lot of phone calls with them. The microphones often pick up too much background noise, and call recipients sometimes complain of muffled or echoing sound. You’ll be fine in quiet environments, but less so in noisy or windy ones.
The only other issue (and it’s a small one for most people) is the ongoing lack of Bluetooth multipoint. Unlike some other high-end models, you can’t connect to two devices at once and have the earbuds automatically switch (eg) from your laptop to your phone when a call comes in.
For many travelers, though, the downsides aren’t a big deal compared to everything Sony’s WF-1000XM4’s do well. Well-priced for the quality and features, if you’re looking for a set of wireless earbuds to travel with, these should be right at the top of your shortlist.Buy on Amazon
Best Budget Noise-Canceling Headphones: Paww WaveSound 3
If you’d like to travel with noise-canceling headphones but don’t want to drop $250+ on them, the Paww WaveSound 3 offers several of the same features at a fraction of the price.
The marketing material does a good job of talking up the headphones’ travel credentials, and while there’s nothing you won’t find in our top pick, it’s great to see things like a 3.5mm cable and two-prong airplane adapter included at this price point. The headphones also fold up flat into the included hard travel case, saving space in your carry-on.
They’re attractive and well-made, and despite being relatively heavy, are comfortable enough to wear for extended periods. Battery life is rated at 16 hours with noise cancelation turned on, and that’s about what most people seem to get. Charging back to full takes under four hours, fairly typical for over-head headphones like these.
Sound quality is surprisingly good for wireless headphones in this price range, with crisp, clear mid-range and treble in particular. Noise cancelation, however, doesn’t impress as much.
The circuitry in the WaveSound 3 doesn’t cut out as much sound as any of our top picks, and there’s sometimes an audible hissing sound that goes with it. It’s still far better than not having it at all, but if you want the best, unfortunately you need to pay for it.
Still, for around a hundred bucks, these are a solid budget pick for those who’d rather spend their extra money on flights and hotels than high-end headphones.Buy on Amazon
Best Budget Wireless Noise-Canceling Earbuds: TaoTronics SoundLiberty 94
Just after some inexpensive wireless earbuds that have decent noise cancelation and sound quality and won’t break the bank? Typically under sixty bucks, with active noise cancelation that works and sound that won’t make you want to immediately rip your ears off, these Taotronics earbuds fit the bill nicely.
The Bluetooth 5.1 connection pairs quickly and remains stable up to around 15m/50ft away. You’ll find three pairs of silicone tips in the box, in a range of sizes to help ensure the noise cancelation works properly and the earbuds remain comfortable in your ears for hours.
Touch-sensitive controls on both earbuds let you manage a range of functions, from playing, pausing, and skipping tracks to answering calls and enabling or disabling noise cancelation and “ambient sound” mode.
You’ll get around five hours of playback on a single charge with noise-cancelation enabled, or up to eight hours with it turned off. It takes about two hours to charge the buds from empty to full in the case, which provides up to three extra charges for the earbuds and can itself be recharged via the included USB C cable (or any other.)
While you can’t expect the same level of performance from a budget set of earbuds as those costing five times as much, the noise cancelation on the SoundLiberty 94 works surprisingly well. You’ll notice very good reduction in low frequencies like engine rumble, and other, higher-frequency sounds are blocked reasonably well.
The maximum volume is quite loud, and sound quality isn’t bad for a set of budget wireless earbuds. Bass is strong, albeit a little muddy, and the mid-range is crisp and clear. Treble isn’t great, though, often sounding quite muted. These aren’t audiophile devices, but they’re not marketed or priced like them either.
Instead, they’re an ideal way to block out the worst of the din going on around you, while listening to music that doesn’t sound totally awful, having spent comparatively little to do so. For that reason, they’re our budget pick.
Main image via StockSnap, others via Amazon