Noise cancelling, when it works well it seems to be something akin to magic. For anyone who has tried sound cancelling headphones and then tried to switch back to regular headphones you know it’s like trying to go from Blu-ray back to VHS quality. Yeah, noise cancelling earphones are that awesome.
Types of Sound Cancelling
First off, not all sound cancelling headphones are created equal. There are many ways manufacturers work to reduce outside ambient noise, which is the definition of “sound-cancelling”.
Just like trying to sound-proof a room in your house there are many ways to go about the task.
What is Passive Noise Cancelling
First, there are old-fashioned ways such as simply building thick walls without any windows or holes in them. This is the oldest way to reduce unwanted noise transfer. The same principles are used by headphone companies as well. They simply make the ear-cups thick and remove any holes. These types of headphones are called “closed back”, because, well, there’s no holes for sound to leak through!
Another way you can sound proof a room is by adding funny dimpled foam sheeting to your walls and ceiling, effectively absorbing sound waves and preventing them from passing to other rooms. Headphone companies are doing this as well, integrating sound absorbing materials in ear-cups and utilizing super-snug fitting foam ear pads to prevent unwanted sounds ruining your listening experience.
Both of the above techniques are known as “passive noise cancelling”. Passive here meaning there is no active effort to fight ambient noise, the headphones are not going on offense so-to-speak, they are simply trying to play a really good defense against outside noises.
At the end of the day passive noise cancelling relies on pads, seals and closed-back cups to defend against sound leakage. There are many great options out there but there is a catch, they are all over-ear cans, meaning they are usually big and bulky.
We’re looking for in-ear headphones that also have noise cancelling. Since there is no room for the above defensive techniques in a tiny little earbud, we have to explore the other more technologically advanced form of noise cancelling, the active type!
What is Active Noise Cancelling
Some say the best offense is a good defense. They would fall into the big over-ear headphone camp in the “passive” category above. For those who think the best offense is just that; a really good offense, then welcome to the world of active noise cancelling, where headphones actively seek out ambient noises and offset them with their own counter noise!
How does this work? How can a pair of headphones, or earbuds for that matter, actively seek and combat annoying ambient noises? Well, let’s dive in a little bit shall we?
Highly Sensitive Microphone “Sentries”
All active noise cancelling headphones are essentially “smartheadphones”. This means they have circuitry and a power source to power their functions, which are simply to identify unwanted sound and to neutralize it.
This starts with a microphone. Yeah, kind of crazy isn’t it, the things you are listing to have their own “robot ears” and are listening to the world around them as they pipe sweet sweet music into your protected little eardrums.
The microphones on active-noise cancelling earphones are the first line of defense against the rumble of a jet engine for example. Once the external microphone pics up the intruding external sound it tells the speaker to make a counter-sound of the exact opposite wavelength (remember sound is made of waves, like an ocean) of the external source.
Once an active (hence the term active noise cancelling) sound wave is produced it syncs with the external wave and cancels it out, so to the eardrum, it sounds like the original jet engine attacking sound never happened. Pretty amazing huh?
Doing all this work requires more power than your smartphone pumps out. Actually, your headphones are doing a whole lot of work when they combat noise. First they have to continue to process the audio signal from your MP3 player or smartphone and power the speaker drivers to play your music whilst simultaneously listening to outside nosies and countering them with opposite sound waves.
This sort of multitasking is pretty intense, and that is why most active noise cancelling units require additional power to operate. This usually comes in the form of a AA battery box integrated into the cable which can be switched on and off OR rechargeable lithium ion batteries built into the cans themselves.
Of course, now with Lightning powered headphones hitting the market, the external battery pack and rechargeable lith-ion batteries will become a thing of the past as Lightning cables can transmit power unlike the old fashioned 3.5mm jacks they replaced. JBL has already capitalized on this unique feature and was the first to market battery-pack-free active noise cancelling earbuds.
Seals To the Battle
While passive headphones only uses seals and foam, active headphones actually use both the above mentioned sound cancelling in addition to passive techniques like tight seals and closed backs. So in a sense, active noise cancelling is really a “active and passive combination”.
Obviously, there’s no need for a bunch of foam if you are using an in-ear or earbud type of headphone as they are designed from the ground up to fit snuggly in the ear canal itself, creating a seal without the need for foam.
Over-Ear Vs. On-Ear Vs. In Ear
Most of the above functions of noise cancelling have been integrated into big over-ear headphones. However, with the advent of Lightning connected headphones (and USB-C in the future), these things will look more and more like technological dinosaurs.
