Active noise cancellation (ANC) has seen significant advancements since the introduction of the first consumer noise-canceling headphones, the Bose QC1, in 2000. Today, ANC technology is widely available in headphones across different price ranges, making it challenging to determine which ones are best suited for your noise-canceling needs. To address this, The Verge took to the streets of New York City to compare various noise-canceling headphones, including the Apple AirPods Max, Bose Noise Cancelling 700, Bose QuietComfort 45, Sony WH-1000XM5, and even a pair of expensive aviation headphones priced at $1,300. Their aim was to assess how far ANC has progressed over the past 23 years. They used a Neumann KU 100 dummy head microphone to replicate the experience of wearing the headphones with active noise cancellation.
While subjective opinions play a role in evaluating noise-canceling headphones, The Verge sought a more objective assessment by sending the headphones (excluding the aviation ones) to Head Acoustics, a testing facility in Michigan. With expertise in sound and vibration analysis, Head Acoustics conducts controlled environment audio tests for various tech products in the market. The facility utilized an eight-microphone array to record noisy environments such as a railway platform, airplane cabin, and street crossroads. These recordings were subsequently played back in an audio testing chamber equipped with eight speakers, mimicking the experience of wearing the headphones on a head and torso simulator. The data collected by Head Acoustics included frequency attenuation, loudness level reduction, speech intelligibility, and other noise suppression metrics, enabling a comprehensive comparison of the ANC headphones’ performance.
Head Acoustics found that the Sony WH-1000XM5 exhibited the best passive attenuation and performed well in all noise environments. The Apple AirPods Max came a close second, excelling in canceling noise in the lower frequency range typically found in airplane cabins. The Bose QC45 also scored well in the tests. All the headphones struggled to cancel out loud environmental music, which isn’t surprising given the complexity of suppressing such noise. Regarding speech quality during audio playback in various noise environments, the AirPods Max emerged as the top performer. According to the results, even with ANC set to its maximum level, the AirPods Max effectively allowed speech playback to remain undisturbed, unaltered, and natural-sounding. Hence, if you primarily listen to podcasts or audiobooks during your daily commute, the AirPods Max may be the ideal choice.
In terms of ANC capabilities, the Bose QC1 performed poorly compared to the current-generation headphones. This highlights the significant progress ANC has made over the past two decades. However, none of the tested headphones offered flexible ANC features for different noise environments. Currently, ANC primarily involves various levels of maximum attenuation. Nonetheless, Apple has teased the introduction of new features like “Adaptive Audio” in an upcoming AirPods Pro update, indicating a potential move towards ANC that can dynamically adjust based on the user’s surroundings. In the future, ANC headphones may incorporate smarter algorithms or artificial intelligence to determine the optimal amount of noise suppression and frequency adjustments depending on the environment. For now, the choice of the best ANC headphones depends on individual preferences and requirements.