Noise cancellers are different from noise isolators, which are headphones that fit your ears so tightly that the real world can’t get in. Active noise-cancelling uses an electronic system to keep things quiet outside. It works using a microphone in the headphones which listens to the sound outside and creates a sound wave that’s the exact opposite, so the two waves cancel each other out.

At its best, it’s fantastic, though it must be said that some headphones do the job so well that it can be almost eerie. Good noise cancelling should have an alive feeling to the silence it creates.

Note that it is better at cancelling out constant noise like the hum of an aircraft engine than intermittent ones like voices. Which means that, for instance, a conversation halfway down the train carriage which isn’t audible with noise-cancelling off can be more noticeable when the train engine is suppressed by the electronic noise cancellation.

For noise-cancelling to work, the headphones need a battery, so it’s important to have fresh batteries or make sure they’re charged before you travel, especially if it’s a long flight, say.

Some of the latest headphones have integration with virtual personal assistants like Google Assistant, assuming you’re playing music from a smartphone with Google Assistant on it. It means you can hear if you have notifications and can ask it what the weather’s like. This feature is on the Sony WH-100XM3, B&W PX and Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones included in this roundup.

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Sony WH-1000XM3: £298.64, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery rechargeable? Yes

The quality of silence generated by these headphones is just right: the outside world is quelled but the sound is still lively, not dead. The WH-1000XM3 headphones are comfortable even if you wear them continuously on a long flight. The Sony speciality is that you can let the world in without removing the headphones – just place your hand on the left ear cup and it turns on a microphone – so you can hear when you’re being asked whether you want “chicken or beef?” for dinner.

You can also tap this panel in various ways to change volume or the track you’re listening to. These headphones are the best buy because the noise-cancelling is the best around by quite a distance: subtle, effective and faithful to what you’re listening to. Although these are wireless cans, suitable cables are supplied so you can connect to a plane’s inflight entertainment, for instance. A smartphone app lets you adjust the level of noise-cancelling so that some noise gets through. Handy if you’re walking outdoors, say.

Audio quality is excellent with detailed and rich sound from bass to higher notes. The battery lasts up to 30 hours and although it takes three hours to fully recharge, a 10-minute charge delivers enough power for about five hours’ use.

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Beats Studio3 Wireless: £260.10, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery rechargeable? Yes

Beats, owned by Apple, includes an Apple chip which makes them especially simple to set up with Apple products, though they also work with other brands. They come in a range of colours, which look striking and attractive, ranging from demure and discreet to punchy and unmissable. The Beats Studio3 ear cups are comfortable, as is the headband.

Beats has something called Pure ANC, where ANC means adaptive noise cancelling that repeatedly calibrates the sound, many times a second. It’s good, but not noticeably better than the best noise cancelling from Bose and Sony. Battery life is great, easily the 22 hours stated. LEDs handily show the remaining battery life.

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Bowers & Wilkins PX: £329, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery rechargeable? Yes

The Bowers & Wilkins PX headphones look good in black (B&W calls it space grey) and even better in the soft gold version. The ear cups are distinctive looking and superbly comfortable, helped in the comfort department by the lightweight aluminium frame. Like the Sony above, the sound quality here is magnificent, even before you get as far as the noise cancelling, which is also very impressive: delicate, realistic and not at all claustrophobic in the way poor noise cancelling can be.

A separate smartphone app lets you adjust the level of noise cancellation to choose from – office, city and flight – with the last being the most intense. There’s a neat way to pause the music: lift the headphone off your ear and the track you’re listening to will stop thanks to a proximity sensor in the headphones. Battery life is strong, up to 22 hours, so that’ll take you all the way to Australia.

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Sony WH-H900N: £169.99, John Lewis & Partners

Wired or wireless? Wireless

In ear or over ear? Over ear

Battery Rechargeable? Yes

The WH-H900N headphones are a little older than the other Sony headphones here and not quite as outstanding in performance terms, but they are also very good value for over-ear cans. The design is striking, and comes in a range of colours. They live up to what you would hope for in terms of comfort and battery life. Noise cancelling is strong, too, just not as effective as some here. A voice message reminds you when you need to recharge. Controls are simple and direct and battery life runs to around 24 hours.

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Bose QuietComfort 35 II: £289, Bose

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery rechargeable? Yes

Bose’s headphones are consistently top flight with stunning noise cancelling. Bose has been at the top of its game for years and the addition of wireless connectivity in 2016 merely added to the brand’s excellence. These are the most comfortable headphones on test, even if you wear them for a long time – being lightweight helps.