Powered cables change the whole landscape. Active noise cancelling was nice, but it was only usually used by frequent travelers on airplanes. Why? Well, first because big over-ear and on-ear units were bulky and heavy. Second, they required constant recharging to work. Always having a pair of AA batteries with you is FAR from ideal.
However, since Lightning cables transmit both data and power simultaneously the smartphone itself now becomes the battery pack. This means active noise cancelling can fit in smaller packages than ever before. They also don’t have to be big and bulky. The world of active noise cancelling earbuds is here and it is a beautiful thing to behold.
Let’s just dive into the best this new landscape has to offer shall we?
Top 5 Noise Cancelling Earbuds Compared
Below is a simple comparison table to help you quickly compare the top 5 active noise cancelling earbuds currently on market. Of course, this table doesn’t include EVERY single model from every single manufacturer, because that would be an endless list full of fluff you don’t care about. Instead we’ve distilled the list of top performers down to just 5. These are the best of the best so-to-speak within this segment of the headphone industry.
Below we break down the top 5 performers. We look at the company that makes them, they’re unique features that earned them their top 5 spot, and a link to a complete product review if we have one available. Enjoy!
JBL Reflect Aware
These are at the top of the list because they are the most forward-thinking earbuds here. Why? Because they run exclusively via a Lightning-connected cable. So if you have an older model smartphone or PC then they won’t work for you. If you have sprung for the iPhone 7 or plan to buy any other Apple laptops or phones in the future, then these are perfect for you.
Props to JBL for taking a risk and developing something based on a brand new and untested market variable, like the dropping of the headphone jack. If Apple continues the trend of minimalist design these may be more and more appealing, especially let’s say if the new Macbooks drop their jacks as well. Regardless, you’ll be able to get plenty of use out of them between your iPhone and iPad alone.
Pros: Adjustable active noise cancelling in earbud form without needing AA batteries, proprietary sound-cancelling adjustment via app, reliable JBL build quality.
Cons: Will only work on devices with a Lightning connector port.
For a more thorough rundown on all the unique features of the JBL Reflect Aware’s, check out the comprehensive review we did of them here. These are simply, without a doubt, the most technologically advanced earbuds here and if you’re an iPhone 7 user demand to get your attention.
Audio Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint’s
Audio Technica are one of the most famous brands in all of the audiophile universe. They’re reputation for quality and affordability are unrivaled. Heck, this post is currently being written while listening to music via a pair of trusty ATH-M50’s.
It’s no surprise then that the Audio Technica ATH-ANC23’s are next up on our list for the best active sound cancelling earbuds currently available on market. Sure, they may run using an old-school 3.5mm jack and cable-integrated battery pack, but their build quality and the impressiveness of their sound earn them a top spot on this list.
Pros: Famous Audio Technica quality. Inclusion of airplane adapter, battery, carrying pouch and various ear bud tips. Oh, and did we mention, they’re under $50 in price?! If you’ve done any research on active noise cancelling technology, you know it usually runs up into the hundreds of dollars. Well, consider your mind blown with the sheer value the ATH-ANC23’s bring to the table.
Cons: Entry level sound, Non-Lightning means you need to use an old fashioned AAA battery to power the unit.
If you are willing to spend a little more on a slightly higher degree of noise cancelling and better sound range then check out the ATH-ANC23’s big brother, the ATH-ANC33iS. They cost a bit more but with Audio Technica, you know that means you get a bit more for your money too.
Bose QuietComfort 20
These probably have the most well-known reputation amongst frequent travelers and college students. Bose earned its reputation in the avionics industry, making world-class noise-cancelling headsets for pilots (and more recently, NFL coaches too). They then ported this technology over into the consumer market with their famous over-ear QuietComfort line, which have become icons of the international business class.
The QuietComfort 20’s though are a new breed of Bose, designed more for the urban commuter and active lifestyle, they are small, stylish and light weight. Just because they’re small and snug into your ear canal though don’t mean the skimp on tech. They include the same Active EQ and TriPort technology found in bigger headsets. If you don’t travel all that much but still want a solid pair of active noise cancelling earbuds, these may be just the thing.
Pros: Industry leading noise cancelling, unique “StayHear+” tips for a more secure fit while on the go, top-notch tech found in much larger over-ear headsets crammed into tiny, portable earbuds.
Cons: A little on the pricy side, they are great at sound cancelling but audio quality, particularly bass response, could be better. Kind of large units compared to other brands, and also use a rechargeable lithium ion battery pack to power the noise cancelling, although we expect to see a Lightning-cabled version of these soon.
