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.
- Check out T3's ultimate travel guide
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For frequent long-haul flyers (yes, we know that hasn't been a thing in 2020), 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
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-1000XM4 – announced in August 2020 – are a relatively minor upgrade on the XM4 from 2018, but still boast market-leading noise cancellation.
The new model's ear pads are 10 percent larger than on the XM3's, improving comfort, and as before the headphones are available in black or silver. Inside, the XM4 gets Sony's new DSEE Extreme audio processor for improved sound processing, and also new is how music automatically pauses when you take the headphones off.
The XM4's can connect to two Bluetooth devices at once, like a laptop and smartphone, adding to their wireless convenience. A feature called Speak to Chat automatically lowers the volume when you start talking, and there is access to either Alexa or Google Assistant.
The Bose QC35 and QC35 II were an icon of travel headphones. Catch any rush-hour train and board any flight, and you will see black and silver Bose headphones peaking out from the top of almost every headrest.
Now, there's a new model in town. The literally-named Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 introduce a sleek new design that is both lightweight and elegant. Behind the smart look, the headphones still pack 11 adjustable levels of top-notch noice cancellation, impressive audio quality, and up to 20 hours of wireless battery life.
Like with many of today's headphones, either Alexa or Google Assistant can be summoned with the press of a button, while the stainless steel headband and padded, angled ear cups are designed to put comfort first.
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.
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.
When Apple launched its AirPods Pro we couldn't believe white how good their active noise cancelling was. Despite their tiny size, they block out plenty of ambient sound passively with a good, comfortable fit, then create near-silence when the active noice cancelling is switched on.
Their touch controls are easy to use and if you are a fully paid-up member of the Apple ecosystem you can enjoy the AirPods' ability to automatically switch between your iPhone, iPad and Mac, depending on how you use them.
Battery life is 4.5 hours for the earphones themselves, with a further 24 hours of playback possible by popping them into the charging case every few hours. That can be a bit fo a drag on a long-hawk flight, but their pocket-friendly convenience more than makes up for it.
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.
If you want to listen to music at its very best on your next trip away, with good noice cancelling too, the Shure Aonic 50 are an excellent pair of headphones. Shure took its time to get into the headphone market, but not it's fear we are big fans, and this year awarded the Aonic 50 our Platinum Award and have them the full five-star treatment.
The headphones have a wide range of audio codecs to get the best out of your music, and have superb build quality and great design. The only drawback here is how the Shure's have a tendency to highlight the shortcomings of older and lesser-quality audio. But feed them with quality sound and you'll be in for a treat.
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.
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.
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).
If you're a Sony fan but need portability from your carry-on earphones, then the WF-1000XM3 are for you. Sony claims these tiny earphones offer a 40 percent improvement over the noice cancelation of their predecessors, while maintaining a compact design and pocket-sized charge case.
Battery life is six hours for the earphones themselves, a full 90 minutes more than Apple's AirPods Pro, and up to 24 hours when you top them up using the charge case.
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.
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.
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.
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