Travellers know that when it comes to making journeys more bearable, good noise-cancelling headphones can make the difference.
Active noise cancelling (ANC) headphones use microphones located on the ear cups to detect incoming unwanted sound and blast the inverse of that sound out of the earphones. The sound waves overlap, cancelling each other out and silencing outside noise.
Most noise-cancelling technology is designed to block out the drone of aircraft, road noise or hum of computers, placing a veil of silence over the ears allowing listeners to clearly hear the music without the volume needing to be turned up to 11. But hundreds of ANC headphones are available, making choosing the right pair hard.
Here’s a quick guide to six of the best to suit almost any budget.
Digital Silence DS-321D
Both the smallest and cheapest in this selection, these are surprisingly effective at blocking background noise, and put some higher priced rivals to shame. They fit snugly in the ear and block out background noise with rubber earbuds in addition to the ANC. They also sound reasonably good for in-ear headphones, with crisp reproduction of music and voices but lacking real deep bass.
A battery pack on the cable just before the headphone jack powers the electronics and is about the size of a thumb with a sturdy clip on the back.
Monitor mode, allowing wearers to hear announcements, is activated at a touch of a button on the battery pack, while an in-line remote on the cable has a pause/play button and a microphone for using it as a headset with a smartphone.
They give approximately 14 hours of use, but will continue to play music when the battery runs flat, albeit without noise cancelling. A full charge via microUSB takes two hours.
Verdict: small, cheap and surprisingly good ANC on a budget.
Sennheiser PXC 250-II
Light, compact, on-ear headphones that are comfortable to wear and collapse like a pair of reading glasses for travel. The small ear cups do little to passively block out noise, but the noise cancelling is effective at silencing background drone.
They have a well-rounded sound, characteristic of Sennheiser headphones, with accurate highs and crisp treble. Bass is not overly powerful as you might expect from the small speakers.
The main detractor is the bulky battery pack, which takes a single AAA battery lasting approximately 50 hours. It has a clip on the back and an analogue volume control wheel.
Verdict: small, compact headphones but bulky battery pack is annoying.
A mid-range set with full-size over-ear cups. Unlike smaller headphones, the ear cups hold all the electronics and an AAA battery to power the electronics for up to 40 hours, removing the need for a separate box connected to the cable.
The headphones are light and have soft foam ear pads – comfortable to wear for extended periods like a seven-hour plane journey.
The left-hand cup has an on-off switch, a volume slider and a pause-play button, along with a glowing blue light when the ANC is active. The headphones work without power and the cable is removable.
The noise cancelling is decent at blocking drone, but fails to block chatter or other non-background noise and the headphones are not great at blocking noise passively.
Audio quality is average, with clear and accurate mid-range, but harsh highs and a lack of real bass despite the size of the headphones.
Verdict: light and comfortable, but noise cancelling and sound quality could be better.
- Others to consider: Ultimate Ears 9000
Plantronics Backbeat Pro
The Plantronics Backbeat Pro are Bluetooth noise-cancelling headphones, connecting wirelessly to two smartphones, tablets or computers simultaneously. They will also work with a removable cable, and continue to play music when the battery is flat.
The large, soft, over-ear cups and foam-padded headband are comfortable. The left-hand cup has a pause-play button and a track-skip jog dial. The right cup has a large volume dial, an audio monitor button and a call handling button. The volume dial is particularly intuitive and satisfying to use.
Noise cancelling is effective at blocking out more ambient noise than the Audio-Technica ANC70s, while the thick ear cups passively mute talking and other noises.
Solid, deep bass, accurate mids and highs produce a warm, rounded sound. The battery lasts for 24 hours with noise cancelling over Bluetooth and up to 60 without ANC active. Sensors in the headphones also pause the music and turn off noise cancelling when taking them off to save battery.
Verdict: comfortable, good noise blocking and wireless with punchy sound.
- Others to consider: Beats Studio Wireless, Parrot Zik
Bose QuietComfort 20
The Bose QuietComfort 20 earphones are the best in-ear noise-cancelling headphones money can buy.
They have a thin but long and wide 16-hour battery pack, which can be awkward in a pocket, and an in-line music remote with monitor button and a microphone for taking calls.
The soft silicone ear buds have hooks for securing them in the ear and are comfortable for long wearing periods. They have solid bass, accurate highs and punchy treble, sounding a cut above the Digital Silence DS-321D, but do not sound quite as good as earphones without noise cancelling costing £260.
The QC20s have impressive noise cancelling, and are very good at blocking both background drone and foreground noises like people talking – significantly more than most full-size noise cancelling headphones.
Verdict: the best noise-cancelling earphones, but very expensive.
- Others to consider: Sony XBA-NC85D
Bose QuietComfort 25
The just released QC25s are Bose’s new flagship noise-cancelling headphones. The large cup earphones and padded band across the head are comfortable, while they are light for extended wear. They have quite a firm grip on the head that some might find uncomfortable.
The QC25s have good passive sound blocking, while their noise cancelling is unparalleled, silencing more ambient background noise than any other headphone tested.
A single AAA battery lasts 35 hours. Once it runs out the headphones still play music, but sound muted. The headphone cable is removable and has an in-line remote.
The soundscape of the headphones is open and less direct into your ears than many headphones, which should make listening to them for long periods easier. Treble, highs and bass are accurate, but lack energy with a more neutral balance – people looking for deep, rumbling bass will have to look elsewhere. Better-sounding headphones are available without noise cancelling at £270.
Verdict: the best noise cancelling with decent sound but at a high price.
This article was written by Samuel Gibbs, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 28th October 2014 06.00 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010