Best noise-cancelling headphones 2017: The best headphones for crystal-clear music
Active Noise Cancellation headphones help block out unwanted sounds using clever technology — here we help you pick the best
There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones: active and passive. Passive noise cancellation just means blocking out external noises, which is why some companies call it “sound isolation”. Active noise cancellation (ANC) is much smarter, using clever technology - as we’ll explain below - to silence ambient noise, so nothing disturbs your listening pleasure.
There are many models of ANC headphones to choose from; we’ve rounded up some of the best from £70 to £300. If active noise-cancelling is out of your budget, take a look at our roundup of the best Bluetooth headphones and the best wired headphones you can buy today.
What is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)?
ANC uses tiny outward-facing microphones built into the headphones. These register the ambient sound around you, and digitally generate a soundwave that cancels it out, which is then played into your ears along with the music feed. The result: distracting noises vanish, allowing you to enjoy your music as it was meant to be heard.
ANC is a very impressive technology, but it doesn’t completely wipe out every type of background noise. Since high frequencies have a much shorter wavelength than lower tones, they’re harder to eliminate in real time. The technology is most effective a blocking out lower sounds, such as the rumble of aeroplane engines.
Be aware too that that ANC can very slightly affect the overall sound quality, since the noise-cancelling wave can interfere with the frequencies in the song you’re listening to. The effect is minimal, though, and far preferable to putting up with background noise.
Due to the way the technology works, you might also hear a slight high-pitched hiss in the background when nothing is playing - but again, it’s a small price to pay for the ability to enjoy your music untroubled by intrusive external sounds.
Are there any other advantages of ANC?
ANC doesn’t just help you enjoy your music: it can protect your ears. Without noise-cancelling technology, the only way to escape ambient noise is to crank up the volume and drown it out. Done on a regular basis, this can lead to permanent hearing damage. ANC lets you listen at lower volumes, and in-turn protecting your hearing.
ANC is also useful if you have hypersensitivity, hyperacusis or a similar health condition, as the technology can help reduce the strain on your ears.
Best noise-cancelling headphones 2017
Bose is well known for its ANC technology, and its QC35’s are the best noise-cancelling headphones on the market. Battery life lasts around 20 hours over a Bluetooth connection, which means you can take them on a long-haul flight. They’re comfortable enough to wear for that long too, with soft padding and an over-the-ear design.
Sound quality is as fantastic as you’d hope, with tight bass, rich treble and a wide soundstage. The price will certainly put them out of contention for most people, but if you’re in the market for the best ANC headphones on the market, the QC35s are worth every penny.
Key specs - Headphone type: Over-ear headset, Built-in microphone and remote, Plug type: 2.5mm headset jack plug (optional), Weight: 310g, Cable length: 1.2m
Sony MDR-1000X: ANC headphones with the best sound quality
The Sony MDR-1000X is arguably the best sounding ANC headphone on the market. It produces a stunning sound throughout all the frequency bands. Its bass has a healthy thump and extends lushly into the sub-bass frequencies, producing a deep pronounced rumble. Its impressive treble energy and soundstage are also top-notch.
Its ANC capabilities are also impressive, albeit not as good as the QC35s. Despite sitting a little loosely around your head, the MDR-1000X are comfortable to wear. It's intelligent too - by simply placing your hand over the right-ear cup, it intelligently pauses your music and allows you to hear ambient sounds around you - useful for crossing the road.
Key specs - Headphone type: Over-ear headset, Built-in microphone and music control buttons, Plug type: 3.5mm jack plug, Weight: 275g, Cable length: 1.5m