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Wireless noise-cancelling headphones are an essential bit of kit for all frequent travellers. After all, who doesn’t want to replace the drone of plane engines – or dull daily train commute – with crisp, clear and undisturbed music?
Cordless noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds have taken great leaps in recent years too. Companion apps allow you to customise your listening experience beyond factory defaults, while boosted battery life now delivers more hours on a single charge.
So who makes the best noise-cancelling headphones? In the past, we’ve often looked to Apple, Bose, Sennhesier and Sony – a premium quartet delivering exceptional sound in in-ear and over-ear models.
However, there are fresh contenders worth adding to the list.
Generally speaking, and as much as marketing teams would likely disagree, most have the same core features, albeit with different names or approaches. This includes:
- voice activation and control, whether it’s through Google, Alexa or Siri
- adaptive or ‘active’ audio to automatically adjust the volume and EQ to fit your surroundings
- transparency mode, which briefly lets the outside noise in, such as when ordering a meal or drink from the cabin crew
Where they do differ, quite dramatically, is battery life – which can range from 4 to 10 hours for earbuds, and between 20 and 60 hours for over-the-ear models. Charging time, comfort and, of course, price vary wildly too.
Ready to upgrade an existing set of cans or go cord-free for the first time? Here are some of the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones and earbuds on the market.
- Apple Airpods Pro (second generation) earbuds
- Apple Airpods Max headphones
- Bose Quiet Comfort II earbuds
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
- Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 earbuds
- Bowers & Wilkins Px8 headphones
- Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds
- Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless headphones
- Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds
- Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
- Soundcore Space A40 earbuds
- Soundcore Space Q45 headphones
Apple Airpods Pro (second generation) earbuds
Following in the well-trodden design footsteps of the Apple Airpods earbud family, now in its third iteration, Airpods Pro is the only one to feature noise cancellation. This results in the best overall sound, with internal sensors and microphones continually adjusting output.
Aesthetically, the most notable difference to other Airpods is the addition of silicone tips, which form a seal around your ear cavity to block out external sound, with vents to equalise pressure.
Pairing is a breeze – a pop-up on your phone or Apple Watch asks if you’d like to connect once you open the charger lid. They also auto-switch between your laptop and iPhone when a call comes in, if the same Apple ID is signed in on both devices.
- Battery Life: Up to 6 hours on a charge, or up to 30 hours with multiple recharges in the MagSafe charging case. A five minute top-up can give you an extra hour
- Weight: 5.3 grams per earbud, 50.8 grams for the battery case
- RRP: $399
Apple Airpods Max headphones
For those who enjoy cocooning over-the-ear comfort when listening to music or watching television, Apple’s Airpods Max is the model for you.
Available in five colours, they feature a breathable mesh strap and stainless steel earcups, which are easily removable or replaceable. While slightly heavier than rivals, they’re not uncomfortable for extended listening.
Sound quality is among the best in class, however it comes at a premium, sitting around $300 above most of the competition. As with the Pro, pairing is quick and easy.
- Battery Life: Up to 20 hours of listening time on a single charge, with a quick five minute charge giving you 1.5 hours
- Weight: 386 grams
- RRP: $899
Bose Quiet Comfort II earbuds
Well known for its premium home audio systems and speakers, Bose brings that same quality to its line of headphones. The oval-shaped Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II are stylish and well-made, while also being 30% smaller than their predecessor.
Capacitive control makes using the lightweight earbuds a breeze, with top-notch sound, voice calls and noise cancellation in most situations. That said, while they do what they’re designed for, they don’t really have any real knockout features either.
They’re also more expensive than both Apple and Sony, with not much to show for it. Battery life remains the same as Gen 1, though the case provides an extra charge cycle for six hours more listening time. Unlike many rivals, wireless charging is not yet supported.
- Battery Life: 6 hours, up to 24 hours with case
- Weight: 6.24 grams per earbud
- RRP: $399.95
Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700
Bose has a long history with noise-cancelling headphones – the company claims to have invented the category in 1979, when Dr Amar Bose created the first noise-cancelling headsets for pilots (they weren’t available to the public until 2000).
Price-wise, Bose Noise-cancelling Headphones 700 sit in the middle of the pack, delivering a premium experience that more than holds its own. Capacitive touch controls on the right earcup also inch it just ahead of its rivals, in terms of responsiveness.
Thick padding and a rubberised steel headband make it a comfortable choice for all day listening, while an optional cable allows you to continue listening even if the battery’s depleted.
- Battery Life: Up to 20 hours
- Weight: 254 grams
- RRP: $495
Bowers & Wilkins Pi7 S2 earbuds
Released in January, Bowers & Wilkins’ new Pi7 S2 earbuds sit at the higher end of the pricing spectrum. For your coin, you get a premium design and exceptional audio for music, with improved battery life and bluetooth range on the previous model.
Its big-ticket feature is wireless audio retransmission, allowing you to plug the case into external sources – think inflight entertainment or a gaming console – and listen via your earbuds. Two cables are provided for this: a type C cable, and USB-C to 3.5mm.
Much like the Px8, sound is exceptional when listening to your tunes: crisp and clear in all the right places, with the quality really shining when it’s turned up a little. In fact, we’d say it’s one of the best sounding earbuds on the market.
