Best noise-canceling true wireless earbuds of 2020

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Active noise cancellation (ANC) has long been the pinnacle of headphone technology. ANC headphones electronically counteract (“cancel” out) external noise by creating a mirror image sound wave. The technology works best in environments with a sustained din, such as the droning of a jet engine — which is why Bose ANC headphones became an airport status symbol over the course of the past couple of decades.

The technology used to be restricted to full-size around-the-ear headphones, but in just the past couple of years, it’s been shrunken down to earbud size. Sony’s 2018 models, the WF-1000X and WF-SP700N, were the trailblazers, but Apple’s AirPods Pro have taken the earbud-sized noise-canceling headphones mainstream. That said, there are a handful of other noteworthy models to include active noise cancellation, too.

Here are top picks right now, all of which I’ve personally used.

Read: Best true wireless earbuds of 2020

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistant: No.

Sony hadn’t been much of a player in the true wireless (AirPod-style) headphone arena, but its WF-1000XM3 model changed that. While this pair of headphones isn’t cheap, as far as sound quality, they’re the best wireless earbuds at this price, matching and perhaps even exceeding the quality and performance of pricier competitors from Sennheiser, Beats, Master & Dynamic and Bang & Olufsen. It also has a feature that those wireless earbuds don’t have: active noise cancellation technology to reduce ambient noise.

The WF-1000XM3 has a handful of drawbacks. The case is larger than competitors (like Apple), and it’s not the best headset for making calls, especially in noisier environments. But the biggest red mark is that it’s not rated as sweatproof or waterproof. That said, I’ve used it for light workouts with a bit of a sweat at the gym without a problem. It offers Bluetooth 5.0 with support for AAC but not aptX.

Read our Sony WF-1000XM3 review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — sweat-resistant and splashproof).

Even if they don’t sound as magical as you’d hope a $249 model would, the AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of truly wireless earphones. That’s largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance, effective noise canceling and excellent call quality. Yeah, they’re expensive at $250, but the good news is you’ll use them so much you’ll probably wear the battery down — it does degrade over time and isn’t replaceable — and have to buy a new pair in 18 to 24 months if you don’t lose them first.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Read: Best true-wireless earbuds under $100

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — sweat-resistant and splashproof).

The Libratone Track Air+ has been out for several months in Europe, but only recently went on sale in the US (it lists for $200 but Amazon currently has a discount coupon for $10 off). It doesn’t sound quite as open as the AirPods Pro, but it’s a little clearer sounding and has well-defined bass (you can choose between neutral, bass boost and treble settings in the companion app). The noise-canceling is also decent — maybe not quite on par with the AirPods Pro, but close. I liked the fit of these, they stayed in my ears well (I was able to run with them) and the case is only a little bigger than the AirPods Pro’s case.

The Track Air+ works well as a headset for making calls but the noise reduction isn’t as good as the AirPods Pro. People said they could hear me clearly and loudly, but the earphones didn’t muffle background noise as well as the AirPods Pro.

These have touch controls — they’re responsive — and Libratone has been updating the firmware to tweak performance and add new gesture controls. A recent update did improve noise reduction slightly during calls. Battery life is rated at 6 hours and these do charge wirelessly like the AirPods Pro. These have support for AAC and aptX (Samsung Galaxy phones support the aptX codec but not iPhones).

These are a good AirPods Pro alternative for around $50 less, but I think if Libratone would create even a little more price separation — have them cost, say, $175 — it would help their cause. But they should appeal to Android owners who can’t take advantage of the AirPods Pro’s extra features, such as always-on (hands-free) Siri, that only work with Apple products.

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — sweat-resistant and splashproof)

Amazon doesn’t call the Bose noise-reduction feature in its Echo Buds “active noise-canceling.” However, it does turn on and off and helps muffle ambient sound (there’s also a hear-through or transparency feature). You can definitely tell the difference when it’s on and when it’s off.

The other signature feature is always-on (hands-free) Alexa — you just say “Alexa” and Amazon’s voice assistant is activated (it doesn’t always work, but you can read our full review for that info).

While the Echo Buds sound isn’t fantastic, it’s good (again, a tight seal makes a big difference). There’s a presence boost (treble push) at the default setting, but the earphones have decent clarity and Amazon says they’re equipped with Knowles dual balanced armature drivers. It’s not going to be a bass lover’s headphone, but it had enough kick for my tastes. You can tweak the sound with the EQ settings in the Alexa app — I lowered the treble and raised the bass — and most people should find that the Echo Buds offer a pleasant listening experience.

Read our Amazon Echo Buds review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating — withstands sustained spray).

The Master & Dynamic MW07 Plus is the second generation of the company’s MW07. It features greatly increased battery life (10 versus 3.5 hours), Bluetooth 5.0 and active noise cancellation with two microphones on each bud (the noise cancellation is fairly light, not as strong as the Sony WF-1000XM3’s). It may not fit everyone’s ear equally well, but they certainly have a distinct look, as well as very good sound and a great listening experience if you can get a tight seal. These in-ear headphones are known for more of an audiophile sound profile, with smooth, well-balanced sound and well-defined bass, and the MW07 Plus delivers that kind of sound.

Available in four color options for $300, these wireless earbuds include a swanky chrome charging case that comes with a secondary pouch for safekeeping (yes, the case can get scratched up if you leave it in a bag). The case, with its built-in chargeable battery, gives you an additional three charges (it charges via USB-C). These have support for AAC and aptX and have an extended range of more than 20 meters, according to Master & Dynamic.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating — withstands sustained spray).

Ausounds, a startup, launched a new set of $150 true wireless earbuds — the AU-Stream ANC — that have the same long “stick” design as the original AirPods and feature active noise-canceling. They’re a little hard to find, but they’re surprisingly good if you get the right fit.

They’re similar in style to a lot of the so-called AirPods knockoffs, but have a little more of a premium look and feel. They feature 13mm drivers, Bluetooth 5.0 connectivity, 5 hours of battery life with an additional 15 hours from the case and water-resistance (IPX5 certified). They also offer USB-C charging — that’s somewhat rare to find at this price point.

A tight seal is crucial not only for sound quality but the active noise-canceling doesn’t work effectively without it. Sound-wise, the AU-Stream ANC isn’t on par with the Sony WF-1000XM3. It doesn’t sound quite as detailed or as open — and the bass isn’t quite as well-defined. But it’s a very decent-sounding true wireless headphone with some good kick in the low end.

Read CNET first take.

Active noise cancellation (ANC) has long been the pinnacle of headphone technology. ANC headphones electronically counteract ("cancel" out) external noise by creating a mirror image sound wave. The technology works best in environments with a sustained din, such as the droning of a jet engine -- which is why Bose ANC headphones became an airport status symbol over the course of the past couple of decades.


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