In Summary

Be it for those working at home or in offices or even in cafes, active noise cancellation (ANC) is becoming more of a need than a want, thanks to increasingly noisy conditions. While ANC is available on relatively inexpensive headphones too, it is best experienced at price points above Rs 15,000 – what we call the premium segment of the headphone market. So which premium ANC headphones should you go for if you want good ANC as well as decent sound? We try to work it out for you, as per different scenarios.

Truth be told, if you want good ANC, you would be best off investing in a premium pair of headphones because ANC at lower price points seems to often be of as much use as wings to an ostrich.

Fortunately, if you want ANC (and you can figure THAT out here) and good sound and are willing to spend a little for it, there are a number of options for you across different price points – we are considering prices upwards from in-around Rs 15,000 to mark the premium segment for ANC smartphones. However, some might even consider that to be on the higher side. So which premium ANC headphones should you go for? Here’s our attempt to clear up matters based on use case scenarios:

Best overall ANC headphones

This is going to be a heck of a surprise for some folks, for we do not think that Sony, Bose, or Sennheiser have the winner here when you factor in what you are getting for the price you pay. Sure (pun intended), the Sony WH-1000XM4 (update: Sony WH-1000XM5 is here) is terrific and so are the Bose 700 and the Sennheiser Momentum 3, but none of them can quite match the Shure Aonic 50. And that is because the Aonic 50 just have the best sound that you can get on a headphone south of Rs 40,000. Everything seems absolutely in place and in the right measure. So much so that some might even find it close to boringly flat, but most people are simply going to be stunned by the sheer clarity and the width of the sound stage that hits them.

Yes, they are super bulky (although super comfortable too – it is like having your head in cushions) and a pain to carry around (they make the AirPods Max seem compact). Still, the ANC is superb, you get the most extensive support for high-quality wireless codecs, and in a super neat touch, the wired connectors in the box allow you to connect them to not just a 3.5 mm audio jack but also a USB Type C port. And they sound even better wired! We thought they were a trifle overpriced at their launch price of almost around Rs 36,000, but they are currently down to almost Rs 25,000, putting them in the same league as the Sony WH-1000 XM4 and below the Bose 700 and Sennheiser Momentum 3. So at their current reduced price, I would recommend these over them all. Others: Sony WH-1000 XM4

Best sounding ANC headphones

All right, so we are going to be asked, “what do you mean by best-sounding headphones?” And it is a valid query. Now, at the premium price points, most headphones tend to “flatten out a little” – the stress on bass and trebles tends to fade, and most of the brands try to deliver a very balanced sound that people will like. Think of it a little like Apple’s use of OLED in the iPhone – the bright colors and contrasts get toned down to cater to a wider audience. So you are unlikely to see bass-crazy ANC headphones in the premium segment, although they tend to rule the sub-Rs 12,000 one.

So what is best sounding? We would define it as the audio quality that appeals to a very wide segment of users without alienating too many. The audio is balanced and clear enough and delivers just the right level of stress on bass, vocals, and treble. Audiophiles might sniff at it, but most people will just be too busy losing themselves in the rich, carefully flavored sound these produce. So, which are the best-sounding headphones in this zone? We would give our vote to the Bose 700, which have this amazing, slightly warm sound that goes with every genre of music, film, and even games. Those wanting a slightly sharper sound might prefer the Sennheiser Momentum 3, while those seeking closer to audiophile flatness would turn to the Shure Aonic 50. Bass lovers can try the Sony WH 1000 XM4 and XM3 or just head to the next category. Others: Sennheiser Momentum 3, Shure Aonic 50

Best Bass beasts

If it is indeed bass you seek with ANC goodness at a slightly higher price, then your options are down to three: the Sony WH-XB900, the JBL Club One, and the utterly insane Skullcandy Crusher ANC. Regarding the quality of the bass, we prefer the very classy Sony WH-XB900N, which manages to stress the bass without killing the other frequencies. However, it loses out on ANC quality to the JBL Club One, which is the best of the three in this department and also comes with a whole host of presets, letting you customize sound a fair bit, although its bass is not quite as thumpy as the Sony unless you go tweak those settings in the app.

Incidentally, the WH-XB 900N is often available for under Rs 15,000 and sometimes even below Rs 10,000 – that takes it below the premium price cut-off we have kept. Still, it remains our favorite and an amazing bargain at that price. Want thumpy bass? REALLY thumping bass? The kind that makes your ears and head vibrate? The Skullcandy Crusher ANC is for you. By a mile. We think it totally takes bass to another level – over the top by most standards, but if you like that sort of bass, this one wins the race. Easily.

