The Best Noise Cancelling Headphones

By Tom Pritchard on at

Get ready to rumble because it's Battlemodo time, gadget fans, and on the fightcard for this month's edition is noise cancelling headphones. It's not easy finding a decent pair of normal headphones, but when you throw extra tech in there it gets even trickier. Which pair should you seek in exchange for your hard-earned cash?

Testing Methodology

Methodology will stay pretty much same as last month's Battlemodo for headphones under £100, but for those of you who can't remember/haven't read it here's a recap.

The main focus is going to be on audio quality and comfort, with some bias being given towards comfort. As I said last time, there's no point in having a pair of headphones with amazing audio quality if they're painful to wear. It will all involve the balance between the two, however. A seriously comfortable pair of headphones won't come out on top if they have rubbish audio, and a great pair of headphones won't be penalised too much if there's a small amount of discomfort.

The audio will be tested with the same albums as last time, covering a number of musical genres to see how well each set of headphones performs. They are Iron Man 2 by AC/DC, The Eminem ShowMiracles by Two Steps from Hell, We Are (Part 1) by Dash Berlin, and Live in Gdansk by David Gilmour. Those are all in CD quality, but I'll also sample a few random rubbishy songs on YouTube to gauge how well they do with crap audio.

A lot of people buy noise cancelling headphones to block external noise, particularly when that noise is being generated by an aeroplane. Sadly I don't have an aeroplane on hand to test that, so I'm going for the next best thing: the London Underground. Basically I'm using an afternoon to sit on the tube and see how well the headphones block out all the noise generated by the moving trains. The testing itself will see how much external sound is blocked with powered noise cancelling switched on and off, with and without audio playing. There's no way that it'll block out everything, but the general assumption is that less ambient noise gets blocked out the better.

It's worth mentioning that a lot of the audio in the tested headphones felt rather similar. That means that there is a lot more emphasis on the other factors.

First Place: Philips Fidelio NC1, £197

There's not a lot bad I can say about Philips' Fidelio NC1 headphones, because they just happen to excel at everything people really need from a set of noise cancelling headphones.

Let's kick things off with the audio, which is, in short, stellar. The only complaint that I really have about the Fidelio NC1's output is that it's not as clear as some of the other headphones I tested, but only by a smidgen; other than that, it's really hard to complain about these cans. Everything comes in nice and clear, you can pick up on all the small auditory details, and there's a nice balance so no element of the audio soundstage feels overwhelming.

Still it's not perfect: the audio doesn't have a very surround-sound immersive feel to it (something that seems to be a common trait among open-back headphones), which means it's not the best for grand-scale musical tracks (classical or live performances, that is, nor is it great for immersing yourself in a film or game. That's not necessarily a bad thing, though, it just depends on what you actually want your headphones for.

So the overall audio experience is a little hindered, but the other tests show NC1's true colours.

For starters the NC1's noise cancelling capabilities are second only the the Parrot Zik 2.0 (more on those later). Anyone who's ever been on the tube (or any train really) will know that there is a definite 'roar', not to dissimilar from the sound you hear on a commercial airliner during flight, plus a whole bunch of environmental noises caused by the trains rattling through the tunnels. I found that the roar of the train had two main sounds, one low and one high. Pretty much every pair of powered headphones in this list managed to cancel out the lower frequency part of the roar, along with differing levels of success on the higher one.

The NC1's, however, managed to take effectively dampen the lower part of the roar, reducing its sound a hell of a lot more than the five of the other six headphones. While it didn't help so much with other noises, like the rattling of the train and conversations of other passengers, it was very noticeable how much more it managed to block out. That was without audio too, throwing music into the mix was just the final key to making sure you don't hear a damn thing.

The noise cancelling activation is quite nice as well, since there's barely any lag while the system turns on. You flick the switch and half a second later you can hear the distinct hiss of the noise cancelling doing its work. While that isn't exclusive to the NC1s, it is nice to be able to hear an immediate improvement in the quality (and volume) of your music.

The NC1s also happen to be incredibly comfortable, second only to the Plantronics BackBeat Sense, and the minimalist lightweight design means they're incredibly easy to wear and carry around. They also don't grab too much hair when you take them on and off, which as someone with moderately long hair, I am grateful for.

