Distractions are everywhere, and whether you’re in the middle of a Zoom call or a multiplayer match in Call of Duty: Warzone, you don’t want the sounds of your external surroundings clawing away at your attention, especially if you’re already wearing headphones.
Noise-cancelling headphones put a stop to that by using active noise cancellation to detect low-frequency noises and neutralise background noise, allowing you to remain fully immersed in whatever it is you’re doing. They provide an audio experience that’s unmatched by most standard headphones – as long as you’re using a decent pair, that is.
And herein lies the problem. There are loads of noise-cancelling headphones to choose from, and not all of them live up to their promise of cancelling out background noise effectively. Finding the right pair can be difficult and there are lots of things to consider, from the different types of tech powering the active noise-cancelling, the variety of additional EQ settings on offer, the supported frequency ranges or simply the durability and comfort of the headphones.
Thankfully, we’re here to help. We’ve compiled a selection of the best noise-cancelling headphones in 2021, taking various factors into consideration such as overall audio quality, comfort, affordability, battery life and additional features.
From the best budget options to quality all-rounders and the best noise-cancelling headphones for gaming, here’s our selection of the best noise-cancelling headphones money can buy in 2021.
Best: Sony WH-1000XM4
Not only do the Sony WH-1000XM4s look amazing, but they sound incredible too thanks to a new HD noise cancelling processor and dual noise sensor. Often, there’s a compromise between audio quality and battery life with noise-cancelling headphones, but not with these, which have an impressive battery life of 30 hours. You can always expect high-quality audio thanks to the DSEE Extreme processor and LDAC, which upscales standard sound sources such as low-quality mp3s to near high-resolution sound quality, and reproduces a frequency response of 4Hz to 40kHz.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are lightweight and easy to use, just hold down the custom button before you use them for the first time to activate Sony’s noise-cancellation function, which optimises the headphones depending on their environment and even the shape of your face. We’d recommend re-running this function whenever your background environment changes significantly to get the best experience. Two simultaneous Bluetooth connections are supported for multipoint connection, and they’re great for making hands-free calls and multi-tasking thanks to built-in support for Alexa and Google Assistant.
These headphones have been getting rave reviews in pretty much every write-up they’re featured in and it’s easy to see why. With no news on when we can expect Sony’s XM5 headphones, these still are some of Sony’s best noise-cancelling headphones out there – a pair that we’d definitely recommend grabbing if you want a top-tier, noise-cancelling audio experience that doesn’t break the bank (or at least, not too much).
Close second: Sennheiser Momentum 3
If you want an alternative to the WH-1000XM4s, these bad boys from Sennheiser are the next best thing. While they’re missing Sony’s DSEE Extreme processor, the Sennheiser’s feature three noise-cancelling features (anti-pressure, anti-wind and maximum) and support AAC and aptX low latency, which means they’re able to effectively filter a wide range of background frequencies. They’re not as comfortable nor are they as stylish as the XM4s, but when it comes to noise-cancelling and overall audio quality, there’s not too much of a difference between the two – other than the smaller frequency response range supported by the Momentum 3(6Hz to 22kHz).
Two simultaneous Bluetooth connections are supported – ideal for switching between calls and multiple devices – and there’s a massive selection of customisable EQ features that can be easily toggled directly from the Sennheiser app, downloadable from the Google Play and Apple App stores. For those of you with a bed memory, you’ll be pleased to hear there’s a tracking system that will help you find your headphones if you ever misplace them.
So why did these take second place rather than first? First, the smaller frequency range, and when you tie in the extra weight (these are 50g heavier than its Sony competitor) and the difference that makes to overall comfort, it’s Sony’s XM4 headphones that ultimately come out on top. The battery life for the Sennheiser Momentum 3 headphones isn’t as great either – around 15 hours in total with noise-cancelling activated – BUT all of that aside, these are a fantastic alternative to the WH-1000XM4s.
Best budget option: Sony WH-CH700N
The £79.99 price tag is more than reasonable for a quality pair of mid-range noise-cancelling headphones, and 35 hours of battery life should last long enough for most long-distance journeys without the need for recharging. But if you do run out of battery suddenly need to use them, you can get 60 minutes of playback from a quick ten-minute charge, perfect for last-minute calls.
There’s a built-in microphone for compatibility with Alexa, Google and Siri voice assistants, and an impressive selection of EQ features if you want to notch up the extra processing using the Sony companion app. They weigh just 240g, which means they’re as lightweight and comfortable as they are affordable. It’s worth noting that due to the price, these are by no means the best headphones for completely cancelling out background noise.
You won’t have any issues drowning out the sound of low-frequency rumbles and heavy noises from planes, trains and machinery, but they’ll struggle in ambient environments when you’re out on walks. That said, they’re still a quality pair of headphones at an affordable and very reasonable price; well worth the money if you’re looking for a comfortable pair of noise-cancelling headphones with a decent amount of battery life.
