In the last few months, we've seen the widespread ‘democratisation' of active noise cancellation (ANC) technology, with a number of affordable headphones 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 with ANC are regularly available for under Rs. 2,000. There are quite a few budget TWS options with ANC from brands such as Realme and OnePlus.
For anyone who regularly travels by air, active noise cancellation technology in headphones is a boon. It 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 for it, such as when travelling in a train or bus, in an office environment, or even at home where sounds from a ceiling fan or an air conditioner can be distracting.
Naturally, the best ANC performance is generally found on high-end products, with brands such as Sony, Apple, Samsung, and JBL 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, including the recently launched Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro.
Before we get to the list, we should start with an explanation of the technology itself, and how it works. Active noise cancellation works by picking up the sounds of your surroundings and creating ‘reverse' frequencies to cancel them out. 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 have a steady pitch, since the microphones can pick up and reverse these frequencies far better without interfering with what you actually want to hear. Irregular sounds such as voices, honking of a car horn, and anything that isn't uniform, won't get cancelled very effectively. Therefore, active noise cancellation isn't the same as sound-proofing; it simply reduces noise in certain environments rather than blocking it completely.
The best way to enjoy music is with no other sounds in the background, so you can concentrate on what you're listening to and pick up on the finer details in the track that might otherwise get drowned out. Unfortunately, this isn't always possible, especially with headphones; 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 equally well for many situations on the ground too, such as if you need to concentrate on something in a noisy environment.
Here are our top picks for some of the best active noise cancelling headphones and earphones in the Indian market.
Part of the well-regarded 1000X lineup, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is the latest and best wireless over-ear noise cancelling headset you can buy right now, in our opinion. With a more comfortable and efficient design, along with improvements in sound quality and active noise cancellation, the WH-1000XM5 offers class-leading performance that truly sets it apart from the competition.
The active noise cancellation on the Sony WH-1000XM5 worked well both indoors and outdoors, and was particularly effective against wind noise. Even with music playing at low volumes, not much ambient sound could be heard.
Sound quality is a key factor as well, with the Sony WH-1000XM5 supporting the LDAC Bluetooth codec in addition to SBC and AAC. This makes it particularly well suited to use with an Android smartphone, and Sony's tweaks to LDAC and the headset itself have significantly improved connection stability.
There are some drawbacks on the WH-1000XM5 compared to the XM4 before it; the new design no longer lets you fold it into a more compact form, and the improvements don't necessarily justify the higher price. However, objectively, there is no better pair of wireless active noise cancelling headphones than the Sony WH-1000XM5 right now.
Active noise cancelling headphones have seldom been viewed as luxury products, but the Apple AirPods Max hopes to change that. Officially 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, besides the obviously high price and the dependence on Apple source devices, such as the odd power controls, below-average battery life, and the rather silly bundled 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.
If you're looking at options beyond what Sony and Apple have to offer, the JBL Tour One is a decent pair of active noise cancelling headphones to consider. Priced at Rs. 24,999, the JBL Tour One looks good, is very comfortable, and has a great app with lots of customisation options.The headphones also offer excellent battery life, and a clean and balanced sonic signature. The sleek form factor, in particular, helps to set this headset apart from the competition.
Active noise cancellation, while decent, isn't quite as impressive as on the flagship Sony and Apple headsets, and touch controls are a bit fiddly. However, this is a worthwhile option to consider if you're looking for balanced and enjoyable sound, and serves as a more reasonably priced alternative to the Apple AirPods Max, if you intend to use the headset with an iPhone.
Even though the original Apple AirPods Pro remain immensely relevant even today, our recommendation for the best true wireless earphones is naturally the AirPods Pro (2nd Gen). Although the new earphones don't look much different, there are significant changes under the hood that makes the 2nd Gen variant so good.
The biggest change is the H2 chip that powers the earphones, and delivers better active noise cancellation performance, sound quality, and fast connectivity. It's also worth noting that the charging case itself sees some improvements, including a built-in speaker and the ability to track and view battery level information from your iPhone.
Apart from the excellent ANC, the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd Gen) also has an improved transparency mode, ensuring a natural hear-through that sounds as if you don't even have earphones on. The only real drawback here is that AirPods are worth considering only if you have an Apple iPhone to use them with, as Android users won't be able to use all of the features available.
Sony's excellent active noise cancellation technology scales well for its lower-priced models too, and the WH-XB910N offers decent ANC performance in the mid-range segment. Priced at Rs. 14,999, the Sony WH-XB910N is decent, putting the excellent noise isolation of the fit and padding of the earcups to good use.
Apart from ANC, the headphones offer Sony's unique ‘Extra Bass' tuning, making this a noise cancellation headset for bass lovers. The punchy and aggressive sound is complemented by good levels of detail, thanks to LDAC Bluetooth codec support on the Sony WH-XB910N. The headphones also have very good battery life, making this a worthwhile option to consider for good ANC under Rs. 15,000.
Although there are much more affordable options with active noise cancellation, the OnePlus Buds Z2 is among the most affordable options to offer truly decent performance with ANC. Priced at Rs. 4,999, the OnePlus Buds Z2 offers a good level of noise reduction, both indoors and outdoors, thereby offering better experiences with music and calls.
Sound quality on the headset is decent as well, with the OnePlus Buds Z2 pushing out bass-friendly, aggressive sound that is a lot of fun to listen to with the right kind of tracks. There's also decent battery life and fast charging, although some features on this headset such as Dolby Atmos and low-latency gaming mode only work with a OnePlus smartphone. Even if you don't have a OnePlus smartphone, the Buds Z2 is still worth the price.
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 this technology as well, we've chosen only the top-rated products in our primary picks, based on reviews and our experiences with them.
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 for the sake of having it, with a sub-par headset.
Nonetheless, we have mentioned some of the other options in the category below that are also worth considering.
Sony WH-1000XM4: Although the Sony WH-1000XM5 is newer and better, the Sony WH-1000XM4 remains a capable headset for active noise cancellation, and is usually available at a discounted price.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3: Although the active noise cancellation on the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 isn't the best there is, it's still pretty good. Sound quality is decent as well.
Samsung Galaxy Buds 2 Pro: Samsung's newest true wireless headset sees some big improvements, particularly with the ANC and sound quality.
Nothing Ear 1: Among the most hyped launches in the true wireless segment, the Nothing Ear 1 largely lives up to expectations and offers a good overall experience, with good active noise cancellation for the price.