The NC1s just miss out on the top spot for performance of each feature individually, but the fact that they manage to offer top-tier performance for all the features and bundle it together in an incredibly smart and comfortable design means they happily perch themselves on top of the podium. [Buy them here]

Second Place: OTONE Vtxsound, £96

Where the Philips NC1s suffered slightly when it comes to audio clarity and immersive sound, the OTONE Vtxsound excels. With the noise cancelling function switched on, the Vtxsound offers an incredibly clear and crisp sound that picks up all the small details that were missing from the Philips headphones. They produce strong, clean bass, and the closed-back design means that the output is an immersive experience that is perfect for bigger compositions. Things like classical, electronic, and live perfomances sound the best, but other music comes out sounding great as well.

The interesting thing about the Vtxsound is that there are actually two different levels of noise cancelling: Adaptive noise cancelling, and OTONE's own VTX sound system. VTX feels like the superior of the two, offering much clearer audio than adaptive noise cancelling. That's the one I favour, but it's not entirely clear whether VTX actually adapts to the ambient noise in the background. Both functions are, however, noticeably better than not having noise cancelling switched on, since the audio on that setting is a lot quieter, has little depth to it, and feels like its all a bit merged together due to the lack of clarity. Still, if your batteries run out there's nothing that ruins the audio to such an extent that you won't be able to stand listening to it.

The noise cancelling itself is fairly average, drowning out the main part of the train's roar while dimming other aspects of the background noise. Needless to say turning on the music meant it was all blocked out. It's certainly not the best noise cancelling I tried, but it'll be more than adequate for everyday use.

The only thing that really lets the Vtxsound down is the design. While I eventually got used to wearing them, they did clamp down into my ears which was rather annoying. Even more so that the tube can be rather warm, and the combination of the two was making my ears sweat. Lovely image, I know, but that's what happened. There's nothing terrible about the design, but a more ergonomic styling and a slimmer frame would do wonders. Throw those two things into the mix and you'd have an unbeatable pair of headphones. [Buy them here | Buy them direct from OTONE]

Third Place: Audio Technica ATH-ANC70, £120

The first thing you'll notice about these headphones is the bizarre shape; they look like they'd only perfectly fit someone with a horizontal melon for a head. Still, as strange as the design may be they do resemble something remotely head-shaped.

The ANC70s are a nice fit, and form a decent seal around the ears. Sometimes they felt a tiny bit short (I blame the strange horizontally focused design), but for the most part they're a nice comfortable pair of earphones that don't cause any unwanted aggravation. Plus Audio Technica opted for a more basic approach to the controls, and since the three controls are all distinct then there won't be any fumbling around trying to get basic things like changing the volume done.

Of course, having a slide for volume control (especially one so small) can make it rather tricky to get the right volume.

Audio-wise, what comes through sounds fairly solid and relatively clear in the grand scheme of things. That said there doesn't seem to be much depth and the bass level seems rather weak. So weak, in fact, that if you don't have the noise cancelling switched on then it barely even registers. For that reason you're not going to get the best experience with the bass-heavy music, even if the rest of it comes in clear and concise. Think of it a bit like the antithesis to Beats or Sony headsets. Still, there's no huge complaints to be had, and if you're not the fan of bass-driven music these are a solid choice.

The actual noise cancelling is fairly standard, and manages to block out all of the deep sounding roar while muffling everything else. Once again, the performance was not perfect and there is a decent amount that comes through if you don't have music on. One thing to note is that they didn't fair so well with conversations and noisy children. It's a shame that no single pair of headphones managed that to a great extent. [Buy them here]

Fourth Place: Sony MDR-ZX770BN, £100

There's quite a bit to be said about Sony's MDR-ZX770BN headphones, some good and some bad. Unlike most of the other headphones in this list, they don't suffer from good audio and poor design. In fact it's quite the opposite.

The audio here is quite underwhelming, and it feels remarkably shallow in comparison to the likes of the Beats and the Audio Technicas. It's weird, since the bass is rather strong but the rest of the audio just falls flat. Bass-heavy tracks seem to come out a lot better because of this, but if its not that present in the track then everything just feels off. It's the kind of thing some people like to say about Beats and similar headphone brands, but the reliance of bass in the Beats Studio pales in comparison to these. There's a sentence I never thought I'd write.

But one thing the Sonys do have in their favour is that they do have a nice surrounding sound, which meant that the electronic/club and classical music.

The interesting thing about these is that without any serious background noise, it's incredibly difficult to hear whether the noise cancelling is actually on. There didn't seem to be any noticeable difference in the quality of the audio with it turned on, and the hiss that noise cancelling audio is known for is so faint most of the time you don't even realise it's there. Of course testing on the train did have a noticeable difference, and the roar was noticeably gone when noise cancelling was switched on. It wasn't all good news, however, because by cancelling out that roar it almost sounded as if the general rattling of the carriage was slightly amplified. Music dealt with this problem, but it was slightly odd since none of the other headphones had that issue.

