Best noise-cancelling headphones to drown out fireworks

(Stock image via Pixabay/Creative Commons)

Fireworks.

For some reason, they seem to be popping up everywhere lately, exploding in the skies of major metropolitan areas and suburbs alike throughout the United States.

Why is this happening? No one is really sure. Conspiracy theorists believe it’s part of some psychological attack by law enforcement officers following a wave of anti-police brutality marches across the country — though I seriously doubt it since I have the police scanner on every morning and officers here seem just as confused by the fireworks as everyone else.

The more plausible theory: Many people are still stuck at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, they’re bored, and they’re looking to let off a little steam by blowing things up — you know, an American past-time. Also, Independence Day is right around the corner and fireworks booths are still a thing.

Whatever the reason, the sudden uptick in fireworks — or maybe it’s always been like this and we’re just noticing it more now? — is driving people nuts. It is a problem that is unlikely to stop and might even get worse as we inch closer to July 4, and it will likely last well beyond the holiday as people fire off whatever’s left over from their fireworks stash.

Maybe one reason it’s affected me less than the average person is thanks in large part to a handy pair of wireless, noise-cancelling headphones. I’ve been using Sony’s WH-CH700N line for about two years now and they never fail to impress: Comfortable earpieces, a battery that lasts more than 30 hours with average use, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa built-in (activated via an app — I never bothered with that) and the ability to make hands-free calls at my desk or on the go.

What I like the most about these headphones is that they include an ordinary 3.5-mm to 3.5-mm headphone cable, and they can be used “passively” without any power consumption when they’re plugged into a headphone jack. Of course, without power, there’s no noise cancellation — but it’s proven handy more than once when I’ve forgotten to charge them up. When I’m ready for a wireless connection, they pair to a device using regular Bluetooth; if I’m using a device that has NFC, I can easily pair using that instead of having to search through menus for different settings.

On Amazon, the Sony WH-CH700N headphones cost $180 for a new pair or $70 if you don’t mind buying renewed (the pair I have are a renewed pair picked up from eBay — they work just fine).

Here’s the thing: While they sound really great, the noise cancellation feature does leave something to be desired — it’s fine if you work from home or in a quiet office setting (or you’re trying to drown out distant fireworks), but if you’re looking for a set of noise-cancelling headphones that can serve as your daily driver — maybe you commute to work by bus or the subway, or you’re a frequent flyer, or you work in an incredibly noisy environment — the WH-CH700N headphones aren’t going to cut it. Check out these other options instead:

(And before we go any further, full disclosure — I’ll be using Amazon links throughout the blog because I have an affiliate account with them and earn a commission when you buy using those links. But you should definitely shop around, because most of the models I recommend are sometimes discounted at other retailers, including Best Buy and Target. And sometimes you can find great deals on refurbished or open box gear at Best Buy and eBay — just like my headphones. Shop around, and if you do find a better deal and want to show some appreciation, feel free to make a donation in any amount to keep this blog ad-free.)

(Photo courtesy Sony Corporation)

BEST OF THE BUNCH: Sony WH-1000XM3

Tech reviewers seem to love these headphones: They consistently rank as either the top pick or one of the best consumer wireless noise-cancelling headphones.

Whether you’re an audiophile, a casual music lover or you primarily listen to podcasts, everyone will find something to love about the way these headphones sound.

The headphones are lighter than the previous-generation WH-1000XM2 model, which is extremely important if these headphones are going to be used every day for long periods of time — they won’t cause you head fatigue, nor will they tire out your ears thanks to some nice cushioned earpads (though at least one CNet reviewer said their ears got warm after wearing them for a few hours).

They charge via USB-C, which is quickly becoming a standard on computers, tablets and mobile phones. Chances are, you’ve got something that is powered by USB-C, so you shouldn’t have to go hunting for a charging cable or power brick when it’s time to juice these headphones up. On that note, like the WH-CH700N model, the WH-1000XM3 boast a 30+ hour battery life with average use. And just like the WH-CH700N, the WH-1000XM3 come with a 3.5-mm to 3.5-mm auxiliary cable so you can save your battery power by plugging them directly into devices that have a headphone jack — assuming you can find a headphone jack anymore.

