In the last few months, we’ve seen the widespread ‘democratisation’ of active noise cancellation (ANC) technology, with a number of affordable products launching with this feature. It’s now possible to buy a decent pair of active noise cancelling true wireless earphones for under Rs. 3,000, and neckband-style wireless options are regularly available for under Rs. 2,000. To reflect this shift in the trend, we’ve added the Rs. 2,499 Realme Buds Q2 to our list of recommendations, which now sits alongside some of our earlier picks in the premium space.
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 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.
Naturally, the best performance is found on high-end options, with brands such as Sony, Apple, and Bose dominating the space of late. 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.
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.
For a more detailed explanation, check out our guide on getting started with active noise cancellation.
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.
The best active noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4
Once the best active noise cancelling headphones you could buy, the Sony WH-1000XM3 recently lost out to newer and better competition. However, Sony has now launched the WH-1000XM4, which sees the crown go back to the Japanese electronics specialist. Priced at Rs. 29,990, the Sony WH-1000XM4 combines excellent noise cancellation with class-leading wireless sound quality.
Although Sony has used the same noise cancelling processor on the WH-1000XM4 as on its predecessor, tweaks to the algorithm have made a small but noticeable difference that puts the headset largely on par with, and on occasion, even above the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 when it comes to the quality of the noise cancellation. Thanks to the excellent companion app, the level of noise cancellation and hear-through are adjustable, along with various other aspects of the headset.
Where the Sony truly triumphs is in audio quality; this is an insightful, detailed, and very entertaining pair of headphones that captures the essence of practically any track you play. Much of this is thanks to support for the LDAC Bluetooth codec, which lets the headphones extract as much as possible out of your audio tracks. It isn’t quite as insightful as the Shure Aonic 50, but is much more engaging, with more character.
Perhaps the only drawback of the Sony WH-1000XM4 is its lack of support for the Qualcomm aptX codec, which will impact sound quality when used with source devices that don’t support the LDAC codec. The Sony WH-1000XM4 gets everything else right, and is our new top pick among wireless active noise cancelling headphones.
Runner-up – premium experience: Apple AirPods Max
Active noise cancelling headphones have seldom been viewed as luxury products, but the Apple AirPods Max hopes to change that. Priced at Rs. 59,900 – significantly higher than much of the similarly positioned competition – the AirPods Max is expensive, but promises a lot if you’re already in the Apple ecosystem. This includes easy and quick connectivity including the ability to seamlessly transition between other Apple products, customisation features, good sound, and very effective active noise cancellation.
The entire experience screams luxury with the Apple AirPods Max, from the use of premium materials and build quality, to the excellent and flexible sonic signature that adjusts on the fly to make any genre sound good. Active noise cancellation is powerful and largely on par with the best in the segment. Where the ANC does fall short is in its lack of adjustability; it’s either on at its full intensity, or off.
There are a few other negatives worth noting beyond the obviously high price and the dependence on Apple source devices, such as the odd power controls, below average battery life, and rather silly Smart Case. However, the overall experience is good, and the excellent active noise cancellation makes this a pair of headphones worth owning if you have a high-end iPhone and other Apple devices.
Runner up – premium sound: Shure Aonic 50
Professional audio brand Shure is best known for its studio-grade equipment, but the Shure Aonic 50 is part of a new approach by the brand to appeal to retail consumers. Priced at Rs. 33,999, the Aonic 50 is a technically advanced wireless headset that offers everything you could want from a pair of high-end headphones.
There are two levels of active noise cancellation, which can be customised through a companion app for the headphones. A slider switch on the headphones lets you quickly move between ambient sound mode, active noise cancellation, and no effect, and the differences in sound are audible and distinct. The ‘Max’ level of noise cancellation is effective, but we found it a bit too stark; the ‘Normal’ level offered a more comfortable listening experience. Active noise cancellation is good on the whole, but just a bit short of the better all-round experience offered by the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
Where the Shure Aonic 50 truly comes into its element is sound quality. With support for all major codecs including advanced options such as LDAC and Qualcomm aptX HD, along with excellent studio-grade tuning, the Shure Aonic 50 is the most analytical, revealing, and detailed pair of wireless headphones we’ve heard. It’s also built beautifully, and offers an exceptional all-round listening experience that combines modern features, technical superiority, and great sound.
