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Technology

Five best noise-cancelling headphones for the commute, the office and long-haul flights

From the Bose QC35 II that can call up Google Assistant or Siri on your smartphone to the Sony WH-1000XM2, which can be adjusted according to the altitude you are flying at, we compare the top noise-cancelling headphones

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 January, 2018, 6:31pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 January, 2018, 6:48pm

We could all benefit from a pair of modern noise cancellation headphones, as we go about life in our fast-paced and noisy cities.

Whether for commuting, in the office, or flying, these are the best noise-cancelling headphones on the market.

For flights: Bose QC35 II

Bose recently released the second edition of its QuietComfort 35. Long heralded as the gold standard for consumer noise-cancellation headphones, the newer Bose QC35 II is identical to the earlier Bose QC35 with the sole exception of a new Action button. Located on the left ear cup, the button is used to call up Google Assistant or Siri on your smartphone, although it can be configured to toggle the noise-cancellation levels between low, high and off.

Overall, the QC35 II offers the same comfort and noise cancellation that makes the QuietComfort family of headphones a common sight on long-haul flights. The drone of the engine fades away on long flights, and you’ll fail to notice crying children. Music playback is great for most music genres, with lower-end frequencies boosted in a way that most users will appreciate.

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The comfort and fit of the QC35 is another area where the headphones shine. The material lining the ear cups doesn’t feel warm to the ears, and it is comfortable even for those who wear glasses. The exceptional comfort and fit means you can literally wear it for 10-hour stretches without feeling it. However, one downside is the relative fragile lining of the ear cups, which need to be cleaned carefully and kept away from heat to prevent it from cracking and flaking.

Finally, the included rigid case protects the headphones well, and includes a well-positioned holder and pocket to hold the headphone’s airline adaptor and physical cable.

For flights, commuting or the office: Sony WH-1000XM2

Though Sony is no stranger to audio equipment in general, it was only in late-2016 that it released a pair of noise-cancelling headphones designed to take on Bose’s offering. The strengthened WH-1000XM2 was released a year after, adding a new atmospheric pressure feature that adjusts the headphones according to the current altitude, and a simplified control of just two physical buttons.

At the heart of the WH-1000XM2 is Sony’s self-developed noise-cancelling technology, paired with unique features such as an enhancement engine to upscale compressed digital files, support for Qualcomm’s aptX HD, and a new Sony-developed high-end codec called LDAC. The result is a top-notch noise-cancelling set of headphones with rich, high-quality playback and solid low-end reproduction that works particularly well with films.

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The WH-1000XM2 is also crammed with features such as a touch sensor on the right ear cup for skipping tracks or adjusting the volume. Holding your hand over the ear cup temporarily disables noise cancellation and activates the built-in microphones to amplify surrounding noise instead – great for use in the office or when crossing the road.

Overall, the WH-1000XM2 does feel a little plasticky, and loses out slightly in terms of long-term comfort to the QC35 with ear pads that can feel a tad warm. Sony had clearly taken a page from Bose with a rigid travel case that adequately protects the headphones, albeit being somewhat bulkier.

For flights or commuting: Sennheiser PXC-550 Wireless

The PXC-550 Wireless is a sleek pair of noise-cancelling headphones aimed squarely at travellers. With a toggle for switching between different levels of noise-cancellation, a highly compact design, and a range of features that travellers will appreciate, it is a strong contender that is often overlooked.

The PXC-550 draws on Sennheiser’s extensive investments in sound research to deliver excellent music playback with the company’s trademark clarity. Bass-heads may want to give it a miss; audiophiles will probably love it. The noise cancellation may initially come across as nominal, but it works well and is equally effective on long-haul flights.

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The headphones are lightweight and surprisingly comfortable over long hours, a testament to the company’s claim of being designed for long listening sessions. Features like the voice prompt, micro 5-LED dots that show the charge status, and touch controls work well together.

One downside is the lack of a dedicated on-off switch; the foldable PXC-550 automatically switches off when flattened. This leads to situations where it is unknowingly left on, making it less ideal for use in the office. While included travel case doesn’t offer as much protection as the rigid cases offered by Bose and Sony, its clever design allows it to be flattened when using the headphones. This lets you slip it into the seat pocket on the plane, or in your haversack.

For commuting or the office: Bowers & Wilkins PX

The Bowers & Wilkins PX is the newest kid on the block, and probably the classiest-looking of the round-up here with its leather-wrapped aluminium frame. Despite a comparatively late entry into the field of noise-cancelling headphones, the B&W PX comes across as an excellent pair of travel headphones with some nifty new features and a fresh approach to noise-cancelling. The B&W PX is powered with the same angled drivers from the company’s top-end wired headphones. The result is crisp, emotive music playback with a spacious sound stage that pulls ahead of the competition.

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You can toggle through preset noise-cancelling defaults for “Office”, “City” and “Flight” – or off – depending on the level of noise-cancelling you want and how much of outside voices to allow through. Toggling between the modes substantially changes the music reproduction however, and you may prefer to keep it at “off” in a quiet office. It is worth noting that the B&W PX is one of the heaviest headphones here, though a well-balanced design means that it doesn’t feel that way. The leader pads are undergirded with a rigid frame, which lift the headphones and keeps it from irritating your ears. The pads are secured using magnets, and you can easily replace them without breaking anything.

A warning about the included cloth case: it looks pretty, but is a lint magnet and offers no protection against packed bag.

For the office: Sennheiser Momentum Wireless

The oldest on the list, the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless remain a compelling pair of noise cancelling wireless headphones. The minimalist design incorporates exclusive materials such as stainless steel and genuine leather for a timeless look and relatively lightweight offering.

The Momentum Wireless essentially melds the company’s acclaimed Momentum drivers with wireless and noise-cancellation technology. You can expect music playback with clear, detailed mid-range and great dynamics on top of good noise cancellation.

Noise cancellation is effective, too, and you won’t hear someone calling your name at normal conversational levels, even if they are standing right behind you. It cannot be disabled, but the natural way background noises are stripped away means that you probably don’t mind either.

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Unlike the other headphones on this list, the Momentum Wireless is a relatively no-frills device with the only controls being a power button and multifunction toggle on the right ear cup. It is comfortable, but a little behind the QC35 and PXC 550 for long hours of wear.

For travelling, the headphones can be folded for portability, but doesn’t fold flat. The greater bulk means that it won’t fit well in a typical laptop bag, though a haversack will work fine. Note that the included felt case and cloth bag won’t protect it against being crushed, however.