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Noise-canceling headphones feel like they were made for travelers. If you’ve ever spent a dozen hours trapped in an airplane cabin with a screaming child, or listening to every groan and squeak of your overnight bus, I suspect you’ll agree.
For a long time, though, these types of headphones didn’t work very well, cost a fortune, and had terrible battery life. In recent years, however, noise-canceling technology has improved dramatically, as has the battery life of devices that use it. Some models are up to their fourth or fifth version, and the refinements are showing.
While you can still pay several hundred dollars for premium gear, and will definitely notice the difference when you do, you no longer have to. It’s possible to get decent noise-canceling headphones for under $100, and not-terrible ones for under fifty bucks.
It seemed like a good time, then, to take a close look at where things sit with this type of gear right now, and what the best noise-canceling headphone options are in 2019.
We’ve covered both over-ear headphones and in-ear versions, since there are some definite pros and cons for both when it comes to travel.
Want to know more? Here you go!
- Best Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3
- Runner-Up, Best Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
- Best Wired Earbuds: Bose QuietComfort 20
- Best Wireless Earbuds: Bose QuietControl 30
- Best Budget Headphones: Paww WaveSound 3
- Best Budget Earbuds: TaoTronics TT-EP02
Best Headphones: Sony WH-1000XM3
If you’re looking for headphones with the best mix of sound quality, noise-canceling ability, battery life, and features, you can’t go past the Sony WH-1000XM3.
After weeks of research and a lengthy in-store trial, I choose the predecessor of these headphones (the XM2) as my constant companion for airports, coffee shops, and endless bus rides. They’ve been fantastic, and the latest version is even better.
They’re a premium device that builds on the strengths of the previous model. Super-comfortable, even after many hours of wear, they’re headphones that most people will be happy to wear for hours at a time.
Music is simply exceptional, with a warm, natural quality that doesn’t sound boosted or enhanced. That’s true even over Bluetooth, due to the aptX support missing from many cheaper models.
Battery life is up to 30 hours, depending on noise-cancelation and wireless settings, easily covering even the longest flights. The headphones are chargeable using a standard USB-C cable, and a ten-minute boost gives an extra five hours of use. A full charge takes three hours.
They come with a bunch of other travel-friendly features, too. As well as the bundled 3.5mm cable, there’s a two-prong adapter for plugging into older in-flight entertainment systems.
Speaking of planes, there’s also an inbuilt pressure sensor that detects your altitude. Sony says air pressure affects frequency response and noise cancelation quality, so you can calibrate your headphones inflight for better sound.
One of the buttons on the left earpiece controls power and Bluetooth settings, while the other switches noise-cancellation modes.
You can use that same button to activate Google Assistant instead, but since you can then only change noise-canceling modes within the smartphone app, it’s not something I’ve bothered with.
The noise cancelation itself is the best in the business, noticeably better than the competition, and gets rid of rumbling engines and noisy cafe patrons at the touch of a button.
If you do need to pay attention to your surroundings (an announcement from the pilot, say, or choosing between the fish and the chicken for dinner at 38,000 feet,) simply cup your hand over the right headphone to silence playback and pull in ambient sound instead.
The headphones fold up flat, to fit into a travel case that’s smaller than you might expect. Of course, they’re still far larger than any earbuds and not ideal for sleeping with, but that’s the case with all headphones.
If you’re happy to trade that extra bulk for better sound, noise cancelation, comfort, and battery life, you’ll be very happy with the Sony WH-1000XM3.
Runner-Up, Best Headphones: Bose QuietComfort 35 II
Bose was the market leader in noise cancellation for years. While Sony’s new 1000XM3’s have recently stolen that particular crown, the ability of the QuietComfort 35 II over-ear headphones to block out the outside world is still exceptional.
They’re almost identical to the previous model, with the only difference being support for Google Assistant. Of course, you could rightly argue that there was no need to make major changes, since the earlier version won pretty much every award out there for consumer noise-canceling gear.
Available in black or silver, the headphones look about as generic as it gets, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts. The pads themselves do a surprisingly good job of passively blocking outside noise, even before you switch on the active circuitry.
