Whenever we go on a trip, the second thing (after my passport) I check to make sure I have in my travel bag is my noise isolating headphones. Having traveled a ton, constantly dealing with screaming kids, loud engine noise from airplanes, etc, sometimes I’m just desperate to drown out the noisy bustle of people around me after a long day of travel and just enjoy some music. This makes a good set of noise isolating or noise canceling headphones an absolute must for frequent travelers.
You already know that, though, or you wouldn’t be looking for the best noise isolating headphone right now, right? Just tell me you wouldn’t like to be free of the noise and distraction around you while you’re on that brutal 13-hour flight.
Now comes the daunting task of finding the best noise cancelling headphones 2017. There is always new technology that supersedes last year’s model, or completely blows the competition out of the water. I’ve put together a guide to what I believe are the top choices, to make it a little easier on you.
⇒ See all of our travel gear reviews.
Noise isolating vs cancelling? What’s the difference?
First, you might be wondering what is the difference between noise isolating and noise cancelling headphones. Yes, there are distinctions between the two that might make your decision a little easier. What it really comes down to is whether you want to cut out all sound, or still allow for voices to be heard.
⇒ Noise Isolating Headphones
I usually prefer noise isolating headphones because they are capable of drowning out all outside sound, up to a noise reduction rate of around 25 or 30 decibels (dB). They cut out the sound around you so you can hear your music, and only your music. A good pair should also keep the sound of your music contained within the ear, so others around you can’t hear it.
⇒ Noise Cancelling Headphones
On the contrary, noise cancelling headphones don’t drown out all outside noise. They are meant to cancel out the noise entirely, they’re meant to compartmentalize and reduce certain sound by the use of a miniature microphone that picks up ambient noise, and neutralizes it. I won’t go into all of the science behind this, because I doubt you really care, as long as it works!
The pro of noise cancelling headphones when you travel is that the noise of the airplane engine, or the subway, or bus you’re riding in is dampened, but you can still hear things that are being said to you by your companion, or the flight attendant who wants to know what you’ll be drinking. This eliminates the need to pull the headphones off every time someone wants to speak to you.
How to Choose the Right Headphones
I wish it was as easy to find the best headphones for air travel as just deciding between cancelling and isolating. Unfortunately, there are a lot of other factors involved. Below is a list of the top considerations you should make when looking for the right pair.
Size & Fit
If you’ve ever had to remove a pair of headphones from your ears because they hurt, you know that size and fit really matter when finding the right headphones. You can’t really just buy any pair. You need to make sure they fit your head first. Look at how the manufacturer says they should fit, what size they come in, and if they are made specifically for men or women. All of these things will have an affect on the fit.
Finding a comfortable pair is one of the hardest things because all ears are different and all headphones are made differently. Some people find that a particular kind of headphones work best for them, like over ear vs in ear. If you can at least narrow that down, you’ll have to try less pairs to find one that feels comfortable. Just remember that if one pair doesn’t feel so great, it’s worth it to try something different rather than suffering through it.
Wired vs Wireless
There are a few pros and cons for having a wired or wireless headset. If you go with wired, you won’t have to worry about charging them so often, or running out of power when you’re using them. But wired can be bothersome for other reasons, such as the sound the wire makes as it brushes against your clothing (the sound can register in the headphones and be annoying). You’ll also want to think about how long or how short the cord is. Too long and it can snag on things as you walk.
One of the top concerns with headphones is sound quality. A good pair of headphones will allow you to listen to your music at a normal volume, with a nice, smooth sound. Poor quality can make you turn them up too much for comfort. It can also be too brassy, or raspy and inevitably become annoying to listen to.
There are three general types of headphones. These are closed back, open back and earbuds. The over-ear headphones encase your entire ear. There are some pros to this type, like shutting out more noise because they cover the whole area. but they can be sweaty and really large. If you don’t want to carry around a huge pair of headphones, this is probably not the right option.
