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Best noise-canceling headphones of 2020

Looking for an active noise-canceling headphone?

© Bang and Olufsen

By David Carnoy, CNET

For many years, Bose was the audio gold standard for noise-canceling headphones that block out ambient sound and background noise. But other companies have steadily chipped away at Bose's lead and now it's a competitive category with plenty of compelling noise-canceling options at different prices to buy. I've collected the best noise-canceling headphones below, all of which I've fully reviewed or used hands-on over a period of time. I'll be updating this list as more audio options are released.



Best all around

Sony WH-1000XM3

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Sony's WH-1000XM3, the third generation of Sony's excellent wireless noise-canceling headphones, has a more comfortable fit and features even better sound and music performance than its predecessor. Battery life is important, and with a strong battery life, it's currently our top-rated audio headphone with noise cancellation, edging out the Bose models on some key points.


Most discreet

Apple AirPods Pro

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Even if the music or audio doesn't sound as magical as you'd hope a $249 model would, the AirPods Pro still manage to be a good pair of truly wireless headphones. That's largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance (which helps the sound), effective noise cancellation and excellent call quality. Plus, they're a lot less noticeable than over-ear headphones. Yeah, they're expensive to buy at $250, but the good news is you'll use them so much you'll probably wear the battery down -- it does degrade over time and isn't replaceable -- and have to buy a new pair in 18 to 24 months if you don't lose them first.


Excellent for making calls

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

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Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to its QuietComfort 35 II models, may not be a quantum leap forward but they offer slightly better sound, call and noise cancellation quality. Alas, they cost $400 to buy, but they're a strong all-around audio performer with up to 20 hours of battery life. That's a lot of battery life!


Best true wireless noise-cancelling

Sony WF-1000XM3

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While they aren't water-resistant, Sony's new WF-1000XM3 true wireless headphones feature excellent sound, are good for listening to music or any audio with, and have something you won't find in Apple's AirPods: active noise cancellation. At $230, they're not cheap to buy, but with a battery life lasting up to 24 hours (even more battery life!) and that good sound, they are among the best new true wireless earbuds of 2020.


Best newcomer

Jabra Elite 85h

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When Jabra first announced its new Elite 85h ($300, £280 or about AU$435 converted) over-ear headphones, it touted how it would be equipped with always-on (hands-free) voice assistant control using Amazon's Alexa or Google Assistant. Alas, that feature didn't make it into the final product -- apparently it affected battery life too much, and battery life is critical -- but the Elite 85h is nevertheless an excellent noise canceling headphone that makes music and audio sound good, with good sound quality, is comfortable to wear and also works well (important for over-ear headphones) as a headset for making calls.


Impressive sound

Sennheiser Momentum 3

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When it comes to premium noise canceling headphones, Bose and Sony have been the dominant players over the last few years. But now Sennheiser has turned up with its new Momentum 3 Wireless and it deserves some attention, particularly from folks who are fans of the Momentum line. It's available to buy now for $400 (£369) -- the same price as Bose's Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

Not only does it feature improved noise canceling features and excellent sound and audio, but it also performs well as headset for making calls. While its noise cancellation and comfort level doesn't quite measure up to the noise cancellation and comfort of Sony WH-1000XM3's, it has nicely padded ear cups covered with sheep leather and I had no trouble rocking it for a two-hour music listening session, to say nothing of the battery life.


Most comfortable

Bose QuietComfort 35 II

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When Bose released its new flagship Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones it didn't drop the QuietComfort 35 II from its headphone line up and it remains a top noise canceling headphone. While I think the 700 performs better overall, there are people who prefer the QuietComfort 35 II. It frequently goes on sale for less than its price so definitely look for it at a discount if you want to buy it.


Best on-ear noise-cancelling

Beats Solo Pro

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The Solo Pro is the first Beats on-ear headphone to feature active noise cancellation and the first full-size Beats headphone to charge via Lightning. It uses the company's Pure Adaptive Noise Canceling (Pure ANC), "derived from the over-ear Studio3 Wireless, with updated tuning to accommodate the on-ear form factor," Beats says. With a tap of button, you can turn off that noise cancellation to save battery life or hit the button a second time to enter an audio transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world, not just the music you're listening to.

Available in multiple color options, the headphone is equipped with six microphones, two of which are beamforming mics that are designed to hone in on your voice when making calls or talking to your voice assistant (Apple's H1 chip is on board for always-on Siri). The sound is smooth and well-balanced with punchy bass that doesn't make music sound boomy. Quite comfortable for an on-ear model, its more compact design travels better than some full-size models on this list. I just wish it cost a little less.


Swankiest

Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9 (3rd gen)

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Bang & Olufsen's Beoplay H9 doesn't get mentioned much in the discussion of top noise canceling headphones because at $500, it's a really pricey pair of headphones to buy. The latest third-generation version has been upgraded in a few significant ways that make it better than the earlier H9i. Battery life for this version has improved over the battery life of the previous version to 25 hours, there's now a dedicated button for your voice assistant, the padding on the ear cushions and headband is cushier and the touch controls have been tweaked.  The audio sound is still good.


Best under $200

JBL Live 650BTNC

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While its noise canceling feature and comfort levels aren't quite on par with competing models from Bose and Sony, JBL's Live 650BTNC ($160) measures up well in terms of sound. These over-ear headphones are worth considering if you don't want to spend $300 or more on a noise canceling headphone. We like the sound of that!


Underrated

Beats Studio3 Wireless

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A lot of people don't think of the Beats Studio3 Wireless as a noise canceling headphone but it does feature active noise cancellation and impressive sound. It's a little bit of an underrated headphone, with good battery life, quality sound and comfortable ear pads, and now that it's been out for a while it sells for less than its list price and sometimes significantly less.


Frequent flier friendly

Bose QuietComfort 20

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Truth be told these are the in-ear headphones I usually take with me on plane trips. The noise canceling earbuds take up very little room in a bag, don't need a battery (so no worrying about battery life) and are good for watching in-flight movies, whether they be on the airline's in-flight entertainment system or on your own device. They offer surprisingly good noise cancellation. Just don't forget your headphone adapter dongle if you have a phone or tablet that's missing the headphone jack. Note that these in-ear headphones have been out for a while. Since it's a wired model, it's unclear whether Bose will update it, but look for it on sale.  


Good value

Sennheiser HD 4.50

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If you can't afford some of the premium models on this list, consider a headphone like the Sennheiser HD 4.50. It offers good sound and a decent noise canceling feature in an attractive, comfortable design that often sells for less than $150.


Good on-ear

AKG N60NC

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When it comes to noise canceling headphones, most people go for a full-size model. But if you're looking for a set of headphones that is a little more compact, the AKG N60NC is an excellent on-ear headphone that also happens to feature active noise cancellation.

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