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The Best Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones (and How They Work)

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Products featured are independently selected by our editorial team and we may earn a commission from purchases made from our links; the retailer may also receive certain auditable data for accounting purposes.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) used to be a feature reserved for a couple of really high-end headphones, but over the past five years it’s become more and more common. The ability to block out unwanted noise so you can focus on your music during your commute, or muffle the sound of an airplane’s engines while you travel is a major improvement over cranking up your volume, which can impact your hearing over time.

How Do Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones Work?

It all comes down to microphones and physics. All sound can be broken down into sine waves, which have peaks and valleys based on their volume and frequencies; the sine wave of loud, low sounds will look different than one created by a soft, high pitched noise. Before active noise cancellation, headphones would attempt to block all sounds from the outside world by putting a physical barrier inside of your ear. For earbuds, that meant using gummy tips that created a “seal” inside your ear canal. For on- and over-ear headphones, the best choice was to make larger ear pads out of foam material that would muffle sound. This is known as passive noise cancellation.

Active noise cancellation works differently. Instead of muffling outside noises, microphones on the outside of your headphones “hear” them, and create a sound wave that neutralizes the one coming from the outside world. The sound you hear when active noise cancellation is on, but you’re not playing music, is the sound of these two competing sine waves cancelling each other out. When you listen to music at a normal volume, this sound isn’t audible.

What Are the Pros and Cons of Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

It’s hard to deny the upside of listening to music without interruption from unwanted sounds, but active noise cancellation does have a couple of drawbacks. First, both the microphones that listen to the outside world, and the technology that filters it out require power. That means the battery in your headphones has to be larger, or you have to settle for a shorter playback time per charge. Considering noise-cancelling headphones are typically wireless (Bluetooth chips need electricity, too), you’ve got two big draws on a limited power supply. The result is having another gadget to charge daily (or every few days).

Second, adding an active noise-cancelling hardware and a wireless chipset on top of drivers, padding, and other pieces necessary to make a good sounding pair of headphones increases their weight. This is one of the reasons active noise cancellation has traditionally been found in over-ear headphones, which are heavier to begin with. Heavy headphones may become uncomfortable to wear for long stretches of time, especially if you’re used to wearing a really light pair.

What Are the Best Features of Active Noise-Cancelling Headphones?

The popularity of smartphones and tablets has led big tech companies to invest heavily into making smaller, longer-lasting batteries and more power-efficient wireless technology. Recent versions of Bluetooth have better range and lower energy demands. The introduction of custom DSPs (digital signal processors), and the miniaturization of battery technology has enabled active noise cancellation to make its way to on-ear and in-ear headphones, although over-ear models will typically have the best audio quality and battery life.

What Are the Best Active Noise Cancelling Headphones to Buy?

Active noise cancellation is becoming a common feature, but not all headphones that have it sound good or feel comfortable. We’re recommending one pair of headphones in each major style (earbuds, on-ear, and over ear) that are actually worth your time.

1. Sony WH-1000XM4 Headphones

sony wh-1000mx4 headphones

Amazon

The WH-1000XM4s are the latest entry in Sony’s premium active noise cancelling headphone line, which has long been one of the top-rated units for ANC. The headphones are reliable, they sound excellent, and you can customize their EQ to your tastes by using the Sony Connect app (iOS and Android).

The headphones have microphones in each ear cup, which neutralize an impressive amount noise before it hits your ears. This makes it easier to commute, travel, or work from home without distractions. The microphones can also be used to take hands-free phone calls, or activate the smart assistant on your phone without reaching into your pocket.

One of the reasons Sony’s headphones stood out to us is that their “smart” features are useful and actually work. The WH-1000XM4s will automatically adjust their noise cancellation settings and EQ based on what’s happening around you. It’ll even factor in your current atmospheric pressure, which changes when you enter a subway or airplane, when making these decisions.

