Decent headphones are invaluable for travelers. Whether you’re on a train or plane, noise-canceling is essential. While some airlines provide headphones in premium cabins, you almost certainly won’t have them if you’re further back, and even in business they are rarely anything special.
Note that noise-isolating, whereby the headphones merely form a seal between you and the outside world, is different from noise-canceling. The latter is a clever electronic system that uses a microphone to measure ambient noise. This noise is then reversed in phase and fed back into the earpieces. The out-of-phase “anti-noise” cancels the real noise. Sounds weird, but it does the trick.
The latest headphones on the market feature rechargeable batteries that can easily last the longest-haul flight, so sit back, tune in and chill out.
Sony WH-1000XM3, $279.99
Sony makes some of the best wireless headphones and these are the only ones with better noise-canceling than that of Bose – some noise-canceling technology can feel oppressive to the ears but here it’s alive and comfortable. Sony’s cans also have exceptional audio even when noise-canceling is turned off, sounding rich and detailed with plenty of bass that doesn’t overwhelm subtler tones. The WH-1000XM3 over-ears fit comfortably for even the longest flight and battery life is up to 30 hours, although a ten-minute recharge gives you five hours of listening time. To hear when someone talks to you, simply rest your hand on the left ear cup and a microphone will let the outside world in. Choose from a discreet black or punchier off-white finish.
Nuraphone headphones are unusual – as well as over-ear fitting, an internal piece juts into your ears, as with in-ear buds. The design takes some getting used to, but the sound is tremendous. First, you have to train them. That’s done by the companion smartphone app playing test tones while a microphone inside measures your ears’ faint responses. The app then calculates your hearing profile – the difference is striking. Nuraphone headphones gained noise-canceling functionality through a software update last year and it works well. The update also included “social mode,” which turns on an external microphone so you can hear when someone is talking to you, controlled by a touch-sensitive panel or the app. Battery life is 20 hours.
Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II, $349.95
Bose has long ruled the market in terms of noise-canceling, and still would if it weren’t for Sony. The latest Quiet Comfort headphones have lightweight, comfortable ear cups and a cushioned head band. The design was created years ago and has slowly and elegantly evolved. Battery life is 20 hours when used wirelessly. They are compatible with Alexa and Google Assistant if they are plugged into your phone and it has Internet access; this is activated by tapping the left ear-cup button. Alternatively, you can set that button to adjust noise-canceling levels. Audio is consistent: solid and appealing with strong fidelity and satisfyingly good bass notes. There’s a classic black option and more delicate silver finish to choose from.
JBL Tune 600BTNC, $79.95
JBL’s wireless headphones are a real bargain, combining comfort and strong audio. These are on-ear headphones – that is, they don’t fit right over the ears to encase them as over-ears do. They fold flat so can squash into your carry-on, and battery life is 12 hours (jumping to 22 hours if noise-canceling is off). Noise-canceling isn’t as stellar as on the Sony and Bose over-ears, but it’s still good. As you might expect from the price, the build quality is not in the same league as the other headphones here, but they are robust – note, though, that the plastic ear cups can scratch easily and there’s no carry case. Still, they work well and are a relaxed fit. You can even choose your favorite color, providing it’s black, blue, pink or white.
Beats Studio 3 Wireless, $349.95
Now that Apple owns Beats, it has put the chip found in the original AirPods in these headphones, too, making for seamless connectivity to Apple gadgets. Beats, though, is best known for its thumping bass and if that’s what you’re after, these don’t disappoint. The headphones use something called Adaptive Noise Canceling to adjust the level of the sound multiple times a second. Even so, they are no match for Sony. The big, soft ear cups and gently insistent hold of the headband make the Beats great at noise-isolation even before you turn noise-canceling on. At 22 hours, the battery life is enough to fly you to the other end of the world.
Sony WF-SP700N, $179.99
In-ear noise-canceling headphones are rare, but Sony has managed it with this wireless set. These fit well thanks to the range of ear-tip sizes supplied with them. The sound is good and the price competitive. Because they’re so small, battery life is much less than some of their rivals, at three hours, although the carry case provides another six hours’ charge. The other downside is a slightly fiddly pairing process that requires you to take the left earbud out of the charging case to link to your device, but leave the right one inside until pairing is complete. Still, as they are sweatproof, they are great for working out in a hotel gym. Available in white, black, pink and yellow.