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Headphones and Earbuds for Travel: Features to Look For

Last updated: 7 months ago
8 min read

We test and evaluate headphones using a standardized 9-point methodology. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

Traveling requires headphones that play music but also improve the listening experience. You want them to:

  • Block background noise
  • Be able to store them in a backpack
  • Stay comfortable on a long commute

There’s nothing worse than sitting on a loud train and realizing you can’t hear music due to poor noise isolation.

Let’s dig into what headphones you need for comfortable traveling.

Sony WH-1000XM4 travel
CONTENTS (show more)

    Note: An American study found that men who haven’t traveled for multiple years have a 30% higher chance of getting a heart attack. Taking vacations is good for your health.

    You Need Noise Cancellation

    Active noise cancellation actively reduces ambient noise. It works most effectively on low-frequency noises like engines.

    Even if you never use ANC in your headphones, you’ll quickly realize it’s a Godsent during travels.

    Benefits of ANC for travel

    Here are the main advantages of using ANC on your trips:

    • It reduces or completely cancels out engine noise. Whether you ride a car, van, bus, train, or airplane, engines produce the loudest noise. Not to mention tire noise from vehicles and cabin noise on planes. These are all bothersome sounds that interfere with your music, even if you have excellent passive isolation (low frequencies are hard to block passively). ANC entirely or at least partially cancels them out, leaving you with silence.
    • It protects your hearing by reducing the loudest external noise. So you don’t have to crank up the volume to hear your music.
    • It helps you relax and fall asleep more easily. It cancels out most ambient noise, so it’s easier to relax and fall asleep during travel.
    Apple AirPods Max transparency mode
    ANC reduces external distractions, so you can listen to music at lower volumes.

    Both earbuds and headphones can have impressive active noise-cancelling performance, so it is difficult to tell which ones are the best for the job. If we must choose, we pick earbuds since they’re smaller, comfier, and cheaper.

    Where to find good ANC headphones and earbuds:

    Noise isolation vs. noise cancellation for audio quality

    Turning off the active noise cancellation in most headphones we’ve tested resulted in better audio quality (without ambient noise).

    However, the perception of quality changes in the presence of outside noise. So using ANC is better for hearing music in its fullness during a commute.

    On the other hand, with passive noise isolation, the outside noise always masks some details and nuances, providing a worse listening experience.

    In short, no method of removing noise is perfect. But with ANC headphones, you hear music clearer, so it’s the best choice for traveling.

    How ANC technology works in headphones and earbuds

    ANC technology works by inverting the phase of the recorded ambient sound and then playing the inverted sound back into your ears. The real and inverted sounds cancel out before they reach your eardrums.

    how active noise cancelling works
    How active noise cancelling works in the picture. source: Analogictips
    1. More accurately, mic(s) record ambient noise and send it to an ANC chip, which uses algorithms to correct and prepare it to be inverted.

    The recording needs to be as close as possible to the actual sound. Otherwise, the cancellation doesn’t work as intended.

    1. Inverted sound is then played through speakers into your ears, where it meets with the actual noise. Since both sounds oppose each other, their energy cancels out, leaving you with silence.

    You can read a more in-depth explanation of how ANC technology works in headphones in our separate article.

    Comfort and Fit

    Traveling usually involves hours of sitting in a stationary position, so you need headphones that remain comfortable after prolonged use.

    Earphones vs. headphones
    When traveling, you wear headphones for multiple hours straight, and they must stay comfortable.

    Here’s what you need to look for:

    Headphones

    • Ear pads should go around your ears (over-ear headphones) to avoid pressing on your earlobes. Pressure on your earlobes might feel fine at first, but it leads to unbearable pain after an hour of use.
    • Fabric ear pads are comfier as they are more breathable (like in Apple AirPods Max). However, they’re also less ideal for passive noise isolation, which is better with leather ear pads.
    • Thicker headband padding relieves the headphones’ weight across your head, preventing it from creating a sore spot. You can buy additional headband padding to improve your existing headphones.
    • Headphones shouldn’t be too heavy. It’s best to pick lighter headphones to travel as heavy ones quickly become annoying: You feel the pressure and want to take them off.
    • Headphones should have moderate clamping force. If the clamping force is too tight, it results in pressure sensation and headaches. Whereas too little provides inadequate stability, making your headphones fall off at the slightest head movement.

    See the most comfortable headphones.

    Earbuds

    • Ear tips should perfectly fit your ear canal. A perfect seal is vital for optimal passive noise isolation, active noise cancellation performance, and stability.
    • Earbuds should have an ergonomic design that doesn’t press against your pinna, quickly translating into pain. Note that people have different ear shapes and sizes, so the same earbuds might offer different comfort levels to different users.
    Sleeping with AirPods
    If your earbuds are comfortable to sleep with, they’re perfect for traveling.

