The best noise-cancelling headphones ever
December 6, 2023 3:35 PM   Subscribe

So I have a pretty severe case of misophonia. I also commute on public transport. These things doesn't really mix all that well a lot of the time. Can you help me find a pair of noise cancelling headphones that will keep me from completely losing my mind?

So I used to actually enjoy riding the NYC subway. Truly! I'm not kidding. But since the advent of smartphones, commuting has become a nightmare for me because of people who watch videos or play video games on the train without using headphones. And trust me, there's at least one of them in every single car. I have AirPods Pro, but while they're not useless, they don't shut out the noise completely, and if I can hear someone at all, I get into a near-murderous rage (I exaggerate, but not by much). Obviously, this has really begun to affect my life and I'm genuinely afraid that one inconsiderate person combined with a couple of nights of sleep deprivation and work stress could lead to real trouble for me.

So I'm looking for headphones with active noise cancellation that works really well. At this point, I'm willing to throw some money at the problem, so I'm fine spending several hundred dollars. I just want to get home in an unenraged state. I've read all the online reviews, but I'd like to hear from people with personal experience. I especially would love to hear from other people who regularly use noise-cancelling headphones public transport regularly. Is there such a thing as headphones that will genuinly block out ambient noise on the subway?

(Please, no advice on how to do deep breathing or what have you, or speculation on why it might be ok for some people to not use headphones in public. That's a discussion for another place, and right now I just need to not hear the noise.)
posted by That darn sock! to Technology (34 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I have a pair of Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 series and love them. They do an impressive job with ambient noise cancelling, especially when I'm listening to audiobooks -- rarely do I notice other sounds, and I often use them for this purpose during plane flights, sitting in airports, and while using public transportation in Washington, DC (metro and bus). I turn up the noise cancelling to its highest level (there's also medium or none as options). Additionally, one of my neighbors is a very screamy toddler, and the headphones help me endure that. I can't speak to them *completely* blocking out the kind of ambient noise you mentioned, since it doesn't distress me like it does for you (no judgment, just acknowledging that) -- but they are very, very good and I wish I'd gotten them many years ago.
posted by wicked_sassy at 3:52 PM on December 6, 2023 [3 favorites]

Bose Comfort Quiet Comfort for me, I’m on my second pair, they are tanks and keep a lot out, you can wear them for hours. Everyone wears them here, although they’re recently being caught up on in popularity by the new Sony ones, but I’ve not tried them.
posted by Iteki at 4:15 PM on December 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

Everybody wants noise-canceling to negate intermittent sounds like dogs barking and people chewing, but they only work well with steady sounds like aircraft engines. You need real earplugs: I recommend anything by Hear-Os.
posted by Rash at 4:24 PM on December 6, 2023 [11 favorites]

Just wanted to suggest pairing up any make/model of over-ear noise canceling headphones with foam earplugs until you find your ideal headphones.
posted by happy_cat at 4:34 PM on December 6, 2023 [4 favorites]

yeah i think active noise canceling is not going to do it for you (i super sympathize with your plight). I’d recommend full-on hearing protection that has some kind of sound input. I have the most experience with Howard Leight, but that only has a 3.5mm stereo input. IsoTunes is supposed to be ok, Walker’s has some Bluetooth models, Prohear is probably fine. (You obviously don’t need the pass through for non-harmful sound.)

I get antirecommendations about earbud-only hearing protection but i think for your purpose it’s probably fine.

Agree that earplugs plus over-ear (I like Loop plugs plus the Sony ANC set) is probably worth trying
posted by supercres at 5:02 PM on December 6, 2023 [3 favorites]

You could try pro-grade ear muffs over the AirPods you already own. I wear these when I vacuum at home.
posted by purple_bird at 5:21 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Regular earplugs alone do not work. Trust me on this one. I suppose the heavy-duty ones that the train conductors use may work, and I may yet try them, but I promise you that I have tried every single kind of earplugs on the market, and nope, they do not block someone listening to TikTok at even medium volume.

