How to Choose Noise-Cancelling Headphones

author avatar

Anders Lindsborg

Apr 28, 2023   •  11 min reading time


Table of contents

  • Type of Noise Cancellation

  • Headphone Style

  • Sound Quality

  • Battery Life

  • Corded Vs Cordless Headphones

  • Comfort and Adjustability

  • Connectivity Options

  • Water Resistance

  • Portability

  • Bonus Features

  • Wrapping Up

Noise-cancelling headphones are fairly complex products, but they are also incredible useful. Choosing the right pair of noise-cancelling headphones depends on how you use them and what kind of environment you find yourself listening in most often.

If you want to make an informed decision about noise-cancelling headphones, you’ve come to the right place. Below, we’ll explore each important feature of noise-cancelling headphones, how they relate to each other, and how your lifestyle influences what the best noise-cancelling headphones are for you.

Type of Noise Cancellation

There are two types of noise cancellation that can be built into noise-cancelling headphones: active noise cancellation and passive noise cancellation.

Passive noise cancellation will be the cheaper option in every headphone style as it doesn’t rely on sophisticated technology, but it also won’t be able to provide the same quality of sound as active noise-cancelling headphones.

Passive noise-cancelling headphones work by design only. Ear cups and additional padding help muffle the sound from the environment. This can be fairly effective for low frequency sounds, but it can’t compete with higher frequencies.

If you want to invest a bit more in a pair of noise cancelling headphones in order to improve its noise cancellation abilities, active noise cancellation is the way to go. Active noise cancellation uses microphones to detect the frequency of a noise and then produce an opposite phase sound wave in order to cancel it out.

This type of noise cancellation is incredibly effective for both low and high frequency sounds and it is equally successful in each style of headphone, from earbuds to over-ear headphones. Active noise-cancelling headphones, also known as ANC headphones, will cost more than models that use passive technology, but the difference in the noise cancellation is worth it for many individuals.

Headphone Style

Headphone style is one of the most diversifying features for most headphone users. Some individuals are committed to sleek and portable earbuds, others prefer cushy and all-encompassing over-ear headphones. On-ear headphones are the middle ground that rest comfortably on your ear but don’t completely enclose them.

Over-ear noise-cancelling headphones will offer the best noise cancellation, as they can easily make use of both passive and active noise cancellation. However, they are also the least portable style and can be too bulky for some environments; these are the main downsides of over-ear headphones. Since they trap sound incredibly well, you’ll also have to watch the volume of the audio to prevent damage to your hearing.

On-ear noise-cancelling headphones are the headphones that rest flat on the ear, and as a result, they may cause some uncomfortable pressure with extended wear times. However, they are also fairly effective at both passive and active noise cancellation. Their smaller, lightweight design is a bonus for people that travel frequently with their headphones.

Noise-cancelling earbuds will be the most portable option, but users will also find their noise-cancelling abilities don’t quite meet the same standard. If you choose this style, you’ll have to ensure they are fitted correctly in order to be useful, and ensure you give your ears a break occasionally to prevent soreness.

Sound Quality

Although the main reason people choose to buy noise-cancelling headphones is to block out sounds from their surroundings, the sound quality delivered by the headphones is also a highly important consideration, in our opinion.

For the most part, every pair of headphones will offer adequate sound quality for listening to shows, videos, or podcasts, but the quality is much more variable when it comes to music. If listening to music is your main headphone-using activity, you’ll want to consider the sound profile of the headphones in terms of treble clarity, bass response, and more.

Battery Life

When purchasing wireless headphones, battery life is one of the most crucial features to consider. While most wireless noise-cancelling headphones come with an average of 15-30 hours of runtime per charge, there are some more advanced models that offer a 60-hour or even 84-hour battery life to ensure your headphones can go the distance.

Keep in mind that ANC headphones will use up their battery power faster than passive models, so you may need to invest in a pair of headphones with a longer battery life if you’ll be listening for longer sessions.

