Enlarge / We’ve tested a handful of the wireless noise-canceling headphones over the past few months.
Black Friday has started its attack run, which means it is a good time to check out the market for a new pair of headphones. More specifically, good noise-canceling headphones always seem in high demand during the gift season. However, if you are unsure of what to buy, let us help you find a great deal.
I’ve reviewed many wireless noise-canceling pairs for Ars over the past few years, from in-ears to over-ears, and some of the better options I’ve used come during the Black Friday barrage. Below are a handful of these top discount picks, including tips from Sony, Apple, Bose, and more.
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Enlarge / Sony’s WH-1000XM4 noise canceling headphones.
Best for most: Sony WH-1000XM4 for $ 248 ($ 330) on Amazon, Target, Best Buy
I’ve recommended them in several guides and deal posts since they were launched last year, but to my ears, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is still the most well-rounded wireless headphone for most people. This deal has been active for most of the last month but is the lowest price we’ve been tracking.
When it comes to noise cancellation (ANC), the XM4 does better than most of the pairs I’ve tested for blocking out low- and medium-frequency sounds like the hum of an air conditioner or the rumble of a jet engine, and they’re unusually effective at reducing higher pitched sounds like Voices nearby. The latter makes them particularly practical for the office (or home office with particularly chatty roommates). Note, however, that the ANC turns itself off every time you answer a call.
The headphones themselves are comfortable, well-padded, and they don’t jam too tightly on larger heads (like my own). They have a professional, if not particularly flashy, aesthetic and durable design that is flexible and folds up for easier storage. A practical carrying bag is included in the scope of delivery.
They have some really useful advantages too. An optional “talk-to-chat” mode in the app can automatically pause your music when you’re talking to someone, and a “quick attention” feature lets you briefly hear ambient noise when you put your hand over an ear, useful. to capture quick announcements. The ambient sound mode works well and the headphones can be connected to two devices at the same time.
You’re not perfect: your sound profile is a little heavier in bass out of the box than some might prefer (though Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool to tweak this more neutrally); their microphone quality is only okay for calls; and they don’t allow you to adjust the level of their active noise cancellation (ANC) – a feature found on other high-end pairs like the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700.
I prefer physical control buttons over touch controls, but swiping and tapping the XM4’s ear cups to adjust volume, answer calls, and skip tracks is more reliable than not. The battery life is great, at over 30 hours per charge – the specific length depends on how loud you are playing your music – and the headphones are charged via USB-C. It is also possible to use them passively via an included cable, although you will not be able to take calls in this mode.
Enlarge / Apple’s AirPods Max noise-canceling headphones.
A more expensive upgrade: Apple AirPods Max for $ 429 ($ 490) on Amazon
If money is not an issue and you are an iPhone user, the AirPods Max might be a better buy than the WH-1000XM4. They sound better than any other wireless headphones I’ve used, even without a customizable EQ tool. There’s a slight bass boost – a quality I personally like – but the sound signature is exceptionally clear, accurate, and detailed. (To be clear, wireless headphone audio quality still can’t compete with the best wired pairs.)
For my ears, the AirPods Max also do a better job of suppressing low- and medium-frequency noise than any other headphones I’ve worn. Voices and high notes are still a bit clearer than on the Sony XM4, but almost everything else is significantly reduced. The ambient sound mode (or “transparency”) is also great, so outside noise alongside your music will sound clear and reasonably natural.
The headphones have an attractive design and a cool aluminum finish. They’re heavier and therefore a little less comfortable than the Sony or Bose pairs in this round-up, but they feel high-quality. The “Digital Crown” multi-function wheel, similar to an Apple Watch, makes controlling volume and playback child’s play. The included microphones work well for phone calls, and the battery life is decent at just over 20 hours on a single charge. Apple also offers a battery swap service for $ 79.
There are a couple of weird design choices. Oddly enough, there is no power switch. Instead, you have to put the headphones in the supplied “case” to activate an energy-saving mode. I put “fall” in quotes because it’s barely protective and acts more as an auricle cover than anything else. Apple doesn’t include a 3.5mm cable in the box either, and even if you pay for an adapter, you won’t be able to listen to music if your battery runs out. The Max cannot be connected to multiple devices at the same time, nor can they be folded. Like all AirPods, they’re best used with other Apple devices. They’re not as convenient to pair with Android or Windows, and they lack certain preference controls on those platforms.
The AirPods Max are also very expensive, with an MSRP of $ 549. This Black Friday deal brings them up to the best price we’ve ever seen, but even then they’re not cheap, which is why we think the XM4s are close enough in quality to be much better value for money Offer. But if you’re an iPhone user and want the best possible audio quality and active noise cancellation, the AirPods Max should make a chic gift.