    Check our selection of the most comfortable earbuds we’ve tested.

    Headphone Size & Design Best for Travel

    You don’t want to add unnecessary weight to your already heavy baggage. You’re likelier to take your smaller, compact headphones on your travels instead of big, heavy ones.

    Here are some things that will help you travel lightly:

    Headphones

    • Compact headphone design. Headphones should be as slim as possible (for example, Apple AirPods Max are slim, Sony WH-1000XM5 are something in the middle, whereas Edifier WH950NB are bulky). The slimmer design takes up less storage in your backpack and enables you to move your head more freely while resting on the seat.
    • Foldable or collapsible headphones. While many high-end ANC headphones have ditched the foldable design (new Sonys, AirPods, Bose 700),some still have it. And foldable-design is a true space saver.
    • Lightweight design. Typically, Bluetooth headphones don’t weigh more than 10.6 ounces (300 grams) which isn’t much, but still something to consider.
    Sony WH-1000XM4 folded in case
    Sony WH-1000XM4 can fold and only weighs 8.96 ounces.

    Earbuds

    • Compact earbud design. Earbuds come in various charging case sizes. Most of them are small. But if your bag is filled with other things, the smaller, the better. Though this is a smaller concern.

    The Importance of Long-Lasting Battery Life During Travel

    Depending on how long your ride is, you don’t want your headphones to die off before you arrive to your destination. Fortunately, the average battery life for headphones is around 35 hours, whereas earbuds last up to 7-8 hours.

    That said, you can expect different battery durations from different headphone types. Moreover, playtime also depends on how you plan to use your headphones. Let’s have a closer look.

    What headphone battery life you can expect?

    Bigger headphones have the longest battery life thanks to their size, which can accommodate bigger cells. A few years ago, they couldn’t reach more than 20 hours.

    Here’s what you can expect from them today:

    With ANC enabledJust ANC
    or just music
    Minimum 30 hoursMinimum 40 hours

    Remember that playing music louder than 50% volume notably affects battery playtime. Nonetheless, having around 30 hours of runtime is enough, even for the longest flights.

    Apple AirPods Max charging port
    AirPods Max’s fast charging adds 1.5 hours of juice after a 5-minute charge.

    Bigger headphones more often support faster charging than smaller ones:

    • You usually get between 3 to 5 hours of additional juice after a 10-minute charge. 

    Of course, you need a power source to charge them. Or a power bank when charging is less convenient.

    If you forget to charge them and they die off, you can use most Bluetooth headphones in wired mode with the cable from the box.

    What earbud battery life you can expect?

    Earbuds are smaller, so they last much less on a single charge than full-sized headphones. Here’s the average battery life you can expect from earbuds:

    With ANC enabledJust ANC
    or just music
    Around 6-7 hoursAround 8-9 hours

    Up to 7 hours is still a respectable duration that should last you an entire one-way ride.

    Considering the fact that you also take the charging case with you, in which there’s usually around 15-25 hours of extra battery charge, your earbuds can last almost as long as some ANC headphones.

    Skullcandy Push Ultra charging port
    Skullcandy Push Ultra’s case can fast-charge earbuds by adding 2 hours of playtime after 10 minutes of charge.

    Fast charging usually adds:

    • Around 1.5 hours of extra playtime in 5 to 15 minutes of charging (depending on the model).

    Which battery features are useful for travel?

    Battery features that are the most useful for travel are:

    • High fast charging speeds. If you start running dry, fast charging quickly adds hours in just a few minutes.
    • Good standby time. Some headphones can retain battery levels for a very long time, even months. Headphones drain a little battery even when turned off.

    The Convenience of Wireless Headphones and Earbuds

    While wires are a more reliable type of connection, wireless headphones and earbuds are better for travel.

    Wireless vs wired headphones

    Pros & Cons of wired headphones for traveling:

    • No batteries, so you don’t need to worry about another gadget that needs to be charged.
    • Ability to connect to in-flight entertainment (with airplane adapter). For the longest time, many airplanes still rock a double socket 3.5mm connection. Only the most modern ones have finally switched to single 3-pole AUX ports that any wired headphone can use.
    • Cables are annoying. They dangle around, produce microphonics and scratching noise when dragging against your shirt, and get stuck behind a seat handle or a doorknob at the worst possible times.
    • Wired headphones don’t have active noise-cancelling functionalities. There are only a few examples of wired headphones having ANC (Bose made QuietComfort 20), but they have been discontinued.
    • Modern smartphones lack an AUX port, so you must buy and carry around a small audio dongle.
    Sony WH-1000XM5 wired
    Nowadays, using wired headphones means dealing with audio adapters.