If you’ve used Bose before and like their products these may be just the thing for you. Also, Bose has been working hard expanding their physical stores and there are now Bose shops in most regional malls and airports. This makes servicing your headphones a breeze and is just one more reason to consider the QuietComfort 20’s.
Polk Audio AM6617-A UltraFocus 6000i
The UltraFocus 6000i sure are a handsome pair of in-ear canal headphones. Just like the rest of these models, they have active noise cancelling, but unlike the other mentioned models, these do so in perhaps the most handsome way possible. The earbuds are mostly matte black with hints of chrome around the logo and on the underside of the driver unit. The result is a pair of earphones that wouldn’t look out of place dangling from James Bond’s pocket.
The Ultra Focus 6000i are made specifically for iOS devices, meaning it has a 3-button mic and controller built into the cable. One can only surmise Polk is looking at the possible applications of a Lightning powered pair of Ultra Focus in the future. The units themselves are constructed out of a blend of stainless steel, aluminum and carbon fiber. The current cable in these earbuds is no slouch though, utilizing StrainGuard Kevlar technology with gold-platted connectors, these are some of the toughest high-end noise cancelling earbuds on the market.
Pros: Great look and finish, these definitely look their price. Great attention to detail and quality, from the Kevlar reinforced cable to the tangle-free planar audio cables these are built to last. Great frequency response from Polk’s proprietary Optimized Active Tuning, which optimizes performance of the UltraFocus using the battery pack that also powers the noise cancelling processes.
Cons: Slightly high price tag, but with premium materials used it is to be expected. We could always use more bass too 😉
Overall, quality and price are just about right on the Polks and we honestly wonder why we don’t see more of them out and around or on international flights. Perhaps we’ve discovered a totally new thing here?
B&O Play by Bang & Olufsen
Officially known as the BeoPlay H3 Active Noise Cancelling In-Ear Headphones, these are not to be confused with the regular B&O Play H3’s which do not offer active noise cancelling. This is a big distinction obviously, and the difference of nearly $100 in price points as well.
B&O are in the same quality-craftsmanship league as the above mentioned Polk earbuds. Why? Well, first, the BeoPlay H3 are crafted from a solid block of aluminum. Anytime you do this instead of assembling smaller pieces, often plastic, you have to spend a lot more money during the production stage as each individual unit has to be CNC’d out of a single piece of aluminum. This takes time and costs money and is the same reason iPhones cost more than their cheaper plastic counter parts.
Also like the Polk headset, the BeoPlay H3 Active Noise Cancelling earphones feature a built in rechargeable battery to power the active part of the noise cancelling. You get a little less time than the Polks, roughlty 20 hours with ANC (active noise cancelling) turned on. Being made of aluminum they are also exceptionally light weight, at just 40 grams, making them ideal for travel addicts.
Pros: Military strength noise cancelling earbuds if there ever was such a thing; beautiful aluminum design, matte metal colors, tangle free cord and solid build quality makes you want to take them everywhere. Price point for quality still isn’t that bad, especially when compared to the slightly, some may say, over-priced options from companies like Bose.
Cons: Really hard to find cons here. If we had to nit-pick we’d ask for a little larger frequency response range, as these are only 20-16,000 Hz, which may be great for acoustic type music but for synthetically produced EDM fans, it is a bit lacking in the lower and higher ends of the spectrum.
Overall we’d snatch these bad boys up in a heartbeat, and happily pay more than the regular H3’s for the active noise cancelling, which, from Bang and Olufsen, is always going to be top notch!
This one is a little odd, as AKG is known to be almost exclusively an “audiophiles-only” headset maker. They’ve earned a hard fought reputation as one of the premier luxury headset makers, and we’re not just talking quality, but some of the most accurate sounding cans on the market. AKG are all about professional level audio, so we’re kind of blown away that their K391NC (the NC stands for “noise cancelling”) units are so affordable!
Small and chic in brushed aluminum these little badboys lack the bulk of many of their competitors and for that we love them. Seriously, maybe our ears are just more shallow than the average listener, but the in-ear units that have the driver part sit outside of the ear canal inevitably come loose during listening. The AKG K391NC’s however are a traditional earphone design, meaning the whole thing squeezes into your ear canal opening, making for a very secure fit, which makes audio sound better and adds passive sound cancelling to assist the active noise cancelling technology.
Pros: Sleakest actual driver unit of them all, small and securely fitting in the ear canal. Battery also provides the longest playback time of over 40 hours of active noise cancellation. Comes with mic, remote, flight adapter and carrying case (hard case, not a crappy little bag) as well. Frequency response is more impressive at 12Hz to 24kHz.