Unlike the WH-CH700N headphones or some other ones offered by Sony, there’s no “Extra Bass” setting, but there doesn’t need to be — the headphones pump out plenty of bass for most ears (keep reading, though, if lots of bass is important to you). These do have Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa built-in, if smart, voice-activated assistants are important to you. And they work with finger and hand gestures to turn up or down the volume or temporarily pause music and noise cancellation so you can hear environmental noise — a neat feature that helps keep the design sleek and streamlined by reducing the amount of buttons on the headphones.

One downside: They are expensive. With a $350 price tag, Sony expects customers to shell out some serious cash for these babies. But people I’ve spoken with who have them say they’ve got a quality build, they sound great, the noise cancellation feature is stellar and the battery life is amazing — the WH1000-XM3 headphones seem to be worth it, and customers who do fork over that kind of money seem to be glad that they did.

They rarely go on sale, so grab a pair from Amazon if you’re looking for the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones out there.

(Photo: Amazon)

BEST FOR BASS HEADS: Sony WHX-B900N

There are some people who don’t just want to listen to their music — they want to feel their music. And there’s no better way to feel music than by cranking up the bass. Just ask my neighbors.

The Sony WHX-B900N wireless headphones sit somewhere between the cheaper WH-CH700N headphones and the richer WH-1000XM3 headphones. Like the WH-1000XM3 headphones, the WHX-B900N offers superb noise cancellation, 30+ hours of battery life, work with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa, and recharge via USB-C. They even have the same finger and hand gesture controls as the WH-1000XM3 headphones.

But among the three headphones, the WHX-B900N stand out in one particular area — bass.

These things are bass heavy. If you’re someone who likes to crank up the thump thump in your music, you’re going to love these headphones.

I bought a pair of WHX-B900N headphones for my partner for Christmas after he wore through my old Bose AE2i wired headphones. I wasn’t sure if he was going to like the WXH-B900N headphones — he’s seems to care more about sound quality than bass — but I figured he could take them back to the store and swap them for what he wanted if he didn’t like them.

He’s practically inseparable from them — he uses them at work, when he goes on walks and just about everywhere else. He loves the sound quality and doesn’t mind the extra bass these things churn out. And more than once, I’ve tried to start a conversation with him only to find him wearing these and totally ignoring me and everyone else in the world. The noise-cancellation function works — even better than my WH-CH700N headphones.

I’m not at all jealous. Bass hurts my ears, and after about 20 minutes of wearing these, I’m done. Yes, they’re more comfortable than the WH-CH700N headphones — about on par with the WH-1000XM3 headphones — and the noise cancellation feature is better, too. But the bass is too heavy for me.

Still, anyone who wants to hear and feel their music while tuning out the world would do themselves a favor by picking up a pair of the WHX-B900N headphones. They cost $249 on Amazon for a new pair, though refurbished pairs are also available on Amazon for a significant discount. And they do go on sale from time to time, so if you’re willing to wait things out, you might find yourself scoring the WHX-B900N headphones at a good discount.

(Photo courtesy Bose)

BEST FOR BRAND SNOBS: Bose QuietComfort 35 II

One reason I wasn’t sure my partner would like the Sony WHX-B900N headphones is because he’s a Bose guy — as long as I’ve known him, he’s used Bose speakers and headphones (granted one was an old hand-me-down that I’d replaced, but still). His parents are the same way — guess it runs in the family.

To my surprise, he loves the Sony WXH-B900N headphones I bought him for Christmas, but it’s not lost on me that there are people out there who are loyal to the Bose brand.

What’s not to love? Bose has been synonymous with quality for decades. Some die-hard Bose enthusiasts complain that the company’s newer products on the market today aren’t as good or dependable as legacy products like the Wave stereo system, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t good or even better than the competition. People, after all, still buy Bose. And Bose still sounds great.