Get up to 30 hours of music playback per charge if you leave active noise cancellation on, or 38 if you switch it off. The headphones run for up to five hours on a 10-minute charge.


Buy:
Sony WH-1000XM4
at
$348.00

2. Marshall MID ANC Headphones

Marshall MID

Amazon

Marshall is best known for supplying amps used by bands like AC/DC, but the company’s line of Bluetooth headphones are a sleeper hit. I’ve tested several pairs, including the MID ANCs, and love they way they sound.

The on-ear headphones have two microphones for noise cancellation, and offer 20 hours of continuous music playback with the setting enabled. The headphones weigh 7.3 ounces, which puts them between our earbud and over-ear headphone picks.

Marshall used a pair of custom 40mm drivers in its headphones, and the difference is easy to hear. I initially believed the MID ANCs would be tuned for rock music, but I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of depth I heard when listening to jazz, pop, and Motown. Instruments and vocals in the midrange sound particularly good.

The MID ANC’s active noise cancellation is very good, but on-ear headphones will always struggle with the feature more than earbuds or over-ear cans. Earbuds create a seal around your ears, which offers excellent passive and active noise cancellation, and over-ear headphones have thick pads that fit over your entire ear. The MID ANC’s earpads are extremely plush, but they don’t create the same type of barrier between you and the outside world.

If you prefer on-ear headphones for their balance between lightness and audio quality, the Marshall MID ANCs are the noise cancelling headphones you should get — just make sure you understand the drawbacks inherent in this style of headphone before you do.


Buy:
Marshall MID ANC
at
$269.00

3. Bose 700 ANC Headphones

Bose 700

Amazon

Bose’s QC25s were the first pair of active noise-cancelling headphones most people heard about, and they basically ran unopposed for several years. Competition has heated up, and Bose recently responded with its 700 series over-ear headphones.

The Bose 700s have six microphones dedicated to active noise cancellation, and lets you switch between 11 different levels by pressing a button on the right ear cup. They weigh 8.6 ounces, which is not much more than the Marshall on-ear headphones we recommend, and get 20 hours of battery life per charge. Bose says the headphones can offer 3.5 hours of music playback being plugged in for 15 minutes.

Bose has a proven track record for producing great sounding audio hardware, from speakers to soundbars to headphones. The company says the 700s feature a custom EQ (equalizer) designed to make your music sound good at any volume. It also supports Bose AR, a custom audio technology designed to work with augmented reality glasses.

We’re recommending the Bose 700s over other over-ear headphones because of their impressive active noise cancellation hardware, but they also have some nice design flourishes. The headphones have Amazon’s Alexa voice assistant built into them, which you can use to play songs from different streaming services, get answers to questions, and control smart home accessories. The right earpad is also touch sensitive, so you can adjust volume and play or pause songs with a swipe or tap.

If active noise cancellation is the number one feature you’re considering when looking for your next pair of over-ear headphones, the Bose 700 deliver.


Buy:
Bose 700 ANC
at
$379.00

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Happy 52nd Birthday DJ Quik!

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David Marvin Blake a.k.a. DJ Quik was born in Pomona, California and shortly after relocated to Compton, California. His love for music began at a very young age, and by age 12 he could already play a number of instruments. Quik jumpstarted his path to fame by selling mixtapes he made with the turntable he received while still in school. Through self-promotion, his fame began to rise and he started to DJ and host events in Southern California.

Whether due to knowledge of his coming success or lack of interest, Quik dropped out of high school in the 11th grade. Shortly after, he suffered homelessness when his family home was taken away in foreclosure. There’s little information about what happened over that period of DJ Quik’s life but in 1990, everything changed.

DJ Quik had created so much of a buzz on the streets selling tapes and making appearances at parties and events he gained the attention of local record labels Ruthless Records and Profile Records. Despite a one million dollar offer from Eazy E, Quik went ahead and signed with Profile.

