The Insider Picks team writes about stuff we think you’ll like. Business Insider has affiliate partnerships, so we get a share of the revenue from your purchase.
TravelWireNews Chatroom for Readers (join us)
- What I’ve figured out through testing samples and traveling is that there isn’t actually one “perfect” set, because different headphones are good at different things.
- I’ve been able to narrow it down to three sets of headphones that cover all of the bases for travel, depending on what you need.
- My all-around favorite travel headphones are: the Bose QuietComfort 35 ($329), the V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless ($289), and the Apple Airpods ($159).
- While I find these to be the best options, they definitely aren’t the cheapest.
I tend to be picky about certain things, especially when I travel. Headphones are no exception.
While I may not have anything on my colleague Brandt Ranj, who, as Insider Picks’ resident tech reporter, has tested dozens of different headphones over the past year, I’ve still tried plenty of different sets in my quest to find the perfect travel headphones. What I’ve figured out through testing samples and traveling is that there isn’t actually one “perfect” set, because different headphones are good at different things — there isn’t any single model that has a perfect “one size fits all” feature set.
With that in mind, I’ve been able to narrow it down to three sets of headphones that cover all of the bases for travel, depending on what you need. When you’re picking a pair to purchase or pack, remember to keep a few things in mind: Will you be spending hours on a plane? Are you backpacking and looking to keep things as light as possible? Is space a premium in your back, or are you expecting to rough it a bit? Or are you going to be commuting because it’s a work or research trip?
While I find these to be the best options, they definitely aren’t the cheapest. If you’re looking for more budget-friendly options, take a look at the overall best wireless headphones, and the best headphones under $100.
Here are the best travel headphones available on the market right now, my all-around favorites.
1. For active noise cancellation: Bose QuietComfort 35, $329, available at Amazon
There are two types of noise-cancelling headphones. Passive noise cancellation is when the headphones simply block outside noise by sealing off your ear. These headphones are usually closed, with little room for noise to leak in or out, and fit snugly in your ear canal or around your entire ear. Passive noise cancelling headphones are also — more correctly — referred to as noise isolating or blocking.
The other type is active noise cancelling. These headphones use microphones to listen to what’s going on around you, and play sounds at the exact opposite wavelength in order to “cancel out” the outside noise. When you first turn it on, it almost sounds like magic.
Bose was the first company to develop active noise cancellation — originally for headsets that pilots use to talk to each other and air traffic control, and then in consumer headphones — and while other companies have since made their own versions, Bose continues to lead the pack. Its latest flagship version, the QuietComfort 35 headphones, offers superb noise cancellation in a lightweight, comfortable, wireless package.
The headphones feature Bluetooth so that you can wirelessly connect to your phone, tablet, or computer, but also come with a regular headphone cord so that you can use them with wired devices, such as in-flight entertainment systems. You can control your music using on-board buttons, and there’s a microphone so that you can use them for phone calls.
The sound quality is solid, but the noise cancellation is where the headphones shine. Active noise cancellation works best for lower frequencies and continuous sounds, so the QC35s work their best magic when they’re put up against airplane engines, train and subway noise, bus traffic, and that kind of thing. They benefit from some passive cancellation when it comes to crying babies or inconsistent higher-pitched sounds, but the active effect is less useful there.
However, there are a few aspects of the Bose that make them less ideal for everyday use, but better for travel, offices, and so on. First of all, I find that the noise cancellation is less useful outdoors. Wind blowing on the active noise cancellation microphones can cause it to stutter, which is incredibly distracting. Furthermore, the fact that lower-frequencies and droning is cancelled out, while other sounds aren’t, make me feel like my situational awareness is thrown off — it’s harder to be aware of traffic and other people around you. Beyond that, while the headphones’ plush cushioning and headband makes them comfortable for a long flight, they can get a bit warm in the real world.
While the QC35s are undoubtedly my favorite headphones for air travel, they can’t be my only pair if I want to use them elsewhere.
2. For rich sound and unique build quality: The V-Moda Crossfade 2 Wireless, $289, available at Amazon
Picking the “best” headphone is largely up to personal preference, especially when you’re paying a premium and can be more demanding. That said, my opinion is that when you aren’t looking for active noise cancellation, V-Moda’s headphones are the best portable cans you can get for the price.
To be fair, I’ve been a V-Moda fan for about six years, and I’ve tried used a few different models over that time. The Crossfade 2 Wireless build on the success of previous models while introducing a few new features.
The headphones’ sound quality is sublime and able to please even picky audiophiles. Overall, the sound is a bit warm, with a nice emphasis on bass that isn’t overpowering, while the mids are forward and treble is clear and crisp without coming close to harsh.
While the nature of Bluetooth means that some sound quality is lost as audio is compressed in order to be translated wirelessly, I found that the Crossfade 2 Wireless preserved most of the sound quality when I used them in wireless mode — better than many other headphones I’ve tested. In wired mode, the sound is simply sublime.
Something V-Moda headphones are known for is their build quality, and this model lives up to the brand’s legacy. These cans are built like a tank and feel virtually indestructible. A steel headband and frame can withstand crashes, twists, pulls, drops, and more. While they aren’t waterproof, they can withstand rain and humidity without an issue. The headphones have a unique folding mechanism, and can be stored in an included case or simply tossed in a bag.
While they don’t have active noise cancellation, the V-Moda headphones beat Bose in just about every factor — since they fold up and are durable enough to survive in a bag without a case, they’re even more portable. These are ideal for commuting, walking around, working or studying, and just about everything else. They’re definitely effective on a plane, since the generous foam cushions block out plenty of noise — but they just can’t compare to the active noise cancellation of the Bose. Which one is best for you depends on how you expect to use them.
3. For ultimate portability: Apple Airpods, $159, available at Apple
The “true-wireless” Apple Airpods are great, but make no mistake; they’re not the best headphones out there. They sound crisp, and certainly better than most cheaper models, but they don’t have the most enjoyable sounds signature out there. They go in your ears but don’t have interchangeable tips, so either they fit your ears well or they don’t, and if they don’t, they might fall out of your ears. Also, since their hard plastic doesn’t mold to form a seal when you put them in your ear, they don’t block very much noise.
That said, if you have an Apple device (or devices), these are far and away the most convenient headphones there are. Pairing them is a simple matter of opening their charging case and taking them out while your iPhone is nearby — it’s automatic, and after that, you can use the Airpods with any of your Apple devices that are signed into iCloud.
The reason I included them on this list is that they’re the ultimate in portability. The charging case is the size of a pack of dental floss, so you can slip them in a jeans pocket or jacket. While they only have five hours of battery life, you can put them back in the charging case for 15 minutes at a time to get another three hours of use.
You can read my colleague Brandt’s review to learn more about why he uses his Airpods every day despite the flaws.
If space is at a high premium when you’re traveling, these are the headphones for you. Alternatively, if you want to use the Bose QC35s on a plane, but also want a second set for use at your destination, these wireless earbuds are perfect. You can read my colleague Brandt’s review to learn more about why he uses his Airpods every day despite the flaws.