Let’s begin by clearing up a misconception common in the headphone community: No, not all in-ear headphones are noise-cancelling merely because they fit into your ear canals or have special flanges that block out sound. That’s actually sound isolation, which is passive noise reduction. True noise-cancelling headphones have an active apparatus that creates sound waves which cancel out the incoming noise, rather than just blocking it off. This makes the effect far deeper, more effective, and more complex than just putting on earmuffs.
Because of the technology involved, most manufacturers won’t try to make earbuds that actually cancel out noise. It’s a complicated process when you don’t have larger drivers and big earcups to work with, and the end result is often lackluster at best. Also, adding active noise reduction means there is an in-line mechanism that adds weight and awkward bulk to the headphones, which is counter-intuitive to the lightweight, go anywhere nature of earbuds. Since there’s only a handful of companies that really do it right, we didn’t have any trouble finding the 5 best noise-cancelling earbuds.
Pro: Full, rich soundstage
Con: Awkward bulges behind earbuds
Most for the Money: Notoriously expensive when it comes to their larger models, somehow Audio-Technica decided to throw buyers a bone with the ANC23’s, and what a bone it is. For the astonishingly tiny price you’ll get more than passable noise cancellation that works equally well with constant sounds and some sporadic incursions. When active, the buds get a boost of sound that ramps up your music a little bit without merely making it louder. Everything becomes brighter which both overshadows the background hiss made by the cancellation technology and helps drown out a droning seatmate, car engine, or your chatty spawn. Where these do suffer some is the necessity of using a AAA battery to power them with no recharging option, and a weighty in-line box about the size of a Zippo that will yank these out of your ears if you don’t lock it down.
Pro: Astoundingly rich bass for in-ear headphones
Con: Only works at reducing consistent noise
Overexposed: First off, you could end up paying $100 difference depending on where you buy these, so make sure to shop around for the best price. The NC13’s are certainly an oddity which may or may not appeal to you. Attached to the earbuds themselves are a pair of tiny microphones that are used to sense external noise so that they can better determine how to cancel that noise out. In addition to the mics there’s a 13.5mm driver stuck behind the actual buds which offers up more noise, but the awkward protrusion might be a turn-off for both you and the people looking at your head. The noise-cancellation is good, not great, but you’ll notice that when it is on, it doesn’t affect the overall music quality, which is a nice change from their brethren which all tend to change their tune when it’s time to get down to business and dump out everything you don’t want to hear.
Phiaton 220 NC
Pro: Can sync to two Bluetooth devices
Con: Awkward controls
Wireless Wonder: Not only are the 220’s Bluetooth compatible, they are equipped with very savvy NFC (Near Field Communication) so that with just a tap you can sync them to your device, no fiddling with bad Bluetooth voodoo needed. With a set of 14.3mm drivers that handle a range of 10Hz to 27kHz, you’ll get a very clean sound across the board without tinny highs or muddy lows. The fit is clean and the look is modern and stylized, but behind the clean, streamlined aesthetics lurks a few issues. First, the addition of all the tech is nice, but it does add weight to the dongle where all the Bluetooth and ANC (Active Noise Cancellation) stuff has to fit. This negates the convenience of going cordless as now you have a thing the size and heft of a large beeper that must be clipped to your clothing. The noise cancellation is near the top, but not quite king of the hill, and gives you a touch of hiss when activated. All that said, the overall experience is ultimately greater than the sum of the parts.
Pro: Inline remote and mic is easy and responsive
Con: Sloppy bass boost
Power Player: Most players in this game focus on pumping up their noise cancellation, often while sacrificing the actual sound of their headphones. AKG went the other route and decided to make an excellent pair of buds that just happened to be able to shut down the outside world. At least, to some degree. The earbuds themselves are markedly less bulky than other headphones of this breed, but despite the lesser size, the sound reproduction of even complicated audio tracks comes across well enough to keep most audiophiles happy. The implementation of an inline remote and mic is a welcome rarity that makes the overall operation outside of just passive listening far more enjoyable. The fact it works well with a wide array of phones and devices just adds to the appeal. Using a sleek box that charges via USB to carry the noise-reducing hardware is a nice touch, though we wish they’d packed a little more into it, since the reduction of external sound is only so-so.
Bose QuietComfort 20/20i
Pro: Will produce music even when noise-cancelling battery dies
Con: There are cheaper buds that produce better sound
The Grail: We don’t like to play favorites, since tastes vary across the board, but if you want the top of the line for small headphones that can cut all kinds of noise as well as many of their bigger brothers, there just isn’t anything that handles the job as well as the QuietComfort 20 and 20i. But you’re sure going to pay a hefty fee for the sound of that silence. First note that the difference between the 20 and 20i is the devices they work with. The 20i is meant for Apple devices with the 20 specializing in everything else. Powered by a rechargeable lithium battery that can go strong for more than 16 hours, the noise cancellation is without peer in the earbud market. The flanged bodies are also comfortable for long flights, so go ahead and take a trip down under without fear of pain. They bring some of Bose’s auditory magic, but won’t blow you out of your seat.