Black Friday has started its attack run, which means it’s a good time to be in the market for a new pair of headphones. More specifically, a good set of noise-canceling headphones always seems to be in high demand during the gift-getting season. But if you’re not sure which to buy, let us help you grab a good 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 happen to be on sale during the Black Friday barrage. Below are a handful of these top discounted recommendations, including picks from Sony, Apple, Bose, and more.
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I’ve recommended them in multiple guides and deal posts since they launched last year, but to my ears, Sony’s WH-1000XM4 are still the most well-rounded pair of wireless headphones for most people. This deal has been active for much of the past month, but it matches the lowest price we’ve tracked.
For noise cancelation (ANC), the XM4 do better than most pairs I’ve tested at blocking out lower- and mid-frequency noises 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 nearby voices. The latter makes them particularly convenient for the office (or home offices with especially chatty housemates). Note that the ANC turns off whenever you take a call, though.
The headphones themselves are comfortable and well-padded, and they don’t clamp down too hard on larger heads (such as my own). They have a professional, if not particularly showy, aesthetic and a durable design that’s flexible and can fold up for easier storage. A useful carrying case comes in the box.
They have a few genuinely useful perks, too. An optional “speak-to-chat” mode in the app can automatically pause your music whenever you start speaking to someone, and a “quick attention” feature momentarily lets you hear ambient noise when you put your hand over an earcup, which can be useful for catching quick announcements. The ambient sound mode performs well, and the headphones can connect to two devices simultaneously.
They aren’t perfect: their sound profile out of the box goes a bit heavier on the bass than some might prefer (though Sony’s companion app has an EQ tool to customize this to be more neutral); their microphone quality is just OK for calls; and they don’t allow you to adjust the strength of their active noise cancelation (ANC)—a feature found on other high-end pairs like Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
I prefer physical control buttons to touch controls, but swiping and tapping on the XM4’s earcups to adjust volume, accept calls, and skip tracks is more reliable than not. Battery life is excellent at more than 30 hours per charge—the specific length will vary depending on how loud you play your music—and the headphones recharge over USB-C. It’s also possible to use them passively through an included cable, though you won’t be able to take calls in that mode.
If money is no object, and you’re 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 to date, even without a customizable EQ tool. There’s a slight bass boost—a trait I personally enjoy—but the sound signature is exceptionally clear, accurate, and detailed. (To be clear, the audio quality of any wireless headphones still can’t match the best wired pairs.)
To my ears, the AirPods Max also do a better job canceling low- and mid-frequency noise than any other headphones I’ve worn. Voices and high-pitched sounds still come through a bit clearer than they would on the Sony XM4, but most everything else is markedly reduced. The ambient sound (or “transparency”) mode is superb as well, making outside noises sound crisp and relatively natural alongside your music.
The headphones have an attractive design and an aluminum finish that’s cool to the touch. They’re heavier, and thus a little less comfortable, than the Sony or Bose pairs in this roundup, but they feel premium. The multi-function “Digital Crown” dial, similar to what you’d see on an Apple Watch, makes controlling volume and playback a breeze. The included mics work well for phone calls, and battery life is decent at a little more than 20 hours per charge. Apple also offers a battery replacement service for $79.
There are a few strange design choices. Oddly, there’s no power button. Instead, you have to put the headphones into an included “case” to activate a low-power mode. I put “case” in scare quotes because it’s barely protective, acting more as an earcup 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 dies. The Max also can’t connect to multiple devices at once, nor can they fold up. Like all AirPods, they’re best used with other Apple devices. They aren’t as convenient to pair with Android or Windows, and they lack certain settings controls on those platforms.
The AirPods Max are also really expensive, with an MSRP of $549. This Black Friday deal brings them down to the best price we’ve seen, but even then, they’re not cheap, which is why we think the XM4 are close enough in quality to be a much better value. But if you’re an iPhone user, and want the best audio quality and active noise cancelation possible, the AirPods Max should make for a swanky gift.