Daily life is stressful enough without being subjected to the noise of others. Thankfully noise cancelling headphones can help by actively blocking oppressive distractions, whether it’s for flights, the commute, or just in the office, with effective options costing from £80.
Here’s a quick guide to separate the wheat from the chaff.
Bose QC35 II
RRP: £330 – deals from £289
Bose pioneered the first noise-cancelling headsets in 1986 and has been a market-leader ever since for good reason: super-effective active noise cancellation (ANC).
Now in their second iteration, the QC35 II are the best noise-cancelling headphones you can buy, combining excellent ANC and passive isolation with good sound, simple operation and reliable connectivity.
The Bluetooth headphones can also be used with a cable if you want to plug into a plane’s entertainment system, they support AAC for higher-quality lag-free audio, can connect to two devices at once and have easy to use buttons for pause, play, track skip and volume. There’s a button for activating Alexa or Google Assistant or to adjust the level of noise cancelling for your environment.
Arguably it is the QC35 II’s unparalleled comfort that sets them apart. Small, fairly discreet and light, with clear ear spaces in the cups and the best fit available. They fold up relatively compactly for travel too, and are durable enough to survive life on the road just thrown in a bag.
Battery life is about 20 hours via Bluetooth, or longer via cable. Charging takes only about two hours. They have a clear and powerful sound characteristic of Bose that’s good for most music genres, but there’s no customisation and audiophiles might dislike the active Bose EQ.
For those that can afford the hefty price tag, these are the most effective headphones, highly comfortable and built for the road.
RRP: £329 – deals from £282
The long-term Bose rival from Sony is now in its third iteration and better than ever. The MX1000M3 finally has Bose-matching noise cancellation, which can be fine tuned manually or automatically depending on ambient noise.
Where the QC35 II go for simplicity, Sony goes for options. These Bluetooth headphones support a smorgasbord of audio standards including AAC, aptX, aptX HD and high-resolution LDAC, which means you’ll get top audio quality, lag-free out of almost any Bluetooth device. It’s no coincidence then that these are some of the very best sounding Bluetooth headphones you can buy, and have plenty of customisation should you dislike the out-of-box sound.
Multi-device connectivity is tricky and not worth bothering with, while the noise-cancelling control button can be made to trigger Google Assistant or Alexa. Playback control is via touch on the right ear cup: double tap to pause or play, swipe left or right to skip track or up and down to adjust volume. They work well, but not with gloves on.
The MX1000M3 battery lasts around 30 hours between charges with everything going, the headphones can be used via cable and charged by USB-C, which is great.
They’re light, fold up fairly compact, but are slightly bigger and less comfortable than the Bose QC35 II. They also don’t feel as robust, but have a similar subtle styling.
Buy these for the sound quality, but Bose for all-day comfort.
Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2
RRP: £230 – deals from £120
Both the Sony and Bose headphones are great, but they’re also pretty expensive. Thankfully Plantronics BackBeat 2 Pro offer 80% of the experience for less than half the price. If you are not familiar with Plantronics, they are an American tech company that made the headset used by Neil Armstrong on the first moon landing.
These Bluetooth headphones are a couple of years old but support AAC, aptX and aptX Low Latency, which is something of a rarity, and as a result have solid connectivity to just about any device, connecting to two simultaneously. The battery lasts around 24 hours with everything going and takes three hours to charge.
They sound pretty good too with powerful, but controlled bass. Those looking for a more balanced sound will have to look elsewhere. The ANC is good at controlling the drone of engine noise or similar, but less effective at neutralising the more sudden noises of the commute. You will hear more of people’s conversations through the Plantronics than with the Bose or Sony.
The jog-dial takes care of volume on the left ear cup and surrounds push-button pause, play and track-skip buttons. A switch turns on or off ANC as well as feeding ambient sound into the headphones for listening to announcements. There’s a button for Google Assistant or Siri too. Take the headphones off and the music pauses.
The headphones are fairly large and the ear cups swivel but don’t fold, making them more bulky to carry. They’re pretty comfortable on but are slightly heavier than the competition.
Good value, long-lasting and comfortable ANC headphones.
RRP: £90 – deals from £80
Truly cheap noise cancelling headphones generally aren’t worth using over a standard set of over-ear headphones, but the Lindy BNX-60 are the exception. If you are not familiar with Lindy, they are an Anglo-German company dating back to Mannheim in 1932.
Available for about £80 these headphones not only offer noise cancelling, but Bluetooth too, with support for both AAC and aptX for higher quality and lag-free audio. Battery life is pretty good at about 12 hours with everything going and they charge just like any other via USB. There’s an audio cable and adapter for connecting to in-flight systems too.
A few corners have been cut compared with more expensive models: they’re made of fairly cheap-feeling plastic, they’re pretty tight on the head and they don’t fold up, only lying flat making them a little harder to pack.
The noise cancelling takes care of engine noise well, but struggles with other sources of annoyance. With ANC on the sound is punchy and bright, with vocals a little shrill at times and accentuated treble. Turn off ANC and it all gets a bit muddy and dull, but overall they are pretty good for £80.
Pause and track skip buttons on the left ear cup take care of playback, while an ANC switch and manual volume dial on the right ear cup take care of the rest. However, the track skip buttons on the left side also adjust the volume of your smartphone when held down, which irritatingly means you have two different volume levels to set.
At £120 the Plantronics are better all-round, but if £80 is your budget the Lindy BNX-60 aren’t half bad.
RRP: £245 – deals from £179
If you’re looking for top ANC but in a much more compact, in-ear flavour, the Bose QC20 are the headphones for you. They’re powered by the same technology that makes the QC35 II winners, with excellent ANC nullifying engine roar.
They lack the passive isolation, meaning they let more sudden noises through, but make up for it by being much more compact and easier to pack. The wired-only earphones have a thin but bulky battery pack near the headphone jack, which keeps the weight on your ears down and combined with Bose’s silicone earbud tips makes them super comfortable even for the length of a transatlantic plane journey.
The headphones last around 16 hours between charges and sound great with or without ANC active. Like the headphones above they can be used without ANC when the battery runs flat.
They come in either Apple or Android versions, which is just related to whether the in-line remote works with your phone or not. Given most new smartphones no longer come with a headphone socket you might need a USB-C dongle too, but at least they come with an adapter for in-flight entertainment systems.
They’re not cheap, the added battery is irritating in the pocket and cables of any sort are annoying, but the QC20 are long-standing road warrior favourites for a good reason.
Top Bose noise cancelling without the bulk
How does active noise cancelling work?
Active noise cancellation technology works by neutralising unwanted sound with inverse sound waves. It does so by using microphones to detect nuisance sounds, such as the roar of a plane’s engine, and blasts out the inverse of that sound through the headphone’s speakers, timed so the noise and cancellation wave reach your eardrum at the same time cancelling each other out.
ANC works best with constant sounds, with sudden and changing noise the most challenging to deal with. The more sophisticated the technology, the greater the variety of noise the ANC can remove.
ANC is often combined with passive sound isolation, which absorbs or blocks sound from entering the headphones, to help deal with noise such as speech.
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