Best headphones for travel 2020: noise-cancelling headphones ideal for holidays

From wireless and waterproof to noise-cancelling and long-haul-ready batteries, there's a pair of headphones for every kind of traveller

Best headphones for travel
(Image credit: Beats By Dr. Dre)

If you’re not travelling with a pair of noise-cancelling headphones, you’re not doing it properly. Sure, you could travel with the same earphones you use on your 30-minute commute, but don’t be surprised when they’re uncomfortable and you can’t even hear your movie, audiobook or podcast.

Buses and trains are loud. Aircraft cabins are louder. In fact, at take-off and landing noise levels inside the cabin can reach 105 decibels (dB). At cruising altitudes, it’s about 85 dB. Which is why pilots have for decades been wearing headphones that produce sound waves to physically cancel-out ambient noise.

Now you can, too.

For frequent long-haul flyers, noise-cancelling headphones are standard issue or, at least, they ought to be. That white noise a big aircraft’s engines and air-con systems produce is a killer. Cue a precise arrangement of microphones inside and outside the ear-cups of noise-cancelling headphones that continuously measure, compare and react to the sound-waves they detect.

Essentially creating sound-waves to cancel-out the low frequencies, the latest trend is for noise-cancelling headphones to go wireless. However, a lot of models are both bulky and expensive, which means that you do have to shop around if you want something more compact or more affordable.

Luckily, noise-cancelling earphones are now coming of age, with some great quality products to pick from across the price range.

These are the best headphones for travel:

The best headphones for travel

Best headphones for travel

1. Sony WH-1000XM3

A newly refined classic that's great for music

Best for: Music
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 254g
Reasons to buy
+High quality noise cancelling+Best for sound quality+Adapts to cabin pressure
Reasons to avoid

Two companies dominate wireless noise cancelling headphones; Bose and Sony. When it comes to bulky wireless noise cancelling headphones aimed at business travellers, for every benchmark Bose there's a Sony lurking in the shadows. 

The newest of the lot, Sony's WH-1000XM3 – announced at IFA 2018 – are four times more powerful than the previous version, and best Bose on battery life at 30 hours.

If that's a reason to buy, it's also the reason why the WH-1000XM3 are identically priced to the Bose QC35 II. The WH-1000XM3 also deal in High-Resolution Audio, and do sound much better for music than the Bose QC35 II, but they are slightly heavier.

The Sony's also have a feature which adapts the noise cancelling based on your current atmospheric pressure, which should make them work even better on planes. Whether the effect is a placebo or not, it makes the WH-1000XM3s the best headphones for travel.

2. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

The second incarnation of this classic adds voice assistants

Best for: Business class
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 240g
Reasons to buy
+High quality noise cancelling+Lighter than Sony WH-1000XM3
Reasons to avoid
-Not as adept with music as Sony

Bose's flagship is the QC35 II, a recently refreshed update of the original QC35, though what's been added is pretty minimal; compatibility with Amazon Alexa and the Google Assistant. Is that really necessary? While flying, it's impossible, so consider searching for the original QC35 if you just want them for plane journeys.

Both models have the same excellent noise-cancelling abilities, with three powers to choose from, alongside great all-around sound quality, a 20-hour battery life, a 1.2 m cable, and best of all (if you intend to sleep), a beautifully soft headband. 

It's a great product, but in terms of functionality, you can get almost the same technology for a lot less.

3. Bose QC30

Travelling light? These are the best in-ear noise cancelling earbuds

Best for: Travelling light
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 63.8g
Reasons to buy
+Technically impressive+Comfortable+Very portable
Reasons to avoid
-Over ears sound better-

If you prefer to travel light, and don't like the idea of packing a large pair of over-ear headphones, these premium, noise cancelling Bluetooth in-ears from Bose could be the option for you.

The QC30s are almost as cocooning as the mighty impressive QC35s above, but they're obviously more lightweight, and allow you to sleep more comfortably. The only issue is that they don't sound as good as the larger, more expensive options on this list.