The design is neutral and understated and operation is simple, intuitive even. Battery life is especially good. It’ll manage 20 hours in wireless mode, but double that when plugged in by cable. The “II” in the name indicates that these headphones have Google Assistant compatibility. Tap the smart button on the left cup to activate it. If you don’t care for this feature, you can configure the button to be used instead to adjust noise-cancelling levels.

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Nuraphone wireless bluetooth over ear headphones: £349, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery rechargeable? Yes

Nuraphone headphones are unique. They fit over the ears in a conventional fashion, but they also have a bit that pokes into your ears like in-ear headphones. This contains a microphone which allows you to configure the headphone sound to suit your individual hearing. You can turn your specific hearing profile on and off on a smartphone app and the difference is very striking (hint: you’ll want to keep it tuned to your specific profile).

The noise cancellation is very good, and additionally the unique design forms an effective seal against the world outside. With one touch of a button you can switch to what Nuraphone calls Social Mode, which lets you hear outside conversations without removing the headphones. Battery life is over 20 hours.

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Microsoft Surface headphones: £319.99, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery Rechargeable? Yes

Microsoft’s headphones are bigger than some here, and greyer than all of them. They are reasonably light and comfortable even after long listening sessions. The headphones have solid, powerful bass with little or no distortion, with a strong, warm flavour to the sound. Noise cancelling is thorough and effective, and you can turn it on or off just by touching and rotating the dial on the ear cup.

You can also play and pause music by ta​pping the earpieces. A long tap is enough to wake the relevant virtual personal assistant: Siri if your headphones are connected to an iPhone, Google Assistant on an Android phone and so on. Battery life is no match for others here, but is not bad: 15 hours plus.

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Sennheiser HD 4.50: £224.95, Amazon

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? Over ear
Battery Rechargeable? Yes

Sound quality on the Sennheiser headphones is extremely good with clear and separate elements in audio tracks faithfully realised. Bass is emphatic and powerful but midrange notes and trebles are also strong. The design is not as eye catching as the B&W PX headphones, for instance, but don’t look bad. Noise cancelling matches rivals here for potency, despite a much lower price point. Battery life is more than adequate, quoted at 20 hours.

Although they are big, they remain reasonably light, enough to wear for long periods comfortably. There’s no button to let the outside world in as some here boast, so you’ll have to take them off when you want to hear what’s going on.

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Bang & Olufsen Beoplay H9i: £389, Currys

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? In ear
Battery Rechargeable? Yes

There’s no denying that these are pretty pricey headphones but they look gorgeous, have beautiful build quality, are crafted from aluminium and leather, and sound pretty spiffy, too. Is the noise cancellation as good as the Bose? Perhaps not, but it’s not far off. And the overall audio quality is irreproachably good with effective, precise bass and lively midrange, for instance.

The headphones have proximity sensors so that when you take them off, they pause the music. These are deluxe headphones and feel every bit as sumptuous as the price tag suggests.

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Sony WF-SP700N: £99, John Lewis & Partners

Wired or wireless? Wireless
In ear or over ear? In ear
Battery Rechargeable? Yes

Like Apple’s AirPods, these are properly wireless earbuds. Unlike Apple’s, though, this pair has noise cancellation. Multiple eartips and a springy wing that slots into the back of the ear ensure a secure and comfy fit and the effect is good, even if not a match for the over-ear options. Battery life doesn’t equal the best here: three hours between charges.

The carry case has a battery, too, with enough power for two more full charges. You can take calls on the headphones but note that these only come through the left earpiece. The WF-SP700N in-ear headphones come in three colours and are good for working out thanks to sweat-proofing capabilities.

Buy now

The verdict: Noise-cancelling headphones

Sony’s WH-1000XM3 headphones sound utterly superb, feel good and work like a dream. Once you’ve tried them, others don’t quite match them. Some come very close, especially the brilliant Bose QuietComfort 35 II with a handsome design and solid, reliable noise cancelling. The Bowers & Wilkins PX are among the best-looking headphones you’ll find anywhere, and are pretty good in the sound department, too.

IndyBest product reviews are unbiased, independent advice you can trust. On some occasions, we earn revenue if you click the links and buy the products, but we never allow this to bias our coverage. The reviews are compiled through a mix of expert opinion and real-world testing.

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