Noise-canceling. It’s that cool tech that uses microphones and software to block out the sound of the outside world, putting you in a personal headphone cocoon of your own music. It’s been around for a little while now, and there are loads of headphones that offer the technology as a main selling point. From headphones you can find on Amazon for under $100 all the way to the AirPods Max and beyond, there are options.
But what does paying more actually get you? Say, for example, if you compare the AirPods Max to a pair that are less than half price, how much better are they? Or if you go for the midrange, will you find yourself wishing you’d spent a little more on the AirPods Max?
The big test
I aim to find out – but not just by wearing them on the bus, but by using very scientific (Addendum - may not be very scientific. Maybe only a little scientific) noise canceling tests. The first will be a noise-controlled experiment where I’ll sit next to a running shower. The shower runs at a constant 51dB, and I’ve got a Decibel meter that tells me how much noise it's making. Then, I’m going to run a five-minute simulation through my own HiFi system, with the volume at a constant rate through each test. The five minutes will be the same video of a busy city, played good and loud to test the headphones. Then, for a final, real-world test I’m going to go for a short walk in the area around my house with each pair of headphones.
The route will be the same, and we should get a decent idea of what noise canceling is like in the outside world on a mixture of main roads, quiet paths, and housing areas. Each test will be run twice - once with music, to see what that sounds like, and then without, to really test the noise canceling performance. The songs played will be exactly the same for each test – I’ll be using Twice’s ‘fancy’ on my best iPhone for all.
These tests will tell us everything we need to know about the headphones. My tests will be based on my ears, it's worth bearing in mind because I lack the equipment to measure digitally, but you can trust me. I promise.
Now, let's meet the contestants.
From the big A itself, we’ve got the AirPods Max. These are the standard against which all the other contestants shall be measured. They should all be thankful this isn’t a build-quality show-down, because the AirPods Max are, at this price range, almost unbeatable. They are some of the best wireless headphones, but what about noise canceling?
For the longest time, this pair of headphones has been my go-to. Comfy, with ok sound and, to my ears, good noise canceling. But just how good is it, and has it kept up with newer headphones?
Sennheiser Momentum 4
The newest ‘phones from Sennheiser, and the pair that currently sit on my test bench. I won’t spoil it, but these are currently my most used headphones - and not just because I’m testing them. But just how good are the newest headphone on the block at blocking noise?
Treblab Z7 Pro
These are budget options, costing only just over the $100 mark. They sound pretty good, but do they block out enough noise?
With our headphones and tests all ready to go, let's get started with the tests.
To the shower!
The shower test
The first of our tests, and the wettest. No, I’m not wearing them in the shower, just next to it. The shower is on full speed, and it’s making an average of 51 dB.
The AirPods Max coped pretty well with the shower test, although there was some sound leakage into my ears. The higher frequencies remained, so there was evidently some focus on the lower register within Apple’s Noise canceling algorithm. With music, the noise of the shower becomes almost inaudible, but still present. With the AirPods Max, if you have to sit next to a loud, running shower, you’re going to be pretty much ok. Just like, I dunno. Don’t wear them in the shower.
The Sonys blocked around the same amount of noise, although there was a little more coming through in the bass, and some of the higher frequencies were blocked better. This balanced the Sonys and the AirPods out. Playing music, the Sonys emphasis on lower frequencies in their sound signature meant that more bass frequencies were blocked while the music played. Again, sit by a loud shower, and they hold up well against the more expensive and much newer AirPods Max.
When I put these headphones on, I wondered to myself – is the noise canceling even on? I checked the ANC button and the app, and sure enough, the noise canceling was on. Not that it does very much, however. Even with music, the noise of the shower was loud and obnoxious, the only noise blocking coming from the ear-defender shape of the headphones. If you’re stuck sitting next to a shower, the Treblab cans aren’t going to do much of anything to block out background noise.
The newness of the Momentum 4s really shines here – they block far more noise than any other headphones in this showdown. The lower frequencies of the water cascading from the shower are all gone, while the higher frequencies become something of a trickle. Playing Fancy, and the rest of the noise melts away. Very impressive if you’re, again, sitting next to a running shower, and want to block out the sound of the water. Just please, for the love of all things holy, don’t wear them in the shower.
The winner: The Momentum 4
The Momentum 4s win the shower test, blocking most of the 51dB noise of the shower. The AirPods come second, the Sony’s come third, and the Treblab a resounding last.
The busy city HiFi test
The second of the tests, and we’re all set up. This test should give us some idea of what walking through a city at the same time would be like with each pair of headphones. There is a constant noise level of 70dB, that shifts slightly through the video.
The AirPods made for an impressive experience. 70dB is a lot of noise, and perhaps even more than you might get in an actual city. The AirPods Max fared impressively well, blocking out a great deal of the cityscape. Notable parts that got past the noise canceling were loud voices and horns, but the rumble amongst the noise was completely negated. Volume was drastically reduced, which is always important. Play some music, and all but the most abrupt sounds are blocked out. Wander around a noise-controlled busy city that has a decibel ceiling of 70dB, and you’ll not regret spending $549.
