Updated December 08, 2019 by Christopher Thomas

The 10 Best Headphones For Air Travel

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Best High-End
Best Mid-Range
Best Inexpensive

This wiki has been updated 19 times since it was first published in October of 2016. Do long flights wear you out? One way to minimize fatigue caused by planes is to reduce your exposure to the typical noises in the cabin. A pair of these headphones for air travel can help mitigate sounds from engines and noisy neighbors, and provide hours of listening time for your music or in-flight movies. We've selected the best based on audio quality, noise reduction, and affordability. When users buy our independently chosen editorial selections, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki. Skip to the best headphones for air travel on Amazon.

10. Bose QuietComfort 25

9. Bowers & Wilkins PX7

8. TaoTronics SoundSurge 46

7. Anker SoundCore Space

6. Sony WI1000X

5. Cambridge Melomania 1

4. Bose QuietComfort 35 II

3. KZ AS10

2. MPow H10

1. Sony WH1000XM3

Editor's Notes

December 04, 2019:

Noise-canceling headphones are particularly adept at reducing the sound you hear from engines and, to a point, fellow passengers when riding in planes, trains, and buses. The Sony WH1000XM3 routinely come in at or near the top of the pack in audio quality but also ANC effectiveness, and if you're comfortable with the price, they can make a great investment. For that matter, the Bose QuietComfort 35 II are in the same price range and are arguably as powerful, and some users argue they have just as good or better audio. Slightly more expensive are the Bowers & Wilkins PX7, which are a seriously high-end pair of headphones that can provide an exceptional listening experience thanks to their use of the Qualcomm aptX Adaptive codec.

You really don't have to spend a fortune on good noise-canceling headphones, though. In testing, the MPow H10 measure up at nearly the level of many options twice as costly or more, plus they're also pretty lightweight and they fold down for relatively compact storage. The TaoTronics SoundSurge 46 are similarly priced and offer surprisingly clear audio, although they're a bit large for some users and they don't fold up. The Anker SoundCore Space are even more affordable, and they're a bit bass-heavy, which can be a good or bad thing depending on what kind of music you generally listen to. The Bose QuietComfort 25 are one of the best choices you can make if you're not interested in using Bluetooth to connect.

And while they do often provide better active noise cancellation, you aren't completely restricted to over-ear headphones by any means. There are some great in-ear models that differ from traditional earbuds in that they're specifically designed to block out sound passively. The KZ AS10 are some of the best simple wired models, and their balanced armature technology means they sound incredible. The Cambridge Melomania 1 are a highly isolating true wireless option, while the Sony WI1000X are some of the best neckband-style ear buds around, with superior ANC to other wireless options, although there are plenty of those to choose from, as well.

A Brief History of Headphones For Air Travel

As manufacturers made audio devices smaller and easier to carry, passengers brought them -- and headphones -- aboard airplanes.

The first effective headphones date back to 1910, when inventor Nathaniel Baldwin assembled a pair in his kitchen. These primitive headphones were similar to telephone receivers, and did a poor job of reproducing sound relative to modern standards. Headphones were used almost exclusively by telephone operators until the late 1920s, when Brandes released a new design suitable for radio operators.

The first product to resemble modern audiophile headphones was brought to market by jazz musician John C. Koss in 1958. These headphones translated a stereo signal, sending different signals to the right and left channels.

The smaller earbud design used by many air travel headphones manufacturers originated with hearing aids. This alternative to full-size headphones was frequently paired with the first portable transistor radios of the early 1960s. Transistor radios were the first audio devices to feature the 3.5mm audio plug used by most headphones today. The plug was first seen in 1964's Sony EFM-117J.

As the output quality of audio devices improved, demand for high fidelity headphones increased. CD players and modern digital and streaming devices, in particular, reward users of quality headphones.

As manufacturers made audio devices smaller and easier to carry, passengers brought them -- and headphones -- aboard airplanes. Noise canceling and noise isolating headphones were ideal for use during flight, thanks to their ability to block or drown out engine sounds.

