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From luggage to cameras, we get a lot of questions about travel-friendly gear. But no device seems to be of more interest to The Points Guy readers than noise-canceling headphones. And for good reason — with road warriors spending hour upon hour consuming content over the course of a year, it makes sense to invest in an excellent pair.

In setting out to crown a champion, I brought along five of Amazon’s most popular over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones on a recent long-haul flight, testing each with music played over Bluetooth from my iPhone (the top pop song in Apple Music, “Walk on Water” by Thirty Seconds to Mars), a movie from my MacBook and United’s in-flight entertainment system.

Here’s how each performed, ranked according to Amazon’s top seller’s list.

1. Cowin E7 ($70)

Noise Canceling Headphone Review

I tested three sub-$100 headsets, with two in the $70 range. Of the five, I found Cowin’s E7 to be by far the least attractive. Bluetooth pairing was straightforward, thanks to a dedicated switch, but the other controls were clunky — and often not responsive. The noise-canceling wasn’t effective on its own, but the difference was noticeable once I started playing music and other content. The audio quality was passable, though it sounded tinny at times, with heavy distortion. The E7 is rated for up to 30 hours of Bluetooth playback, and comes with an audio cable and a USB charging cable, but there isn’t an airline adapter, so I had to use the one from Bose.

Verdict: Even at $70 I wouldn’t recommend.

2. Bose QuietComfort 35 ($329)

Noise Canceling Headphone Review

Like TPG, I’m a really big fan of Bose’s QuietComfort 35: It’s compact, very comfortable and clearly made from high-quality materials — what you’d expect for a set in this price range. There’s a dedicated Bluetooth mode here, too, which makes pairing easy; but best of all, the noise-cancellation is very effective, both when you’re playing music and when you’re not — in fact, sometimes I’ll just use the QC35 on its own to drown out cabin noise. Audio quality is top-notch, with balanced sound and no clipping, though I needed to use them at maximum volume to hear clearly on the plane. Bose claims 20 hours of Bluetooth audio, and you’ll find an audio cable, USB cable and airline adapter in the box.

Verdict: Fantastic, but I may have found something better.

3. Sony MDR1000X ($298)

Noise Canceling Headphone Review

I went into this test expecting to like the Bose set best, but Sony really blew me away with the MDR1000X. While the case is a bit more cumbersome, this Sony model is even more comfortable than the Bose QC35, and the noise-canceling is outstanding — these block more noise than any other headphones on this list, including the QCs. The controls aren’t labeled, so it took a moment to figure out how to pair, adjust the volume level and so on, but once I knew how to do it I found these to be the most intuitive of the bunch. Audio quality is great, too, but like the Bose I did need to keep them at the maximum level to hear clearly on the plane. The only real qualm is that they’re easy to scratch; I ended up with two dents after just a few minutes of use/abuse. Sony rates this set for up to 20 hours of battery life, and includes a high-quality audio cable, a USB charging cable and an airline adapter in the box.

Verdict: YES! A slam dunk from Sony.

4. Hiearcool L1 ($70)

Noise Canceling Headphone Review

Hiearcool clearly took some design inspiration from Bose when developing its L1, even down to the case — but you can buy four of these and still have money leftover for the price of one QC35. Of course, you get what you pay for, and I was hardly impressed with this set. First, the noise-cancellation switch was incredibly temperamental, making activating NC a bit of a hassle, though even when it was working the noise-suppression was subtle at best. Bluetooth pairing required reading the manual, and the audio quality wasn’t great, with a fair amount of distortion with both bass and high lyrics. There was also a faint hissing sound on the left side. Hiearcool rates the L1 for eight hours of use with NC on and includes an audio cable and USB charging cable in the box.

Verdict: NOPE.

5. ALZN ($80)

Noise Canceling Headphone Review

Of the cheap headsets on this list, I consider ALZN’s to be the most inoffensive-looking — and they’re comfortable, so we’re off to a good start. The noise-canceling actually worked decently, but only when playing audio. Pairing required reading the manual, but it was straightforward enough. Unfortunately, the audio quality was lacking, with music sounding distant (like it was being played over a telephone) and a bit distorted, especially with higher pitch. ALZN quotes up to 12 hours of playback with noise-canceling and Bluetooth enabled, and includes an audio cable and USB charging cable in the box.

Verdict: B+ for looks, but the audio quality kind of sucks.

Bottom Line

It shouldn’t come as much surprise that the sub-$100 headsets underperformed their much pricier peers; with Bluetooth and noise-cancellation built-in, it’s clearly difficult to deliver a quality set on the cheap. However, if you haven’t used high-quality noise-canceling headphones before, I can see how the ALZN offers acceptable quality for some.

At the higher end, I like both the Bose QuietComfort 35 and the Sony MDR1000X, but the latter set edges out its counterpart by a hair, thanks to slightly superior noise-cancellation. And, at $31 less, opting for the Sony will save you a bit of cash too.

 

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