Active noise cancellation, or ANC, has come a long way since Bose launched the first consumer noise-canceling headphones — the QC1 — back in the year 2000. With ANC now firmly mainstream and available in headphones, from the ultra-budget to the high end, it’s hard to know which ones make the most sense for your noise-canceling situation without going out and hearing them all.
So that’s what we did. The Verge hit the streets of New York City with a bunch of noise-canceling headphones, from the original Bose QC1 to the Apple AirPods Max, the Bose Noise Cancelling 700, the Bose QuietComfort 45, and the Sony WH-1000XM5 — not to mention a pair of $1,300 aviation headphones — to see how they compare and to see how far ANC has come in the past 23 years. To do this, we rented a Neumann KU 100 dummy head microphone to replicate what you would actually hear while wearing them with active noise cancellation on. You can watch how that turned out in the video below.
I’d love to know what you think of our tests — they can be subjective and not everyone uses ANC the same way. So to get a more objective test of the headphones, we then sent all of these headphones (minus the aviation ones, unfortunately) to a testing facility in Michigan called Head Acoustics, which specializes in sound and vibration analysis. Head Acoustics has worked with some of the top consumer tech companies to conduct controlled environment audio tests for smartphones, headphones, TVs, smart speakers, and other products in the market. Their team agreed to help us out on this project.
For the test, Head Acoustics used an eight-microphone array to record noisy environments like a railway platform, an airplane cabin, and street crossroads and played them back in an audio testing chamber with eight speakers arranged like the microphones. Our headphones were placed on a head and torso simulator — which, as you can guess, replicates how the human body hears sound by using microphones inside a dummy head, much like our KU 100.
With those headphone recordings, Head Acoustics was able to collect data like frequency attenuation, loudness level reduction, speech intelligibility, and other noise suppression metrics to figure out how all the ANC headphones compare. If you want to take a look at a more detailed explanation of the tests, we’ve included the entire summary report here.
Along with the summary report, Head Acoustics sent over a big table showing the scores of all the headphones on all the tests, plus a few spectrum graphs showing frequency attenuation.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 offered the best passive attenuation and very good ANC. The Sonys were an overall good noise canceler, with solid performance in all noise environments. The Apple AirPods Max were a close second and did especially well with the airplane cabin noise due to their efficient noise canceling in the lower frequency range of 100–500Hz. The Bose QC45 scored just under these headphones.
All of the headphones struggled to cancel loud environmental music — not much surprise there. That is a difficult and complicated noise to suppress. For speech quality of audio playback with all the noise environments, the AirPods Max did the best. According to the results, even with ANC set to the max, the AirPods Max did a great job of “allowing the speech playback to come through undisturbed, unaltered, and sounding natural.” So, if you’re listening to podcasts or audiobooks on your daily commute, they may be your best choice.
The Bose QC-1s did not fare well compared to any of the current-generation headphones, which is good! It means ANC has made lots of progress over the past 20 years. Which makes us wonder: how much better can it get?
None of the headphones we tested have any flexible ANC features for different noise environments. In the world of ANC right now, it’s basically just varying levels of max attenuation. However, Apple has teased new features like “Adaptive Audio” in an upcoming AirPods Pro update that may be a first attempt at ANC that can adjust on the fly depending on what or who is around you. In the future, ANC headphones could use smarter algorithms or AI to figure out how much noise suppression to apply and on which frequencies based on your surroundings. But for now, the best ANC headphones to buy depends on what you want out of them.