Bowers & Wilkins PX

4. Bowers & Wilkins PX

Flying first class? You'll want a premium pair of travel headphones to match

Best for: Luxury travel
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 375g
Reasons to buy
+Great sound with excellent ANC+Motion-sensing features+Stylish+Comfortable
Reasons to avoid
-Don't fold

The PX is Bowers & Wilkins' first pair of Bluetooth ANC headphones, and boy, they're impressive. For a start, you can control the level and type of ANC using an app on your smartphone. 

The headphones sound great, with B&W's usual exciting, but well balanced, signature sound. In fact, we'd say they sound slightly better than the other big-ticket noise-cancelling headphones. 

The PX also features motion-sensing, which means if you lift a cup from your ear, the sound is paused, and if you take them off entirely, they go into a standby mode. It's very useful when travelling, as you'll frequently need to remove them to talk to people.

5. Beoplay H9i

These are the most stylish pair of travel headphones around

Best for: Stylish travel
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 285g
Reasons to buy
+Stylish+Comfortable+Colour options
Reasons to avoid
-Iffy app and proximity sensor-Warm earcups

If you like to travel in style, then the BeoPlay H9i headphones could be for you.  The headband uses cowhide leather atop aluminum, while the ear cushions are wonderfully soft and designed for supreme comfort. In fact, they're so soft and padded your ears can get a little too warm on a flight.

Inside, the Beoplay H9i headphones offer Bang & Olufsen's Signature Sound, excellent active noise cancellation, and an innovative touch interface (which can be a little fiddly at times).

We found the H9i was let down by the proximity sensor, which kept pausing the music for no reason, and the app, which refused to connect for us.

(Image credit: Cleer)

6. Cleer Flow II

Excellent noise cancelling and long battery life

Best for: Noise cancelling and battery life
Noise cancelling: Yes
Reasons to buy
+Excellent noise cancelling+Long battery life+Fold-flat design+Google Assistant button+Sound great
Reasons to avoid
-Ear-cups could be more comfortable

These noise-cancelling, Bluetooth headphones from Cleer are fantastic value. For less than £250 / $300 you get a pair of great-sounding headphones with a long list of premium features. The Flow II's boast up-to 20 hours playback with noise-cancelling enabled (that's most flights around the world covered). As for the quality of noise-cancelling? That's up there with the best from Sony and Bose. Our two favourite features (other than the excellent sound quality) is Google Fast Pair, which makes pairing with Android phones a breeze, and Conversation Mode, which temporarily disengages ANC and automatically lowers the volume of whatever you're listening to when you place your hand over the left ear cup.

(Image credit: Beats by Dr Dre)

7. Beats Studio 3 Wireless

Remarkable noise-cancelling and great sound make for the best Beats ever

Best for: Battery life and charging
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 260g
Reasons to buy
+Very effective ANC+Awesome sound+Rapid recharging

Are these the best Beats ever? These wireless noise-cancelling headphones’ killer feature is the way noise control can adapt to the ambient noise around you, whether that's aircraft engine noise, wind, or the jibber-jabber of other travellers. 

The anti-wind mode is impressive since a stiff breeze is often the nemesis of noise-cancelling headphones because of the way they use microphones to monitor ambient sound. However, an algorithm in the Beats Studio3 fades-out wind within a few seconds. In fact, it’s a silky noise-cancelling performance all-round because these are one of the rare pairs of headphones where you just don't 'hear' the noise cancellation process as much as you do with other really good ANC cans. 

Happily, the Beats Studio3 are also the best sounding of the Studio range to date, with a detailed sonic signature throughout. Also handy is a ‘fast fuel' feature that gives three hours of playback from a 10-minute charge, and easy pairing and device switching as found on Apple’s AirPods.

(Image credit: Sennheiser)

8. Sennheiser PXC 550 II

The nearest thing to an 'audiophile' ANC headphone

Best for: Audiophiles
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 227g
Reasons to buy
+Very musical+Long battery life
Reasons to avoid
-Annoying design-So-so noise cancelling

Here’s a fact about noise-cancelling headphones; most are good at noise cancelling, but far less impressive judged solely on musicality. Cue Sennheiser's PXC 550 noise cancelling headphones, which more a great-sounding pair of headphones that have ANC as a fairly minor side benefit. 

