Besides the iPad, iPhone, and MacBook (alongside their Google and Microsoft similars), the next most expensive investment in the workspace bundle is usually a quality pair of noise cancelling headphones.
There are hundreds of noise-cancelling headphones, and thousands of headphones in general. And there is no doubt that it is extremely easy to get overwhelmed when it comes time to purchasing a new set of ear cans.
So how do you choose the best noise cancelling headphones for you?
For choosing the best headphones you should evaluate features based on the level of noise cancellation, size, battery life, comfort, portability, sound, and voice assistance.
With over 15 years of experiencing noise cancellation in dozens of headphones that I have owned, I realize that the technology has improved to the point that it has become a necessity in everyone’s portfolio of gadgets.
I lay out a simple, easy to follow guide below that lays out a few tips you can watch for so that your next noise cancellation headphone purchase is one that you are happy with for a long time.
1. Noise “Isolation” vs Noise “Cancellation”
In previous years most headphones were marketed as having “noise isolation” technology, specifically those that has ear bud or in-ear configurations.
Noise isolation and its marketing is still present in many headphone models today and is achieved through a physical, non-powered and passive means of blocking outside noise out.
For example: silicone earbuds, an ear cup that seals on your ear, or a larger one that seals around your ear can be considered noise isolating as long as they are reducing outside noise.
However “noise cancellation” is and active-powered technology that utilizes a Digital Signal Processor (DSP) feature.
This drives an internal microphone within the headphone to produce frequencies that are opposite of any current noise outside so that they effectively cancel each other out.
Not that long ago, noise cancelling headphones used to be quite unreliable, AA or AAA battery draining, bulky, and very expensive.
But the technology has rapidly advanced since and the headphones are now becoming some of the best selling gadgets of all time.
If you haven’t yet, now is the time you should consider making the switch to purchasing noise cancelling headphones, as they are much more comfortable, reliable, and sound great overall.
2. Headphone Size
Most noise-cancelling headphones on the market have ear cups that surround your entire ear, also known as “around ear headphones”.
These headphones are at the top end of the size spectrum and are visibly larger than its on-ear or earbud cousins.
Although the noise cancellation technology is trickling down to smaller sized headphones, most of your options still fall in the largest size category.
The benefit to having noise cancelling headphones along with an around-ear setup is that the near physical seal of the cushion around your ear allows an additional physical and passive barrier to the sounds around you. This benefits the ability of the noise cancellation feature to work tremendously.
Also consider the size of the ear cans themselves.
For some people this slight size difference is not a big deal, as they prefer comparing other features over this one. However, if size and style both matter to you, then it won’t hurt looking at their dimensions, or better yet trying them on before buying.
3. Battery Life
I am proud to say that the battery life of these headphones today are much better than the alkaline energy drainers of old.
Thanks to great improvements in Li-ion (lithium ion) technology, battery life is extended by hours and charges to mostly full are faster than ever.
As a quick example: the Beats Studio3 Wireless have a “Fast Fuel” feature that gives it 3 hours of playing time after being plugged in for just 10 minutes from a low battery.
So if low battery syndrome and crowded charging stations are a story that resonate with you, then these may be the pair to check out.
Overall, battery life is very good across most well-known noise cancelling brands.
As long as you remember to fully charge these headphones, there should be no problem using them throughout a long haul flight or lengthy road trip.
Similar to the battery life throughout these units, the amount of comfort has improved leaps and bounds over previous generations.
Gone are stiff and cheap cushions that used to give headaches to now having plush, soft leather that pads around the ear like your favorite pillow at night.
Gone also are the harsh cement-like head bands with little to no cushion, where now there’s slim surrounds with extra padding to the point that it feels like you’re not wearing headphones anymore.
With that being said, they are still larger headphones that weigh a little more than on-ear or ear bud setups.
Also everyone’s heads and ears are different too. So what one model may feel extremely comfortable to one person, someone else may prefer another model for its comfort.
To be absolutely sure that a certain pair of noise-cancellation headphones are comfortable for you, be sure to read the reviews of people that have worn them before, or even better, try them on to make sure they match your specific preference.
I notice a lot of people will try on noise cancelling headphones and take them off right away. I don’t normally recommend this because around ear headphones are known for giving off more heat than smaller units since they encompass and seal that area, thus reducing airflow.
Instead, try wearing them for an entire tv show or podcast episode if you can. Then you will be able to determine how the cushions form to your ear over longer periods of wear and how much heat a specific model is felt versus another.
Although noise cancelling headphones are roughly the same size in dimension, their portability differs because they fold in various fashions (or not at all).
If you are planning on traveling a lot with these headphones then portability should be near the top of your list while shopping.
One area that you want to pay attention to is where or how the ear cups twist or hinge to make the headphone more portable.
In some cases the ear cups will only twist in its place, forming a pancake-like shape in its most portable form. Other models have ear cups that hinge along the headband so that it folds into itself and make a more round shape.
Another evaluation worth mentioning is the type of case that comes included with the headphone. Some units come with a lightweight, soft case while other have a harder clam shell style.
If you know you are going to stuff this headphone in a bag with other heavy items, the models with the hard clam shell case are highly recommended.
In almost all instances these cases zip shut so that the headphones are protected from light nicks or scratches.
This is a subject that really comes down to preference, as most noise-cancelling brands have thoroughly improved sound quality in conjunction with blocking outside noise at the same time.
If budget is no obstacle, Bang & Olufsen is known by the industry as producing some of the clearest, broadest spectrum sounds on the planet, and its Beoplay H9 Wireless are some of the best performing on the market.
Sony and Beats are generally known as favoring bass and warmer mids, great for electronic, R&B, and hip-hop.
Bose has always been known as aiming to produce the most natural sound that came from the source, and in doing so usually produces clearer treble and milder, yet still present bass undertones. Great for country, rock, and podcasts with voice.
Like fine wine, it is ultimately up to you how you prefer the sound of these, as there are many schools of thought and tastes for which models sound “better” than the others.
Some newer models even feature customization where you can alter the bass, treble, and mids through an equalizer to your liking, while others give you the same sound the way it came out of the box.
Another factor to consider is the level and sound of the noise cancellation across each brand, as the technology does vary somewhat.
Lower-end noise cancelling headphones produce a consistent frequency that aims to eliminate most humming and low-end noise from the environment.
Higher-end models, on the other hand, feature an “adaptive noise cancelling” feature that varies the level of blockage based on how much noise is present around you.
Adaptive noise cancellation can create a more comfortable and better sounding experience for the user, as counter-frequency level can slightly muffle the audio through the headphones.
7. Voice Assistant
Smartphones, tablets, and laptops have voice assistants that can help with a myriad of tasks. Now that same voice assistant can come pre-built into your noise cancelling headphones.
If you are currently using a certain voice assistant, then it is worth evaluating which brand carries who when it comes to the capabilities of voice assistance.
Apple, for instance, is starting to integrate their voice assistant, Siri, into Beats noise cancelling headphones so that instead of activating the feature via the iPhone or iPad you can just call it up with the command through your headphones.
Bose and Sony also have several models that feature Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant and can quickly initialize via a tap, command or swipe.
Most noise-cancelling headphones are marketing these voice assistants up front, so there should be no problem finding out which one a certain headphone comes with.
Don’t forget to inventory any speakers or smart devices you may currently have in your gadget arsenal that also have voice assistants
Matching voice assistants are compatible to work alongside one another to accomplish a task, like taking notes, marking a calendar, or setting a reminder.
So as long as you are using the same Alexa account on your headphone as your smart speaker, they can both call up the same notes, timers, and reminders, making life a whole lot more efficient.