But, as I mentioned before, Sony did get the design of these spot on. The headphones are comfy, presenting no real issues while wearing them for extended periods of time. I also liked the fact that the earcup interior is roomy, meaning that my whole ear was able to fit inside with a decent seal around the outside. It also didn't yank out my hair like some headphones are prone to do.

The design really redeems these headphones from the lacklustre audio that gets pumped out, which is why they managed to beat the Beats. As I keep saying, audio is important but not if it means sacrificing comfort. [Buy them here]

Fifth Place: Beats Studio, from £253

I'll be totally honest here, the Beats Studio was a difficult pair of headphones to place for a number of reasons: most of which are down to the actual design of the headphones themselves. The audio, however, is not bad.

The first thing I noticed about the Beats was that they are rather loud, much louder than the other headphones at the same device volume. The second was that there is the ever-present hiss of the noise cancelling in action since music cannot be played without it switched on. It's nowhere near as bad as the Parrot Zik 2.0, but it can be a little bit distracting at times.

The audio is on par with the Audio Technicas, the OTONEs, and the Sonys. All audio comes in crisp and clear, and there's a definite immersive feel to the sound. Plus, as we have come to expect from a pair of Beats, the bass is powerful. Not too powerful, mind, but ideal for bass-heavy music like electronic and hip-hop.

That being said, something sounded off listening to AC/DC. It's really odd because I can't really pinpoint the exact problem, but these are tracks that I've been listening to for years and they don't sound quite right. The best I can figure, it seems as though there's a little bit more emphasis on what is normally the background music than I'm used to. It's nothing bad, and maybe it's just in my head, but it was something I noticed almost straight away.

The noise cancelling was alright, but it certainly wasn't the best. It blocked out the main roar of the train, but it felt like the rest of the ambient noise came through a little too clearly. All the headphones let through some sound, but despite muffling the rest of the environmental noise it felt like the Beats were slightly less effective than the rest.

But good sound or not, the Beats Studio are not without their problems. They've not got the lightest build in the world, and the only pair that felt heavier during use was the OTONEs. They're also not that comfortable, at least for me. I found that the headband had a tendency to dig into my head during use, and its rubber-like cushioning was constantly sticking to my hair. Both of those gripes combined meant that rearranging the headphones to get comfortable felt like they were going to rip out a lock of hair. I did, however, appreciate the little battery gauge on the bottom of the right earcup. That's a nice touch, and is a little bit less intrusive than having battery status alerts interrupting your music.

While I felt that the design made the Beats Studio slightly uncomfortable, they're really let down by a single thing: the fact that using these headphones with a wire requires battery power. That's a design decision that is so moronic that I wish I could get away with using much stronger language. Obviously the noise cancelling is going to need battery to operate, but audio does not. Most headphones don't come with a battery, so there's absolutely no reason for it. Really, this idiotic feature and the hair-magnet of a headband are the reason this did not come out on top of the Sonys - despite the superior audio quality. [Buy from here]

Sixth Place: Plantronics BackBeat Sense, £127

In many ways I really wish I could put these higher up on the list, but sadly its noise cancelling capabilities (or lack thereof) put it at a serious disadvantage. I say lack of noise cancelling, I should clarify by saying that the BackBeat Sense headphones do not have powered noise cancelling, instead employing a passive noise blocking function.

Sadly, in this case at least, that passive noise blocking doesn't hold a candle to the powered noise cancelling of the other headphones on this list. In fact during my Underground travels it blocked out very little, and without audio on I could still hear all the noise generated by the train and the people around me. It's a shame really, because in every other respect these are some fantastic headphones.

There's nothing really to complain about with the audio, but it's not quite as great as some of the others like the Beats and the OTONEs. The bass isn't all that powerful, it's not that big on all of the little details, and it's almost as though the audio as a whole is fuzzier than some of the other headphones tested.

Last month I said that the most comfortable pair of headphones I'd ever worn was the Jabra Move, and this month I have to recant my words and say the same thing about the BackBeat Sense. Good god these were pleasant to wear, I feel like I could wear them all day and barely even notice. For starters the inner auto-adjusting headband meant that these always have the closest thing you could have to a perfect from a non-custom pair of headphones. That means no headbands digging into people's skulls, and no worrying about them slipping off if you happen to lean forward.