But there is something to be said for a classic, and that’s why the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones are the best wireless noise-cancelling headphones with the Bose brand to date. Yes, Bose offers newer wireless headphone models, but that’s all the more reason to buy the QuietComfort 35 II headphones — they’re now more affordable than they’ve ever been.

More affordable doesn’t necessarily mean “affordable” though — on Amazon, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones will set you back $300 as of this writing, which clocks in at $50 more expensive than the Sony WHX-B900N headphones but $50 cheaper than the top-of-the-line Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.

As with anything, you really do get what you’re paying for: What you get here are some lightweight, wireless headphones that have ample cushioning all around to prevent head and ear fatigue, which is important if you’re going to be wearing these headphones for a good part of your day.

Bose is known for having world-class noise cancelling technology, and these won’t disappoint — you’ll easily be able to focus on your music or podcast while letting everything else around you slip on by (for this reason, don’t use these while driving or riding your bike — though you shouldn’t use any headphones during those activities anyway). Bose says there’s three different levels of noise-cancellation on these headphones. I’m not really sure what that means, but it’s good to have options, I guess.

Just like the Sony models mentioned, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II is compatible with Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa. At this point, I should mention that I’ve never really used a smart assistant on my headphones. If I’m out in public, I don’t want to look like I’m talking to no one (or, worse, a stranger if I happen to be looking in their direction), which is exactly what will happen if you’re using these to talk with Google and Alexa. If I’m not out in public, it seems like it’d be just as easy to add something to my calendar or send a text using a phone or a computer — or any of the smart speakers scattered around my house. Maybe I’m missing something. Anyway, if having Google Assistant or Alexa at your beck and call is important, these headphones have both.

The Bose QuietComfort 35 II can crank out tunes (or a podcast or a phone call or whatever) for more than 20 hours. They won’t survive as long on a single charge as the three Sony models mentioned earlier, but 20 hours is still more than enough time for most people to get through the day, even if you use them all day at work, on your commute and for a little while at home. If you’re someone who is tethered to the Bose brand and looking for a bit more battery life, you won’t find them by upgrading to the Headphones 700 model, the newest line of Bose wireless headphones — it has the same 20 hour battery life and is $100 more expensive.

One advantage the Bose has over some of the Sony models: Buttons. If you’re someone who likes the tactile feel of a button over gestures (this would be me for anything that doesn’t have a touchscreen — and even some things that do), the QuietComfort 35 II has you covered. On the other hand, if you’re someone who likes gestures over buttons, then — surprise! — you get the best of both worlds here. Turn up the volume with a finger swipe or by pressing the volume up button. Totally your call.

The Bose QuietComfort 35 II comes in three colors and costs $300. They rarely go on sale, except for the pink model which, for some reason, is regularly discounted. If pink is your jam, you stand to save a cool $50-$70 by picking it over the other two colors (black and silver), especially on sites like Amazon and Best Buy.

(Photo: Slickdeals)

BEST FOR APPLE FANS: Apple Airpods Pro

I don’t understand the appeal of the Apple Airpods, and that goes for the Airpods Pro as well. People must like them, because they keep buying them (while others are regularly disappointed when they’re gifted similar-looking knockoffs).

It might have something to do with the fact that the Apple Airpods Pro work seamlessly with Apple devices like iPhones, iPads and even Macs. They even work with non-Apple devices, though there’s a number of other in-ear noise-cancelling earbuds that do just as good a job as the Airpod Pros go and don’t cost anywhere near as much as they do.

Here’s what Apple has to say about the Airpods Pro: Like most noise-cancelling headphones, they have active noise cancellation. The Airpods Pro also includes a feature called transparent mode that temporarily disables the active noise cancellation so you can hear the environment around you — helpful if someone is trying to talk with you and they don’t immediately notice the two straw-looking pieces of plastic dangling from your ear holes.

The Airpods Pro include a case with a built-in battery that charges the Airpods Pro when they are docked. The case itself allows for wireless charging, so if you have a wireless charger like the Anker PowerPad, you can juice up the internal battery and the Airpods at the same time.

