Best Active Noise Cancelling Headphones

| June 20, 2012 | 1 Comment

Tired of crying babies and engine noise on airplanes? Looking for a pair of office headphones to block out the loud voices of your co-workers? Your problem is close to being solved. Below you will find what I think are the best noise canceling headphones on the market.

Before you start browsing, here are a few FAQs and guidelines to keep in mind when shopping for noise cancelling headphones:

  • How do noise cancellation headphones work? Active Noise Cancelling (ANC) headphones have built-in microphones that detect and monitor external noises. From the incoming signal, the headphones generate a signal that is exactly 180 degrees out of phase to these noises, and this signal is then added to your music. The best active noise cancelling headphones on the market today are able to achieve a ~95% reduction of external noises. “But what about the other 5%?” you might ask. There are a few reasons. First, and probably the most important, is the quality of the built-in microphones. The headphones can only cancel the noise that they detect, so with more accurate microphones and signal processors, the quality of the noise cancellation is increased. Second, our ears are very sensitive organs and since sound is a vibration, our ears can pick up vibrations even if they are not entering through our ear drums. Lastly, there is a latency factor meaning that it takes time for the headphones to process the signal and generate an opposite sound wave, so ANC headphones are at their best when the external noise is constant (e.g. airplane engines).
  • Do I need Active Noise Cancelling (ANC), or is Passive Noise Cancelling (PNC) sufficient? By simply creating a good seal in (or on) your ears, many “normal” headphones are able to reduce external noise very effectively. In headphone speak, this is referred to as passive noise cancellation or isolation. There are plenty of great passive noise cancelling headphones so unless you are a frequent flyer or you like listening to your music at very low volumes, it usually makes more sense to avoid active noise cancellation technology because more of your money is going toward the noise cancelling technology rather than sound and build quality. That being said, whether you should invest in a noise cancelling headphone is all really dependent on your lifestyle. There are plenty of people that swear by their ANC headphones for travel, and rightly so.
  • My budget is less than $50, why are there no recommendations for me!? I recommend going for a good passive noise cancelling model such the in-ear MEElectronics M11+. At this price, the sound quality is bound to be disappointingly poor if you shoot for an active noise cancelling model.

[Disclaimer: these recommendations are not comprehensive. Instead, we have tried to find something for everyone while keeping the lists short. At the same time, this is a living document so let us know what we’re missing!]

In order of increasing price:

Audio Technica ATH-ANC23 – $50 (In-ear)

The ANC23 has seen some price drops as of late and is currently going for $50. At this price, it is hard to resist. It uses the same QuietPoint technology employed in many of Audio Technica’s other headphones in a tiny package. They require a AAA battery that fits into the in-line circuitry box but they can function on passive mode with the flip of a switch. They are not the most well-built earphones so you will need to take care of them, but they should be a top choice for budget shoppers.

Accessories include a carrying pouch (we recommend using a hard case), 3 sets of rubber single flange ear tips, one set of Comply foam tips, and an airline adapter.

As always with in-ear headphones, make sure you test all the included ear tips and attain a proper, secure seal. Doing so will make for better noise blocking as well as better sound quality. [Buy at Amazon]

Creative HN-900 – $100 (Over-ear)

The HN-900 is one of the cheapest noise cancelling headphones that I actually recommend. The sound is very bass-oriented in passive mode but becomes much more balanced with noise cancelling enabled. The sound quality is definitely lacking, but what you get for the money is very impressive: a detachable cable with an in-line microphone, a sturdy, foldable design, and a few other accessories. Battery life is about 40 hours off a single AAA battery. [Buy from Amazon]



Audio Technica ATH-ANC7b – $130 (Over-ear)

The ANC7b is probably the best bang/buck purchase in the realm of noise cancelling headphones. The law of diminishing returns sets in around this price which makes you hesitate to reach for the higher-end models. The ANC9 is definitely a better headphone in all aspects, but the ANC7b offers much of the functionality at a fraction of the price.

The ANC7b comes with 1.6m and 1.0m detachable cables, a carrying case, 1/4″ and airline adapters, and one AAA battery that powers the noise cancelling feature for up to 40 hours. Without a battery, the ANC7b can still function in passive mode.

Worth noting is that the ANC7b is the successor to the discontinued (but still available) ANC7; the differences are minimal but the ANC7 has stronger bass while the ANC7b has larger ear cups, is more comfortable in general, and has a more balanced sound. [Buy at Amazon]

Sony MDR-NC100D – $150 (In-ear)

The NC100D is Sony’s middle-of-the-road noise cancelling earphone, and it offers the best combination of performance and features in my opinion. The NC100D’s older brother, the NC300D, definitely has better sound so if you are picky about sound quality you should shoot for that version, but note that it cannot function if the battery dies. The noise cancellation feature lasts approximately 22 hours on a single AAA battery. [Buy at Amazon]



Sennheiser PXC 250-II – $200 (On-ear)

The PXC 250 is easily the most user friendly headphone on this list. It is almost an exact replica of the Sennheiser PX 200, the biggest difference being the added noise cancellation technology. The PX 200 is a great portable headphone to begin with, and adding Sennheiser’s NoiseGuard technology makes it appropriate for air travel. As you can see from the photo, it can nearly fit into a glasses case! The sound is very balanced and clean. All in all, the PXC 250 is the best on-ear portable and should be the headphone of choice for those with small purses! [Buy at Amazon]


Audio Technica ATH-ANC9 – $300 (Over-ear)

Just released in May, the ANC9 is Audio Technica’s flagship noise canceling headphone, advertising up to a 95% reduction of ambient noise. Their noise canceling technology is still a small notch below Bose’s but in all other aspects (except maybe comfort) the ANC9 is a clear winner.

The most interesting feature of the ANC9 is its Tri-Mode noise cancellation. Depending on your environment, you can choose which frequencies you want the headphones to block out. Mode 1 is designed for planes, trains, and buses, so it will focus on blocking out engine noise. Mode 2 is best suited for environments like offices or airports, and Mode 3 is for already quiet environments such as home, where you may (or may not) want to hear your kids screaming for you.

Accessories include two detachable cables (one with an in-line microphone and playback controls), a nice carrying case, an airline adapter, a 1/4″ adapter, and a AAA battery. Unlike some noise canceling headphones, the ANC9 can function in passive mode: if the single AAA battery runs out you won’t be left with a bricked headphone. [Buy at Amazon]

Bose QuietComfort 15 – $300 (Over-ear)

Bose’s QuietComfort technology has long held the crown when it comes to noise cancellation. In moderately noisy environments ambient sounds almost disappear. Build and sound quality are a step down from the ANC9, but Bose makes up for this with their light weight, superb comfort, and unmatched noise cancellation. If noise cancellation is far and away your #1 priority, the Bose QuietComfort 15 should be at the top of your list. The biggest downside to the QC15 is that they cannot be used without batteries, but a single AAA battery will last a solid 40 hours or so. [Buy at Amazon]

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Category: Best Headphones

Comments (1)

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  1. Matt says:

    The prices for most of these headphones have gone down (except for the QC15’s, of course…) Audio Technica’s ATH-ANC9 can be had for about $150 on Amazon right now. I actually think that they’re better than Bose, but that’s just my opinion.

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