Open back might be better for travel, since it rests on top of your ear and doesn’t shut out all noise. However, if you don’t find the right fit, they can begin to irritate the sensitive skin on the ear and be painful to wear for long periods of time.
Earbuds are the smallest option, saving tons of space over larger headsets. They’re easy to pack. They can form a good seal around the ear to isolate all noise. However, it’s very important to find the right fit so they don’t hurt your ears.
Best Headphone for Travel Reviews
Choosing a set of headphones for travel isn’t a whole lot different from choosing a pair for everyday use. We spend a lot of time commuting in the busy, noisy city, so cutting out the sounds around us each day is just as important as when traveling – and they are generally all the same noises. Loud buses, trains, airplanes, screaming babies… it’s all the same.
Below are short reviews of the best noise isolating and noise cancelling headphones and earbuds that we’ve found. While each pair has its pros and cons, we didn’t list any here that we don’t like and wouldn’t recommend. What it really comes down to is personal preference – whether you want in ear, over ear, wireless, etc. Once made those decisions, you can confidently pick a pair from the lists below that suit your choice.
Best Noise Isolating Earbuds
The SENSO headphones are comfortable noise isolating earburds. They are wireless earbuds that can pair with a bluetooth device up to 30 feet away. They offer up to 8 hours of playback between charges. They have active noise cancellation and a mic, so you can use them not only to listen to music, but to take calls as well. They have a soft silicon clip that goes around the ear to hold them in place. These we consider to be the best noise isolating earbuds.Check price and read reviews
This headset has a playback time of about 7 hours before a recharge is necessary, though we’ve found that they don’t usually hold a charge for quite that long. They have a built-in ceramic antenna that prevents dropped calls and issues pairing with bluetooth. The mic works well, and the noise isolation is strong enough to shut out most ambient noise around you so the music is crisper and easier to hear.Check prices and read reviews
These earbuds are great for active types who like to run or play sports with earbuds in. They are wireless earbuds with a powerful bluetooth signal and an energy efficient design that allows for up to 7 hours of use without recharging. They are also supposed to be sweatproof, but I haven’t tested it. It also has a voice prompt that interrupts your music for an incoming call. These are some of the best noise cancelling earbuds, with CVC noise cancellation 6.0 technology to reduce outside noise.Check prices and read reviews
These are the most expensive of the headsets I’ve chosen. At this price, they have to have just a little more than the others. What I like about them is the fit and the incredible noise isolation. They provide 37 dB of isolation, which is more than most headphones can do. They are not wireless, however. The construction and durability is better than other headsets, so they won’t have to be replaced as often. You can also detach the wires from the earbuds, so the wire or the earbuds can be replaced separate from each other.Check prices and read reviews
Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Under 100
These are wireless, over-the-ear headphones with bluetooth and a mic. They provide some noise cancelling that can be turned on and off to suit the situation, although it’s not as powerful at blocking noise as some of the other choices. When using them wirelessly, they have up to a 30-hour playback time. They have a lightweight design, with soft padding and the ability to adjust them, to allow you to wear them longer and more comfortably.Check prices and read reviews
The Sony on-ear noise cancelling headphones have a playback time of up to 80 hours. They reduce ambient noise by up to 95%, allowing you to enjoy music without the background noise, but still enabling you to hear voices. For the low price tag, these headphones have a lot of good features. They break down to a small size that’s easy to carry (though they don’t come with a carry case). The cord is a little short, which can be annoying, and the sound quality isn’t incredible, bur for the price, they’re great.Check prices and read reviews
With a higher price tag than many of the other choices, these iDeaUSA headphones offer more features for the price. They have wireless capability with a microphone and quick recharge time, and aptX HiFi Stereo sound. The playback time isn’t great, at only 25 hours, but they do have great sound quality. The noise cancelling feature can be turned on and off, and provides up to 85% noise reduction. They are over the ear cups that can be a bit uncomfortable. I wouldn’t recommend them for longer periods of use. They do come with a carry case.Check price and read reviews
