Looking for some peace and quiet? Noise-cancelling headphones can offer you sweet silence when you need it most.
Zoom calls on the go, noisy neighbours, chatty commuters or a house member learning the violin: there are plenty of reasons you might need a little help tuning out. In addition to muting life's soundtrack, noise-cancelling headphones can help you have better conversations, more productive workouts, better sleep and more immersive listening experiences.
To help you choose which are the best noise-cancelling headphones for you, CHOICE experts have tested a range of models priced from $99 to $899, from brands including Sennheiser, Sony, Apple, Bose and more. They do a series of tests to assess how each product performs for sound and listening quality, comfort, durability and battery life.
Considering the high price tag, and the fact that some expensive products perform poorly in our tests, noise cancelling headphones are an investment you'll want to choose carefully to ensure you get that sweet silent return. Check our noise-cancelling headphone reviews to see which performed better than the rest, and read on to find out what our experts say about why you might want to pick up a pair.
1. If you're working from home or on the go
These days the living room or bedroom are doubling as the office, but that doesn't mean your fellow officemates received the memo. Nothing separates work and life like noise-cancelling headphones, by politely putting the mute button on your partner unstacking the dishwasher or housemate watching TV.
Taking a work call during your commute, in a cafe or another noisy environment? Noise-cancelling headphones can eliminate some of the distraction so you can focus on the conversation at hand. However, they don't all deliver the serenity they promise – check out the ones we recommend you avoid.
How do we test ones we do recommend? CHOICE tech expert Peter Zaluzny breaks down what goes into our sound and listening scores.
"First, a panel of five experts listen to a range of music genres and podcasts with noise-cancellation off and no background noise to see how the feature affects audio during playback," says Peter.
We've found some headphones with top-level noise cancellation, like the Bose noise-cancelling 700 Headphone, which perform particularly well on calls due to their voice isolation and amplification, but sacrifice sound quality in return, making music sound flatter.
"Next, the panel listens to the same audio with noise-cancellation on and noise in the background, such as the sound of air conditioning, trains, aircraft, passing cars and background conversation. Lastly, an artificial ear listens to tones at different frequencies and testers watch for technical anomalies such as distortion," says Peter.
2. Block out noise while you sleep
Ear plugs only do so much. Whether you live on a busy street, are a new parent, or simply need help getting and staying asleep, noise-cancelling headphones can offer you consistent silence all night long. They can also be handy for catching some zzzzzz in a noisy environment such as on a train, coach or airplane.
Most wireless headphones won't last as long with noise-cancellation turned on so be sure to check the battery life score in our headphone reviewsCHOICE tech expert Peter Zaluzny
"If you're using headphones for a long stretch of time, you'll want to consider battery life," says Peter. "Most wireless headphones won't last as long with noise-cancellation turned on so be sure to check the battery life score in our headphone reviews."
3. Immersive listening and watching
If what you crave is uninterrupted TV-watching, judgment-free listening to your guilty pleasures playlist or making housework more pleasurable with a podcast, consider escaping from the real world with noise-cancelling headphones that can help transport you a little further away from everyday distractions.
Planning to give your headphones a workout? Check CHOICE's reviews for the durability score for each product to make sure you're purchasing a pair that'll last – our testing involves an inspection of the headphone's materials, hinges, connections and buttons and includes 10 drop tests from a height of 1.8 metres to check how they fare, as well as a light rain test to check weather sealing.
4. Take yourself on a mental vacation
In lieu of a holiday, noise-cancelling headphones can help restore a bit more peace and tranquility to your everyday life, giving you some mental respite from the daily grind or the stress you may feel from the noise created by chatty commuters sitting uncomfortably close on a train, boisterous children or barking dogs.
If you're getting reacquainted with silence you may experience some slight discomfort with active noise-cancellation turned on at 100%, which can feel similar to being underwater. Luckily, most headphones come with accompanying apps that allow you to adjust noise-cancellation levels and reintroduce some ambient noise, says Peter.
5. Have better workouts
Not a fan of the hectic tunes your gym blasts at 7am? Looking for motivation to hit the pavement? Noise-cancelling headphones give you control over what you're listening to no matter what's happening around you. And when you're running, jumping or dancing, you'll want to make sure your headphones stay put.
In addition to our normal wear test, in which testers move their heads as one would throughout the day, we also put headphones and our testers through a mini Olympics.
Testers wear headphones for 20 minutes at room temperature and then complete five-minute physical tasks such as running, power-walking and jumping jacks, says Peter, to see what they're like wearing in a realistic scenario. To see how a pair of headphones fared when given a workout, check out CHOICE's comfort score in our reviews.
Pack noise-cancelling headphones in your luggage for a more peaceful flight.
6. For travelling on an airplane
One place where noise-cancelling headphones really shine is in the air. In one of the noisiest environments you can be in and often needing to get some shut-eye, noise-cancelling headphones make the world of difference by blocking out excess noise.
If you want to enjoy in-flight entertainment with your headphones you'll need a cable and two-pronged airplane adapter. Only some wireless headphones come with these so be sure to check before buying or purchase a cable and adapter separately.
7. They can help reduce stress on your hearing
While noise-cancelling headphones are not considered medical hearing protectors, they can help reduce stress on your hearing.
With long or repeated exposure to anything over 85 decibels (i.e. playing music through headphones at full volume, sirens, fireworks) considered potentially damaging to your hearing, noise-cancelling headphones can be a way to combat some of the exposure and help you listen to your music at a healthy volume by reducing the external noise that would usually cause you to crank up the volume.
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