While headphones are not directly related to soundproofing, I think it’s an important and popular topic to discuss.
After all, everyone should be able to enjoy great home acoustics, but not everyone can afford the full soundproofing treatment to their room or home.
In fact, a pair of the best noise cancelling headphones could eliminate the need for expensive soundproofing, especially if you live in the city or an apartment where noise is an issue, but you can’t make the design changes necessary to soundproof.
The rest of this article is devoted to what I consider the best brand and model of nose cancelling and noise isolating headphones, in a variety of categories based on cost and type.
What to Look for in a Pair of Noise Cancelling Headphones
There are many types and brands of headphones that fall under the “Noise Cancelling” category, but not all are created equally. The level of features, style, and quality are all factors you’ll need to consider when buying a pair of headphones.
Active vs Passive Technology
This is the most important feature of a pair of headphones. Passive noise cancellation uses sound absorbing materials, like high density foam to lessen the amount of ambient noise that reaches your ears.
Active noise cancellation is not limited by the physical design and materials. An active system uses additional components like a microphone, an electronic circuit, internal speaker, and batteries. The microphone listens to the ambient noise and the electronic circuit processes the signal. From there an opposite signal is sent through the speaker, with the net effect of the unwanted noise being reduced in your ears.
With active noise cancellation you can even wear the headphone without music, and the external sounds will be effectively muted to you.
The quality of the electronic circuit is an important part of the headphones. Bose spends a lot of money on research and development to make sure their proprietary noise cancelling technology is the best in class, and is why they demand a premium price for their products.
Noise Cancellation vs Noise Isolation
Active noise cancellation is not for everyone. There are two phenomenon that drive people towards noise isolating headphones instead.
One, is the extra speaker that creates the negating sound waves in top noise cancelling earphones can create a mild and uncomfortable sensation of pressure in some peoples ears.
Two, is some people have sensitive ears and can detect a faint hissing white noise in the background when music is on lower volume or off altogether.
If you find that either of those two things are deal breakers for you, then you really should be looking at some of the best noise isolating headphones. Noise isolation is basically the same thing as passive noise cancellation, in that the design of the headphones is meant to block out noise via the sound absorbing materials used in their construction.
For more on the difference between the two acoustic technologies, read here.
Traditional Wired vs Bluetooth Wireless Headphones
Most traditional headphones have the familiar cord that connects to your audio device. In the last few years, Bluetooth technology has opened the way for wireless noise cancellation products. Bluetooth headphones and headsets are typically more expensive, but the tradeoff for no wires is worth it in some cases.
Bluetooth connections can be buggy in some cases, depending on the quality of the device you are connecting to. Just a fair warning so you aren’t frustrated with the performance later.
Over Ear vs On Ear vs In Ear
The technology isn’t the only choice you’ll have to make. You need to choose between over the ear, on the ear, or in ear headphones.
On the ear means the cup of the headphone does not completely cover over your ears. The foam cups rest on top of your ear, so if you wear them for long periods of time you may end up with sore ears. On the ear types also leave a space for ambient noise to leak into your audio.
Over the ear headphones will give you the best performance, but usually cost more for it. An added benefit is they do not press on your ears so you can wear them for long flights, or over long study and work sessions.
Noise isolating in ear headphones are the most compact of the three, but because of their size you don’t always get the biggest sound. Not to mention, if you think on the ear phones can make your ears sore, I’m sorry to say that the earbud types can be much harder on your earholes. Take a very close look at how the earbuds will fit in your particular ear so you aren’t sore a few hours later. In ear heapdhones that are shaped to plug up your ear canal are actually pretty good at blocking out sound, but not at active noise filtering.
Headphones vs Headsets
A noise cancelling headset is simply a pair of headphones that is also equipped with a microphone. Typical uses of this type of earphone is someone who is on the telephone for many hours a day, or for listening to music and taking the occasional phone call, and also for gamers who want to hear both the pumping music of the game and be able to communicate with other players.
In the following sections, I make my recommendation for the best pair of headphones in each category. They are not always the most expensive, but they are the best based on features, price, and user feedback.
Top Headphones Under $200 – Sony MDR10RDCFor the very best noise reduction, I do not hesitate to recommend the Bose QC15. The only problem is they cost well above $200, although a refurbished pair will get you close. Any other headphone I recommend will fall short of the noise cancelling performance of the Bose earphones.
That leaves me with either the Audio-Technica ATH-ANC7B or the newer Sony MDR10RDC premium digital noise cancelling headphones. Both feature 40mm drivers, and similar frequency ranges. Sony delivers better bass, and the high end is won by The ATH-ANC7B.
