The Best Noise-Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds for 2021

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Apple popularized the true wireless earbud category when it launched the original AirPods back in 2016, so it’s no surprise that interest in pairs with noise cancellation has seemed to increase with the release of the AirPods Pro. Noise cancellation helps to block out the sound around you, both passively by sealing off your ear canal, and actively through specialized circuitry (ANC, or active noise cancellation). Audio manufacturers are starting to bring noise cancellation over to the wire-free realm, and we’ve included the best pairs we’ve reviewed so far here.

The good news is that the results have often better than we expected, and in a few cases even fantastic. The unsurprising news is that, just as with standard wired and Bluetooth headphones that offer noise cancellation, there are definitely some stinkers out there. To help you figure out which pair is right for you, let’s take a look at some of the basics of true wireless and noise-cancelling technology and run through our current favorite models. 

Apple AirPods Pro

What Are True Wireless Earbuds?

The term “true wireless” refers to any in-ears that have two distinct earpieces without a cable connecting them. These cable-free earphones also come with a charging case that the earphones dock into to recharge. Most pairs only get about five to six hours of audio per charge—add in ANC and the lifespan gets lower. As a result, most cases include two full extra charges or more.

See How We Test Noise-Cancelling HeadphonesSee How We Test Noise-Cancelling Headphones

True wireless earphones can seal off the ear canal (this is usually the case, as it offers a more secure fit and better audio quality), or they can sit just outside the ear canal, with an open design, like earbuds. We have yet to review a pair in this latter style that we love—typically, not sealing off the ear canal means average-at-best audio. That’s why we’re much bigger fans of the AirPods Pro (which seal off the canal and have ANC) than we are of the standard AirPods (which don’t seal off the canal, don’t have ANC, and offer a far less consistent user experience).

What Is Active Noise Cancellation (ANC)?

Active noise cancellation started off in over-ear and on-ear headphones, and can now be found in earphones, in both wired or wireless varieties. As the first word of the term suggests, active noise cancellation requires power, as opposed to passive noise reduction. The battery power feeds ANC circuitry that, using microphone signal feeds, creates a live, inverse signal of the surrounding noise. Just as a negative number added to its positive equivalent equals zero, the goal here is to offset the actual surrounding noise with inverse sound waves.

Master & Dynamic MW07

Does it work? Well, that depends on the manufacturer, and also the surrounding noise. Even good ANC is typically far more effective at tamping down low to mid frequencies, especially unchanging, drone-like sounds such as airplane and train rumble, or the whir of an AC unit. The very best ANC will do the same with some higher-frequency sounds, like office chatter, keyboard clicks, and the like. But these sounds are handled by a combination of the active circuitry and an in-ear seal.

Speaking of an in-ear seal, passive noise cancellation (or passive noise isolation, or passive noise reduction) uses the physical sealing-off of the ear canal to block out surrounding sound. There are no mics or batteries involved in this method, but it is in many ways more effective than active noise cancellation, as it helps in tamping down frequencies across the board. Earplugs still exist for a reason—they work. 

Bad Noise Cancellation: What to Avoid

Lower-quality ANC will often reproduce an audible high-frequency hiss—like white noise or tape hiss—that masks some of the higher frequencies it can’t eliminate. The easiest way to tell if this is happening is to activate the ANC in a totally quiet environment—if it seems to make the noise floor louder, it’s adding in hiss. That said, most pairs we test add in some degree of hiss, but the lower the quality the ANC, the more notable it is.

See How We Test Noise-Cancelling HeadphonesSee How We Test Noise-Cancelling Headphones

Another aspect of low-quality ANC—especially in wireless headphones and earphones—is the difference in how music (or any audio) sounds when it is activated. The ANC shouldn’t change how music sounds at all, but some models we test produce wildly different sound signatures when the ANC is on, such as more bass, more treble, and higher volumes. It’s not that it sounds bad, necessarily, but quality ANC should have no impact on audio performance.

Amazon Echo Buds

Ambient Monitoring Mode

Plenty of true wireless models include a feature that allows you to monitor your surroundings without removing the earpieces. This is useful in office scenarios, when traveling, and also comes in handy for runners who need to be aware of traffic and car horns. Not all true wireless pairs with an ambient monitoring mode also include noise cancellation, but most of the pairs we’ve tested do.

Many pairs will have on-ear controls that allow you to cycle through ANC and ambient monitoring modes. We include whether a pair of earphones includes this feature—along with how well it works—in each of our reviews.

How Much Should You Pay for Noise-Cancelling True Wireless Earbuds?

Unfortunately, true wireless technology is already relatively expensive when paired with quality drivers and compatibility with higher-quality Bluetooth codecs like AptX or AAC. Models that deliver on those fronts are typically already going to cost more than $100. Throw in ANC, and you can expect prices to get much higher.

It’s safe to assume that any true wireless earphones delivering quality audio and ANC is likely to cost closer to $200. As you can see, some of our favorite pairs right now, Apple’s AirPods Pro and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, are also among the most expensive. But we’re starting to see some good, budget-friendly alternatives, like Anker’s Soundcore Liberty Air Pro 2 earphones, which deliver solid noise cancellation and sound quality for under $150.

We’ve included pairs here for as many different budgets as possible, so you can find the one that works best for you. Check out our individual reviews to help you out, and once you’ve found the perfect pair, head over to our five easy tips to extend the life of your headphones.

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