- Buyer's Guide
Best Noise-Cancelling Headphones for Travel
Often traveling can be tiring and monotonous. And when crushing the long-haul, finding a quiet space to relax can be harder than you think. So in the past few years, noise-cancelling headphones have become an essential for frequent flyers keen to dial down the noise and tune out. But what’s their secret and which ones are the best for you? Find out with our guide to the best noise-cancelling headphones for travel…
How does noise cancelling work?
Look for headphones with active noise cancellation. Along with the padding which passively blocks sound, microphones planted in the ear wells of headphones actively analyze the ambient noise level and reflect sound waves back into your ear that work to zap the outside noise. The goal is to hear nothing but the music, or whatever it is you’re listening to. Active noise cancelling headphones are more effective at what they do, but the downside is that this noise cancellation requires batteries in order to function, which means you’ll have to remember to keep them charged.
In-Ear vs Over-Ear
As far as travel, let’s get this outta the way: in-ear headphones are much smaller, so they take up way less room. And if you’re a restless or finicky sleeper, wrestling to find comfort with two big cans slapped on your head can be quite the ordeal. So In-Ear makes sense. The other side of the coin: Over-Ears block out more noise (thanks to all that extra padding) and keep all the good sounds in (arguably dishing up a better listening experience).
Noise cancelling does not annihilate every nearby sound, so don’t expect the sweet sound of silence when you activate this feature. If you want complete silence, then a pair of $2 foam buds will do. Noise-cancelling headphones are better at canceling out lower pitches (such as the rumble of your train commute or jet engines) than they are mid or higher pitches (such as crying babies or conversations).
What to look for?
Active vs passive: be aware of the difference between active (through the use of tech) and passive noise cancellation (with good padding, a good fit to seal out sound, etc.) as touched on above. There are plenty of headphones that will still play your tunes in passive mode when the battery runs out, but if you want the active noise cancellation you’re going to need to keep those batteries juiced. You may also see this difference described as noise-isolating (passive) versus noise-cancelling (active) headphones. So do keep this in mind; if it doesn’t say noise-cancelling, it isn’t.
Fit: it’s best to try them on; we have different shaped ears, smaller sized heads (so big cones can look a little silly), some of us wear glasses, etc.
Sound: the perfect sound balance is hard to nail down, especially when playing different sounds. Some headphones work well for bass-heavy hip-hop and electronic, others for smooth sounds like jazz, others are great all-rounders. In short: bring a playlist to the store and jack it up high.
Packability and bulk: not such a big deal with in-ear, but it’s something you’ll need to consider when choosing over-ear.
Noise cancelling capability: this varies a lot. But you normally get what you pay for. 😉
Design: Does it a) suit your vibe? And b) is it intuitive to use? A lot of these headphones at the premium end come with bells and whistles, but are they easy to use, or just plain useful, or can you do without and save some clams?
– Best Value –
These are a great option for users after a combination of function and fashion. Created in collaboration with world-renowned designer Philippe Starck, these headphones will certainly turn heads while offering features such as a convenient touch panel for control and a highly customizable listening experience through the associated app. As an added bonus, you get all this at a reasonable price tag.
– Eye-catching aesthetics
– Customizable listening experience
– Solid value for money
– Battery life not as good as other options out there
– Better options available for voice calls
– While the app will appeal to some users, others may find using it too finicky to get the best out of the headphones
The Samsung Level On PRO Wireless Headphones offer an appealing combination of low-key style, great comfort, and good active noise cancellation. However, they will appeal particularly to Samsung smartphone users who will be able to enjoy the best sound out of them through the UHQ audio technology.
– Comfortable to wear
– Can be folded up for compact carry
– Good battery life
– Style suits work and play settings
– Touch-sensitive controls can be finicky
– Some users will want a longer Bluetooth connection distance
– Users need to own a Samsung phone to get the most out of the audio quality
If great battery life is a priority, these Plantronics headphones are well worth considering with up to 24 hours of battery life available. They’re also lighter and more compact than the originals, making them more travel-friendly. Plus with good user comfort, sound quality and active noise cancellation these are a solid choice for slipping beneath that $200 mark.
– Great battery life
– Active noise cancellation in both wired and wireless mode
– Decent sound quality and active noise cancellation for the price
– The styling won’t appeal to everyone
– Sound may be too bass-heavy for some users
– Choice of user controls, though these can be tricky to use
With their smart aesthetics, clean sound quality, good active noise cancellation, and excellent battery life these headphones will suit a variety of users who want great design without too much of a hefty price tag.