The Sony’s, despite their age, did a stellar job. They’re not quite as strong as the AirPods Max, but they do a solid job of keeping the noise out. The volume of the city was reduced, with the 70dB cut by some margin. They did struggle a little with the more sudden noises. Loud cars rushing past, police sirens, and car horns were all a little more noticeable than in the AirPods Max. There remains a focus on blocking out the lower frequencies here, and it cuts the pervasive city hum to an impressive degree. Play some music and you’ll soon find the noise cut out even more. The noise is lessened by some degree, and it's only those louder, more abrupt sounds that make it through. Considering how old they are and how much you can pick them up for now, it’s an impressive experience.
You could turn these off and soon find that the same amount of noise is being blocked out. The noise canceling does nothing but add a certain amount of audible white noise that's supposed to match the frequencies coming into the headphones, but just plays along with the sounds. Music doesn’t help. Disappointing, even for the price.
The Sennheisers continue to impress in the City test. They block out all the lower frequencies, leaving only fleeting high frequencies to disturb you. Don’t get me wrong, you know there’s noise out there, but it’s blocked to such a degree to almost be an effective volume control on the outside world turned down to ‘1’. They don’t stumble too much even with the most abrupt of sounds, and they do a great job with voices. Play music and you’re effectively cocooned in your own world. Impressive.
The Winner: Momentum 4
Once again, the newest headphones come out on top. The AirPods and the Sony’s arguably come to draw, and the Treblab are nowhere to be seen.
The walk to the shops test
This short, five-minute walk will take me around a housing estate, and then briefly next to a busy main road. I’ve tried to make it the same time of day, but it is tricky to make this one consistent. I might have bought some sour patch kids candy at the end as a treat. Might.
The AirPods Max were, as you might expect, excellent in the field. They made the whole world quieter, cranking down the sounds of people chatting and cars driving past. There was little to no wind noise, and the sound of distant traffic completely dissipated. The rush of car tires was still an element that crept through but was dampened to the point of not noticing. Twice kicked in, and the rest of the noise left too. Those tires became a thing of the past, and only the noisiest of engines made it through the blockade I’d created around my head with the headphones. Extremely livable.
This particular set of headphones has gotten me through three years of walking through towns, shops, and everything in between, so I don’t think I could say that they’re in any way ‘not good’. They are starting to show their age a little in the outside world, however. They trip up slightly in dealing with wind noise, which rushes in more than you might like. There’s still an emphasis on drowning out the lowest frequencies, higher frequencies can break through a little easier. The rest of the noise canceling is very good, however, and with music playing, you’ll barely notice the sounds of the outside world.
Again, is the NC on? A quick check, and, again, yes, the ANC is on. I barely noticed it. Cars came through at almost full whack, and the white noise from before made a reappearance. Play music and the noise canceling does seem to work a little better, but you’re still going to hear almost everything around you. Like a normal pair of headphones, the noise is there, it’s simply ‘less’.
As with the other tests, the Momentum 4s do a great job of keeping the noise out. They block out pretty much everything that the music doesn’t cover, and what remains is barely noticeable. The only thing you’re going to hear with these on is super surprising noises, like car horns or someone swearing out of their car window. Like someone did with me. Because they didn’t use their turn signal, and I couldn’t hear the car turning into me, because I thought they were going straight on. Turn signals are useful, folks. Let this also make you think twice about noise canceling while walking out and about – no matter how attentive you are, all it takes is someone forgetting to use their turn signals. The Momentum 4s? Excellent. Not getting hit by a car? Also good.
Winner: AirPods Max/Momentum 4
It’s a draw between the AirPods and the Momentum 4s this time. The noise canceling is as good as it is in all the other tests here, deadening the outside world in all the frequencies, but the AirPods performed so well that you couldn't pick a winner here if you tried. Sony’s second, and again, the Treblabs are last.
Overall winner: Momentum 4
Well, what do you know – the newest headphones won. That’s not hugely surprising, but the fact that these guys are priced so well against their rivals speaks volumes as to what Sennheiser has made. They’re $250 less than the AirPods Max, and they feel and sound great. Apparently, the noise canceling is also great. Did I mention they last up to 60 hours on a single charge? With that noise canceling on? Madness. The winner here, the Momentum 4 from Sennheiser.
The AirPods Max can still match up where it counts, however. The noise canceling that was on the top of the tree at the time is still very good now, and will impress anyone who sticks them on. They’re still very expensive mind you, and that price is starting to sting a little more with every year that passes without a new pair.
The Sony WH1000-XM4s still have my heart, but they no longer have my head. They are still a great pair of headphones that you can now get for excellent prices, but they are starting to lag behind a little. If you pay under $200 mind you, you won’t be wanting for much.
The Treblab Z7 Pro might as well not have noise canceling at all. Yes, they’re cheap, but it just eats up the battery life. If you do get a pair, just turn the ANC off and enjoy the above-average sound quality for the price. They’re not bad headphones, but they don’t cancel noise.
My biggest lesson? Don’t wear noise-canceling headphones when you’re out and about. You might get sworn at by angry men in grey vans.
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As iMore's Senior Staff writer, Tammy uses her background in audio and Masters in screenwriting to pen engaging product reviews and informative buying guides. The resident audiophile (or audio weirdo), she's got an eye for detail and a love of top-quality sound. Apple is her bread and butter, with attention on HomeKit and Apple iPhone and Mac hardware. You won't find her far away from a keyboard even outside of working at iMore – in her spare time, she spends her free time writing feature-length and TV screenplays. Also known to enjoy driving digital cars around virtual circuits, to varying degrees of success. Just don't ask her about AirPods Max - you probably won't like her answer.