Man wearing headphones on city street

The Best Noise-Canceling Headphones and Earbuds in 2020

By Dave Dean SoundNo Comments

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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.

For a long time, though, these types of headphones didn’t work very well, cost a fortune, and had terrible battery life. 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 fifty 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 2020.

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.

Best Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3
  • Type: Headphones
  • Weight: 9.0 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 30 hours
  • Input: Bluetooth, 3.5mm cable

Runner-Up, Best Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
  • Type: Headphones
  • Weight: 8.3 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 20 hours
  • Input: Bluetooth, 3.5mm cable

Best Wired Earbuds: Bose QuietComfort 20
  • Type: Earbuds
  • Weight: 1.6 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 16 hours
  • Input: 3.5mm cable

Best Wireless Earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3
  • Type: Earbuds
  • Weight: 0.3 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 6 hours
  • Input: Bluetooth

Best Budget Headphones: Paww WaveSound 3
  • Type: Headphones
  • Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 16 hours
  • Input: Bluetooth, 3.5mm cable

Best Budget Earbuds: TaoTronics TT-EP002
  • Type: Earbuds
  • Weight: 0.8 ounces
  • Battery Life: Up to 15 hours
  • Input: 3.5mm cable

Best Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3

Sony WH1000XM3 Noise Cancelling Headphones, Wireless Bluetooth Over the Ear Headset – Black (2018 Version)

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-1000XM3.

After weeks of research and a lengthy in-store trial, I choose the 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 model. Super-comfortable, even after many hours of wear, 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, due to the aptX support missing from many cheaper models.

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 the 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 the best in the business, noticeably better than the competition, 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 (an announcement from the pilot, say, or choosing between the fish and the chicken for dinner at 38000 feet,) simply cup your hand over the right headphone to silence playback and pull in ambient sound instead.

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-1000XM3.

  • Great sound quality, even over Bluetooth
  • Effective noise cancelation
  • Comfortable to wear for hours
  • Useful features for travel
  • Long battery life
  • Not good for sleeping in
  • Bulkier than earbuds
  • Premium headphones come with a premium price tag
Buy on Amazon

Runner-Up, Best Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II

Bose QuietComfort 35 II Wireless Bluetooth Headphones, Noise-Cancelling, with Alexa voice control - Black

Bose was the market leader in noise cancellation for years. While Sony’s new 1000XM3’s have recently stolen that particular crown, the ability of the QuietComfort 35 II over-ear headphones to block out the outside world is still exceptional.

They’re almost identical to the previous model, with the only difference being support for Google Assistant. Of course, you could rightly argue that there was no need to make major changes, since the earlier version won pretty much every award out there for consumer noise-canceling gear.

Available in black or silver, the headphones look about as generic as it gets, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The pads themselves do a surprisingly good job of passively blocking outside noise, even before you switch on the active circuitry.

When you do, though, 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. The hard travel case protects them from damage, and battery life (using Bluetooth) is around 20 hours.

So if they’re comfortable, and have good battery life and some of the best noise cancelation, why did the Bose QuietComfort 35 II’s lose out to the Sony’s as our top pick? Well, because the XM3’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 1000XM3. 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 QC35’s retail for the same as the 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 much-cheaper models.

Don’t get me wrong, these are still exceptional headphones, and if you see them on sale, they’d absolutely 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.

  • Some of the best noise cancelation out there
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Good battery life
  • Sound quality isn’t as good as the noise cancelation
  • Missing features found in cheaper models
  • Premium headphones come with a premium price tag
Buy on Amazon

Best Wired Earbuds: Bose QuietComfort 20

Bose QuietComfort 20 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, Apple Devices, Black

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.

  • Exceptional noise cancelation
  • Small and super-portable
  • Good battery life
  • Comfortable for sleeping and extended use
  • Sound quality should be better
  • Wired-only
  • Cheaper than usual for Bose, but still not cheap
Buy on Amazon

Best Wireless Earbuds: Sony WF-1000XM3

Sony WF-1000XM3 Industry Leading Noise Canceling Truly Wireless Earbuds Headset/Headphones with AlexaVoice Control And Mic For Phone Call, Black

Essentially the earbud version of our top headphone pick, Sony's WF-1000XM3 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.