The Sony model first caught my eye for the absolutely huge ear cups and padding. The comfort is the deciding factor here. For overall performance, comfort, and value, the Sony MDR10RDC takes the category for me.
Top Headphones Under $100 – Sennheiser HD-280A hundred bucks can actually buy you a solid pair of headphones. The active noise reducing technology is still there, but you start to see a smaller design with less substantial materials used in the construction.
The top pair of headphones for less than $100 is without question, the Sennheiser HD-280.
The HD-280 Pro still boasts full over the ear design, so you get the best noise isolation possible. The sound quality is excellent, clear and accurate, with none of the ridiculous artificial bass that you find on some brands.
One great thing about this Sennheiser model is its longevity. It’s been such a popular item that there are plenty of replacement parts around should you wear yours out. Ear pads, bands, and more can all be found on sites like eBay.
Top Headphones Under $50 – Creative HN-900At $50 you start to push the limits of getting good cancellation performance with quality sound. Manufacturers simply cannot cram all those high end features into a low end package. So before you go buying a pair of cheap noise headphones, be sure you understand their limitations.
The Creative HN-900 headphones fit nicely into this category. The ear cups are large, and cancel a respectable 85% of ambient noise (-18dB). The sound quality is very good considering the low price, and many other people agree with me.
Best Sound Isolating Headphones – V-MODA CrossfadeFor a hiss, and pressure free listening experience that still blocks out a big portion of ambient noise, look no further than the V-MODA Crossfade headphones. The Crossfades are easily the most popular isolation headphones on Amazon, with over 2,000 user reviews and a super solid 4.5/5.0 rating. That is a rare combination for any technology product.
The Crossfade boasts a 50mm dual diaphragm driver, for super solid sound at all ranges. It also is available in 5 different colors, has a fully padded headband, and comes with a hard exoskeleton carry case.
Comfort and durability is one of V-MODA’s strong suits as well. They basically put the highest quality components in the design, with a steel frame and memory foam ear cups for the ultimate comfort. See our full review here.
Best with a Microphone
There are two kinds of microphones on headphones, in-line, and headset microphones. In-line microphones are integrated into the headphone cord itself. Many times a volume control is designed into the same module on the cord. So I would ask yourself how’ll you’ll be using the microphone, and then decide.
In-line microphones are OK to make calls with android, apple, and windows smartphones. For power users like gamers, or people who must talk on the phone for hours at work, I would steer you more towards a headset style of headphones. You will get a higher quality microphone, so your friends and coworkers can hear you more clearly.
There really is not a true active noise cancelling headphone set with a standalone microphone that I’ve found. So perhaps the best way to go is checking out the Sony, Audio-Technica, Sennhesier, and Creative models I recommended above, as all have versions with an inline microphone.
Best for Studying
Anyone who has been through college or even high school knows that effective studying requires a focused environment. Let’s agree on one thing, that college students especially might find it hard to concentrate in crowded dorm rooms or college houses. This is where a good pair of headphones can save the day (and semester).
First, think about what type of headphones will suit you best. Do you typically listen to music, but want the best active noise reduction? If yes, then I would point you to a pair of refurbished BOSE QC15’s, because they have, without a doubt, the highest regarded noise cancelling technology on the market.
It’s understandable if the BOSE are just not within your student budget, and in that case you can pick up the Sennheiser HD-280 headphones for under $100.
If you are sensitive to the ear pressure and white noise that can occur with active noise technology, then I recommend the V-MODA Crossfade headphones, which we reviewed above, for their highly rated noise isolation performance. The Crossfades will play your study music at a high quality, while isolating you from the dorm room chaos around you.
Top Bluetooth Headphones – AncStudio WirelessThe AncStudio Wireless Bluetooth Headphones are one of the few Bluetooth headphones that actually have an active noise cancellation feature. Most other headphones may say they are noise reducing, but they are not actually noise cancelling. BOSE has the other Bluetooth product, but we’ve already discussed them above.
The AncStudio Headphones sport a high end feel and design, and back it up with excellent performance. The headband is sturdy, yet flexible, and the replaceable ear cups have a large amount of padding on them. While they are too small to be considered over the ear headphones, customers still say they are happy with the long hours of comfort.
These headphones have a built in microphone for hands free calling at the switch of a button. You can connect the AncStudio’s to iPhones, Androids, tablets, and computers with either the 3.5mm cable, NFC pairing, or Bluetooth.
Top Earbuds – BOSE QC20iLeave it to BOSE to set the standard in yet another audio category, this time with the game changing QuietComfort 20i earbuds.
