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Head-Fi Buying Guide (Travel Headphones)

Travel Headphones Also featuring...

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I spend more time on airplanes than I do in cars, and I’d find my time in airplanes rather intolerable without effective means of attenuating the racket of flight. When you’re in a vessel hurtling nearly 600 mph through the air, accompanied by all the forces necessary to propel it--not to mention the hundreds of people within it and the noises they make--it’s a cacophony I can barely stand for minutes, let alone 13 hours. Active noise canceling (ANC) headphones are more effective than even the tightest sealing passive in-ears, especially where low-frequency noise is concerned.

For me, active noise canceling headphones rank just below my passport in terms of packing priority and preparation. Here are the best ANC headphones I’ve used:

Type: Wireless, closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphones

 

Price:   $399.99 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sony.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

Almost as reliable as Newton’s laws of motion was this generally accepted truth in the headphone world: When it comes specifically to actively canceling noise, Bose is the best. This has been true for as long as there have been consumer active noise canceling headphones. There have been some non-Bose headphones that have come close, but Bose has always been able to keep at least one step ahead of its competitors in actively processing out the noise of the world around you. Until now. Finally. Sony. Wow.

Picking Sony’s new MDR-1000X as our top choice for a noise-canceling over-ear was easy, as it tops every criterion we consider--noise-canceling ability, sound quality, comfort, and features. In terms of canceling noise, the MDR-1000X sets a new standard. On several long flights I’ve done head-to-head comparisons of the Bose QuietComfort 20, Bose QuietComfort 25, QuietControl 30, and Bose QuietComfort 35 (Bose’s latest flagship noise-canceling over-ear) versus the Sony MDR-1000X, and it's clear to my ears that the new Sony cuts down more airplane noise than Bose’s latest and best. I've also compared the MDR-1000X and the QC35 in city environments, while walking and train-riding around downtown and, and, again, the Sony also does a better job of keeping bustling city and train noises out, too.

To help accomplish a level of noise-canceling that outperforms Bose’s headphones, Sony uses newly developed audio signal processing and analyzing technologies they’ve coined “SENSE ENGINE.” Part of the MDR-1000X’s SENSE ENGINE implementation is something that Sony calls the “Personal NC Optimizer,” which plays a set of tones that help SENSE ENGINE analyze the user’s physical characteristics and wearing style--including hairstyle, whether glasses are being worn or not (which affects the seal)--and adjusts its noise-canceling accordingly to maximize performance. Long story short, it really works--so well that one of my recent airplane seat neighbors who asked to try it said he found it almost too effective (said, of course, with a broad smile of amazement on his face).

Prior to the Sony MDR-1000X, I'd occasionally sacrifice some noise-canceling ability for better musicality by sometimes choosing Sennheiser's MOMENTUM Wireless over Bose's headphones. With the MDR-1000X, choosing between noise-canceling travel headphones is no longer necessary, as I find the MDR-1000X also takes the crown for sound quality among not just all active noise-canceling headphones I've tried, but also among all Bluetooth headphones I've so far heard. For wireless, the MDR-1000X supports both aptX and AAC, and it sounds great as a Bluetooth headphone paired to my iOS devices (iPhone 7 Plus and iPad Air 2), Android (LG V20), or MacBook. The MDR-1000X's bass is meaty and controlled, and then nicely balanced from the midband through the highs. It's a closed-back headphone with good passive isolation, but its digital signal processing seems to add spaciousness beyond its cups. The MDR-1000X is a headphone I enjoy listening to not just for a wireless headphone, but for general listening in its active mode, wired or wireless. (In its passive mode, it's duller and less spacious, but good enough to get you through when you've run the battery dry.)

The MDR-1000X also supports a Sony proprietary wireless technology called LDAC that allows wireless transmission over Bluetooth with around three times the data throughput of standard Bluetooth. As of now, I only know of LDAC being supported by Sony's latest mobile phones and Walkman models. We have Sony's current flagship NW-WM1Z Walkman which supports LDAC, and MDR-1000X absolutely sings in this wireless pairing, able to convey more from my best high-resolution recordings (a good deal of which I have stored on the NW-WM1Z) than any other Bluetooth setup I've yet heard. (With the $3200.00 NW-WM1Z, though, it's also among the most expensive Bluetooth setups I've yet heard.)

With any headphone--especially one you may end up wearing for hours at a stretch--assessing comfort is a very individual thing, with our various ear sizes and shapes, and head sizes and shapes. For me, the Sony MDR-1000X is the most comfortable of the travel over-ears we have on hand. On my first flight with it to Tokyo, I wore the MDR-1000X through the terminal, for practically the entire duration of the flight (even when I'd get up to stretch), while working (both with music and without), watching movies, and even sleeping. The only times I removed the MDR-1000X from my head on that flight (and on a couple of other similar, and even longer, flights) was to compare it to other active noise-cancelers. For me, hours-long comfort is what's most important--I say this because the Bose QC35 and Sennheiser PXC550 feel initially more comfortable to me, more pillowy. After hours of use, though, both the Bose and Sennheiser, while still comfortable, cause more hotspots on/around my ears, and on the top of my head, than the Sony.