The Airpods Pro themselves can last for up to 5 hours on a single charge, but used in tandem with the wireless charging case, the average user can squeeze up to 24 hours of use before both have to be charged again.

I can’t speak to how well the Airpod Pros work or the sound quality because I’ve never used them. I’m afraid if I did use them, I might like them and then have to shell out the $250 for my own set (although Amazon has them for $230 right now — might be on sale, I’m not sure).  The cheaper Airpods are also an option, but you lose the “Pro” branding as well as the active noise cancellation; since your goal is to avoid the bursting noises brought on by fireworks, go with the Pro.

(Photo courtesy Anker)

BEST BUDGET HEADPHONES: Anker SoundCore Life Q20

Okay, at this point, you’re probably thinking, all of these options sound great, but they’re just way too expensive! And that’s where Anker’s SoundCore line comes in.

You might be familiar with Anker as that brand on Amazon that has really cheap, yet strangely durable, Lightning and USB-C cables at prices that are way cheaper than what Apple, Samsung and other manufacturers charge. You’re not alone — that was my first experience with Anker as well.

The company actually started as a manufacturer of external batteries when smartphones were rising in popularity. Legend has it that company founder Steven Yang, a former Google engineer, noticed that while everyone seemed to love their iPhones and Androids, they hated how short the battery life was. And they really hated how much Apple, Samsung and others were charging for extra power adapters and cables. Yang solved both these problems, first by making portable batteries that people could toss in a bag and tote around with them during the day, then by making cheaper and better cables to connect the two devices.

Anker’s core mission is to make better products that are just as good, if not better, than competing products made by brands that the average American might be more familiar with — and in doing so, Anker’s managed to make a name for itself that is synonymous with quality products at affordable prices. After finding success with battery banks and charging cables, Anker branched out into other areas, including smartphone stands and cases. But electronics seemed to be its forte, so these days that’s what the company predominantly focuses on.

A few years ago, Anker launched a handful of Bluetooth speakers and earbuds, eventually spinning off its line of audio gear into a separate brand called SoundCore. Today, they make a line of devices that resemble brand name products — the SoundCore Liberty Neo earbuds look a lot like the Sony WF-1000XM3 earbuds, and it’s not hard to see what SoundCoure was going after with its Life P2 wireless earbuds — but most of them don’t have active noise cancellation.

Except for the SoundCore Life Q20 headphones, a pair of cans that look and feel just as nice and comfortable as what Sony and Bose have to offer but at a fraction of the price. People love these things — they’re blown away by how light and airy they feel, how good they sound and how long they last (anywhere from 40 to 60 hours on a single charge with average listening).

You can use them wirelessly with Bluetooth or passively with an auxiliary cable, which Anker includes in the box. The earpads do a great job keeping noise from leaking out of the headphones — important if you’re a commuter and don’t want the passenger next to you to know what you’re listening to (they probably don’t want to hear it, anyway).

On Amazon, customers praised the sound quality and the long battery life, but they said the active noise cancellation could be better. They’re similar to Sony’s WH-CH700N, which is good if you’re working in a noisy office environment (or want to avoid, say, fireworks), but only okay if you’re on a train or an airplane — in those situations, noise cancellation is definitely better than nothing, but it’s not going to be on the same level as Sony’s WH-1000XM3 or the Bose QuietComfort 35 II headphones.

But here’s why that might be okay for the average person: The SoundCore Life Q20 headphones cost just $60 at Amazon for the black version or $55 for the grey version. As of this writing, there’s even a coupon that Amazon customers can electronically clip that drops the price of the black headphones down to $50.

It’s incredibly difficult to find a good set of headphones that costs $50, has active noise cancellation in any capacity, lasts an average of two days on a single charge and has the sound quality you’d expect from the bigger brands. But somehow Anker has managed to do it with the SoundCore Life Q20, making it the perfect budget buy for anyone looking to drown out some unwanted environmental noise.

