While some travellers don’t care at all about what’s playing in their ears while they travel, many — including me — definitely do. Whether it’s favourite tunes from home to while away lengthy travel days, special songs that remind you of a particular time and place for years to come, podcasts in the local language to help improve your vocabulary, or anything else, decent earphones or a quality travel speaker are vital to plenty of travellers.
Here’s what we’re recommending in 2017.
Best Earphones and Headphones
It may sound silly, but honestly, a quality set of earphones or headphones is one of the best gear investments I’ve made as a traveller. I use mine all the time on the road — drowning out screaming kids and their screaming parents in airports, relaxing in my hotel room after a long day exploring the city, helping me sleep in noisy accommodation, listening to podcasts on long flights and bus rides, cranking up the productivity with Focus@Will when working in a cafe, and much more.
While you can likely get by with the cheap pair that came with your phone, investing in something better (especially something that blocks out the noise) is absolutely worth doing.
Shure SE215 Sound-Isolating Earphones
Simply put, the Shure SE215 Sound Isolating Earphones offer great sound at a very reasonable price. I’ve been using them for years, in all kinds of noisy travel situations, and they’ve always pulled through.
The sound isolation, although passive, is enough to drown out low levels of background noise by itself. In reasonably quiet places like cafes and empty terminals, I’ll put them in my ears without plugging them in to block out ambient sounds. When things get louder — onboard a flight, for instance, or an overnight bus with blaring Korean soap operas at 3am — only a low music volume is needed to make the outside world disappear.
Sound quality is very good, offering deep, rich tones and only a small amount of the boosted bass that mars many consumer earphones. I’ve listened to everything from spoken podcasts through relaxation music to hard rock, and very rarely need to change the equalization settings on my phone or laptop.
They’re well-constructed, with thick plugs and cables that don’t split or break, and come with a useful little carry case and three different sizes of earpiece.
They’d be our recommended earphone even at twice the price — for under $100, they’re a steal. After leaving a pair on a plane flying into Bangkok, I had already worked out where to buy replacements before leaving the airport. That’s how much I missed them.
The SleepPhones aren’t exactly your typical travel headphones. Looking like the kind of fleece headband you’d typically see joggers wearing, they come in three colours, have a pair of flat speakers embedded in each side, and (if you buy the wired version) a shortish wire that hangs out of the back.
They’re much more comfortable than earplugs or earphones, especially if you sleep with your head on its side. Any normal earbuds I’ve worn in the past end up falling out, although that’s probably for the best — they’ve been too uncomfortable to keep in my ears all night anyway. Using the Sleephones, I’ve been able to fall asleep listening to music or podcasts, and not wake up for several hours. Usefully, the fleece headband can also be used as an eye mask when you’re in a bright room, or if someone keeps turning on the light.
It can be a bit fiddly to get the speakers aligned perfectly with your ears, and since there’s no noise cancelling, drowning out super-noisy environments might require your music to be so loud, it’s that which keeps you awake instead. Still, the Sleephones are useful, effective and reasonably inexpensive, so we’re happy to recommend them as one of our picks for 2017.
Read our full review here.
You won’t find speakers on every packing list — they’re an extra weight and cost not everyone needs or wants to deal with. For those serious about their travel soundtrack, though, there are hundreds of models to choose from, with some big differences between them. We’ve used a bunch of them, and researched dozens more.
These are the ones we would — or already do — take around the world with us.
Best Budget Speaker: Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ Angle 3
There are hundreds of small, inexpensive travel speakers out there, and after a while, most of them start to look and feel the same. The Cambridge SoundWorks OontZ Angle 3 bucks the trend, with an unusual triangular design, and several features that make it stand out from the competition.
Measuring 5.2″ x 2.8″ x 2.5″, it’s small enough to fit easily into a small bag or large pocket, is sturdy, and looks good. The small size and price doesn’t mean terrible sound and worse battery life, though. You’ll get 10W of output from this little speaker, with rich tones, deep bass, and up to twelve hours of playback before having to find a power socket.
While you probably won’t be using the Angle 3 for your next dance party, it’s plenty loud enough for individuals or small groups.
Designed to be taken outdoors, it’s waterproofed (IPx5) and durable, so it can handle a few splashes around the pool without giving up the ghost. Backed by a well-known manufacturer and weighing in at under nine ounces, it’s easy to justify bringing on any trip.
Best Speaker Overall: UE Roll 2
In a crowded market, it takes a lot to stand out — but that’s exactly what Ultimate Ears has managed, with the UE Roll 2. Building on the success of the first version, this is a slim, lightweight speaker, with great sound, rugged construction, and a bunch of extra features that make it easy to recommend.
Shaped like a disc, the speaker weighs 11.6oz (330g), and measures 5.3 x 1.6″ (13.5 x 4.1cm), so there’s no problem dropping it in a day pack. It’s louder, crisper, and has all round better sound than the previous model, or pretty much any other speaker this size.
It’s also waterproof, which makes it more useful at the beach and other wet environments. Dunk it underwater for up to half an hour, and it’ll just keep doing its thing. There’s even a mini life preserver in the packaging, so you can let your music float alongside you in the pool if you like. On the back sits an inbuilt bungee strap, letting you hang the speaker up rather than leaving it lying around on the ground.
The Roll 2 has greater Bluetooth range than the competition, getting up to 100 feet (30m) in ideal conditions, and there’s an app for linking multiple speakers together, as well as controlling EQ and other aspects. You’ll get up to nine hours of musical goodness out of a single charge, and when it does go flat, any standard micro-USB cable will power it up again.
In short, if you’re looking to take your music along no matter where your travels take you, it’s hard to go past the UE Roll 2.
All product images via respective manufacturers. Main image via Ultimate Ears.