The Apple iPod MP3 player exploded onto the market in 2001, shipping with a pair of the now-iconic white Apple earbuds. Headphones manufacturers tailored their products to match Apple's offering.

Today, the most popular portable audio device is the smartphone. Because many smartphones feature Bluetooth radio, some headphones manufacturers now produce wireless and wired variants of the same model.

Are They Noise Canceling or Noise Isolating?

Most popular headphones for travel employ either noise canceling or noise isolating technology.

Noise canceling headphones monitor ambient sound with built-in microphones and invert the sound with an onboard processor. This inverted sound is almost instantly fed into the user's ear, effectively canceling out surrounding noises.

This inverted sound is almost instantly fed into the user's ear, effectively canceling out surrounding noises.

This technique is particularly effective with consistent, droning sounds like the hum of an airplane jet engine, because those sounds are easy to identify and negate. However noise canceling headphones typically struggle to cloak higher pitched sounds with greater variance, like crying babies or talking.

With noise isolating headphones, the solution to limiting outside noise is much simpler. Noise isolating headphones merely offer a barrier between your ear and those unwanted sounds. Over-ear headphones feature sound-dampening insulation, but typically aren't as effective at isolation as in-ear/earbuds style headphones.

In-ear headphones often ship with a variety of extensions designed to fit inside the ear canal and block all sound except for that originating from the attached audio device. These extensions, when properly inserted and well-fitted to the canal, can create a seal that blocks all but the loudest outside sounds.

Noise canceling headphones make it easier to enjoy audio at a lower volume than other designs, according to researchers. This can limit hearing damage in the long term.

Flying With Portable Electronic Devices

In 2013, the Federal Aviation Administration relaxed its restrictions on the use of portable electronic devices aboard airplanes.

Use of these devices was prohibited during takeoff and landing prior to 2013, and limited while the plane was in flight. The FAA's decision allows the use of portable devices during all phases of flight, provided tablets and phones with cellular radios are put in airplane mode. While portable audio devices and smartphones may now be used in flight, they must still be securely stored during takeoff and landing.

Most noise-canceling and wireless headphones are powered, and have built-in batteries.

Voice calls using cellular radio are still prohibited during flight, as they have been since the Federal Communications Commission instituted a ban in 1991. It seemed the ban might be lifted in 2013 when then FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler came out against it. Wheeler said the ban was obsolete, because many airlines have their own cellular towers installed aboard planes for streaming entertainment. However, in April 2017, FCC chairman Ajit Pai said his organization would not lift the ban on cellular calls during flight, highlighting the value of "quiet at 30,000 feet."

While American airlines are prohibited from allowing passenger cellular calls, a number of airlines throughout the world permit them.

Most noise-canceling and wireless headphones are powered, and have built-in batteries. In some cases, these batteries can be hazardous aboard a plane. This issue was brought to the attention of flight safety administrators in 2013 when a passenger aboard a flight from Beijing, China to Melbourne, Australia suffered burns after the headphones she fell asleep wearing exploded during the flight. The Australian Transport Safety Bureau blamed the explosion on the batteries, and warned against letting powered portable devices fall into the cracks between airplane seats. If unable to retrieve your device from the crevice between seats, you should contact a member of the flight crew and avoid moving or adjusting the seat.

Spare batteries should always be kept in your carry-on bag, and never stored in checked baggage.

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Christopher Thomas
Last updated on December 08, 2019 by Christopher Thomas

Building PCs, remodeling, and cooking since he was young, quasi-renowned trumpeter Christopher Thomas traveled the USA performing at and organizing shows from an early age. His work experiences led him to open a catering company, eventually becoming a sous chef in several fine LA restaurants. He enjoys all sorts of barely necessary gadgets, specialty computing, cutting-edge video games, and modern social policy. He has given talks on debunking pseudoscience, the Dunning-Kruger effect, culinary technique, and traveling. After two decades of product and market research, Chris has a keen sense of what people want to know and how to explain it clearly. He delights in parsing complex subjects for anyone who will listen -- because teaching is the best way to ensure that you understand things yourself.


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