The design and controls are both incredibly simplistic, making them a joy to use compared to some of the more complicated headphone controls I used (mainly Sony's). The controls are fairly standard, but the way they've been implemented means that you'll never have to fumble around trying to get something done. This is helped by the spinning volume dial on the left earcup. I've also found recently that putting headphones on the right way round can be a chore, since the L and R markings are tiny and hard to see. Not so with the BackBeat Sense, here's they're actually present as huge letters punched into the earcups' leather cover. Some people may dislike that lack of elegance, but not me. It's practical and I like it.

One final note is that while these headphones don't have powered noise cancelling, they do have a button that lets you listen to what's going on around you without taking them off. Some noise cancelling headphones are designed so that you can still clearly hear any intercom announcements, and that's what this button seems to be for. Essentially it amplifies some of the smaller sounds around you, almost like listening to a recording of the ambient noise of the room. It also appears to block out sounds not in the immediate area, which could come in handy. That said, it's worth noting that doing this also suspends audio playback until you turn it off.

As I said before, I wish I could have put the BackBeat Sense higher on the list, but the lack of serious noise cancelling puts it at a serious disadvantage. But, if you are looking for something that's not so high-tech they do excel in every other respect. [Buy them here]

Seventh Place: Parrot Zik 2.0, from £190

You know that feeling you get when people have gone on and on about how amazing something is, then you give it a go and its remarkably underwhelming? That's how I feel about the Parrot Zik 2.0 headphones. Needless to say I hated these things and was so glad when I could take them off my head for good.

Let's get the audio out of the way, because that's what I disliked the least. I wasn't totally impressed with the audio, especially with the noise cancelling switched off. Without noise cancelling the sound seemed rather washed out, and dulled. It mostly seemed rather clear, but the bass was a bit overpowering and it seemed to drown out everything that wasn't the vocals.

As is the way with noise cancelling devices, once the noise cancelling features are turned on the audio improves significantly. That said, it certainly isn't perfect. Everything is nice and clear, but it seems rather... off. Part of the problem seems to come from the typical hiss you get with noise cancelling, and it was still easy to hear it when music was playing. The bass content also seemed a lot lower in this mode, and it kind of left the music sounding shallow without much depth to it. Honestly, it was really getting on my nerves after a while but it's something you could easily get used to.

Let's get onto the design of the headphones themselves. Needless to say, I'm really not impressed. For starters they suffer from one of the same issues that I found with AKG's Y50s last month. Namely that the headband was too shallow for my head, and when I put them on it felt like half of my ear was sticking out from the bottom of the cup. I'm the first to admit that my cranial dimensions are a little off, but I've never actually had a problem with getting the earcups onto my ears without digging the headband into my skull before. This really should not be a problem, yet for some reason it is.

These certainly aren't simple to use either, not if you want to use any of the fancy features. I'll be honest here, for a short time I had forgotten that these were wireless headphones, mainly because there is nothing on the earphones that gives that fact away. Normally they tend to have an indication, like the word wireless, a Bluetooth logo, or even the slightly more obscure red and blue flashing lights when you hold down the power button. Not the Zik 2.0. There is a single one-touch button for controlling the noise cancelling and the Bluetooth, which means you can't have one without the other. A clue to that would have been nice, especially since it doesn't even mention this in the instruction manual. Not as far as I could see anyway.

Even more infuriating is the fact that the companion app (which I feel is a total waste of time and space) let's you turn off the noise cancelling from your phone. Yes, that does disconnect the headphones at the same time. Such a pointless feature. Plus, the capacitative touch controls on the side of the right earcup don't work unless you're connected wirelessly, and neither does the app.

It's also worth noting that if you have the headphones wired into a device with noise cancelling on, unplugging the cable from your device (or fiddling with it) will, for some reason, 'echo' into the earcups and get thrown out as sound. It wasn't limited to the bundled cable either, I tried it with a couple of others and suffered from the same problem. I don't even know what that's about.

The Parrot Zik 2.0 does have some other things going for it, however. It had one of the the most powerful noise cancelling capabilities of the headphones I tested, on par with the Phillips headphones up top. In fact, the noise cancelling was so impressive that taking them off was a serious shock to my ears. They were by no means perfect, and some ambient train noise and conversation snuck in at time, but they were pretty great in that respect.

They do stop playing if you take them off your head, and start up again when you put them back on. So they've got that going for them, which is nice. [Buy them here]