2012 in a Nutshell

The world is a noisy place. There are mobile phones ringing, motorcycles roaring by, 19-year-olds with bad taste blasting EDM over their car speakers – and that’s just on your morning commute. It gets worse when you get to the office and your coworkers start chattering about having “a case of the Mondays.”

Noise at any level can be horrible for your health. Beyond causing hearing loss, consistent exposure to noise raises your risk of heart attack, stroke, obesity, insomnia, stress, and related mental health disorders, according to Harvard Medical School.

Enter: noise-canceling headphones. You don’t even have to play music over them; some people simply use them as expensive earplugs.

Noise-canceling headphones aren’t cheap by headphone standards. However, you have a range of options at prices ranging from $50 to over $400. But before we dive into the top picks at each price point, it’s worth understanding how they work.

Active Noise Canceling vs. Passive Noise Canceling

Technically speaking, there are two types of “noise-canceling” headphones: passive and active noise-canceling.

Passive noise-canceling headphones are designed to physically block as much ambient noise as possible. Over-ear headsets do this by firmly cupping your ears with layers of sound-dampening foam padding. I found this pair to be the best wireless earbuds.

But when most people refer to noise-canceling headphones, they’re talking about active noise cancellation. Active noise cancellation (ANC) was designed for pilots, who suffered long exposure to loud airplane engines. The technology assesses ambient noise through a tiny microphone, then cancels it out by generating sound waves at the same wavelength, just inverted by 180 degrees. The new waves nullify the original incoming sound waves in a clever application of wave theory.

ANC works best with lower-frequency sounds and consistent sounds, such as the drone of airplane engines. But it dampens other sounds as well, reducing ambient noise by 20 to 45 decibels (dB). The best passive “noise-canceling” headphones only reduce background noise by 15 to 20 dB. For context, a whispered conversation is about 30 dB, while a plane taking off is about 120 dB.


Best Noise-Canceling Headphones Under $100

Want to avoid all those health problems, but don’t have hundreds of dollars to drop on cutting-edge noise-cancellation technology? Don’t worry.

Whether you want to maximize your commute by listening to personal development audiobooks or save on travel costs by using public transit, try these low-cost options for ANC headphones.

1. Mpow H10 (Top Pick)

For the best all-around value for active noise-canceling headphones under $100, it’s hard to beat the Mpow H10. They offer well-rounded, quality sound for the price point. They also sport a comfortable fit and long battery life, which is essential since active noise cancellation requires extra power.

Their noise-canceling technology isn’t as robust as some of the more expensive options on this list, but it does a great job with low-frequency sounds.

As a nice perk, these headphones work either wirelessly or with a cord. That’s great for people like me who get paranoid about wireless radiation right next to their brain, as well as for audiophiles who prefer the clearer sound of wired headsets.

If there’s a downside to the Mpow H10, beyond the usual price point limitations, it’s their appearance. They look and feel a little plastic-y and cheap. But it’s what’s under the hood that counts, and on that score, the Mpow H10 delivers.

2. Anker SoundCore Space NC

For slightly better noise canceling and a significantly better look, check out the Anker SoundCore Space NC. They boast great battery life and intuitive button controls, and like the Mpow H10, they can operate either wired or wirelessly. They also come with a handy little carrying case.

The downside of the Anker SoundCore Space NC is that their sound quality is bass-heavy. For fans of bass-centric music genres, they’re a fantastic value. But the bass drowns out more instrument- or vocals-led music, making the Anker SoundCore Space NC more of a niche headset.

3. Mpow H5

If you’re tight on money and want the most bang for your buck, look to the Mpow H5. They cost half as much as their big brother the H10 and still pack in plenty of features. Across the board, their specs are decent: reasonably good sound quality, comfort, battery life, and even a carrying case.

Where they fall short is full noise cancellation. They’re the cheapest ANC headphones on this list, and you can tell when the ambient noise is loud.

4. Anker SoundCore Life 2

Costing slightly less than the Space NC, the Anker SoundCore Life 2 also provide balanced sound without sacrificing power on the bass. Lovers of all music genres will appreciate the sound quality for the price point.

The Anker SoundCore Life 2 also feel comfortable and have a strong battery life. Like the other options above, you can use them either wirelessly or with a cord.

They don’t offer total noise cancellation, however. They work, but not as well as the Space NC, so if you have a loud office or commute, they might not be your best choice.


Best Noise-Canceling Headphones From $100 – $200

In the $100 to $200 range, you start getting more premium sound. These aren’t the best ANC headphones in the world, but audiophiles can find headsets that deliver great sound among these mid-range options.

5. Bose QuietComfort 25 (Top Pick)

The Bose QuietComfort 25 was the top ANC headphones in the world in 2014 when they cost $300. Now, they cost less than half that, but most of what made them so great then still applies.

They’re extremely comfortable and fold well for travel. Their sound quality is outstanding across the board, with clear lows, mids, and highs. The noise cancellation was state-of-the-art in 2014 and still works great, even if the technology has improved incrementally since then.

There are two interesting and related points worth mentioning about the Bose QuietComfort 25. First, they’re wired-only, unlike most modern ANC headphones. Second, they still work when the battery runs out after an astounding 35 hours of life. They may not work as well, but they essentially convert to a high-quality passive headphone set when the battery dies.

In this price range, Bose’s QuietComfort 25 headphones are hard to beat.

6. JBL Live 650BTNC

Another strong contender for middleweight champion ANC headphones, the JBL Live 650BTNC offer excellent sound and modern features, such as Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa for sending easy commands to your smart home devices.

With 20 hours of battery life on wireless and 30 hours on wired use, they’re no slouch when it comes to battery life, either.

Where the JBL Live 650BTNC fall slightly short of their high-end competitors is noise-canceling technology and comfort. For short and intermediate sessions, they’re comfortable enough, but for multi-hour use, the on-ear foam starts to irritate.

Still, at its price point, it makes a compelling option.

Posted by SQLJason

3 comments

Great work, Jason. Congrats and good luck for the coming year!

Christian Wade

Wow! – I didn't realize you did so many SQL Saturdays! Maybe we should nominate each other to become MVPs 😉

Many Many Congratulations Jason..Wish you were in Bangalore,India to give your presentations. We would love to attend.

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