I like the Philips noise cancelling headphones for many reason. They are very easy to pair with a phone or other bluetooth device, and it can be paired with two devices, instead of one, like most others. They provide noise cancelling up to 97%, which is better than most other options. The wireless feature can last up for up to 16 hours of play, but there’s an optional cord and airplane adapter so you can continue to play it without using the battery. These are a good alternative to paying a ton of money for the Bose headset.Check price and read reviews
Best Noise Isolating Headphones Under 100
These Edifier H840 headphones are an over the ear design with soft cups that are comfortable to wear. They come with or without a microphone. I prefer having the microphone, for added convenience, but if you don’t need it, you won’t have to pay for it. The cord is a bit long, and it’s a lightweight cord, so I feel like you have to be extra careful with it not to rip it out. They also don’t fold up very compactly for easy packing. But the sound and noise-isolating quality is good.Check price and read reviews
This set is an on-ear design. I like that they don’t have any branding on the outside. You know you’re not paying extra for the brand name. They collapse down into a convenient size for carrying and they’re very lightweight, which is always a pro when traveling with headphones. They also come with a pouch for carrying. They come with two different length cords, one with a microphone. The cords are a bit thin, and the hinge on the expandable section of the headset is somewhat flimsy. Extra care should be taken with these headphones.Check price and read reviews
For an in-ear noise-isolating option, try these Symphonized headphones with mic. They have a tangle-free cord for easy storing, and a built in mic so you can easily answer calls while wearing them. They are great for noise-isolating, and will cut out almost all outside noise, so they’re great for wearing on the plane or train. There are a few slight annoyances, which are a popping or crackling noise when first fitting them into your ears, and that the cord makes quite a bit of noise when rubbing against clothing. Otherwise, the sound quality is very good for the price.Check price and read reviews
These are the only wireless and bluetooth enabled noise isolating headphones we’ve included in the list. They have a built-in mic, volume and playback controls and a 30+ hours playback time. It comes with a hard-sided carry case. It’s easy to pair with multiple devices, and you can even plug a second headset into it so two people can listen to the music at once, which is a great feature for couples who travel together.Check price and read reviews
Additional Categories of Noise Cancelling Headphones
☆Best wireless headphones under $100/Best bluetooth headphones under $100: SENSO wireless headphones
See above for more info on the SENSO wireless headphones. They are our favorite wireless headphones for under $100.
☆ Best Lightweight On-Ear Headphones: AmazonBasics Lightweight On-Ear Headphones
Sometimes Amazon just gets it right, and this is one of those instances. The AmazonBasics on-ear headphones aren’t going to win any awards or blow you away for its amazing sound quality, but they are incredibly affordable and deliver good quality for the price. They collapse to lay flat and come with a carry bag. The ear pads are designed for comfort. These don’t have a cancelling or isolating feature, but they do a pretty decent job of keeping the noise level low.
☆ Best Noise Cancelling Headphones Over $100: Bose QuietComfort 35 Wireless Headphones, Noise Cancelling
You’ve doubtlessly hear about Bose headphones. They are widely considered to be the best headphone technology on the market. If you want crystal clear sound and the best possible noise cancelling, the Bose QuietComfort 35 headphones are hard to beat. They are wireless with easy bluetooth pairing and a remote mic. They offer up to 20-hours of playback without a charge, or you can use them with the cord to listen for even longer. Of course, these headphones will set you back quite a bit. They are a lot more expensive then other options. If you want the best, however, these are them.
Bose also has the QuietComfort 25 that has most of the same features, but without the wireless capability. You also need to be sure to buy the correct headphones to pair with your device because there’s a separate one for Apple and Android.
There are a lot of choices for headphones, and that’s one of the major reasons why choosing the right pair is so difficult. Hopefully breaking out the possibilities like this will help you decide. If you don’t love the pair you settle on, you can always send them back and try another pair. There’s no reason to live with a pair of noise-isolating headphones that you don’t love.