The Sony MDR-1000X is also equipped with extremely useful situationally adjustable noise-canceling. Of course, there's the full-on, Personal-NC-Optimized noise-canceling that provides the most isolation, but there are a few other modes. The first (and often the most handy) mode is called "Quick Attention" which is enabled by touching three fingers to the capacitive touch surface on the right earpiece. Activating Quick Attention mode quickly turns the music (or movie sound) way down and concurrently activates the outside microphones to feed ambient sounds into the headphone--again, very helpful. There are also two other ambient modes, "Ambient Sound mode (Normal mode)" which mixes ambient sound in (from the outside mics) with your music; and "Ambient Sound mode (Voice mode)" which allows vocal range frequencies in (again, from the outside miss) while your music plays. This Voice mode is helpful for when you want to maintain some active noise canceling but also want to hear voices (or announcements) around you.

One thing I'm not fond of with the MDR-1000X is its capacitive touch panel (on the right earpiece). While it responds quickly and consistently to the three-finger touch for Quick Attention mode, it's only marginally responsive to some of the other capacitive touches and gestures. For example, for one-touch play-pause, I often have to hunt for a good spot to touch it to get it to play and pause. Occasionally (and mostly while watching movies on my iPad), gesture controls on the MDR-1000X's capacitive touch screen result in incorrect actions. Thankfully, the capacitive volume-up and volume-down gestures are quite responsive, and I've had little problem with these controls. The Sennheiser PXC550's capacitive touch controls are far more responsive, reliable, and well-executed.

Also, as a wireless headset (in terms of outgoing voice quality), I'd have to give the advantage to the Sennheiser PXC550 and the Bose QC35, based on the feedback from people I've talked to on all of them. The Sony works well enough as a headset, but the people I've spoken to with these headphones on give the edge in outgoing voice clarity and overall outgoing sound quality to the Sennheiser and Bose, so this is one area this Sony isn't taking the crown. This is somewhat surprising to me given how excellent the outgoing voice quality was with the older (and now discontinued) non-noise-canceling Sony MDR-1RBT Bluetooth headphone.

The MDR-1000X's build quality is outstanding, with a more premium feel than many of its competitors. Part of the beautiful feel of the MDR-1000X includes the extensive use of high-quality metal throughout, but which also contributes to its weight, which at around 275 grams is a bit heavier than the Sennheiser PXC550 and the Bose offerings, and about equal to the Parrot Zik 3. Still, as I mentioned earlier, it's still the most comfortable of the bunch for me, despite its slightly heavier weight.

Battery life with the MDR-1000X is rated at up to 20 with noise canceling on, and up to 22 hours with noise canceling off. My experience with the headphone so far suggests Sony's battery life ratings are fair. Also, when the battery dies, the headphone can be used in passive mode with the included cable, but its sound quality is at its best when its circuitry is powered up. The MDR-1000X comes with a very nice, compact, zip-up hard-side carrying case, is available in black or beige, and is priced at $399.99, making it 50 bucks more expensive than the Bose QC35--but it's better at noise-canceling, sounds better with music, and (on my head) is more comfortable, making it our very top pick right now for the best travel over-ear headphone.

Given that Bose just released the QC35 and the QC30, I think it'll be a while before the team from Massachusetts can reclaim the title from the team in Japan. Sony rewrote the rules and upended the order with their MDR-1000X.

Type:   Closed, full-size, active-noise canceling, around-the-ear headphones
(The QuietComfort 35 is wireless.)

 

Price:   $299.95 and $349.95, respectively

 

URL:   http://www.bose.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

I've decided to group these two Bose headphones together, as I find their performance, in terms of sound quality and noise canceling ability, to be somewhat similar. While there are other minor differences, the obvious differentiator between the two is that the QuietComfort 25 is a wired-only headphone, whereas the QuietComfort 35 is essentially a Bluetooth wireless version of the former. The QC35 has received some nice refinements where sound quality is concerned, which I'll get to in a minute.

Despite the Sony MDR-1000X's (see above) emergence to take our top pick for best travel headphone, there are still occasions I'd recommend these Bose headphones over the Sony. First of all, there's price, with the Sony, Parrot Zik 3 (see below) and Sennheiser PXC550 (see below) being priced $50 more than the QC35 and $100 more than the QC25. Secondly, there's simplicity, and this is a crucial point for some customers. Some people do not want to mess with a plethora of settings and tweaks, which the Sony and Parrot are loaded with, and the new Sennheiser is virtually overwhelmed with. There a lot of people who just want to think about nothing more than simply turning the headphone on, and to not be burdened by a variety of buttons, ANC modes, DSP settings, companion apps (which the Bose QC35 does have, but isn't necessary for its use), etc. For people like this, the Bose QC25 and QC35 remain the best choice for travel over-ears.

