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The fastest way to get some peace and quiet? Nab yourself a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. As sales boom, HARRY WALLOP puts the best to the test

Posted at Dec 28, 2020

The working-from-home trend was meant to just be a short-lived measure.

Nine long months on, many of us are still trying to cope with complex spreadsheets while teenagers play on the games console and the washing machine churns on. Which partly explains one of the technology trends of the year: the rise of noise-cancelling headphones.

Jade Baker, assistant buyer of audio at John Lewis, says: ‘At the beginning of the year, demand for traditional overhead headphones was low; but by the end of April, sales of headphones were up 27 per cent compared to 2019.’

And the sales growth has not stopped, with more and more models on the market. This month, Apple announced the launch of its Airpod Max, huge stainless steel ‘cans’ costing an eye-watering £549, which arrive in the UK this spring.

Bang & Olufsen H9 (£450, Bang & Olufsen)

The top-end noise-cancelling headphones tend to be old-fashioned over-the-ears or ‘cans’, although an increasing number of models, including Apple’s Airpod Pros — the little white sticks you see sticking out of many people’s ears — are in-ear buds and truly wireless.

So which noise-cancelling headphones really deliver? We put five bestsellers to the test which included how well you could carry on listening to music while a rival speaker played out noise at 85 decibels — the equivalent to a lawn mower or heavy traffic.

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CHIC BUT NOT SILENT

Bang & Olufsen H9 (£450, Bang & Olufsen)

Battery life: 25 hours

Wireless? Yes, but with option to plug in

Style: Over ear

A name synonymous with high-quality audio, Bang & Olufsen, from Denmark, certainly knows how to make something luxurious. These are extremely comfortable, with thick leather-lined ear cups, and a chic velour storage bag.

You can control the volume, skip tracks and turn the noise cancelling on or off just by tapping the side of the right ear’s headphones. In theory, this is great but I found it quite tricky to get the hang of this.

The sound when playing music is excellent, but I’m not convinced the noise cancelling is all that. At this price, I’d expect near-silence if there’s loud background noise — and you just don’t get that. 3/5

Apple Airpod Pro (£249, Apple)

SLIMLINE & SLEEK

Apple Airpod Pro (£249, Apple)

Battery life: 4.5 hours

Wireless? Yes 

Style: In-ear

Well, this is Apple, so they are designed to be slim, stylish and intuitive to use. Take one of the earbuds out of your ear and it pauses the music or podcast immediately; pop it back in and it starts playing again. There’s a button on the pods which allows you to skip tracks or flip the noise cancelling on or off — and the controls work on either ear. One annoyance: to control the volume you have to either use your phone, or say ‘Hey Siri, turn the volume down’, which will make you look a real prat in the gym.

The sound is exceptionally good for in-ear headphones, with effective noise cancelling.

A major downside is the poor battery life — though the case itself carries a 24-hour charge, and you only need to pop them back into the case for five minutes to gain another hour’s worth of listening time. 4.5/5

JLab Audio Epic Air (£99.99, John Lewis)

WALLET FRIENDLY

JLab Audio Epic Air (£99.99, John Lewis)

Battery life: 12 hours

Wireless? Yes

Style: In-ear

It’s hard to find noise-cancelling headphones for less than £150, but the JLab in-ear devices are impressive, easy to set up and a doddle to control. A tap on the left ear turns the volume down; a tap on the right turns it up.

Press and hold on the left and you can flip the noise cancelling on and off.

The sound quality when playing music is a little tinny compared with much more expensive models, but is clear when listening to podcasts.

The noise cancelling is also far from perfect — but good enough to cut out the worst of background chatter.

Its transparency mode (when you turn off noise cancelling and enhance people talking) is remarkably good, however.

For this price, these are a decent pair of headphones with great battery life.

Perfect for the gym or when you are out walking. 3.5/5

JABRA Elite 85t Wireless Bluetooth Noise-Cancelling Earbuds (£219, Currys PC World)

IDIOT-PROOF

JABRA Elite 85t Wireless Bluetooth Noise-Cancelling Earbuds (£219, Currys PC World)

Battery life: 5.5 hours

Wireless? Yes 

Style: In-ear

I loved how easy these were to connect. The moment you popped them in your ear they told you what to do. I’m not sure I’ve ever before got a piece of technology up and running within 20 seconds of opening the box.

Jabra, a Danish brand, has the design nailed: the earbuds are small and discreet, and are charged in a dinky little carry case. The sound has a richness to it, but the noise-cancelling function isn’t spectacular. 4/5

Sony WH-1000XMH (£349, Currys PC World)

PRICEY PERFECTION

Sony WH-1000XMH (£349, Currys PC World)

Battery life: 30 hours

Wireless? Yes, but an option to plug in Style: Over ear

The noise cancellation and comfort on these is amazing. Playing white noise at 85 decibels out of some speakers, I could feel the rumble of the sound through the vibrations in my desk, but only dimly hear it through the cans.

The quality of the sound is phenomenally good — listening to classical music is like being in the concert hall.

There is also a clever speak-to-chat function, which automatically stops the music and the noise cancelling if you or someone else starts speaking.

The set-up, with many different functions, is a little complex and requires patience. You can even choose to alter the sound according to atmospheric pressure — good for when we are flying again! 5/5