Cons: Really hard to find cons here as well. The build quality and audio quality are great. Users report the noise cancelling to be wanting sometimes on jets, but that’s to be expected form such small units compared to over-ear units. If anything we just hope AKG makes a pair of K391NC Lightning-equipped so they can drop the bulky rechargeable battery box.
Overall the K391NC’s are a solid option we’d take any day of the week, and after the JBL Reflect Aware (our #1 because of the Lightning tech) these would probably be our #2 choice, simply because we like the minimalist driver unit and super long playback time from the big battery box.
Wait, We Have a Runner Up
We know, we said we’d review 5 of the top ANC earbuds on the market, and we did! However, after writing this article and just before we hit the “publish” button, one of our friends asked us why we didn’t include the Harman Kardon Soho II’s. Honestly, we’d never heard of them, they don’t get much mention in the audio forums we hang out in and we didn’t see them when doing our initial research. However, after digging into them a bit more we decided they did deserve a mention, even if they didn’t quite fall into our top 5 list.
Harman Kardon Soho II
The Harman Kardon Soho II’s get an honorable mention because they try so hard and come so close. They are crafted out of stainless steel and have a beautiful overall steel and black design aesthetic, finished off with gold-plated connectors (regular 3.5mm and an airplane adapter). We also like that the Soho II’s use a rechargeable lithium ion battery instead of AAA batteries, which just feel so dated. The rechargeable battery provides up to 35 hours of active noise cancelling playback, which is exceptional, however when it’s dead it’s dead, no battery swapping here.
The craftsmanship for the price though is what is most intriguing about these earbuds and the reason they made the list. You’ll be hard pressed to find a earbud maker using such premium materials and exquisite design at such a low starting price point. The Soho II’s have large 30mm drivers, in-line mic, and are supposed to work with both Android and iOS, whereas some other’s are just designed to work with one or the other. Always make sure to check what you’re looking to buy will work with your specific mobile device.
Pros: Premium materials, reputable brand name and active noise cancelling all at well below $100? We call that a steal. Additionally the design makes these look like they retail for prices 3times what they actually cost. Also neat to see a 30mm driver in earbud headphones and we like the rechargeable battery decision of AAAs, because, we got to save the environment right?
Cons: Reviews say the noise cancelling isn’t quite as good as other brands mentioned above, perhaps this has something to do with the mic picking up the external noises, which seems quite small compared to competitors. Also, not big fans of the name “Soho II”, seems a bit pretentious and too “California-ish”.
Overall though not a bad option at all if you have a limited budget but still want a “luxury” earbud with active noise cancelling tech.
ANC earbuds are amazing. A technology that was super bulky years ago and limited exclusively to rich businessmen flying everywhere first class is now small, light weight and affordable for anyone looking to block out the outside world and dive uninterrupted into their favorite music.
We’ve listed out six different ANC earbuds above, all with unique features. They are all worthy contenders for your attention, you just have to choose what you value most, is it form factor? Is it audio quality? Is it the quality of the active noise cancelling power? Weigh what is most important for you and it should help narrow down your choice to just a few units.
If you have an iPhone 7 however, there is only one clear winner here. This winner is the most portable (no big battery pack) and technologically advanced earbuds in this list. This winner is none other than the JBL Reflect Aware. Sure, dropping the beloved 3.5mm jack pissed a lot of people off, but JBL’s attitude of looking to turn this disruption into evolution is damned admirable and their forward thinking should be applauded.
If you don’t have an iPhone 7 or don’t plan to get one anytime soon though then the Reflect Aware’s are out of the question. Battery packs suck but hey, it’s not the end of the world right?
Personally, just based on the design quality and reputation alone, if we had to choose one of the above to use with our 3.5mm jack equipped smartphone, we’d probably go with the Polk Audio UltraFocus 6000i ANC earphones. They’re right in the sweet spot for what we find an acceptable price and the design is just awesome as all hell.
That said, this is obviously a personal opinion so it is by no means true for all readers. If your budget allows it you may want to go with the gold standard Bose QuietComfort 20’s, or if your budget is more restricted perhaps the Audio Technica’s are more up your alley.
Point is, only you can decide what earphones are perfect for you. We’ve narrowed down the field of dozens (perhaps hundreds soon) to just 6, so we’ll let you take it from here on out investigating more of the finalists before eventually deciding on the perfect pair to match your individual lifestyle.