The best-sounding ANC headphones around? Perhaps – for pure sound quality they just can't be faulted – but the Beats, Bowers, Bose and Sony headphones here are all better at noise cancelling. 

The PXC 550’s have some odd design flourishes, such as the user having to rotate its ear-cups to turn the headphones on and off. They also have some strange on-ear touch controls for skipping tracks and changing volume that require the user to be extra-dextrous. 

The Speech mode for listening to spoken word, such as audiobooks and podcasts, is impressive, but kudos goes to Sennheiser for creating some headphones that boast punchy, detailed sonics. What they lack in noise cancelling prowess they make up for music, and for 20 hours using wireless Bluetooth playback with ANC (or 30 hours if you use the included mic/remote cable instead of going wireless). 

9. Sony WF-1000X

Best noise cancelling true wireless headphones

Best for: Completely wire free
Noise cancelling:
Weight: 6.8g
Reasons to buy
+Technically incredible+Great sound+So small!
Reasons to avoid
-Short battery life-Unreliable connectivity

These true wireless buds from Sony are like Apple Airpods but designed specifically for travelling. While there are some annoying quirks around charging and staying connected, the WF-1000X were a technical marvel, managing to pack AAC, aptX, an unusually good EQ adjuster, and ANC into tiny true wireless buds. 

The ANC is surprisingly effective, although of course, it's not remotely on par with the likes of the Sony or Bose on this list.

These aren't for long haul flights, though, as the battery life is only around two hours.

Marshall Mid ANC

10. Marshall Mid ANC

Compact on-ear headphones with noise cancelling, ideal for travelling

Best for: Punchy sound
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 208g
Reasons to buy
+Punchy sound+Neat styling
Reasons to avoid
-Not the most effective ANC-Uncomfortable with glasses

These are, essentially, the Marshall Mid headphones, with the added bonus of noise cancelling. They sound almost identical to their ANC-less sibling, but with the flick of a switch, you can instantly drown out background noise... to an extent. 

If you're looking for the ultimate noise cancelling, there are not it, the ANC is considerably more, uh, 'subtle' than the likes of Bose and Sony.

They're still a great pair of headphones for travelling, though, with excellent, punchy, bright, and lively sound.

11. JBL Tune 600BTN

Affordable wireless headphones with noise reduction

Best for: Budget travel
Noise cancelling: Yes
Weight: 173g
Reasons to buy
+Lightweight design+Low cost
Reasons to avoid
-Plasticky build quality

Until recently noise cancelling has been an expensive proposition, but that all changes with the arrival of the cut-price Tune 600BTNC from JBL. Lightweight and easily foldable for travelling, these headphones – available in pink, blue, white and black – are distinguishable from the big brands only in build quality. 

If you can stomach its relatively short 12-hour battery life and a rather plasticky feel and look, as well as rather a clumsy positioning of some of the buttons, do so because the Tune 600BTNC are otherwise highly impressive. Although noise cancelling is not up there with the top brands, it's very close, and there's always plenty of bass.

12. Sony NW-WS623

Liven-up those sessions in the hotel pool or gym

Best for: Hotel pools and gyms
Noise cancelling: No
Weight: 32g
Reasons to buy
+Waterproof+Tough build quality
Reasons to avoid
-No noise cancelling-Requires a computer to fill with music

Are you the kind that likes a quick dip or a workout after a long flight? If so, here are some totally different, totally waterproof earphones for you. These waterproof earphones work as a standalone Walkman, able to store MP3 files on its 4GB or 16GB capacity flash memory. However, it also connects wirelessly to a smartphone via Bluetooth, so you can use them as standard earphones for general use. 

While not good at keeping engine noise out when at 35,000ft., Sony's NW-WS623 instantly make swimming a less lonely experience. Available in black, blue, white and green, the NW-WS623 weighs just 32g and work continuously for 12 hours between recharges.

Looking for more suggestions?