Best true wireless noise cancelling earphones: Apple AirPods Pro
Till last year, the idea of good active noise cancellation combined with the true wireless form factor wasn’t considered realistic. However, various options have proven that it can be done, including the Apple AirPods Pro. Priced at Rs. 24,900, the Apple AirPods Pro offers effective and highly functional active noise cancellation despite the small size.
All of this is carried out by multiple microphones and Apple’s custom H1 chip, which processes data from the microphones to properly cancel out noise. Although the result naturally doesn’t come close to the stark silence of the Bose and Shure options, there is an audible reduction in noise which makes this a sensible option given its price and form factor. Another big pro is the transparency mode, which offers the most natural hear-through effect we’ve heard on any wireless headset.
To top it all off, the AirPods Pro sounds pretty good as well. These true wireless earphones from Apple are responsive, flexible, and consistent when it comes to sound quality, offering good performance across genres and source devices. Some functionality is limited to Apple’s own devices, but you can use the AirPods Pro effectively even with Windows PCs and Android devices.
Best mid-range noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-CH710N
The successor to the Sony WH-CH700N, the WH-CH710N offers effective noise cancellation for less than Rs. 10,000. The noise cancellation isn’t anywhere near as effective and stark as with the premium options in this list, but it’s entirely usable and functional both indoors and outdoors.
Sound quality on the Sony WH-CH710N is decent as well, and you get class-leading battery life, with the headphones running for over 30 hours with active noise cancellation switched on in our tests. This is our top pick among wireless headphones priced under Rs. 10,000, and good noise cancellation is a big reason for it.
Best Affordable ANC: Realme Buds Q2
A year ago, if someone had suggested that you can have good active noise cancelling true wireless earphones priced at Rs. 2,500, we’d have laughed it off as a joke. However, it’s now possible, with the Realme Buds Q2 offering functional active noise cancellation and a decent overall true wireless experience for Rs. 2,499. Although far from the quality you can expect on high-end true wireless earphones, the Realme Buds Q2 has made it possible for budget buyers to access this once-expensive audio technology.
The Realme Buds Q2 is a decent pair of true wireless earphones, with acceptable sound quality, good looks and battery life, and useful app support through the excellent Realme Link app. Although the earphones do have some drawbacks in terms of sound quality, it’s hard to find a better value-for-money offering with active noise cancellation right now.
How we picked these noise cancelling headphones
We’ve limited our picks for this guide to what we consider the best options for active noise cancellation. While there are more affordable options available with the technology as well, we’ve chosen only the top-rated products in our primary picks, based on reviews and our experiences with them and this technology over the years.
Active noise cancellation is still an expensive technology, and the best options remain relatively pricey as compared to most ordinary headsets. Affordable options do exist, but don’t quite offer as good an experience in our opinion, and it may be better to save up and invest in a good option later, rather than simply buy into the technology with a sub-par headset.
Nonetheless, we have mentioned some of the other options in the category below. These may be available at lower prices and could be worth looking at if you’re on a tight budget.
Sony WH-1000XM3: Still widely considered among the best wireless noise cancelling headphones around, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is unfortunately dated and not quite the top dog anymore. The Sony WH-1000XM4 is expected soon, and could well match up to the Bose and Shure options when it comes to both sound quality and active noise cancellation.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2: Purely on musicality and the listening experience, there’s no better pair of true wireless earphones you can buy right now than the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. Good active noise cancellation is an added bonus.
Sony WF-1000XM3: Only recently launched in India, the Sony WF-1000XM3 brings its flagship-level active noise cancellation to the true wireless form factor. There’s also a promise of very good battery life with these earphones.
Nothing Ear 1: Among the most hyped launches in the true wireless segment this year, the Nothing Ear 1 largely lives up to expectations and offers a good overall experience for Rs. 5,999, with good active noise cancellation for the price.