How to Choose the Right Headphone
Apple popularized the true wireless earbud category when it launched the original AirPods back in 2016, so it’s no surprise that interest in pairs with noise cancellation has seemed to increase with the release of the AirPods Pro. Noise cancellation helps to block out the sound around you, both passively by sealing off your ear canal, and actively through specialized circuitry (ANC, or active noise cancellation). Audio manufacturers are starting to bring noise cancellation over to the wire-free realm, and we’ve included the best pairs we’ve reviewed so far here.
The good news is that the results have often better than we expected, and in a few cases even fantastic. The unsurprising news is that, just as with standard wired and Bluetooth headphones that offer noise cancellation, there are definitely some stinkers out there. To help you figure out which pair is right for you, let’s take a look at some of the basics of true wireless and noise-cancelling technology and run through our current favorite models.
What Are True Wireless Earbuds?
The term “true wireless” refers to any in-ears that have two distinct earpieces without a cable connecting them. These cable-free earphones also come with a charging case that the earphones dock into to recharge. Most pairs only get about five to six hours of audio per charge—add in ANC and the lifespan gets lower. As a result, most cases include two full extra charges or more.
See How We Test Headphones
True wireless earphones can seal off the ear canal (this is usually the case, as it offers a more secure fit and better audio quality), or they can sit just outside the ear canal, with an open design, like earbuds. We have yet to review a pair in this latter style that we love—typically, not sealing off the ear canal means average-at-best audio. That’s why we’re much bigger fans of the AirPods Pro (which seal off the canal and have ANC) than we are of the standard AirPods (which don’t seal off the canal, don’t have ANC, and offer a far less consistent user experience).
What Is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)?
Active noise cancellation started off in over-ear and on-ear headphones, and can now be found in earphones, in both wired or wireless varieties. As the first word of the term suggests, active noise cancellation requires power, as opposed to passive noise reduction. The battery power feeds ANC circuitry that, using microphone signal feeds, creates a live, inverse signal of the surrounding noise. Just as a negative number added to its positive equivalent equals zero, the goal here is to offset the actual surrounding noise with inverse sound waves.
Does it work? Well, that depends on the manufacturer, and also the surrounding noise. Even good ANC is typically far more effective at tamping down low to mid frequencies, especially unchanging, drone-like sounds such as airplane and train rumble, or the whir of an AC unit. The very best ANC will do the same with some higher-frequency sounds, like office chatter, keyboard clicks, and the like. But these sounds are handled by a combination of the active circuitry and an in-ear seal.
Speaking of an in-ear seal, passive noise cancellation (or passive noise isolation, or passive noise reduction) uses the physical sealing-off of the ear canal to block out surrounding sound. There are no mics or batteries involved in this method, but it is in many ways more effective than active noise cancellation, as it helps in tamping down frequencies across the board. Earplugs still exist for a reason—they work.
Bad Noise Cancellation: What to Avoid
Lower-quality ANC will often reproduce an audible high-frequency hiss—like white noise or tape hiss—that masks some of the higher frequencies it can’t eliminate. The easiest way to tell if this is happening is to activate the ANC in a totally quiet environment—if it seems to make the noise floor louder, it’s adding in hiss. That said, most pairs we test add in some degree of hiss, but the lower the quality the ANC, the more notable it is.
Another aspect of low-quality ANC—especially in wireless headphones and earphones—is the difference in how music (or any audio) sounds when it is activated. The ANC shouldn’t change how music sounds at all, but some models we test produce wildly different sound signatures when the ANC is on, such as more bass, more treble, and higher volumes. It’s not that it sounds bad, necessarily, but quality ANC should have no impact on audio performance.
Ambient Monitoring Mode
Plenty of true wireless models include a feature that allows you to monitor your surroundings without removing the earpieces. This is useful in office scenarios, when traveling, and also comes in handy for runners who need to be aware of traffic and car horns. Not all true wireless pairs with an ambient monitoring mode also include noise cancellation, but most of the pairs we’ve tested do.
Many pairs will have on-ear controls that allow you to cycle through ANC and ambient monitoring modes. We include whether a pair of earphones includes this feature—along with how well it works—in each of our reviews.
How Much Should You Pay for Noise-Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds?
Unfortunately, true wireless technology is already relatively expensive when paired with quality drivers and compatibility with higher-quality Bluetooth codecs like AptX or AAC. Models that deliver on those fronts are typically already going to cost more than $100. Throw in ANC, and you can expect prices to get much higher.
It’s safe to assume that any true wireless earphones delivering quality audio and ANC is likely to cost more than $150, and closer to $200. As you can see, our favorite pair right now, Apple’s AirPods Pro, are also among most expensive.
That said, we’ve included pairs here for as many different budgets as possible, so you can find the one that works best for you. Check out our individual reviews to help you out, and once you’ve found the perfect pair, head over to our 5 easy tips to extend the life of your headphones.
Amazon Echo Buds
Pros: Hands-free Alexa voice control. Good active noise reduction. Clear, balanced sound. Comfortable fit.
Cons: Somewhat weak lows and highs. Limited controls. Not waterproof.
Bottom Line: Amazon’s Echo Buds are wire-free earphones with a lot of functionality for $130, including hands-free Alexa voice control and Bose-tuned active noise reduction.
Apple AirPods Pro
Pros: Strong audio performance. Quality active noise cancellation. Secure in-ear fit. Hands-free Siri access. Wireless charging case. Splash-resistant build.
Cons: Expensive. No on-ear volume controls. ANC and EQ aren’t adjustable.
Bottom Line: Apple’s true wireless AirPods Pro earphones are vastly superior to the standard model, with solid noise cancellation, quality audio performance, and a far better in-ear fit that justifies the extra cost.
Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus
Pros: Strong audio performance with rich bass depth. Stylish. Comfortable, secure fit. Strong battery life. Water-resistant. Good ANC and ambient listening modes.
Cons: Expensive. No app with EQ or ANC adjustments. No AAC Bluetooth codec support, just AptX/SBC.
Bottom Line: The pricey Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus true wireless earphones offer solid audio and noise cancellation with style to spare.
Ausounds AU Stream ANC
Pros: Solid audio performance with rich lows and clear highs. Decent ANC for the price. Solid mic intelligibility.
Cons: Limited on-ear controls. Light on accessories. Not for those seeking accurate sound signature.
Bottom Line: There are sexier options out there, but the AU Stream ANC true wireless earphones offer solid audio performance and noise cancellation for the price.
Edifier TWS NB
Pros: Deep bass response.
Decent noise cancellation for the price.
Secure in-ear fit.
Cons: Poor app.
Very sculpted sound signature.
On-ear buttons lack volume controls.
Bottom Line: The Edifier TWS NB true wireless earphones deliver decent noise cancellation and booming bass for a relatively low price, but the sound signature is sculpted to extremes.
Pros: Excellent noise cancellation. Strong audio performance, with adjustable EQ.
Cons: On-ear controls can be a pain to operate. Half-baked Google Assistant implementation.
Bottom Line: Sony’s WF-1000XM3 true wireless earphones deliver excellent noise cancellation and strong audio performance, tempered by some easily avoidable shortcomings.
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