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. The Rs. 2,499 Realme Buds Q2 is a good example of functional ANC at an affordable price, as is the OnePlus Buds Z2 which offers decent ANC performance under Rs. 5,000.
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, 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 Sony WF-1000XM4.
What is active noise cancellation?
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.
Why should you buy active noise cancelling headphones?
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.
The best active noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-1000XM4
The Sony WH-1000XM4 retains its position at the top of our list of the best active noise cancelling headphones and earphones, despite its age. Officially priced at Rs. 29,990, the Sony WH-1000XM4 combines excellent noise cancellation with class-leading wireless sound quality.
Although Sony has used the same noise cancelling processor on the WH-1000XM4 as on its predecessor, the WH-1000XM3, tweaks to the algorithm have made a small but noticeable difference that puts the headset ahead of the competition in this segment. Thanks to the excellent companion app, the level of noise cancellation and hear-through are adjustable, along with various other aspects of the headset.
Where the Sony truly triumphs is in audio quality; this is an insightful, detailed, and very entertaining pair of headphones that captures the essence of practically any track you play. Much of this is thanks to support for the LDAC Bluetooth codec, which lets the headphones extract as much as possible out of your audio tracks, and comes in handy when listening to high-resolution audio.
Perhaps the only drawback of the Sony WH-1000XM4 is its lack of support for the Qualcomm aptX codec, which will impact sound quality when used with source devices that don’t support the LDAC codec. The Sony WH-1000XM4 gets everything else right, and remains our top pick among wireless active noise cancelling headphones.
Runner-up – premium experience: Apple AirPods Max
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.
Best of the rest: JBL Tour One
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.
Best true wireless noise cancelling earphones: Apple AirPods Pro
The idea of good active noise cancellation combined with the true wireless form factor wasn’t considered realistic until recently. However, various options in the past couple of years have proven that it can be done well, including the Apple AirPods Pro. Officially priced at Rs. 24,900, the Apple AirPods Pro offers effective and capable active noise cancellation despite the size.
The fantastic ANC performance is possible thanks to multiple microphones and Apple’s custom H1 chip, which processes data from the microphones to properly cancel out background noise. Although the results don’t come close to the quality offered by good over-ear options, there is a considerable reduction in noise which makes this a sensible option given its price and form factor. Another big pro is the transparency mode, which offers the most natural hear-through effect we’ve heard on any wireless headset.
To top it all off, the AirPods Pro sounds pretty good too. These true wireless earphones from Apple are responsive, flexible, and consistent when it comes to sound quality, offering good performance across genres and source devices. Some functionality is limited to Apple’s own devices, but you can use the AirPods Pro effectively even with Windows PCs and Android devices if you like.
Best mid-range active noise cancelling headphones: Sony WH-XB910N
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.
Best affordable active noise cancellation: OnePlus Buds Z2
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.
How we picked these noise cancelling headphones
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-1000XM3: Still widely considered among the best wireless noise cancelling headphones around, the Sony WH-1000XM3 is unfortunately dated and not quite the top-dog anymore, but might be worth picking up at its heavily discounted price, which currently sits under Rs. 20,000.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2: Purely on musicality and the listening experience, there’s no better pair of true wireless earphones you can buy right now than the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2. Good active noise cancellation is an added bonus, but this is an expensive pair of earphones.
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.