– Sleek and comfortable design
– Up to 30 hours of battery life with active noise cancellation
– Lightweight and compact to store for your travels, with neoprene carry case
– Not the best noise cancellation on the market, with a slight hiss when in use
– Wired only; no Bluetooth
– No volume control with the single-button remote
The Philips Fidelio NC1 headphones are comfortable to wear, with a warm and balanced sound and great active noise cancellation activated by a switch on the left earpad. The professional aesthetics will also complement a variety of users and environments, and the extensive battery life is a solid plus too.
– Rechargeable battery lasts up to 30 hours
– Folds compactly and includes carry case
– Includes detachable cable with microphone for making calls
– Great balanced sound
– Solid build and smart looks
– On the pricier end
– Headphones may move or slip off with vigorous movements
– Some noise leakage (thanks to ‘on-ear’ design)
– Not wireless, which may put some users off
The PSB Speakers M4U 2 headphones will appeal to users looking for excellent sound quality (which is still great when the batteries are dead), very good noise cancellation and superb long-lasting battery life. They’re certainly in the higher range when it comes to cost, but the quality sound and active noise cancellation makes them worth the price tag.
– Up to 55 hours of battery life in ANC or Active mode
– Choice of three modes to suit different needs: Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), Active Mode, and Passive Mode (no batteries)
– Comfortable to wear
– A bit bulky
– May not be stylish enough for some users
If you’re looking for a combination of style, comfort, very good sound quality and noise cancellation these headphones deliver on all fronts. The minimalist aesthetics are complemented by a natural and balanced sound and good noise cancellation. Though not the lightest headphones around this price point, they are comfortable to wear and will suit casual and business users alike.
– Natural, balanced sound
– Effective noise cancellation (though not the best for this price point)
– Understated aesthetics
– Good battery life (20 hours with Bluetooth and noise cancellation)
– A little bulky when folded up and stored in the case
– At 290 grams they’re a little weightier than other options out there
– Editor’s Pick –
The Bose QuietComfort 35 are widely regarded as best in class for over-ear wireless headphones with noise cancellation, and will make the top contender lists for any user who prioritises this feature. The superior noise cancellation is complemented by easy pairing, very good battery life and user comfort, and respectable sound quality (better in wired mode).
– Topnotch noise cancellation with wireless Bluetooth
– Comfortable and foldable design
– Rechargeable battery offers around 20 hours of use
– Headphones can be used in wired mode if the battery dies (no noise cancellation or Bluetooth)
– Includes a microphone for use as a headset when making calls
– Easy NFC pairing
– Battery can’t be replaced by the user
– Around 100g heavier than the wired Bose QuietComfort 25
– Active EQ won’t appeal to everyone
– Sound quality is very good but there are better options at this price point if this is a priority
The Sennheiser PXC 550 headphones offer great sound, both Bluetooth and aptX technology, and extensive battery life up to 30 hours. The noise cancellation is also good (though not the best for this price point). They are expensive but you get a range of handy features for the price, such as easy on/off control by rotating the ear cups, a lightweight and comfortable design, and a choice of effect modes including Club, Movie, or Speech to suit different uses. If you’re happy to prioritise sound quality at the expensive of some user experience and noise cancellation effectiveness, these are a solid choice.
– Excellent sound
– Long battery life
– Bluetooth and aptX technology
– Folds fairly compactly in storage case
– Noise cancellation could be improved (better options for the price)
– Styling may be a little uninspiring for some
– Touch controls can be finicky
– Best Style –
These headphones really stand out with their suave, luxurious style. But there’s serious function to complement the fashion-friendly aesthetics. The sound quality and active noise cancellation are very good, the headphones are compact and comfortable to wear, and the controls are simple to use.
– Quality construction and classy looks
– The rechargeable battery is replaceable
– Noise cancellation can be used in Bluetooth and wired mode
– Up to 35 hours of battery life in wired mode with noise cancellation (though this drops to 14 hours in Bluetooth mode with noise cancellation)
– Sound quality and noise cancellation are very good, but there are superior alternatives available at less expensive price points
– Comes with a cloth carrying pouch; arguably a more protective case should be provided for a product at this price point
– Editor’s Pick –
The Sony MDR-1000X wireless headphones offer a refined combination of great sound quality, excellent noise cancellation, long battery life and a host of handy features. With Quick Attention mode you can quickly pause music to listen to a conversation by placing your hand over the right ear cup, while Ambient Sound mode lets you alternate between Normal and Voice settings to suit different environments. Sony’s Sense Engine also allows the headphones to tweak the listening experience to each individual user for optimal noise cancellation and sound quality.
