For anyone who regularly travels by air, active noise cancellation technology in headphones is a boon. This helps to reduce strain on your ears by blocking out the loud hum of the airplane engines, and it also makes it a lot easier to listen to audio through your headphones.

Although the technology tends to work best in an airplane cabin, there are plenty of other use cases where it works as well, including on a commuter train or bus, in an office environment, or even at home to block out the hum from your ceiling fan or air conditioner.

Headphones that offer active noise cancellation aren’t typically affordable, and the best performance is priced at a premium.  However, we’ve seen some recent launches that offer decent active noise cancellation at more reasonable prices. This feature also isn’t largely restricted to over-ear headphones anymore; we’ve seen some impressive in-ear and true wireless earphones with active noise cancellation recently. Here’s our list of the best active noise cancelling headphones and earphones that you can buy right now.

What is active noise cancellation?

Before we get to the list, we should start with an explanation of the technology itself, and how it works. Active noise cancellation functions by picking up the sounds of your surroundings and creating ‘reverse’ frequencies – the headphones emit sounds at the same amplitude but with an inverted phase compared to the original sound. This combines with the waves of the background sound, to form new waves in a process called ‘interference’, which effectively cancels out the sound going into your ears.

As a result, you hear less of the background ‘noise’, and in some cases with good active noise cancellation, you might hear nothing at all. It works best with sounds that are steady, since the microphones can pick up and reverse these frequencies easily without interfering with what you actually want to hear. Irregular sounds such as voices, honking, and anything that isn’t flat, won’t get cancelled by the system, and you’ll still be able to hear it. Therefore, active noise cancellation isn’t
the same as sound-proofing; it simply reduces noise in certain environments.

Why should you buy active noise cancelling headphones?

The best way to listen to music is with no other sounds in the background, so you can concentrate on what you’re listening to and pick up on fine details that might otherwise get drowned out. Unfortunately, and especially with headphones, this isn’t always possible; outside sounds will filter in and take away from the experience, no matter how good the passive noise isolation is. Noise cancellation aims to fix this by cutting out noises that can slip through even the best padding and isolation.

It’s also a good way to get some sleep in a noisy environment. Many frequent fliers swear by active noise cancelling headphones, but the technology works in many situations on the ground as well.