Best for gaming: Bose QuietComfort 35 II Gaming Headset
Yes, we know: nearly 200 quid is pretty expensive for a gaming headset, but there aren’t many noise-cancelling gaming headphones that actually live up to their promise. But if you’re not too fussed about noise-cancelling when it comes to gaming headsets, you can check out our list of the best gaming headsets instead.
To be honest, there’s not much difference between the standard QuietComfort 35 II headset and the ‘gaming’ headset. Bose has quietly made its move into the gaming market by bundling the QuietComfort 35 with a detachable gaming module which is basically a tiny boom microphone and some extra items such as an optional PC desktop controller and a handy 2.5mm to 3.5mm aux cable. Yup, that means you can use the headset (wired, of course) on your Xbox, PlayStation and Nintendo Switch.
The QuietComfort 35 II gaming headset has a battery life of 20 to 40 hours depending on whether you’re using it wireless or wired, but its biggest selling points are its incredible comfort (it’s super lightweight, too), high-definition audio quality and near-unbeatable noise cancellation thanks to Bose’s patented Acoustic Noise Cancelling. If you’re looking for a multi-platform gaming headset that’s guaranteed to provide the ultimate immersive experience, the Bose QuietComfort 25 II gaming headset is a solid choice.
Best lightweight option: AKG N60NC
There are two main reasons we love the AKG N60NC. First, they combine impressive active noise cancellation with the super crisp audio that AKG is known for while weighing in at just 199 grams. They also feature a compact and foldable design making them perfect for travelling with. This means you can transport them safely without the looming fear that your £100 headphones could end up in pieces the next time you remove them from your bag.
The frequency response is pretty much what you’d expect from a pair of headphones at this price (10Hz-22000Hz) and they feature AptX and AAC technology to deliver the highest quality audio via Bluetooth. Unfortunately, the only downside to these headphones is the battery life, but at 15 hours it should be enough for most people, you’ll just need to charge them regularly. The AKG N60NC headphones may seem a little flimsier in comparison to other headphones due to their weight, but they come with a story carry case. Treat them right and they’ll treat your ears right.
Best for sound quality: Apple AirPods Max
Here’s one for the Apple aficionados. If you already own a pair of AirPods but wish you had something with better noise-cancelling, you might want to consider this quite significant upgrade to the AirPods Max, featuring exceptional noise-cancelling tech, spatial audio and the Apple-designed dynamic driver for high-fidelity audio.
Of course, for nearly £550 quid, you’d hope these sound amazing. And they do, and the memory foam ear cushions mean you can comfortably drift off to sleep (if you dare risk the damage) while you’re wearing them. The built-in transparency mode lets you choose which frequency sounds you or don’t want to filter out, which is really useful if you suddenly need to be more aware of your surroundings (because at this price, you don’t wanna cause any accidental damage to them).
Everything about these headphones is quintessentially Apple, from the impeccable audio quality to the high price tag and even the lack of a 3.5mm audio jack (frustrating!). But, you get what you pay for, and when it comes to noise-cancelling features and top-quality audio, you won’t find much better than the AirPods Max, especially when you’ve nailed the right EQ settings.
Best for battery life: Jabra Elite 85h
We’ll cut straight to the chase: you’ll get up to 41 hours of battery life from the Jabra Elite 85h headphones. That’s very impressive, even for those of you that wrongly assumed it would be 85 hours because of the name (they make headphones, not miracles). A quick fifteen-minute charge is enough to get you five hours of battery life too, perfect for anyone that regularly forgets to charge their stuff properly. They look stylish, and while the link above will take you to a gold colour variant, you can switch it up with black, grey or blue headphones for just a couple of quid extra
It’s not just the extra battery life you’re paying for, though. Overall, the Jabra Elite 85hs are still a quality pair of noise-cancelling headphones with Smart ANC and SmartSound features that will automatically filter out unwanted background noise and apply custom sound settings according to your environment. The EQ settings can be played with by downloading the Jabra Sound+ App and voice command with all of the most popular voice assistants is fully supported.
While these are great at delivering beefy bass sounds, they struggle with delivering quality audio through higher frequencies, as well as blocking them out too. Unfortunately, they’re a little bit on the bulky side, so despite being comfy, they’re not the best headphones for travel or exercise. The battery life does make them perfect for mammoth gaming sessions, but it’s worth noting they only receive audio when they’re plugged into PS4 or Xbox controllers via the TRS cable and not wirelessly. Still, a decent pair of noise-cancelling headphones at a great price, ideal for anyone that’s got a habit of regularly forgetting to charge things.
If you’re looking for a pair of dedicated gaming headphones, make sure you check out the best gaming headsets in for PC, PS5, Xbox Series X/S and the Nintendo Switch. And for the latest gaming and deals, make sure you keep up to date with the Jelly Deals pages and follow us on Twitter too if you like saving lots of money.