These amazing little earbuds have advanced noise reduction capabilities that would put many full sized headphones to shame.
The QC20i’s are perfect for making background noise disappear. If you frequently travel on airplanes, ride buses, or live near air conditioners, lawn mowers, or highway noise, then these earbuds are for you. The lithium ion battery lasts 16 hours on a charge, and will recharge in just 2 hours, making them ideal for long trips.
The earbuds themselves are shaped like a mushroom, called the StayHear+. They distribute the pressure to form a tight, but gentle seal inside your ear canal to produce the highest comfort, with the best noise reduction. The 20i comes with 2 extra sets of ear tips, a shirt clip, and a protective carrying case to store them while not being used.
Top Noise Isolating Earbuds – Sennheiser CX 300 IIThe Sennheiser CX 300 II earbuds are the perfect balance of performance and price.
For just a little more cash, you are getting a significant upgrade to the standard in-ear noise isolating headphones you might get in stores for $20. The CX 300 II’s are known for excellent clarity of sound, with a tilt towards extra bass that many listeners prefer today.
The CX 300 comes with 3 sizes of soft ear tips, so you are virtually guaranteed to find one that makes a nice seal in your ear to block out the outside noise. The durability of these are great as well. Many people are wearing the CX 300 for years before they finally give out. Can you say that about your $20 pair from the store?
One thing to note if you like to wear earbuds while running or working out, you may want to consider a different pair, as after beginning to sweat a little bit they may tend to slip out of your ear, and the sound can suffer on occasion.
Best Headset for Phones – Blue Parrot XpresswayThe Blue Parrot Xpressway II headset is a versatile, high performer in Bluetooth headset category.
For under $50 you get a headset that pairs easily with any device, like iPhones, Androids, tablets, and computers. Thanks to the advanced noise suppression and cancelling technology in these babies, the clarity of sound you will experience is excellent.
Add in the strong 3 day battery life, and you can see why the Blue Parrot is popular amongst over the road long haul truck drivers. The crystal clear audio makes the Xpressway headset a solid choice to use with voice recognition programs. Power email users will love dictating emails and saving a load of time with these.
The unit comes with a wall adapter, USB lighter adapter, and connects via a mini USB port. Please be aware that while charging the headset will disconnect from your device. Also, one possible drawback for you might be the fact that you cannot listen to music through the headset, but headsets are for talking after all.
Another feature I like on the Parrot is the multiple wearing positions that are included. This allows you to choose between over the ear, behind your neck, or over the head wearing styles for the most comfort fit for you.
Top Gaming Headset – Sennheiser PC 363DFor serious gamers, the Sennheiser PC 363D is where it’s at. Sennheiser took all of the great features from the 360D model and created the improved 363D version.
With this design gamers can enjoy the integrated Dolby 7.1 simulated surround sound. A surround sound system in your headset allows you to accurately pinpoint the direction of small sounds, giving you an advantage over your opponents.
The mic is “pro-style”, featuring noise cancelling technology, and is mounted on a swiveling boom. When you tilt the boom up, the mic is automatically muted. This is a nice feature for gamers, no one wants to hear you talk with your girlfriend (or mom) in the middle of an intense firefight!
The PC 363D takes comfort seriously. The ear cups are full sized, with open backs, and padded with soft foam and smooth velour fabric. The head band has the same velour pad over the top. You will have no problem gaming for hours in comfort with this headset.
Top Bluetooth Headset – Blue Parrot VXI Road WarriorBlue Parrot wins another recommendation from me, this time in the broader “bluetooth headset” category. The Blue Parrot Road Warrior is much like the smaller Xpress headset, except it features a full headband with a goose neck microphone boom.
For those of you who find over the ear headsets a little too wobbly on your head, this set with a headband might be your answer. There is a large on the ear cushion, and optional faux leather ear pad, so you know you’ll be comfortable wearing this guy. With the goose neck mic, the VXI Road Warrior is able to be reversible; you can have the ear pad and mic on either side depending on your preference.
Like its cousin headset, the Road Warrior boasts a premium noise cancelling microphone, making it an excellent choice for long haul truckers, or anyone who travels frequently and needs to make phone calls. The battery life is excellent, as you’ll get 16 or more hours of talking time, and over 150 hours of standby time on one charge.
The Blue Parrot Warrior is compatible with almost any mobile device, including iPhones, iPads, Androids, tablets, and computers. If you have any doubt if your device is compatible, Blue Parrot has excellent customer service that can verify your specific device.
Whew, that was along article, but there are a ton of headphones out there. I tried to cover all aspects and types of NC headphones, and that you found the best noise canceling headphones for your needs.