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From luggage to cameras, we get a lot of questions about travel-friendly gear. But no accessory seems to be of more interest to The Points Guy readers than noise-canceling headphones. And for good reason. After all, road warriors can spend more than 18 hours consuming content on a single flight — so it makes sense to invest in an excellent pair.
In setting out to crown a champion, I brought along some of the most popular over-the-ear, noise-canceling headphones on a recent flight to Hong Kong, testing each with music and the Miles Away podcast played over Bluetooth from my iPhone; a movie from my MacBook; connecting to United’s in-flight entertainment system and without any programming at all to see how effective they were at blocking ambient noise.
Here’s how five of the of the best premium headphones on the market stacked up.
The Design: They’re especially plain and very black, but they’re sleek, too, and it would probably be a bit difficult to peg them as a sub-$100 set.
My Experience: There are a few established players in this space, but they’re all in the $300 range, so I was eager to test something a bit more affordable. And $65 certainly hits the mark. I was surprised by how comfortable Anker’s set was, but the noise canceling was hardly exceptional, and — even worse — I experienced quiet a bit of distortion when listening to music and movies at higher volume levels. There’s no question that the price is right, though. Anker rates the battery at 30 hours of wireless usage or 60 hours with wired content, both with noise canceling turned on, and includes a USB charging cable and audio cable in the box.
Best For: Flyers on a very tight budget.
Don’t Use: If you prioritize exceptional audio quality and can afford a more premium headphone.
The Verdict: 5/10
The Design: Bose’s QuietComfort was one of the first mainstream noise-canceling sets, and the company has maintained a familiar look and feel over the years. If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it, I suppose, though it might not be a bad time to consider innovating a bit, given how saturated and competitive the market has become.
My Experience: Like The Points Guy himself, Brian Kelly, I’ve been a really big fan of Bose’s QuietComfort 35: they’re compact, very comfortable and clearly made from high-quality materials — what you’d expect for a set in this price range. This latest version (with the “II” designation) adds Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant integration, but that’s not really a reason to upgrade if you have the original QC35. The dedicated Bluetooth mode makes pairing easy, and noise cancellation is effective, both when you’re playing music and when you’re not — it just isn’t quite as robust as some other headphones I tried, at least when it’s time to use them on a plane. 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 777. Bose claims 20 hours of Bluetooth audio, and you’ll find an audio cable, USB cable and airline adapter in the box: evidence the brand continues to cater to frequent flyers.
Best For: Bose lovers looking for the latest and greatest QuietComfort model, and frequent flyers who expect to use their headphones with airline audio systems.
Don’t Use: At the time of publication, these were the most expensive headphones we reviewed, and travelers shopping for value can certainly find comparable or superior headphones under $349.
The Verdict: 7/10
The Design: I went with boring black, but these Beats are available in more than a dozen different colors, from “Lakers Purple” in the so-called NBA Collection to “Crystal Blue” in Apple’s Skyline series. They fold up in a very tight little package to fit inside the included hard-shell pill-shaped carry case.
My Experience: I’ve seen people wearing their Beats as a fashion accessory, but they’re much more than that — these are some very solid noise-cancelling headphones; a cool design is just icing on the cake. They did a slightly better job canceling out noise than the Bose set, but fell behind the B&O and Sony. Audio quality was top-notch, though, even at the highest volume level. If you own an iPhone or iPad, pairing is as simple as turning on your headphones near an unlocked iOS device — they’ll pop up as an option right away, along with a convenient battery indicator. Apple rates the Studio3 at 22 hours of wireless battery life with noise canceling turned on, and the box contains a charging cable, audio cable and a carabiner that I certainly wouldn’t trust with any significant amount of weight.
Best For: iOS users looking for solid noise-canceling headphones and travelers who prioritize style. If you want colorful headphones that will stand out, Beats offers the most variety.
Don’t Use: If you don’t mind spending a bit more for a slightly better-performing set with longer battery life and more successful noise-canceling technology — especially when they’re not on sale, and priced right in line with the Bose QC35 and Sony WH-1000XM3 around $350.
The Verdict: 8/10
Buy: Apple.com, on sale from $279.95 (typically $349.95)
The Design: These may be the most attractive, most comfortable “traditional” headphones I’ve ever used. The synthetic leather ear cups are incredibly soft, and the headphones themselves are lightweight enough that I was able to wear them comfortably throughout the day.
My Experience: I actually went into this test expecting to like the Bose set best, but Sony really blew me away with the WH1000XM3. While the carrying 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 unwanted sound than most 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, when listening to music, podcasts, movies and more. Sony rates this set for up to 30 hours of battery life, and includes an audio cable, a USB charging cable and an airline adapter in the box.
Best For: Sony loyalists looking for a very high-quality set of headphones that are likely to offer exceptional performance for years to come, and travelers who are seeking comfortable headphones for all-day wear.
Don’t Use: At the time of publication, these were just a dollar less expensive than the Bose, making them one of the most expensive products we reviewed. With major discounts on other similar or even higher-ranking options, budget-conscious travelers should definitely compare and track prices before purchasing.
The Verdict: 9/10 — a near-slam dunk from Sony.
The Design: Bang & Olufsen’s H8i is the antithesis of the road-warrior headsets I’m used to seeing during my travels, or any I’ve personally tested or otherwise encountered. The “natural” version is even a fashion statement of sorts, though there’s a far more ordinary “black” option you’re welcome to pick, if that’s more your speed. Both colors feature anodized aluminum and extremely soft natural leather, making them the most luxe headphones we reviewed.
My Experience: B&O describes the set as “luxurious,” and I’d have to agree — they feel just as high-end as they look. I’m embarrassed to admit that the H8i hadn’t even been on my radar before it was time to work on this review, but they ended up being a top all-around contender, even besting products from Sony and Bose. The cups didn’t cover my ears completely, but that didn’t make any difference when it came to sound: The noise-cancelling was more effective than any other set I tested, even on a noisy Boeing 777, with clear music, podcast and IFE audio, and no distortion at all, even at the highest level. B&O rates the H8i at 30 hours of wireless battery life or 42 hours with wired content, both with noise canceling turned on, and includes a compact soft pouch, USB-C charging cable, audio cable and airline adapter in the box.
Best For: Design-conscious travelers looking for the very best for under $400.
Don’t Use: If you prefer the look and feel of wider ear cups, or prefer synthetic leather. Also, we’ve seen the prices for these headphones fluctuate wildly. At $270, they’re a steal — but when they retail for $400 (like they do when purchased directly through Bang & Olufsen), they’re the most expensive product we reviewed, and it may be difficult for some travelers to justify that expense.
The Verdict: 10/10. Seriously — these are as close to perfect as I’ve been able to find.
The Bottom Line
It shouldn’t come as much surprise that the sub-$100 headset underperformed against its much pricier peers; It’s clearly difficult to deliver a quality set on the cheap. I was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the Soundcore Life 2 was, though.
At the higher end, my top pick was obvious: Bang & Olufsen’s Beoplay H8i offered top-notch comfort, excellent noise canceling and exceptional sound quality. Sony’s WH-1000XM3 was a close second, too, and my favorite option from the more traditional players in this space. As an iPhone user, I could definitely appreciate the simplicity of the Beats Studio3 Wireless, and I can see why they appeal to a style-conscious crowd. Though price can vary, these headphones came in nearly 20 different colors and designs.
But ultimately, I was most surprised by the QuietComfort 35 II. That’s because though Bose still offers a very compelling product, but it’s clearly time for the company to innovate — the landscape has shifted dramatically since these first hit the market.
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