The Best Headphones for Traveling

Pair of over ear headphones and passport on laptop on folding tray in airplane.

I find that there are 2 distinct categories to consider when it comes to headphones relevant to travel: noise-cancelling, and everything else.

Noise cancelling is in a class all of its own, and if you don’t have a pair of high quality noise cancelling headphones, you really, truly are missing out – both on the ground in terms of being able to focus, and perhaps especially on the plane.

Then there’s “everything else”, into which you can p​ut your own specific use cases, like:

  • Waterproof/resistant headphones for exercise
  • Powerful microphones for calls (which is usually either attached & retractable/foldable, or can be replaced entirely by an external microphone)
  • Convenience, in all its possible facets (like ease of switching devices, or having multiple pairs to not worry about battery life)

An example use case (mine):

Here’s what I’ve found to be the most useful for me in terms of practical, day-to-day life while traveling:

Daily Drivers

I categorize daily drivers as basically exclusively in-ear, because, while I do wear over-ear headphones from time to time, especially if you aren’t just always driving around while traveling (in which case the car audio system is usually far superior anyway), if nothing else, they usually just get too hot too quickly, and you miss out on a lot of what’s going on around you – the very stuff you’re traveling to experience.

Most often, I find myself using my AirPods (also available with a wireless case – though only really useful for the indicator light being on the outside, as wireless charging pads are wastes of luggage weight when it comes to traveling) for ease of switching between my MacBook Pro and iPhone, but the controls are not great (only one on each side, notably missing volume, and since one is play/pause, you miss the previous track functionality too).

To make up for that, I’ve got a pair of Oppo Enco Free’s, which have comparable sound quality, and way more controls, but are a bit more finicky – most notably the super janky microphone, whose quality & reliability are well below the “extremely suspect” line – and don’t swap conveniently enough (disconnect on one, reconnect on the other, but that is the norm), so I use those dedicatedly for my iPhone. Note however, that Oppo has limited distribution outside of Europe/Asia, so these may be hard to find, and for that reason, may be worth looking into one of the alternatives listed below, depending on where you currently are/will be traveling to.

Alternatives (with sacrifices)

I found the Razer Hammerheads to have a similar functionality, but worse sound quality.

The Samsung Galaxy Buds Live also feature great controls, with a great sound quality for the form factor, but the fit is just awkward for me; you can see from the pictures they basically take up your whole concha (that “main outer part” of your ear right beside the ear canal), and while I personally was able to shake my head around without them coming out, I could definitely notice them there.

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Lastly, I’ll just say I don’t have recommendations for fully in-ear headphones, of which there are so very many (including alternatives from Apple and Samsung), because I can’t stand the ones that squooooosh all the way up your ear; it’s disturbing to me.

Praise Science for (High-End) Noise Cancelling Headphones

I can’t give any higher recommendation than the Sony flagship noise cancelling over-ear headphones. I had two pairs of the first generation ones, and am currently still using my second generation pair.

The “daily driver” type of in-ear headphones don’t even come close to touching the Sony’s for sound quality or the exceptional value that noise cancelling provides – most notably on airplanes (when I take them off, it’s one of those “I can’t believe I used to live this way” moments) and when the coworking/cafe gets noisy.

When they go kaput, I’ll be getting whatever the newest top of the line over-ear headphones they have on sale. These are worth shelling out as much as you can afford to pay – and if you can’t afford the best, really and truly, wait until you can.

Another way of saying this, is that $400 headphones are way more than twice as good as $200 ones, and the difference gets even more exponential the further down you go.

They (or any pair of noise cancelling headphones) can in no way be replaced by daily driver headphones. High quality over-ear noise cancelling headphones are so important as a category in and of themselves.

With Lackluster Batteries, Come Great Responsibilities

When using a high end pair of noise cancelling headphones like the Sony XM line, or the Bose line (which I will admit the 700’s look better, but in terms of the noise cancelling, don’t quite match up – though I am aware this is essentially the “age old” debate between these two powerhouses), battery life is usually not a practical issue, with the Sony’s offering 30 hours, and the Bose’s (both the flagship and their QuietComfort line) offering 20 hours – and being really quick to charge with a USB cable or power bank.

For other purposes, when using bluetooth headphones – which I admitted shortly after I bought my iPhone 7, that Apple was right on the money – I like to have two pairs no matter what, so I always have at least one when the batteries inevitably die on the other – and so I’m not constantly watching battery levels.

Previously, this was 2x Plantronics Backbeat Fit’s, which lasted me several years – and which are still nice headphones if you don’t want true wireless ones – but when they outlasted their usefulness (one’s battery effectively died, the others’ outer housing cracked and was no longer waterproof) I had to swap to the two true-wireless options I mentioned above.

In picking their replacement, I could finally get a pair of AirPods (as they weren’t released when purchased the double-Plantronics – and like the dutiful Apple fanperson I am, I had to give them a try), and indeed their convenience of features is a nice plus as it saves me time. But, they’re do miss some essential functionality, so in this case, two different pairs are better than two of the same, as they complement one another.

In Summary

Noise Cancelling (Must-Have)

For the purposes of travel, treat yourself to the flagship model Sony noise cancelling headphones (currently that is their XM line) – or if you are loyal to Bose, pick up their top of the line model.

Every dollar you spend here will get you more than its value in multiples – i.e. a $400 headphone is more than twice as good as a $200 one (this only breaks down in that the Bose are more expensive than the Sony, but the Sony are better – I say as I brace for impact from Bose fanpeople). After you get a pair, flying will never be the same, and your ability to focus amongst noisy coworkers (in the “coworking space” sense) or café patrons, will skyrocket – plus you will love the sound quality.

Daily Use (Multiple Options)

Then, because huge over-ear headphones are impractical for day to day use, get some in-ear headphones for day-to-day use.

I have found Bluetooth ones – especially true wireless ones like AirPods – to be much better in the sense of not having to deal with cables, but they come at the cost of tiny batteries, which can be solved by getting more than one pair (two has been enough for me; I’ve had two pairs from the start and that’s always been useful).

AirPods, Samsung Galaxy Buds Live, Oppo Enco Free (Oppo has limited distribution outside of Europe & Asia), and Plantronics (now Poly – and a different form factor than the others) are all good options for in-ear headphones, with Razer offering good functionality but lackluster audio quality, albeit only a portion of the price.

If you want the kind of in-ear headphones with the rubber piece you shove all the way into your ear, I can’t recommend you any from experience (because I find that format disturbing), but, as they are very popular, there are equivalent models to the above mentioned products available from Apple (AirPods Pro), Samsung (Buds+ and Buds Pro), and Plantronics/Poly.

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