On February 12, 1991, DJ Quik released his debut album, Quik Is the Name, which debuted at #29 on the Billboard 200 chart, where it would peak, and sold 50,000 copies in its first week. After about four years, the album was certified platinum by the RIAA and has to date sold 1,068,203 copies. The album hosted hit singles, “Born and Raised in Compton” and “Tonite.” After his debut success, Quik went on to produce eight more solo studio albums and a collaborative album with rapper Kurupt called Blaqkout in 2009.

Outside of music, DJ Quik has made appearances as an actor on popular TV shows: Method and Red, Entourage, and Everybody Hates Chris. His career is one of the more influential ones on the West Coast. Quik was an instrumental part of the G-Funk sound and helped it to gain popularity early in the rap world. Countless rappers, producers, and DJs alike have noted their influence by DJ Quik and if you ride around SoCal today, there’s no doubt you can hear one of his hits playing on someone’s stereo. If you don’t already listen on the daily, take some time today to appreciated the career of one of the West Coast’s OGs.

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2000s Emo and Pop-Punk Blowout When We Were Young: 5 Questions We Have

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On Tuesday afternoon, an emo festival designed to bait millennials around the world materialized of thin air. Headlined by My Chemical Romance and Paramore, When We Were Young is set to take place in Las Vegas on Oct. 22. The poster is full of band names you either haven’t thought about in years or have thought about every single day since you hit puberty: AFI, the Used, 3OH!3, Hawthorne Heights, the Ready Set, Anberlin. Alongside the emo and pop-punk heavyweights like Bring Me the Horizon, Bright Eyes, and Avril Lavigne are some newer names, like viral punks the Linda Lindas and TikTok stars Jxdn and Lil Huddy.

The festival almost feels like a desert mirage: Is this too good to be true? Are we in for the emo revival’s own Fyre Festival? Here are five questions we have about the year’s hottest 2000s-nostalgia ticket.

Where the hell did this festival come from?

Believe it or not, this is actually the second When We Were Young festival. The first one took place in Santa Ana, California, in 2017, a week before Coachella. Across two days, a similar but less flashy set of punk, emo, and indie-rock nostalgia acts shared a bill, with Morrissey, AFI, Descendents, Cage the Elephant, and Taking Back Sunday among them.

Is this seriously all happening on only one day?

The poster for the fest is wildly crowded, and it’s quite ridiculous to expect that this many bands can appear in just 12 hours, unless all their sets are whittled down to 20 minutes of pure hits. According to ticketing information, there will be three stages across the festival grounds, which means a ton of horrible choices about which bands to prioritize throughout day-long fest, which is due to begin at 11 a.m. and end at 11 p.m. Which brings us to one big question about the co-headliners …

Will we have to choose between My Chemical Romance and Paramore?

We feel for any emo kid who has to make this heartbreaker of a call. Both bands are listed at the top of the bill, right next to each other. Both also remain wildly popular. Paramore have returned from a hiatus to record a new album while My Chemical Romance reunited in 2019, only for their tour to be pushed back twice now due to Covid. Given the single day of performances spread across three stages, it seems likely (though not confirmed) that the two headliners could be performing at the same time. So many great things come with difficult choices.

Were Fall Out Boy unavailable?

Excited tweets about the festival have opened the floodgates for questions about who was left out. The lineup is, in many ways, a snapshot of a time and place in early-2000s alternative-rock music. Of course, it is simply one day in Vegas and many bands have their own tours and schedules to adhere to. But the absence of Fall Out Boy (playing only their first three albums, for the sake of the vibe) is a personal vendetta I will carry against this lineup.

Are the folks behind Warped Tour fuming?

Credit where credit is due: Warped Tour was a major launchpad for the majority of artists on this bill. It ended officially in 2019 with a mini 25th-anniversary tour, but the true final trek was back in 2018. The Warped Tour sound is having a huge revival right now, not just for the kids who grew up on it but also for Gen Z artists, many of whom have landed on the WWWY lineup.