BEST BUDGET EARBUDS: Anker SoundCore Life P2

Gotta give this one to Anker again.

As mentioned earlier, most of Anker’s SoundCore earbuds don’t have active noise reduction — but they do have background noise isolation or suppression, and while that might sound like a compromise, it really isn’t.

When you shove things into your ear holes, your ability to hear is naturally diminished. This is why a good set of earplugs do a decent job isolating loud sounds.

The same principle applies to the SoundCore Life P2 earbuds, except unlike earplugs, these things give you something to listen to — a soundtrack, a podcast, this weird face washing-themed ASMR video on YouTube, whatever happens to be your thing.

These things look conspicuously like another set of earbuds mentioned earlier in this blog post, except they beat them at nearly every turn: Seven hours of battery life on a single charge, plus more than 40 hours of combined battery life when paired with the companion charging case.

The SoundCore Life P2 earbuds have graphene drivers. Anker says these drivers help deliver “music with a wider sound stage and exceptional accuracy and clarity.” I assume that means they sound good. Amazon reviewers seem to agree that, yes, they sound good.

Anker knows you’re likely going to use the SoundCore Life P2 earbuds with a phone, so they’ve jammed two microphones into each earbud, which they say helps improve call audio quality. Speaking of devices, these things are able to connect to two devices at the same time, though only if you’re okay with different audio playing through each earbud simultaneously. I guess that’s helpful if you’re trying to talk on the phone using, say, the left earbud while listening to a YouTube video in the right earbud. I don’t know why anyone would want to do this, but just the fact that you can do this gets me excited.

The SoundCore Life P2 earbuds cost $60 on Amazon — or about one-quarter the price of those similar earbuds from the fruit company. If you buy right now, you can electronically clip a coupon that brings the price down to $50. Neat.

And if you’re reading this after the sale is done, you can still save a little bit of money by purchasing a refurbished set of SoundCore Life P2 earbuds.

(Photo by Amazon reviewer Tom)

BEST WIRED EARBUDS: Panasonic Ergofit

Confession time: Even though I just recommended a handful of earbuds because I know someone out there prefers them to headphones, I’m the total opposite. I dislike earbuds immensely. The ones with soft gel tips feel weird in my ears, and I always have a hard time adjusting to my normal environment noise after prolonged use.

But the Panasonic HJE-12 Ergofit earbuds are an exception. I sprang for these a few years ago while staying at a hostel where I was roomed with a deep sleeper whose loud snoring kept me awake at night. We’re talking full-on, throat-filled, snort-and-exhale snoring. Honestly, I don’t know how he didn’t wake himself up.

After one night of terrible sleep, I bought the HJE-12  Ergofit earbuds on Amazon. Two factors went into my purchase: They were cheap, and they were among the few earbuds that Amazon was able to deliver as part of their two-hour Prime delivery service.

I wasn’t crazy about the rubber tips, and didn’t care much if the sound quality was great. To my surprise, the rubber tips fit snugly in my ears without discomfort and the sound quality blew me away. Paired with my phone and a white noise app, I slept comfortably through the night.

Unlike all the other contenders on this list, these earbuds have a wire, and that means you’ll either have to use them with a device that still has a headphone jack (like most computers, budget Android phones or the iPod Touch), or you’ll have to sacrifice simultaneously charging on your phone (unless your phone can wirelessly charge). There’s no remote or microphone, so some phone functions are limited, but for most people, they’ll work fine.

One major benefit to using wired earbuds: You don’t have to charge them. Simply plug them in and you’re good to go. If you’re someone who prefers to drown out the sound of fireworks by cranking the music up, active or passive noise cancellation/isolation/blocking/whatever probably isn’t necessary anyway — these will get the job done.

And they’re obnoxiously cheap. The best-selling HJE-12  in black costs $8, while the orange-colored ones cost $12. Once the Independence Day holiday passes us by, just toss them in a drawer for next year.

Do you have a different recommendation? I recently broke the comments module on this website (oops), but you can send me a tweet, leave a comment on Facebook or contact me by email with your suggestions.

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