Believe me, I know I sound irrational here, and I probably am, but basically nothing in the subway upsets me except the no-headphone smartphone people and they really upset me. So assume I’ve tried everything except over-ear noise-canceling headphones.
posted by That darn sock! at 5:27 PM on December 6, 2023

I can't give you a specific model recommendation except to say that Sony over-the-ear headphones with active noise cancellation are excellent. I no longer commute on public transport, but when I did they were great. Today I work in an office full of heavy Zoom users, and they are still my go-to. I've had them for something like ten years, so I will assume that current models are as good or better.
posted by lhauser at 5:50 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I have not tried them myself, but my understanding is that headphones like Apple's AirPods Max, because they will seal off your ears, will block noises that AirPods Pro can't.
posted by applesurf at 6:05 PM on December 6, 2023

Bonus: Play a white noise track on your phone while doing a combination of the above.
posted by mochapickle at 7:18 PM on December 6, 2023 [4 favorites]

"Everybody wants noise-canceling to negate intermittent sounds like dogs barking and people chewing, but they only work well with steady sounds like aircraft engines."

I used to think that, but it's no longer true. The noise canceling on my AirPods works fantastically at muting conversations in my office, not just airplane engine sounds.
posted by jonathanhughes at 7:43 PM on December 6, 2023 [5 favorites]

Apple's over-ear headphones do a very good job of reducing ambient sounds, including conversations. You might want to give them a try.

Nothing is going to shut out noise completely though. Even the best headphones and earplugs can't stop bone conduction, so it'll still be audible to some degree.
posted by zippy at 8:10 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I have Bose Quiet Comfort (and older model) and they have been life-changing for me. A friend just (ie about 2 weeks ago) bought the Sony XM4 as construction has just started right beside his apartment. He says they are incredible - he will take them off thinking the construction work has stopped only to find that it is in full swing and LOUD with the headphones off. Good luck.

You can use both noise-cancelling headphones plus earplugs for extra insulation.
posted by lulu68 at 8:20 PM on December 6, 2023 [2 favorites]

I have the Sony over ear ones with a stupidly long code name (wh1000-mx4; the latest version is a '5, my neighbour has used both and assures me the 5 is even better). I've found them to be great for most things - they're certainly dangerously good at cancelling out kitchen noise if I use them for a phone call while cooking. As someone above was saying, earplugs underneath these might be even better.

They are Not Cheap, but that seems to be the standard for this sort of thing. They're not as expensive as the over ear Apple headphones, mind, and they're also a good deal lighter.
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:25 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I'm with you on how freaking terrible it is when people listen to their shit in public spaces. Especially beepy-beep video games. But also their terrible youtube videos and their terrible facetime calls. God.

So. Are you listening to something of your own, music or audiobook, on the airpods, or just using them for the noise cancellation? Because just placed in ears on their own, sure, noise seeps in. But when I'm listening to an interesting audiobook on my airpods, the impact of other noises is very well blunted. The cognitive interference and noise cancelation work together.
posted by fingersandtoes at 8:30 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I have a set of Sony WH-1000XM2 that I adored so much I actually purchased the current version WH-1000XM5. The old set of XM2's still work great so now I use them in my woodworking shop where I run a planer and a joiner and an air compressor. I feel rich having two sets. It's just the best.

I used to ride the CTA around Chicago and the XM2's worked great in keeping the noise out. The battery would last the commute out and back and the whole day at the office.

And the XM5 is better in every way. The spouse has the Air Pod pros. XM5 noise canceling is on another level. I'm wearing them right now. The rest of my headphones just collect dust in a drawer.
posted by zenon at 8:34 PM on December 6, 2023 [1 favorite]

I have the Bose 700s and they work quite well on plane noise or the standard subway sounds, but to really not hear anything at all I have to play something actively through them. I actually don’t like to do that while on the NYC subway because I feel like if I can’t hear anything it will make me much more likely to end up in a bad situation where I don’t hear someone doing something weird around me but that sort of noise cancellation is exactly what you want!

I do wear glasses which affects the seal around my ears and makes them slightly less effective. Certain hairstyles can also get in the way of their effectiveness. These are issues with all over ear headphones as far as I know.
posted by A Blue Moon at 8:40 PM on December 6, 2023

Bose and Sony are essentially equivalent. Pick your price point and try the corresponding models out in a store to decide which is more comfortable for you. In terms of price point, I could discern a difference between the ~$250 models and the ~$350 models, but it wasn’t a big difference.

