I never thought I’d need a pair of serious noise-canceling headphones. I don’t mind hours of droning white noise on international flights and generally don’t like feeling like my head’s been locked in an airless tomb, so I’ve always used open headphones that let ambient sound in. But 2020 broke me.
I’ve always preferred the hushed, mild chatter of a co-working space to the distractions of home (no offense to my wife who has to be on Zoom all day, every day!). Stranded without the productivity-inspiring hum of a lot of people doing their own thing in one space together, I suddenly needed quiet in a serious way. And I was ready to invest in it.
We’ll focus on over-ear headphones here because if you need the absolute best noise canceling money can buy, chunky ear-hugging headphones are always going to blow earbud-style options out of the water. And after you listen to any of these picks, you’ll agree with us when we say the same goes for sound quality.
Sony’s line of premium wireless over-ear active noise-canceling headphones has been regarded as the crème de la crème for a minute now, and that title is very well-deserved. At $350, Sony’s new Sony WH-1000XM4s aren’t cheap, but from the quality hard-sided case to the solid build quality, you’ll definitely get what you paid for here. Full disclosure: The previous generation of these headphones are what I opted for back in the beginning of the pandemic and I’ve recommended them to many friends with similar needs since.
The sound quality on these is a joy. If you’re the kind of audiophile that wouldn’t be caught dead in a serious listening session wearing white earbuds, you’re in for a treat. Set-up on the Sonys was painless and the app is actually useful, providing fine-tuned EQ adjustments, sound profiles and a slider that dials the intensity of the noise canceling up or down, though cupping your hand over the earphone also allows ambient sound to pass through. These headphones also went loud if you’re a fan of listening to big music at full volume (I am).
This pair of headphones does a lot of things right. The music quality is excellent, the noise canceling is eerily good, even with no music playing. A few little quality of life perks makes this pair even more appealing than its already very appealing predecessor (the previous version now makes for a great value). Something very subtle also seems to have changed with the fit here, and the M4s did feel less pinchy on the top of my head than the M3s. Sony also added multi-device pairing and a new ear-detection sensor with this generation so they pause automatically when you remove them, which I personally find to be a totally necessary feature. Sony also improved the call quality for the M4s, but it isn’t their strong suit.
Other strikes against the Sony WH-1000XM4s? There aren’t many, but these headphones, like most in their class, are kind of heavy. You probably can’t wear them for five hours at a time without wanting to take a little break, but they work really well for hourlong bursts of total silence when you really need to put your head down at work. If you aren’t a fan of Sony’s characteristically punchy, bass-forward sound, you might look elsewhere. They have a classic chunky over-ear headphone design, which probably won’t excite anybody, but it’s still a good look. And if you’re someone who plans to take long calls on their over-ear headphones, you might want to look elsewhere.
If you need absolute top-tier noise canceling to drown out whoever you’re sharing your makeshift office with these days, this is the pair of headphones you want. The fact that music sounds so incredible is just icing on the cake.