From Bose to Beats, we assess the cans capable of shutting out the world as well as making your music sing
Bose QC35 II, £330
Bose is one of the pioneers of noise-cancelling technology and is often lauded as the best in the business. The QC35 II are the second edition of the company’s wireless noise-cancelling cans and set the standard by which everyone else is measured.
They’re excellent not only for active noise cancelling (ANC) but passive (noise blocked by the design of the headphones, rather than by playing ambient sounds) too, which is where some rivals fall short. Bluetooth connectivity is good, but only supports AAC and not other HD audio formats, a cable is there if you need it and the battery lasts around 20 hours with everything turned on.
They have a distinct, tightly controlled “Bose” sound, which most but not all will like. The Bose app allows you to turn down or off the ANC, while volume and playback controls are on the right ear cup. An action button on the left invokes Google Assistant or toggles noise cancelling.
They’re light and comfortable, relatively small and understated on the head, fold up for travel and are durable enough to survive day-to-day commuting.
Verdict: They’re not quite as feature‑rich as some, but they’re more comfortable and have the best noise cancelling.
Sennheiser PXC 550, £350
Sennheiser’s PXC 550 are a bit dull to look at. They’re also not as comfy as some. But being light and relatively airy when worn, they’re more likely to better accommodate those of us with large ears.
The PXC 550 have Sennheiser’s characteristic wide soundscape, which sounds less direct than rivals. They lack a little energy with electronica, and bass heads should look elsewhere, but fed guitar and vocals they sound fab.
Sennheiser’s app lets you adjust the level of noise cancelling, change the EQ and turn on smart pause, which stops the music when you take them off. Unfortunately, to get smart pause to work reliably you have to wait for two seconds once you turn the headphones on before putting them on. Given you turn them on and off by twisting the earcups into place that quickly gets annoying. The right ear cup has a touch-sensitive pad – tap to pause, swipe right and left to skip, or up and down to adjust volume. A switch turns noise-cancelling off, to dynamic adjustment based on noise level or to maximum, while a button cycles through sound effects such as “club”, “movie” and “speech”.
Noise-cancelling is good, but not quite on a par with Bose and Sony, particularly on the daily commute where they struggle to block out noise of fellow passengers and screeching trains.
The PXC 550 support aptX for Bluetooth and come with a cable. The battery lasts around 30 hours between charges and the headphones fold up for travel.
Verdict: A long-lasting option with a wide soundscape.
Bowers & Wilkins PX, £329
The headphones you wear can be a statement. If you’re wearing B&W PX you’re stating that you like your headphones to look as good as they sound, with much finer, metal-articulated arms, platinum highlights and fabric-covered earcups and headband.
The PX aren’t ostentatious, but they look more like a £300-plus set of headphones from yesteryear than the bright plastic of the Beats generation.
I found that to get the best out of them you have to crank them up loud, which sort of defeats the point of having noise-cancelling. They’re also more affected by the noise-cancelling, which noticeably changes the sound for the worse when turned on.
Noise cancelling is good with droning engines, but not quite as good as the rest in an office or on the commute. They handle the wind the best of them all, however.
The B&W app allows you to customise the noise cancelling between “office”, “city” and “flight”, including the level of ambient noise let through. Buttons on the right ear cup control playback and volume. Taking them off pauses the music, while they’ll accept music over Bluetooth with aptX HD support, analogue cable or USB-C.
They feel heavier and are less comfortable than rivals, with thinner, harder pads that squeeze the sides of your head more firmly. They don’t fold down for travel either.
Verdict: They look great and will sound great if you like your music really loud.
Sony WH-1000XM2, £330
Sony’s top-of-the-line noise-cancelling headphones may not have a snappy name, but they pack a real punch. They are arguably the best Bose rivals money can buy, matching the standard-bearer in noise-cancelling. What Sony adds is slightly better sound, including HD and hi-res audio support over Bluetooth, and a number of customisation options such as noise-cancelling that can be adjusted either manually or automatically.
The smartphone app also allows you to change the perceived direction of audio: to make it sound like the music is coming from in front of you or behind, or all around. There’s a full equaliser too.
The right earcup is touch-sensitive – double tap to pause or play, swipe up or down to adjust volume or left or right to skip track. Cover the touch-sensitive area with a hand and it pipes ambient sound into the headphones so you can hear announcements or similar. A switch on the left ear cup can also turn ambient sound on or off.
The battery lasts around 30 hours and they fold up for travel and are very comfortable for extended listening periods. The downside is that they’re a bit bigger than the Bose QC35, aren’t great at handling two devices connected at the same time, and aren’t quite as good at dealing with wind noise.
Verdict: Ideal if you want more features or don’t like the way Bose sounds.
While not exactly cheap, Plantronics’s BackBeat Pro 2 offer wireless noise-cancelling for £100 less than the best of the rest and for the most part you wouldn’t be able to tell.
They have a decent set of controls on the outside. Pause, track skip, noise-cancelling switch and volume jog dial are all on the left cup, while the right has a button to fire up the virtual assistant, a power switch and a microphone mute button. Take them off to pause the music, put them back on to start it again.
Noise-cancelling is good, but not quite best-in-class, letting in a bit more office chatter than the Bose or Sony. Battery life is an excellent 24 hours or so, but they take around three hours to charge when flat.
The Plantronics are very comfortable to wear, even for extended periods, with big, plush ear cups and a nice padded headband, but they do not fold up, only rotating the ear cups to flat.
If you like bass with your noise-cancelling, these are the ones for you: they have the deepest bass available here. It’s tightly controlled and doesn’t ruin the rest of the music, sounding great with thumping bass lines.
Verdict: Excellent deep bass and good noise cancelling for less.
Beats Studio 3 Wireless, £300
The third-generation Beats Studio 3 Wireless are a step up over previous versions of Dr Dre’s noise-cancelling headphones. They’re available in a range of colours and have cups big enough to accommodate most ears.
They’re quite tight on the head, with no rotation in the cups, which means they don’t come close to the Bose or Sony for all-day listening comfort. They do fold up, but not flat like most others, and can be a bit creaky each time they’re opened.
Controls on the outside are fairly simple. There’s a big Beats button for controlling playback, hidden buttons above and below that for volume control, and a power button. Press the power button twice to turn off the noise-cancelling, hold the Beats logo to fire up Siri or Google Assistant on an Android phone.
They work well with Android smartphones and Windows machines, but better with Apple’s products thanks to the company’s W1 chip. Simply turn them on near an iPhone and the pairing is shared between any other Apple devices you might own. They support AAC audio over Bluetooth, with a strong connection in all scenarios.
The active noise-cancelling is good, but not on a par with the Bose and Sony, letting in more commuting noise. The headphones have a particular “Beats” sound, which is energetic and heavy on mid-bass, suiting pop but less so ambient electronica.
Verdict: Great if you have an iPhone, but better comfort, sound and noise- cancelling are available elsewhere.
How they work…
Microphones on the headphones detect ambient noise heading to your ear. The system then plays the inverse of those unwanted sound waves through the headphones. The sound waves meet and cancel one another out before hitting your eardrum. This is normally described as active noise-cancelling (ANC); noise blocked by the design of the headphones is described as passive noise-cancelling.
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