Absolutely find a store that sells these and try them out! The noise canceling isn’t very different, but I found the Bose more comfortable than the Sony. Definitely personal preference though.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:36 PM on December 6, 2023

I'd look into the Sony WH-1000XM5 for max noise cancellation.

This video will show what's realistic to expect. (It seems that Airpods Max prioritizes human voices).

ANC on its own isn't going to make your commute silent. It will do a pretty good job of reducing the sound of squealing trains. However even the best ANC can only take the edge off people's voices. I think the best way to describe it is that it will make people's voices seem further away. Things will improve if you are playing audio of your own (even white nose).
posted by oceano at 10:10 PM on December 6, 2023 [3 favorites]

I also have fierce misophonia and sound sensitivity.

I have a pair of Sony WH 1000mx4 headphones for when I'm writing, they are blissful, but as others have said they don't work well for intermittent noise.

I don't like using earplugs for anything but sleeping as they magnify the sound of my footsteps and they're awkward to quickly put in or take out.

What I use instead is a pair of very heavy duty ear protectors similar to the ones used in shooting ranges (mine are not quite so bulky and just look like headphones)

They're effective at cutting out a lot of noise and easy to put on quickly, or lift away if you need to talk to someone.

As others have said, nothing will cut out all sound, as sound reaches your eardrums through your skull and the rest of your body. But it really does help.
posted by Zumbador at 2:14 AM on December 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

This video where somebody with misophonia ranks the various treatments she has tried for it might interest you if you have not already seen it. Of all the treatments she tried she puts white noise generators, hearing aids used in Tinnitus Retraining Therapy mode, and non-noise cancelling earphones at the top. For her case, at least, she warns that noise cancelling headphones can work in the immediate term but cause potential problems by making people more sensitive to triggers when they are not wearing them.

At once stage she also makes the interesting observation that there can be a difference between treatments which minimize the physical effects of the triggering sound - and those which help with the emotional effects of them; if you are furious with the fellow passengers who blare out their YouTube videos and FaceTime calls - then even something which blocks out nearly 100% of that sound may not feel like it is really working.

I guess the simple take-away from this, if you have not already done so, would be to try playing white noise over your existing headphones to see if that alone helps. Personally I find noise cancelling headphones - like the above mentioned Bose models, great - but I don't suffer from misophonia or have to do a daily commute on your train.
posted by rongorongo at 5:11 AM on December 7, 2023

I recently got these 1MORE SonoFlow over-ear headphones to use for other purposes, and I was absolutely SHOCKED by how good the noise cancellation is. I also have AirPods Pro, and thought that noise cancellation was good - until I got these. My husband can be laying next to me in bed playing videos on his phone with no headphones, and I only notice it because I'm sensitive to the screen light - I can't hear it at all. I've since bought another pair to tote around with me to use specifically for noise cancellation.
posted by okayokayigive at 5:36 AM on December 7, 2023

As others have mentioned, I have found noise-cancelling headphones + some kind of noise playing through them much more effective than headphones alone.

If you decide to try that route, I highly recommend, created by audio engineer Dr. Ir. Stéphane Pigeon, as a source of white noise or other background blocking noises - there are a wide variety of customizable options available for listening either online or through the phone app, many of them free, so you can experiment with what sounds are most pleasant and block out the ambient noise frequencies best.
posted by beryllium at 5:49 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Just to note, not to threadsit: I always listen to my own music or white noise while I have the AirPods Pro in, so whatever I choose, I’m not expecting the ANC to do all the work.
posted by That darn sock! at 7:53 AM on December 7, 2023

FWIW, during the year there was loud 4th grade zoom class in the same space I was trying to work every day, the thing I found most effective for me was in-ears with narrow stems (like Etymotics or Shure IEMs) with triple-flanged tips, underneath ear protectors. It took me a couple tries with cheap ear protectors from Amazon before I found something that fit comfortably over the earphones, and it still wasn't *that* comfortable, but for days when I really needed to concentrate without worrying what my kid was up to, it was helpful.
posted by bfields at 8:14 AM on December 7, 2023

Bose and Sony are essentially equivalent.

Apple, too.