Warped founder Kevin Lyman teased that a Warped-adjacent festival would arrive under a different name in 2021, though that didn’t happen. Meanwhile, Attila’s Chris Fronzak has been looking into buying the rights to Warped, though he legally couldn’t put on the festival until 2023. If When We Were Young goes off without a hitch, we could very well see even more fest lineups scratching that Hot Topic nostalgia itch.

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Dan Crenshaw Withers Under Questioning From Young Woman, Gets Booed at Conservative Event

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Dan Crenshaw, the acerbic congressman from Texas desperately trying to brand himself as an unnatural chimera of Donald Trump and John McCain, is in hot water today for a video recorded at a Montgomery County Tea Party fundraiser in which he snaps at a young woman for asking him a pointed question about Jesus.

The entire setting and context for the exchange is like a Mad Libs of terms to bubble out of the right-wing fever swamp. Crenshaw was confronted at a Tea Party fundraiser by a young woman questioner, who challenged him to defend statements that he made likening Jesus to a fictional superhero while on former Navy SEAL Jocko Willink’s podcast. The video of the confrontation was shared by Scott T. Parkinson, the VP of Government Affairs for Club4Growth, a conservative PAC that recently endorsed Illinois Rep. Mary Miller, who achieved brief online prominence after she said “Hitler was right about one thing” during a speech the day before the Jan. 6 insurrection. Parkinson’s reasoning for committing GOP-on-GOP violence on Crenshaw probably stems from the Texas lawmaker’s recent online flame-war with Marjorie Taylor Greene, though it’s tough to say why any of these people do what they do. 

Anyway, the woman asked Crenshaw to defend a quote he gave to The Jocko podcast: “The important thing is that we have societal hero archetypes that we look up to,” Crenshaw said. “Jesus is a hero archetype. Superman is a hero archetype. Real characters too, you know, I could name a thousand,” which the questioner (again, a young woman) interpreted as Crenshaw saying Jesus was not a “real character” (The Week points out that this argument appears to be drawn from right-wing pop psychologist Jordan Peterson’s work, adding to the game of Mad Libs). 

The first part of the question is inaudible, but Newsweek reports that Parkinson’s video picks up right after the woman claims Crenshaw “lied about being Christian.”

“I can’t wrap my head around this,” the woman says after reading Crenshaw’s quote about Jesus and hero archetypes back to him.

“I’ll help you,” Crenshaw snaps. “Put a period after ‘Jesus,’ and don’t question my faith.”

The crowd then erupts in a chorus of “wows” and boos. “Don’t question my faith, don’t question my faith,” Crenshaw says again, to more boos, and, at the end, a confusing chant of “Let’s Go Brandon,” just to round out the fever swamp bingo card. 

I don’t think Dan Crenshaw is gonna raise a lot of money off *this* video. pic.twitter.com/YJyLdUhTke

— Scott T. Parkinson (@ScottTParkinson) January 18, 2022

The identity of the young woman is unclear, but Jameson Ellis, a Republican attempting to primary Crenshaw, tweeted that she is 18 years old.

Regardless, we have a young woman asking a gotcha question based on a dumb podcast quote, a member of Congress angrily defending himself instead of patiently and easily explaining the context of his words, the member of Congress getting booed by an audience of Tea Party Republicans, and a hard-right conservative PAC operative sharing a video of the encounter in order to shame Crenshaw for not being sufficiently right wing. 

Taken together, the episode is a perfect look at how the far right eats its own, chewing up candidates for perceived slights and spitting them out further right — which will surely happen with Crenshaw — or out of the party’s graces altogether, like it did with Liz Cheney. If the modern GOP is a place too hostile even for the daughter of Dick Cheney, it’s pretty clear it’s going to hammer any dreams of John McCain-centrist-maverick behavior out of Crenshaw as soon as possible. It’s a pity that won’t make him any less annoying.

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