Battery Life: 5 hours in normal mode, and up to 21 using the charging case
Weight: 7 grams per earbud
Bowers & Wilkins Px8 headphones
British brand Bowers & Wilkins’ flagship Px8 headphones are a thing of beauty adorned in bright metal detailing and supple leather trims on the headband and cups. Far from style over substance, they match this aesthetic appeal with serious audio chops.
Tested on a recent Emirates A380 flight to Christchurch, we found sound quality and ANC among the best we’ve tried, delivering a feast for the ears. And they should too, given the brand’s reputation (and price tag). But, you do get a lot of bang for your buck.
Easy to set up via the B&W Music app, the 30-hour battery life is ideal for long distance travels, while phone calls are clear with no almost background noise. The quality and finish are amazing too. On the flip side, the app lags behind other brands with quite limited customisation.
The Px8 comes in either black or tan as standard, plus a special midnight blue 007 Edition, and McLaren Racing version in grey and papaya orange.
- Battery Life: 30 hours one one charge, with an additional seven hours listening from a 15 minute recharge
- Weight: 320 grams
- RRP: $1149
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds
German brand Sennheiser is winning a lot of fans with its Momentum True Wireless 3, which improves on the best features of its predecessor, while giving it a sleek new look too. They’re also $100 more affordable than the previous model Momentum True Wireless 2.
As you’d expect, the sound is crisp and precise out of the box. If you prefer to customise your listening though, the app allows extensive EQ adjustments, along with the ability to define zones where pre-set audio profiles kick in, such as at the office or gym.
One other practical improvement on the Wireless 2 is the ability to listen to a single earbud at a time, which means you can potentially listen beyond the standard battery length. Read our full review here.
- Battery Life: 7 hours, up to 28 hours with case
- Weight: 6 grams per earbud
- RRP: $400
Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless headphones
While similarly named to the earbuds, the newly-released Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless headphones are a very different beast. Fully redesigned from the retro Momentum 3, they now sport a more contemporary look, yet still with that distinct Sennheiser feel.
Battery life has seen a huge improvement on the previous model too, jumping from a respectable 17 hours up to a phenomenal 60 hours listening time. When you eventually do run out of juice, fast-charging can deliver an extra 6 hours in 10 minutes.
Controls are also simple and intuitive, with the addition of a touchpad – doing away with the three-button interface of old – on the right cup allowing you to make calls and control your music.
- Battery Life: Up to 60 hours listening time, 2 hours to full charge
- Weight: 293 grams
- RRP: $549.95
Sony WF-1000XM4 earbuds
Sony knows a thing or two about music on the go. In 1979, its original Walkman portable cassette player reinvented how we consume music. The WF-1000XM4 noise-cancelling earbuds expand on that legacy, even if the name isn’t quite as catchy.
The WF-1000XM4s deliver almost 8 hours with noise-cancelling switched on or up to 12 hours without it. If you pop the buds back into the case for a couple of quick recharges, you can enjoy up to 24 hours.
Available in black or silver, the XM4s are smaller and more ergonomic than the previous generation XM3s, with further improvements under the hood, such as slightly better microphones.
- Battery Life: 7 hours 45 mins with noise-cancelling on one charge, 24 hours with the case.
- Weight: 7.3 grams per earbud
- RRP: $349
Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones
A successor to the brilliant WH-1000XM4, the WH-1000XM5 boasts a fresh design with markedly improved noise cancellation, additional microphones (eight, instead of the previous four) for clearer calls, and one of the best battery lifes in the market.
Although no longer top of the battery class, listeners can still enjoy up to 30 hours on a single charge. If you don’t have time for a full top-up, just three minutes of USB fast-charging can provide an additional 3 hours of listening time.
The design has seen a complete overhaul from the XM4, with a streamlined head strap giving them a somewhat retro flair. While audio has seen a marked improvement on the previous version, build quality does feel slightly less-premium this time around.
- Battery Life: Up to 30 hours on a single charge
- Weight: 250 grans
- RRP: $549
Soundcore Space A40 earbuds
Not everyone is an audiophile. But even so, you still want headphones that deliver on their noise cancelling promise. Soundcore’s Space A40 earbuds do just that – and the sound quality is actually a lot better than the lean price tag might suggest.
As with most earbuds these days, the A40 has three modes: noise cancelling, normal and transparent. By default, volume is adjusted with a single tap (left for up, right for down), or double tap to pause, though these controls are customisable in the app.
On a recent Virgin Australia flight, the noise cancellation was top-notch. The case supports both Qi wireless charging and USB-C cable, and earbuds can be paired to two devices simultaneously, with the transition between the two relatively smooth.
- Battery Life: 10 hours on a single charge, up to 50 using the charging case. Just 10 minutes on charge can give you 4 hours of listening time
- Weight: 4.9 grams per earbud
- RRP: $129.99
Soundcore Space Q45 headphones
As with its earbuds, Soundcore’s sharply-priced Space Q45 over-ear headphones are aimed at those who aren’t necessarily looking for the best sound quality on the market, but still want to drown out background noise. And on that, they nail the brief.
Adaptive audio adjusts levels to suit your surroundings, while the app allows you to adjust to five levels of noise cancellation. Based on our experience, background can seep in when you’re in a particularly noisy area, but it's rather minimal.
However, arguably the biggest talking point is the battery life: 50 hours with noise cancellation switched on (already considerably higher than many of its rivals) or a whopping 65 hours with normal listening. Given their affordability, that’s no small feat.
- Battery Life: 50 hours in noise cancelling mode, and up to 65 in normal.
- Weight: 292 grams
- RRP: $219.99