When you do, though, the world just disappears. Everything from passing cars to engine rumble, noisy coffee machines to chattering passengers, becomes almost imperceptible, especially once the music starts. It’s not quite magic, but at times, it feels like it.
The headphones are lightweight, and comfortable to wear for many hours, although as with other headphones, you’ll struggle to sleep in them. The hard travel case protects them from damage, and battery life (using Bluetooth) is around 20 hours.
So if they’re comfortable, and have good battery life and some of the best noise cancelation, why did the Bose QuietComfort 35 II’s lose out to the Sony’s as our top pick? Well, because the XM3’s have all that as well, and sound better while they’re doing it.
While the audio quality on the Bose is pretty good, it’s just not quite up there with the 1000XM3. To my ears, and those of many other reviewers, the Sony sounded a little better across the board, with clear, spacious sound, and perfectly-boosted bass that enhances rather than overwhelms.
The QC35’s retail for the same as the Sony model, which makes some missing features harder to stomach. There’s no ability to silence music or pull in outside sound by cupping one of the headphones, for instance. The headphones don’t pause playback when removed from your head either, which is something you find in many much-cheaper models.
Don’t get me wrong, these are still exceptional headphones, and if you see them on sale, they’d absolutely be worth picking up. When paying full price, I’d personally pick the Sonys, but chances are high you won’t be disappointed with either.
Best Wired Earbuds: Bose QuietComfort 20
If you’re traveling carry-on, where every extra inch of luggage space matters, you simply might not have room for a pair of over-ear headphones no matter how good they are. For excellent noise-cancellation and battery life in a fraction of the size, check out the Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear headphones instead.
Assuming you’ve got a phone with a headphone jack — or you somehow haven’t lost your headphone dongle yet — these are the best noise-canceling earbuds on the market by far. They’re able to drop certain lower frequencies, like those produced by plane engines, by as much as 45 decibels.
That’s a remarkable amount even compared to other high-end models, and you’ll notice the difference immediately.
Because they’re not wireless, the QC20’s have great battery life, too. Bose rates them at 16 hours of use, and some customers get even longer. In practical terms, that’ll get you through almost any long-haul flight.
Even if you’ve booked one of those awful 36-hour journeys with an overnight layover in an airport you’ve never heard of in China, getting back to full charge only takes two hours. You can still use the earbuds when the battery is flat, you just lose the noise cancelation.
While the comfort level can’t compare to over-ear headphones for extended use, the QC20’s are about as comfortable as you can hope for from earbuds. The unusual design doesn’t push on your ears like others do. They’re also better to sleep in than over-ear headphones, which is important on long journeys.
Sound quality, though, is a bit of a disappointment. While you’ll be amazed at the amount of outside noise that disappears, you won’t be as impressed with the quality of the music that replaces it. It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just not as good as you’d hope from an expensive set of earbuds that does everything else so well.
Like all earbuds with active noise cancelation, the fancy circuitry has to live somewhere. In this case, it’s in a flat, rectangular box that also houses the battery and power button. Controls for answering calls and toggling noise-cancelation are on the inline remote. There’s a small travel case included in the packaging, and a range of soft silicone tips.
Overall, if you’re after great noise cancelation in a tiny package and don’t need Bluetooth support, the QC20’s are the best you’ll find. Note there are different models for Apple and Android devices, so be sure to buy the right one.
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Best Wireless Earbuds: Bose QuietControl 30
Billed as the successor to the wired QC20, Bose’s wireless QuietComtrol 30 earbuds are quite a different beast in many ways.
Rather than the standard box used to house the battery and electronics in most noise-canceling earbuds, Bose has gone for an odd-looking “collar” that sits behind your neck. It might look a bit strange, but it’s fairly lightweight, and you stop noticing it after a short period. Just don’t expect any fashion awards while you’re wearing it.
Noise cancelation is very good, as you’d expect from a Bose product. It blocks out almost all of the background roar of travel, from engine noise to screaming babies, without having to crank your music volume up to painful levels. The silicone tips are comfortable inside the ear for a few hours, with small hooks to keep them in place as you move about.
