Headphones with Active Noise-cancelling (ANC) work by creating a sound wave, which is 180 degrees out of phase with the ambient sounds that are picked up by its microphones. This method is used by a majority of audio device manufacturers but this could soon change as researchers at the University of Illinois have come up with a new method that uses wireless signals to enable better quality ANC on headphones. Headphones pick up the outside noise via sound waves and produce out-of-phase waves to cancel out outside noises, however, the new research suggests using a microphone to capture the noise and using wireless technology to send it to an earphone so that it can quickly generate opposite soundwaves of better quality. You can read the thesis here.
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