TravelTravel Advice

Our Favorite Noise-Canceling Headphones Under $150

Sure, the latest Bose or Sony are great, but you can find good sound quality if you're on a budget. Here's how three top-rated affordable options stack up.

The bottom line: if you’re stuck in an airport or on a long flight, the most important qualities are good noise cancellation and long battery life. The Anker Soundcore Life Q20s check those boxes better than the other pairs I tried, at around half the price. (Illustration: Mary Mathis)
The bottom line: if you’re stuck in an airport or on a long flight, the most important qualities are good noise cancellation and long battery life. The Anker Soundcore Life Q20s check those boxes better than the other pairs I tried, at around half the price.

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Even though I travel a lot, I always thought noise-canceling headphones were a luxury I could do without. Then I tried a pair of Bose 700 wireless Bluetooth noise-canceling headphones ($399) and can no longer get on a plane without them. My wife thought they were overkill until she borrowed mine. Now we have matching pairs. 

The Bose 700s are incredibly comfortable, offer 11 levels of noise cancellation, and come with Alexa built in. I can justify the cost because, aside from flights and road trips, I use mine every day to edit video or write in a co-working space. But the price is what kept me away from a pair of noise-cancelers for a long time, and for less-frequent flyers, $400 is a lot of cash to drop on something you need only occasionally. 

With that in mind, I decided to try comparable noise-canceling Bluetooth headphones that cost less than my beloved pair and received good reviews: the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 ($60), the Audio Technica ATH-ANC500BT ($100), and the JBL Tune750BTNC ($130). Here’s how they stacked up, based on four major metrics: sound quality, noise cancellation, fit and feel, and battery life.

Sound Quality

  • 1st place: Audio Technica
  • 2nd place: Anker
  • 3rd place: JBL

I wouldn’t exactly call myself an audiophile, but I am a bit of a stickler for sound quality—I’ve been listening to records on vinyl since I found my dad’s turntable in junior high. On both noise- and non-noise-canceling modes, the Audio Technica headphones edged out the Ankers. The sound was slightly more clear and vibrant, especially on high notes, and they have a louder volume setting. The Ankers took second place for the great “Bass Up” mode that boosts low notes. The JBLs sounded slight compared to the others.

Noise Cancellation

  • 1st: Anker
  • 2nd: JBL
  • 3rd: Audio Technica

Low-frequency sounds, like road noise and car and airplane engines, are precisely the things you want to drown out with noise-canceling headphones. After listening to all three pairs back-to-back in my truck with the engine running, the Ankers were the clear winner. These headphones have four microphones that pick up and cancel out a wide range of low- and mid-frequency sounds, based on a unique algorithm. In promotional materials, Anker touts how it did a lot of testing to get the noise cancellation right, and it definitely shows. While the JBLs were a little behind the Ankers, the Audio Technicas had by far the worst noise cancellation—I could hear a lot of background noise, including human voices.

Fit and Feel

  • 1st: Anker
  • 2nd: Audio Technica
  • 3rd: JBL

The Ankers once again took the top spot in this category. They had the most padding around the ears and top of the head, which felt downright plush. I did notice some of the “eardrum suck” common with a lot of noise-canceling headphones, but it wasn’t enough to be a deal breaker. While the Audio Technicas lack the padding of the other two, their light weight made them very comfortable: at six ounces, they weigh almost two ounces less than the JBLs, and more than three ounces less than the Ankers. The JBLs clamped my head like a vise—the earmuffs were far too small and the padding too stiff. 

Battery Life and Extra

  • 1st: Anker
  • 2nd: Audio Technica
  • 3rd: JBL

The Bluetooth worked great on each model; I had no trouble pairing them with my phone or computer on the first try. Each also feature buttons on the headphones to control basic features like volume and song selection without having to get out your phone. You can take phone calls on every model, but the JBL is the only pair that features Alexa, Siri, and Google Now. 

The Ankers had by far the best battery life: 30 to 40 hours in noise-canceling mode—more than enough to last the length of a long-haul flight. By comparison, the Audio Technicas last 20 hours with noise canceling and Bluetooth turned on (they can go up to 42 using an AUX cable), and the JBLs only run for 15 hours when noise canceling is active. 

Overall 

  • 1st: Anker
  • 2nd: Audio Technica
  • 3rd: JBL

The bottom line: if you’re stuck in an airport or on a long flight, the most important qualities are good noise cancellation and long battery life. The Anker Soundcore Life Q20 checks those boxes better than the other pairs I tried, at around half the price. With unbeatable value for the quality, the Ankers are the best bet for budget-minded travelers looking for a quieter, more comfortable plane ride. 

buy Anker

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Lead Illustration: Mary Mathis

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