– Excellent sound quality
– Up to 20 hours of battery life
– Great noise cancellation
– Folds compactly, with carry case provided
– Touchpad finger controls can be a bit finicky at times
At just shy of the $500 mark, these headphones are definitely a premium option. So what do you get for your money? First off, the bold style will turn heads with a quality look and feel. The rich bass also makes them a solid choice if a great bass sound is one of your priorities. In addition, they’re comfortable to wear and offer a very respectable battery life of about 22 hours.
– Good sound, especially bass
– Controls are easy to use
– Good battery life (around 22 hours)
– Folds into a compact form for storage in the included carry case
– Comfortable to wear
– Can be used in wired and wireless mode
– Avoids the sense of in-ear pressure that some other noise-cancelling headphones can create
– Very expensive
– Active noise cancellation is good but superior alternatives are available at a less expensive price point
– Best Budget Option –
These wired in-ear headphones offer a well balanced, clean sound and good active noise cancellation for a budget-friendly price. While the plastic construction and low-key design may not appeal to some users, these headphones are certainly worth considering if you’re after good value for money at an inexpensive price tag.
– Inexpensive and good value for money
– Good sound quality and noise cancellation for the price
– Inline microphone and controller for calls and music control
– Up to 60 hours of battery life
– Audio available in passive mode without the battery
– Lightweight and compact
– Plastic construction doesn’t offer a premium feel
– Aesthetics may lack sufficient style for some users
– Best Value –
The Phiaton BT 100 NC headphones offer a range of handy features for the price tag, making them solid value for money. Built with IPX4 water resistance, they can withstand sweat and splashes while offering active noise cancellation, decent sound quality and a lightweight design. These wireless Bluetooth 4.0 headphones can still play your tunes if the battery dies (just opt for wired use), and a vibration notification in the neck piece will alert you to incoming calls if the earbuds aren’t in your ears.
– Can be used in both wireless and wired mode
– IPX4 water resistance
– Good range of features
– Comfortable and lightweight design that suits active use
– Plastic build quality doesn’t offer a premium feel
– Sound quality could be improved
– Doesn’t include a carry case (though the earbuds can be stored inside the neck band)
– Average battery life (7.5 hours in active noise cancellation mode, or 12 hours without noise cancellation)
The AKG K391NC headphones are compact enough to carry in a pocket or bag, with understated aesthetics that suit a range of settings. The active noise cancellation and sound quality is good for the price, with very little sound leakage. And one of the stand-out features is the battery life, which can last around 35 to 40 hours.
– Good noise cancellation and balanced sound for the price
– Excellent battery life
– Understated style and decent build quality
– Some users may find the single-button remote control lacking in functionality
– No wireless mode, which may deter some users
– Includes a carry pouch but not much protection for a product costing $140
With their natural sound, good active noise cancellation and understated looks, the B&O Play H3 ANC headphones will appeal to a range of users and environments, from the professional commuter to travelers and casual downtime settings. They also offer solid battery life with active noise cancellation, and will continue to deliver your tunes if the battery dies.
– Comfortable with a choice of five sets of ear tips to get a good fit
– Balanced and clear sound
– Good battery life (up to 20 hours with active noise cancellation)
– Edging towards the pricier end of the spectrum
– The cable is quite thick, which is handy to deter tangling but can make it tricky to wrap up for storing in the carry case
– Better alternatives for heavy bass lovers
– Editor’s Pick –
The appealing combination of great noise cancellation and excellent user comfort makes these Bose QuietComfort 20 headphones a solid choice for anyone after quality in-ear headphones. Of course, quality costs money and these aren’t cheap, but you get what you pay for. A range of features enhance the user experience, such as Aware mode that lets you quickly adjust the noise cancellation for airport announcements or crossing busy streets, and StayHear®+ ear tips for a secure and comfortable fit. If noise cancellation is a priority and you can afford to shell out, these should definitely be on your list of considerations.
– Superior noise cancellation
– Very comfortable to wear
– Handy features such as Aware mode
– Battery module is a bit bulky, and battery life is good (around 16 hours) but other options are available with a longer battery life
– Sound quality is good but better options available in this price bracket if this is a priority
There’s no denying these headphones are expensive. However, they’re a good wireless alternative to the Bose QuietComfort 20 headphones, though the wireless convenience does come at a cost of slightly less noise cancellation. That being said, the active noise cancellation is still great and is also adjustable to suit different settings and preferences. The neck band design will be a matter of personal preference and might not appeal to some users, but like the headphones above, these offer very comfortable earbuds.
– Wireless convenience with impressive and adjustable active noise cancellation
– Includes a hard carry case
– Earbuds are comfortable to wear (though the neck band may deter some)
– Sound quality is very good, but there are better options available for the price if this is a priority
– Battery life is average (around 10 hours)
*Feature photography via Alpha
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