While no earbuds will fit every single ear canal, Sony has made more effort than most. There are seven different tips in the box: four different silicone versions, and three thicker “comfort” tips.

Battery life is as good as it gets right now. You’ll typically see around six hours per charge with noise cancellation turned on, and a couple of extra hours if you turn it off.

The case holds three 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 ten-minute quick charge giving 90 minutes of listening time.

Noise-cancellation typically isn’t great on wireless earbuds, thanks to the small size and limited battery life. While the WF-1000XM3’s still won’t block out as much low-end sound as the equivalent over-ear models, they’re 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 an impressive 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 holding your hand over 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.

The WF-1000XM3’s don’t get everything though. The lack of volume control on the earbuds is a frustrating omission. There’s no official water/sweat resistance either, so don’t plan to wear them in the rain or hit the hotel gym too hard.

You probably also shouldn’t buy these earbuds if you plan to make a lot of phone calls with them. The microphones often pick up too much background noise, and call recipients often complain of muffled or echoing sound. You’ll fare better in quiet environments, but they’re not great even then.

For many travelers, though, the downsides aren’t a big deal compared to everything Sony’s WF-1000XM3’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.

  • Strong, reliable connection
  • Excellent battery life
  • Impressive noise cancellation
  • Great sound quality
  • Sleek design
  • Mediocre call quality
  • No volume control on earbuds
  • No water or sweat resistance
Buy on Amazon

Best Budget Headphones: Paww WaveSound 3

Paww WaveSound 3 Bluetooth Headphones – Active Noise Cancelling Headphones / 16-Hour Battery Life with Precision-Engineered Sound / Foldable Travel Headphones & Over-Ear Headphones (Black)

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 manufacturer does a good job of talking up the headphones’ travel credentials. There’s nothing you won’t find in our top pick, but for the money, it’s great to see things like a 3.5mm cable and two-prong airplane adapter in the box. 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.

  • Great value
  • Travel-friendly features
  • Attractive and well-made
  • Good sound quality for the money
  • Noise cancelation doesn’t work as well as on high-end models
  • Quite heavy
Buy on Amazon

Best Budget Earbuds: TaoTronics TT-EP002

TaoTronics Active Noise Cancelling Headphones Wired Earbuds Wired Headphones with 15 Hours Playtime Aware Mode

Just after something inexpensive that has decent noise cancelation and sound quality and won’t break the bank? Typically under fifty 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.

They’re wired-only, so you’ll need a headphone jack or appropriate dongle to use them. There are some useful accessories in the box, including a two-prong airplane adapter, plus three pairs of silicone tips in various sizes.

There are two pairs of ear hooks that help the buds stay in place, and a soft pouch which gives basic protection but no more.

Like other noise-canceling earbuds, the battery and electronics are housed in a control box around halfway down the cable. There’s also a small remote for answering calls and setting the volume. A button on the control box activates “monitoring mode” which lets in outside sounds as needed.

You’ll get around 15 hours of playback on a single charge, and it only takes about an hour to go from empty to full, via the included micro-USB cable (or any other.)

Obviously, you can’t expect the same level of performance from a budget set of earbuds versus those costing five times as much. They won’t cut out as much outside noise, and while you’ll notice good reduction in low frequencies like engine rumble, other types of sound aren’t blocked as effectively.

The buds are reasonably comfortable to wear, and tend to stay in place unless you’re really shaking your head around.

Although they’re fairly loud, sound quality isn’t hugely better than you’d expect from the earbuds that came with your phone, with muted highs and muddy (albeit boosted) bass. These are not 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 travel 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 alone, they’re our budget pick.

  • Very inexpensive
  • Decent battery life
  • Useful accessories in the box
  • Noise-cancelation is ok, not great
  • Sound quality isn’t much better than standard bundled earbuds

Buy on Amazon

Main image via StockSnap, others via Amazon

About the Author
Dave Dean

Dave Dean

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Founder and editor of Too Many Adapters, Dave has been a traveler for 20 years, and a geek for even longer. When he's not playing with the latest tech toy or working out how to keep his phone charged for just a few more minutes, he can probably be found sitting in a broken-down bus in some obscure corner of the planet.

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