Outside of the Sony, Bose's ANC is still a cut above the rest of the field, too. Also, both the QC25 and QC35 are at or near the top of the heap in terms of battery life, with up to 35 hours from a single AAA battery for the QC25, and up to 20 hours per charge from the QC35's built-in rechargeable battery. The QC35 also has a last-ditch 15-minute charge mode that buys you 2.5 hours of listening time, which comes in handy if you happen to run its battery down but still have more listening to squeeze in. Build quality for both is solid. While neither feels as substantial as the Sony, they seem to be as well built, with the QuietComfort 25 having accompanied me on hundreds of thousands of miles of travel without any malfunctions or problems (and I most certainly do not baby my gear--I would never buy used gear from me).

Though I find both the QC25 and QC35 to sound rather similar overall, the QC35 has received some welcome refinements in sound quality versus its wired sibling. First of all, bass performance has been improved, with better extension and solidity. In direct comparisons, I find the QC35 to be smoother and more polished through the midrange and treble than the QC25, too. Also, the passive mode on the QC35 is another area where improvements in sound quality have been achieved versus its predecessor. Frankly, the only reason I'd recommend going with the QC25 versus the QC35 is if the $50 price difference is make-or-break for you, if you absolutely require maximum battery life, or if you have a strong preference for the QC25's use of an easily available and replaceable AAA battery, versus the built-in lithium-ion battery in the QC35.

Versus the Sennheiser PXC550 or Parrot Zik 3 in their bone-stock settings, I tend to prefer the sound of the QC35--however, the Sennheiser and Parrot offer so much customizability and equalization that I can adjust them to suit my sonic preferences to a greater degree than the QC35 (or QC25) can achieve for me personally. And, again, for my tastes, the Sony MDR-1000X trumps them all, in terms of its sound with music and movies, and also in terms of the amount of ambient noise canceled.

In terms of comfort, the QC35 has slightly roomier ear cups than the QC25, and so is a bit more comfortable. I also give it the edge in comfort over the Sennheiser; and it's far more comfortable than the Parrot. However, the Sony--for long-haul, multi-hour flights--is more comfortable over my ears and head than even the QC35.

While challengers to their ANC and travel headphone supremacy are banging on their doors, Bose's ANC travel headphone offerings are still among the very best on the market, especially their latest QuietComfort 35, with its sonic refinements and wireless capability. If not for the Sony MDR-1000X, the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 would be my top travel headphone recommendation.

Details on the Sony h.ear on MDR-100ABN can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to give it a read.

Type:   Closed, around-the-ear, wireless Bluetooth headphones 

 

Price:   $499.95 USD

 

URL:   http://www.sennheiser.com

Written by Jude Mansilla

 

The Sennheiser MOMENTUM Wireless Over-Ear remains one of my top choices for wireless Bluetooth headphones, as it still represents a combination of so many of the features and traits I seek that so many other wireless headphones miss. That said, the Bluetooth headphones segment also happens to be one of the most heavily invested-in, most dynamic categories in the industry, so the most recent crop of premium headphones in the category have given the MOMENTUM Wireless formidable competitors (even from within its own Sennheiser family). Even still, the MOMENTUM Wireless stacks up very nicely.

 

With the MOMENTUM Wireless, Sennheiser seems to have assessed many of the gaps left by the competition, and filled them. It is still among the best in build quality of all Bluetooth headphones I've tried, with its ample use of stitched high-grade leather and the wonderful brushed stainless steel carried over from the first MOMENTUM. The fit and finish is simply superb (as would be expected for its highest-in-class price). Also, though it's not immediately evident when you see it, the MOMENTUM Wireless has hidden hinges that allow it to fold without sacrificing the MOMENTUM aesthetic, making it much more compact for carrying.

 

The second-generation over-ear MOMENTUMs (including this wireless one) also have substantially larger earcups than the first-gen over-ear model. While most seemed to find the first-gen MOMENTUM Over-Ear models comfortable, I think all will agree the larger cups and larger super-plush earpads only make this latest generation substantially more comfortable.

 

In terms of battery life, the MOMENTUM Wireless is outstanding. Its battery is rated to provide a very generous 22 hours of use in wireless mode, which puts it in the upper range of headphones of this type, and enough that I've not yet run it down completely in normal use. For me, long battery life is critically important, especially for a headphone to be suited for travel, and this headphone meets or exceeds my expectations here. It also charges rather quickly, taking only three hours to top off.