Everybody else in the space is not quite as good at noise-canceling at those three, though some of them are better at other things (e.g. value for the money (Monoprice, Anker), or audiophile sound quality (Focal Bathys, with Master & Dynamic/Sennheiser/Bower & Wilkins/Bang & Olufsen all a bit behind but still very good).

Here's The Verge's (recent, experiment-based) take.
posted by box at 8:55 AM on December 7, 2023 [2 favorites]

I use the same sony headphones everyone else has recommended, which are great for blocking out the kind of continuous mechanical noises that drive me round the bend. If I’m not listening to music or a podcast. I like the app ‘MyNoise’ for playing non distracting ambient soundscapes through them out in public to block out intermittent sounds, like some tiktok playing out of someone’s phone.
posted by chives at 10:02 AM on December 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

Another vote for the Sony headphones. I have the MX4, and I like them so much that I replaced the ones that got stolen pretty much immediately despice the price. They're very comfortable to wear too, because they sit around the ear rather than on it.
posted by snakeling at 10:55 AM on December 7, 2023

I have the Sony WH1000MX5s or whatever they’re called that several people recommended. They’re very good. I’m not sure I’d say they were radically better at noise cancelling that the AirPods Pro I’ve also got. Better, sure, but not leaps and bounds.

The other thing I’d note is that if, like me, you’re a glasses-wearer, over-ear phones are going to work less well as the arms of the glasses will break the seal and allow sound in from the outside - only a little bit, but it sounds like (hah) you’re after total exclusion and so that’s something you should factor in.
posted by parm at 10:57 AM on December 7, 2023

Yeah, for what it's worth, there's a _thin sliver_ of a difference between how well my AirPods Pro 2 and my AirPods Max cut out transient external noise, with the Maxes working just a little bit better, maybe? But it doesn't seem to take a whole lot of volume to mask quite a lot of external audio. I suspect the Maxes are a _little_ better because they're over the ear rather than canalphones, but that probably depends on your tolerance for stuff in your ears.

That said - you mentioned AirPods Pro - are the OG Pros, or Pro 2s? The "new" generation has significantly better ANC than the first gen in my experience, although I don't have my originals any more for comparison testing. And if you buy Maxes now for testing purposes, you can return them clear through January 8th if they don't do any better than the Pros you already have.

Also also, if you're an iOS user, have you dug into Settings -> Accessibility -> Hearing Audio/Visual -> Background Sounds? That can bring up the noise floor pretty significantly when the goal is muffling the inconsiderate jackhole next to you on the train as opposed to a full audiophilic experience. Warm and fuzzy "dark noise" can be yours at all hours.

A cheaper solution might be memory foam eartips for your airpods pro, both Comply and Eartune sell them, I can't speak to either because they were ultimately too uncomfortable for me, but that might also help bring up the threshold just enough.
posted by Kyol at 11:30 AM on December 7, 2023 [1 favorite]

Earmuffs with Bluetooth headphones integrated would work perfectly if you can deal with the look. I use these for industrial noise, with music on lower level sounds are totally gone.
posted by deadwax at 12:21 PM on December 7, 2023

I have been using Bose QuietComfort headphones for well over a decade. I am sensitive to noise, love quiet, and will never be without a pair of these headphones. In my opinion, they are not only far more comfortable to wear, but also have better noise cancellation than the Sony ones.
posted by sevensnowflakes at 9:08 PM on December 7, 2023

(If you're looking at replacement eartips for your AirPods Pro per Kyol's suggestion, I've tried Comply and I think Foam Masters are better.

I have so many opinions about earphones.)
posted by box at 4:27 AM on December 8, 2023

Sodcasters really get my goat.

Depending on how dorky you are willing to appear in public, the best overall noise cancelling I have found is well-fitting IEMs for my own music, with noise-cancelling headphones on top, just running the noise cancelling function.

The eartips will make a big difference, of course.

For me, any bean shaped IEM (Shure SE series, Westone W series, for example) with the Shure yellow foam tips for music and pretty good isolation, and the Bose QuietComforts on top of that.

My older QuietComforts run off an AA battery, and so there is one less device to charge / to drain a phone's battery, etc.
posted by Calvin and the Duplicators at 4:00 PM on December 8, 2023

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