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A good set of noise-canceling headphones is easy to find. But earphones or earbuds are a little more challenging to get. Here’s your cheat sheet to buy the best noise-canceling earphones for your needs.
Most earbuds have “passive noise cancellation” or “noise isolation,” meaning they block out noise by sealing the entire ear canal. But you’ll still be able to hear quite a bit, especially in loud environments like airplanes. What you need is a pair of active noise-canceling earphones.
Active Noise Cancellation (ANC) technology adds a little more circuitry to your headphones. It includes a sensor and a microphone. The sensor “listens” to incoming noise, the system figures out its frequency, and the microphone emits a noise of its own to cancel the incoming sound. It all happens in a split second, so you’ll never know about it.
What to Know About Active Noise Cancellation
You should buy ANC headphones or earphones, and there are a few things you should know about them.
- ANC has circuitry, which means it needs a battery to run. If the battery runs out, then depending on the type of earphones, you will get either no sound or only passive noise cancellation.
- The circuitry and battery bulk up your earphones. This is usually in the form of a tiny adapter-like unit somewhere on the cable.
- ANC works without earbud style. You don’t need to completely seal your ear with uncomfortable buds that irritate the ear canal.
- ANC earphones are much more expensive than noise isolating earphones.
- ANC works best for sustained sounds of the same frequency. It won’t fully cancel all noise. If there’s a sudden loud sound, you will still hear it.
Best Overall and Best Wireless: Bose QuietComfort 30
This is perhaps a controversial pick, but hear us out. The Bose QuietComfort (QC) 30 is a set of wireless ANC earphones with good sound quality for music and excellent battery life over Bluetooth.
As 3.5mm headphone jacks disappear, it’s better to buy a set of wireless headphones if you’re spending upwards of $150. This way, you can keep using these earphones if you switch from an Android to an iPhone, or a phone with only a USB Type-C port, or whatever else. Bluetooth is ubiquitous on audio players now.
As for the performance itself, the QC30 couldn’t be better. It has a comfortable fit with the neckband style that puts all the weight of the circuitry around your neck, not dangling by your ears. This also gives the earbuds 10 hours of continuous playback, which is above average battery life for wireless sets. And needless to say, it’s Bose, so the sound quality is good enough for 90 percent of users.
The only reason to avoid this choice is if you are an audiophile, in which case you should look for the other Bose QC20.
Best Wired: Bose QuietComfort 20
The Bose QC20 is an excellent example of how phone companies have made it harder to recommend wired earphones. Its noise cancellation is superior to the QC30. But there are two versions of the QC20 that you need to choose from: one with a Lightning port for iPhones, and another with a 3.5mm port. There’s no USB Type-C audio cable for phones that exclusively use that.
Where the QC20 excels is on how much noise it blocks. Multiple reviewers say it’s the best at it among earphones, and better than several full-size headphones too. In particular, if you’re a frequent traveler on long flights, the QC20 is excellent for ambient plane noise cancellation.
It has 15+ hours of battery life for noise cancellation, which should be enough for most people. But even if you run out of battery, you’ll still get to listen to music like regular wired earphones without noise cancellation.
In terms of sound quality, the QC30 edges out the QC20, but don’t let that comparison be a considerable factor. The QC20 sounds good for its price.
Cheapest Choice: Audio Technica ATH-ANC23 QuietPoint
For what they cost, the Audio Technica ATH-ANC23 noise-canceling earphones sound too good to be real. But the deal is out there, and for anyone who isn’t an audiophile, you’d be a fool not to pick these up.
The ATH-ANC23 first released in 2011, so it’s an old set of earphones now. But let’s face it, headphones haven’t seen substantial technological leaps in this time, so you’re safe to buy these. From then to now, the ANC23 has been continuously praised for its sound quality, offering excellent, balanced output. Don’t expect an artificial bass boost here.
Unlike most other ANC earphones, Audio Technica doesn’t have a rechargeable battery. Instead, you need to pop in a standard AAA battery into the adapter. This obviously makes it easier to extend the battery life of your earphones, since you can always throw in a spare battery in any bag.
One thing to note though: there’s no microphone on the ANC23 to make or receive phone calls. This is a music-only pair of earphones.
Best Budget Choice: Audio Technica ATH-ANC33iS QuietPoint
If you can afford more, get the newer ANC33iS instead of the ANC23. All the improvements are worth it.
Audio Technica has somehow fitted larger audio drivers in the same size of earbuds, which improves the audio quality significantly. But again, there is no bass boost on the ANC33iS, instead of going for a sound profile that is more focused on the mids and highs.
And finally, you get a microphone on this set to make and receive phone calls, as well as control basic music playback: pause/play, previous/next tracks. Everything else is like the ANC23, including the AAA battery slot.
Best Budget Wireless: Cowin HE8D
Those who want the comfort and convenience of wireless noise-canceling earphones but don’t want to spend lots of money, check out the Cowin HE8D. It’s Bluetooth, it has good sound quality, and it’s got a neat trick up its sleeve for battery life.
With both the Bluetooth connection and the active noise cancellation needing power, the battery on this one can run out quickly. That’s why the HE8D comes with a Micro-USB connector that you can plug into your Android phone, charging the headphones with your smartphone battery. And when you aren’t desperate, there’s a regular USB port too. Neat, eh?
The HE8D also pays particular attention to the sound quality, and includes the artificial bass boost that fans of EDM would otherwise miss. Such sounds are always good for a workout, and so Cowin has given this a sweatproof design for sports and exercise.
The only minor flaw is the noise-cancellation percentage. The HE8D isn’t the best noise canceller out there, but it’s good enough when you’re on a budget and want all these other great features.
Is Noise Isolation Enough for Earbuds?
When it comes to headphones, active noise cancellation is quite essential. Plus, you have a range of choices, from ANC cans for audiophiles to affordable noise-canceling headphones for students. But things are a bit different for noise-canceling earphones.
ANC adds a lot of weight and extra bulk to the portability of earphones. And with so many earbuds sealing your ear canals for noise isolation, it doesn’t always feel necessary either.
What do you think? Is noise isolation enough for earphones? Do you look for active noise cancellation on earbuds?