Best ANC headphones

All right, this is a list of ANC headphones, so which of the lot have the best ANC? Well, if it is just external noise you want to be blocked out, the Sony WH-1000 XM4 are the gold standard. They are amazingly good at reducing external sounds to the point of near spookiness. Admittedly, I think they lose a little in terms of audio quality, but hey, no one can doubt their ANC prowess.

The Bose 700 give you more levels of ANC and are just a step behind, but those are really way too fiddly to handle. Talking of fiddly, do be patient with the 1000 XM4 in terms of UI – sometimes they pause when you cough or sing along because they assume you are talking! Such smarties.

Best ANC headphones for work

This is for the ones with a strong professional bend, combining great call quality with good ANC and ease of use, and so on. Now, we would really consider the Sony WH-1000 XM4 to be very good for this purpose once you master the slightly fiddly interface, but if you want a better overall package for work at a slightly lower price, we would vote for the Sennheiser PXC 550-II.

They sound better than the WH-1000 XM4, and while their ANC is a step behind (the Sony headphones are the masters in that department, really), their call quality is better, and they are also a whole lot easier just to carry around. There is some smart functionality too, and at their current price of about Rs 17,999, We think these are great for those who want a good pair of ANC headphones mainly for work and then for other purposes. If the work-life balance tilts more towards life, though, we would suggest the Sony WH-1000 XM4 or the Bose QC 35 II.

Best value for money ANC headphones

What if you are looking for as good a combination of premium audio and ANC as you can get, but with minimum expenditure? You can still get lots of ANC and audio bang for your bucks, as you will have to choose between two cult heroes of yesteryears – the Bose QC 35 II and the Sony WH-1000 XM3. Both are terrific headphones but which have since been succeeded by more advanced (some might not agree if we said “better”) versions. But with age in the headphone world come lower price tags, and that is where these two veterans shine. Although both started out at prices above Rs 25,000, they are often available these days for price tags that are well below Rs 20,000. And at that price, they are compellingly good value for money. The Sony 1000 XM3 are a better option for those who want aptX support and a sound signature with the teeniest stress on bass.

The Bose QC 35 II are phenomenal for those who want a warm, comfortable sound that is reasonably balanced but is neither too flat nor bass-heavy. What’s more, the ANC on the QC 35 beats the one on the 1000 XM3, and the headphones themselves are insanely comfortable, although they do tend to get worn out rather fast and have to be replaced very often. Still, unless you are a bass fanatic, I would go for the Bose QC 35 here – call quality and ANC, combined with that warm Bose sound, make for a winning combination. Mind you: purchase them when their price dips below Rs 20,000. If it goes above that, then you would be better off with a Sennheiser PXC 550-II, or if you can stretch your budget a little, the Shure Aonic 50!

So what about the Apple AirPods Max then?

Yes, we knew that question was going to come up, so we gave it a section of its own. In simple terms, the AirPods Max pretty much thrash every headphone out there mentioned in this article. Their audio quality is fantastic (spatial audio is mind- and ear-boggling) with perhaps the best treble handling in an ANC headphone, and their ANC is excellent. The only real flaws that I think they possess are the slightly fragile-looking headband and that – THAT – carrying case that seems right out of Victoria’s Secret catalog rather than an Apple product portfolio.

But there is a big (make that a HUGE) condition for them to turn that performance on – they need to be working with an Apple device. And that really restricts them to a smaller niche, because although they do work with Android, Considering that they still are priced well north of Rs 50,000 (Rs 54,900 – Rs 59,900, although sometimes they dip to Rs 49,900), we would really consider them to be an option only for someone with an iPhone or an iPad who really wants great wireless sound and is willing to shell out a bomb for it. That’s a rather tiny niche, especially when you consider that you could get the Aonic 50 AND the WH-1000 XM4 for less than the price of the AirPods Max today. Still, if you have an iOS device and you want one pair of headphones that is perfect and are deterred not by price tags… well, this one is it. It is so good that we would even suggest buying an iPhone SE (2020) just to use it! The king it is, but its kingdom is kinda sorta small right now. (Note: the range of prices have been mentioned keeping in mind the offers and deals often available on them. These could change with time)