Sound quality is also very impressive, arguably better than the QC20’s. It’s about as good as things get right now in the world of wireless earbuds, with strong bass, crisp mid-range, and clear treble. You’ll be happy using these every day, whether you’re using the noise cancelation or not.
Despite the things they do well (and their high price) though, these earbuds aren’t perfect.
At around ten hours, their battery life is nothing special, and you can’t use them during the three hours it takes to charge back to full. To make things worse, you can only use them wirelessly.
If they go flat, or you want to plug them into the in-flight entertainment system or anything else that doesn’t support Bluetooth, you’re out of luck. For earbuds this expensive, that’s inexcusable.
Overall, the fact we’re recommending the QC30’s despite their downsides says a lot about the state of wireless noise-canceling earbuds. There’s still a gap in the market for wireless earbuds that perform as well as Bose’s QC20 wired alternative, or the high-end Bose and Sony headphones mentioned earlier.
If you don’t need Bluetooth support, pick up the cheaper QC20’s instead. If you really want the combination of Bluetooth, earbuds, and active noise canceling, however? The QC30’s are your best bet.
Best Budget Headphones: Paww WaveSound 3
If you’d like to travel with good noise canceling headphones, but don’t want to drop $250+ on them, the Paww WaveSound 3 offers several of the same features at a fraction of the price.
The manufacturer does a good job of talking up the headphones’ travel credentials. There’s nothing you won’t find in our top pick, but for the money, it’s great to see things like a 3.5mm cable and two-prong airplane adapter in the box. The headphones also fold up flat into the included hard travel case, saving space in your carry-on.
They’re attractive and well-made, and despite being relatively heavy, are comfortable enough to wear for extended periods. Battery life is rated at 16 hours with noise cancelation turned on, and that’s about what most people seem to get. Charging back to full takes under four hours, fairly typical for over-head headphones like these.
Sound quality is surprisingly good for wireless headphones in this price range, with crisp, clear mid-range and treble in particularly. Noise cancelation, however, doesn’t impress as much.
The circuitry in the WaveSound 3 doesn’t cut out as much sound as any of our top picks, and there’s sometimes an audible hissing sound that goes with it. It’s still far better than not having it at all, but if you want the best, unfortunately you need to pay for it.
Still, for around a hundred bucks, these are a solid budget pick for those who’d rather spend their extra money on flights and hotels than high-end headphones.
Best Budget Earbuds: TaoTronics TT-EP02
Just after something inexpensive with decent noise cancelation and sound quality that won’t break the bank? At under fifty bucks, with active noise cancelation that works and sound that won’t make you want to rip your ears off, these Taotronics earbuds fit the bill nicely.
They’re wired-only, so you’ll need a headphone jack or appropriate dongle to use them. There are some useful accessories in the box, including a two-prong airplane adapter, plus three pairs of silicone tips in various sizes.
Two pairs of ear hooks that help the buds stay in place, and there’s a soft pouch which gives basic protection, but no more.
Like other noise-canceling earbuds, the battery and electronics are housed in a control box around halfway down the cable. There’s also a small remote for answering calls and setting the volume. A button on the control box activates “monitoring mode” which lets in outside sounds as needed.
You’ll get around 15 hours of playback on a single charge, and it only takes about an hour to go from empty to full, via the included micro-USB cable (or any other.)
Obviously, you can’t expect the same level of performance from a budget set of earbuds versus those costing five times as much. They won’t cut out as much outside noise, and while you’ll notice good reduction in low frequencies like engine rumble, other types of sound aren’t blocked as effectively.
The buds are reasonably comfortable to wear, and tend to stay in place unless you’re really shaking your head around.
Although they’re fairly loud, sound quality isn’t hugely better than you’d expect from the earbuds that came with your phone, with muted highs and muddy (albeit boosted) bass. These are not audiophile devices, but they’re not marketed or priced like them either.
Instead, they’re an ideal way to block out the worst of the travel din going on around you, while listening to music that doesn’t sound totally awful, having spent comparatively little to do so. For that reason alone, they’re our budget pick.
Images via StockSnap, Sony, Bose (x3), Paww, Taotronics