Review: The Top 5 Wireless, Noise-Canceling Headphones
A good pair of headphones has become a must-have accessory, yet only in recent months have wireless noise-canceling headphones finally hit the big leagues. Battery life is finally long enough for them to be convenient, sound quality is finally good enough for them to develop an audience, and brands have managed to craft cans that don’t look like they belong in a 1980s recording booth.
When we decided to review these five pairs, our criteria were pretty specific: We selected headphones that are all wireless, feature active noise cancellation (ANC), are on- or over-ear, and fall in the $300 to $500 price range. Included are the Bang & Olufsen H8, the Beats Studio Wireless, the Definitive Technology Symphony 1, the Samsung Level Over, and the Sennheiser Momentum Wireless. These are top-tier consumer headphones that are meant to deliver great audio in any situation and look good doing it.
Evaluating the headphones, I didn’t run response curves or compare noise isolation on a graph, and I didn’t do these things for a simple reason: Most people have no idea what dFBS are (don’t worry, you don’t need to know) or what different frequency caps mean. Instead, I wore each pair around New York for a few days, made some phone calls, and ran through a diverse playlist to see how the headphones perform in real life. It was a thorough test, focused on the things you actually care about.
So, how did each pair do?
Bang & Olufsen H8
The H8 ($499) is a great reminder that B&O is really, in equal parts, an electronics company and a Danish design house. Overall audio quality is outstanding (even for the only on-ear pair reviewed here), though the bass is slightly elevated. The ear cups are lambskin and memory foam, the headband leather, and the frame aluminum—chances are the H8 will look even better in a few years, after it gets roughed up a bit. The noise cancellation is clean and the touch controls are pressure-sensitive, meaning you can use them with gloves on—a huge upside at this time of year. A removable battery also means that you can carry multiple 12-hour charges for those long hauls. Attention to detail is second to none, just as you'd expect from B&O, and only the Sennheisers can even come close to competing on aesthetics and build quality.
The Takeaway: The H8 is built more like a luxury good than a piece of electronics, and while sound quality isn’t perfectly balanced, it’s certainly well above average.
Beats Studio Wireless
A quick trip to Google will reveal that it is basically received knowledge that Beats are mediocre headphones sold at a premium through some all-star marketing. I’m willing to bet that most of the people jumping on that bandwagon of criticism have never actually tried a pair. Yes, the bass on the Studio Wireless ($380) is going to be heavier than you want for most music other than hip-hop, pop, and electronica, and some podcasts sound a little strange through the bottom-heavy EQ. But at just over half a pound, the headphones are extremely light, and the soft ear cups are very comfortable. It’s easy to forget they’re on your head at all (though the bright colors will make sure everyone else notices) and they fold up for safe traveling, unlike the Bang & Olufsens and Samsungs.
The Takeaway: The bass is over the top, but sound quality and noise canceling are otherwise good, and they're extremely wearable. They’re a perfect fit for cranking the new Drake mixtape while you blast your pecs.
Definitive Technology Symphony 1
Known for home sound systems, Definitive is finally in the headphone game with the Symphony 1 ($399). These headphones are big (the leather case comes with a carabiner, since it won’t fit in your bag) but the sound is incredible. The active noise canceling has no hissing or pressurized feeling and the plush leather ear cups naturally block out noise, too. They’re solid and comfortable, and the sound stage is extremely open and makes you feel as if you’re sitting in the center of a concert hall. If you close your eyes, you’ll swear the music is coming from a speaker system, not a pair of headphones. (No surprise, coming from Definitive.)
The Takeaway: Anyone who tells you that wireless sound quality isn’t very good should put these on their head. Definitive’s first effort is a great one. I just wish I didn’t have to clip the case to the outside of my bag,
Samsung Level Over
The Level Over ($349) is a confusing pair of headphones. They're really comfortable and the sound is awesome (only slightly less open than the Sennheisers or Definitives) when the active noise cancelation is on, but they're too big to be considered portable, and when the ANC is off there a strange echo effect is created by the large plastic enclosures. When the touch controls work, they are convenient and robust, but they’re also finicky: If you’re using an iOS device, the volume control is independent from that of your phone—an issue that's far more annoying than you might think. Aesthetically, the white and tan ended up looking a bit cheap; the black is slightly better. In a lot of ways, the Level Over is close to being amazing, but it still has a little way to go.
The Takeaway: It’s a shame that so much great technology is packed into a clumsy package. If wearing them didn’t feel like putting on a astronaut’s helmet and the kinks were worked out, I’d be sold.
Sennheiser Momentum Wireless
This is the top-of-the-line model in the new Momentum Wireless ($500) collection from Sennheiser. (On-ear and non-ANC models are available, too.) The ear cups are soft and even though they're relatively small for over-ear headphones, the soundstage produced is massive. Unlike the Beats and the Bang & Olufsens, there is no artificially elevated bass or change to the sound profile. You get whatever's on the recording, which is especially helpful for quiet music and podcasts. The noise canceling is soft and only occasionally produced the annoying buzzes and clicks that overeager ANC can create. The frame is thin and lightweight without feeling flimsy; when folded, they can easily be tossed into a weekend bag with no fear.
The Takeaway: They're the priciest headphones here, but you're getting what you pay for. Sound quality is excellent, noise cancelation is clean, and they're both comfortable and portable. It's hard to complain. (And I love to complain.)
Being that guy, I'll hedge here. There are three winners: one overall winner and one each for sound quality and design.
Winner: Sennheiser Momentum Wireless—These are the near-perfect storm. They produce clear sound with a surprisingly open soundstage for their size, sounding more like speakers than headphones. They're also handsome, have good battery life, and fold up for travel. Anyone familiar with Sennheiser probably isn't surprised here, but they nailed it.
Runner-Up (Sound Quality): Definitive Technology Symphony 1—This was really no contest. They're not the overall winner, due to lack of portability, but the Symphony 1 produced absolutely incredible sound (that only gets better if you're willing to plug them in instead of going wireless). For a pair of at-home headphones, you'd have to spend 5x or more to do better.
Runner-Up (Design): Bang & Olufsen H8—The bass might be a little boosted, but the sleek touch interface, interchangeable battery, and beautiful package makes these headphones truly lust-worthy. While the pure sound quality might be a little better on other pairs, staring at a pile of great cans, it's still the H8 that I want to put on my head