Corded Vs Cordless Headphones

No matter what style of headphones you choose to go with, you’ll have to make a decision between corded and cordless. With cordless noise-cancelling headphones, you’ll have to consider battery life and charge time to make sure your headphones are always usable. This is a bit of a hassle, but cordless models are also a lot more versatile and convenient during activity.

When it comes to corded noise-cancelling headphones, the main downside is cord management. If you’re listening to wired headphones while exercising, you’ll have to take care not to get tangled up; the bouncing of a cord can also be an aggravation. Despite these annoyances, many people still prefer wired models over wireless noise-cancelling headphones since the runtime is not determined by the battery life and it offers more connectivity options to other equipment types.

Comfort and Adjustability

A correct fit is key to the effectiveness of noise cancellation technology and a comfortable listening experience. Purchasing noise-cancelling headphones that offer extra padding, adjustable headbands, or multiple sizes of earbud tips will guarantee you can always listen to you audio in comfort. Choosing lightweight but durable materials such as aluminum is a great way to get a lot of value and longevity in addition to long-term comfort.

Connectivity Options

Many noise-cancelling headphones come with additional connectivity options that go above and beyond the standard single-phone Bluetooth or wired connection. One of the most popular features of noise-cancelling headphones is compatibility with voice assistants such as Siri or Alexa; they allow you to make calls and control the audio hands-free.

Many noise-cancelling headphones also offer multipoint connectivity; this means the headphones can pair with a number of different devices rather than just one. You’ll be able to switch between devices seamlessly. This should be a priority feature for anyone that frequently swaps their listening device.

Water Resistance

When it comes to choosing the right pair of headphones, you need to avoid models that aren’t compatible with the environment you intend on using them in, such as rainy weather or sweat-inducing workouts.

The water resistance rating of a pair of headphones can range from completely vulnerable to water to able to be submerged without harm. Most often, noise-cancelling headphones come with a rating of IPX4, meaning it can withstand splashes and small amounts of sweat. If you are an extra cautious individual, a rating of IPX6 or IPX7 is ideal.


Portability isn’t the most important feature of noise-cancelling headphones, but it can have a sizeable impact on the user experience if this aspect isn’t a good fit. For example, if you frequently travel with your headphones but choose an over-ear model, the bulkiness may become trying. Similarly, if you purchase wireless earbuds but it doesn’t come with a carrying case, they may get lost quite often.

Ensure you are considering each feature of portability (case, weight, and size) before committing to a purchase to avoid frustration down the line.

Bonus Features

As if the above list does not cover enough features already, there are a few bonus features to consider when looking at noise-cancelling headphones. They likely won’t make or break a purchase decision, but with the variety on the market, it may help narrow down the options or highlight a pair of noise-cancelling headphones you love more than the rest.

Quick Charge

For many users of wireless noise-cancelling headphones, a short battery life can quickly become a disaster when paired with a forgetful nature. For this reason, some cordless headphones are equipped with a quick charge system that will provide multiple hours of play time with only a few minutes of charging.

Integrated Microphone

The noise cancelling abilities of a pair of headphones can also translate to outgoing call quality on models with an integrated microphone. An integrated microphone, especially one outfitted with noise reduction technology, can be a life changer for remote workers and social butterflies in crowded environments.

Multiple Sound Modes

Using noise-cancelling headphones for outdoor exercise can become a dangerous situation, as you can’t be aware of anything around you. For this reason, many headphones with microphones are equipped with an additional sound mode known as ambient mode.

This will amplify surrounding sounds such as important announcements or the sound of traffic/passersby to ensure you stay safe and connected without removing the headphones.

Customizable Audio

Some noise-cancelling headphones will come with a companion app or built-in equalizers that allow you to customize the audio experience and sound quality.

Wrapping Up

While there is a lot that goes into how to choose the best noise-cancelling headphones, everyone is capable of finding their ideal model with enough understanding of the features and how they affect the listening experience. The main considerations should be passive vs active noise cancellation, choosing the right style of headphones, and finding a comfortable fit.