    Pros & Cons of wireless headphones for traveling:

    • No cables mean greater freedom of movement and no fear of pulling the wire and damaging the headphones.
    • Wireless headphones typically have more features suited for travel, such as ambient sound mode and active noise cancelling.
    • Batteries represent an extra worry as you need to keep them charged.
    • Bluetooth interferences are possible if many people on your ride also use Bluetooth headsets. However, with Bluetooth 5.0 and newer, interferences are less likely.
    Skullcandy Crusher ANC 2 wearing
    By ditching wires but needing to maintain battery charge, you trade one convenience for another.

    Durability and Build Quality Considerations

    Build quality is a concern. But it’s more of a problem for bigger headphones than earbuds.

    Let’s highlight some of the features of both headphone types.

    Earbuds

    • Good durability. While testing predominately true wireless earbuds, we have yet to encounter buds or a charging case that wouldn’t survive being tossed around in the backpack.
    • (At least) sweat-resistant. Most TWS earbuds are tested for an IP rating, with most of them having an IPX4 or IPX5 rating, which means complete sweat resistance. While you don’t expect to be physically active during travel, it’s good to know that your sweat won’t damage your earbuds in hotter environments.
    1MORE ComfoBuds Mini water resistant
    Most true wireless earbuds have at least an IPX4 rating, which is already fully sweatproof.

    Headphones

    • Headphones are much more delicate. Exposed hinges are ready to bend or crack if exposed to heavy load, so we don’t advise throwing them in the backpack without placing them in a protective case.
    • Less resistant to drops. Headphones’ plastic build might easily scratch or, even worse, crack.
    • No water resistance. Most wireless and wired headphones don’t have an IP rating. That doesn’t mean sweat can instantly damage them, but you should be more careful not to drench them in it.
    Edifier WH950NB case
    Big headphones can be fragile, so having a carrying case (not a pouch) is a must for travel.

    Controls and User-Friendly Features on The Go

    During travel, you want to relax. Doing other things like constantly picking up your phone to change the song is annoying.

    That’s why you want headphones with good built-in controls.

    Here are the recommended controls and settings on headphones for traveling:

    • Music playback controls: You want to change tracks and volume without using your phone. Most wireless headphones have some controls, but many lack the basic control of loudness. So check before buying.
    • ANC modes: They let you switch ANC on/off and between different ANC levels, and “Ambient sound mode” without having to use a companion app.
    • (Optional) Voice assistant button: It lets you search for things that would typically require you to use a browser, like the weather on your destination, etc.
    Sony WH-1000XM5 in the park
    Sony WH-1000XM5 have a useful feature where you activate Transparency mode by placing your hand on the ear cup.

    Choosing touch OR physical controls, it all comes down to where you’re traveling:

    • Touch controls are worse for cold weather: They are more comfortable to use, especially on earbuds. However, they have difficulties registering your fingers in cold weather. There’s also a possibility of having ghost touches (when your breath accidentally activates a command; for that reason, some earbuds lock a “single tap” gesture).
    • Physical controls are less comfy on earbuds but are the most reliable. They also give tactile feedback.

    Moving to features that improve your traveling experience, we have already covered ANC. Here are some more useful features:

    • Customizable controls to make operating headphones better tailored to your needs.
    • Audio equalizer (EQ) to set the sound based on your taste (learn how to equalize your headphones and achieve the best sound).
    • Built-in microphone for hands-free summoning of smart assistants and receiving phone calls.
    Equalizing by ear
    You would be surprised how much you can improve the sound of your headphones by using a custom EQ.

    Conclusion

    Headphones aren’t just for playing music anymore. They’re filled with different features that make your travels much better.

    Here’s a quick recap of the essential headphone traveling features:

    • Comfortable: So you can wear it on a long flight without pain.
    • Lightweight: To keep your luggage as light as possible.
    • Foldable: For easier storage.
    • Active noise-cancelling: To block unwanted noises so you can relax or focus on music.
    • Protective case: To avoid squishing and damaging headphones during accidental drops.
    • Decently long battery life: So you don’t have to search for a charger during travel.

    Consider looking at our headphones guides, where you can already pick the best ones in the category:

    FAQ: Frequently Asked Questions About Headphones and Earbuds for Travel

    Which is better wireless or wired headphones for airplane travel?

    Wireless headphones are better for airplane travel if they have active noise cancelling. If you want to watch in-flight entertainment, bring the AUX cable and airplane adapter with you.

    Which are better earbuds or headphones for travel?

    Earbuds are better for travel, as they use less space in your bag and feel less clunky on your head. In contrast, headphones might have better ANC performance and longer battery life.

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