 

The MOMENTUM Wireless' outgoing voice quality is excellent, too, which is important for someone who's on the phone a lot (which I am). In direct comparisons, I've found it's among the best for this, the equal to its PXC550 sibling and the Bose QC35, and a step above Sony's MDR-1000X. Like the others, it doesn't do much (if anything) to actively cancel noise on outgoing voice, but the clarity of its dual-omni beamforming mic array is very good. Perhaps I'm nitpicking, but as good as its outgoing voice quality is, knowing what Sennheiser is capable of with noise-canceling on outgoing voice as evidenced by their PRESENCE earpiece--which is still, over three years after its launch, the best Bluetooth earpiece I've used--I do wish they'd incorporated all of the PRESENCE's technologies into the MOMENTUM Wireless.

 

The MOMENTUM Wireless also has active noise-canceling, using something Sennheiser calls hybrid active NoiseGuard. What I find very nice about this headphone's noise canceling circuit is that it is effective at blunting travel noise, yet isn't invasive. (This is no doubt helped by the MOMENTUM Wireless' very good passive noise attenuation.) No, it isn't the crazy noise barriers that are the Sony MDR-1000X's or Bose QC35's circuits, but it does enough to be an effective travel headphone--and it sounds substantially better for music than the Bose. Compared to the Beats Studio Wireless (possibly the most popular >$300 wireless headphone), the MOMENTUM's noise canceling circuit is more effective, but with substantially lower self-noise--and the MOMENTUM also sounds heaps better than the Beats Studio Wireless. Also, compared to most noise cancelers, the MOMENTUM Wireless seems less likely to bother those sensitive to the feeling of pressure that some noise canceling circuits present.

 

In addition to canceling noise, the MOMENTUM Wireless' version of Sennheiser's NoiseGard also has a sound sculpting effect that I actually like a lot. The bass seems to tighten up nicely when it's on, and the sense of enhanced clarity it imparts overall is very nicely executed. I also prefer the MOMENTUM Wireless' imaging with the circuit on--it's more spacious and airy, and I imagine that's owing to careful application of DSP. I suspect a lot of subjective listening tests and engineering at Sennheiser's HQ were generously employed in crafting this headphone's performance when the active circuit is employed. Simply put, I think most who compare the two modes will prefer the MOMENTUM when it's turned on.

 

On balance, the Sennheiser MOMENTUM Wireless is still one of the best headphones of its type on the market. It provides the freedom of wireless and long battery life. It allows me to take and make phone calls with excellent outgoing voice quality. It provides very good active noise cancellation. It is comfortable. It is relatively compact. It is a gorgeous headphone, with build quality to match.


All of this excellence comes at a steep price, though, with the Sennheiser MOMENTUM Wireless Over-Ear priced at $499.95. This (along with the similarly priced Bang & Olufsen H8 that I haven't yet heard) is among the most expensive in this class of headphones.

Details about the Parrot Zik 3 can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to learn more about the Parrot Zik 3.

Details about the Phiaton BT-220 NC and Phiaton BT-100 NC can be found in the Wireless Headphones section of the guide.

 

Click here to check it out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Comments (12)

I think the Oppo PM-3 should be added here if possible. Stellar pair of closed portable headphones for its price point with uniqueness of being a planar magnetic.
@gerelmx1986 Beats released a product that was able to impress Jude to the point where he's comfortable recommending it, so it's in the guide. It's not just him either. I was floored by the Solo3's wireless range. We had it synced to a phone inside of the office and I was across the street, around 200' away, still listening to music through steel and brick walls. The W1 chip is solid.
Can the noise canceling features on the Sony MDR-1000X still be used wired and without the use of bluetooth?
@the8o88y i think so but ive to test it 2 b sure 
Jude have you had a chance to try the PXC550? I'm surprised it hasn't made the list as an alternative option.
@dweaver, the Sennheiser PXC550 will be added to this page later this week.
@the8o88y  The Sony's can be used with NC on or off with Wire. Just can't use the touch controls or take phone calls wired
Hmm...in the market for a pair of closed cans...wonder if the Sony's would kill two birds (closed & travel) with one stone.
The MDR-1000X is spectacular. Overnight, they have become practically my Go-To pair. I'm not sure if it's new-toy fever, but I've had little desire to listen to my TH-X00's.
So, I see all these wireless noise cancelling sets. But how about wired ones? Where do we find them?
I agree with Jude on the MDR-1000X.  Most comfortable, best sounding and most effective active noise cancelling headphones that I have tried.  The LDAC streaming with my ZX2 also sounds really good-can certainly hear the added depth and detail over standard Bluetooth streaming and sometimes it's just nice to have the wireless option (listening at work, etc). 
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