BEST HEADPHONES FOR TRAVELLING
Researching headphones online can be really tough. Once you find a pair of headphones that interests you, then it's time to dig through the reviews to determine if it’s the right fit for your application and lifestyle.
When it comes to flying and travel, there are a plethora of choices out there for noise cancelling headphones to choose from with thousands of reviews and comparisons to help guide you along the way.
But what happens when you just want the absolute best in isolation? Do you go for the market-leading noise cancelling headphone, or do you shell out some extra coin to get custom-fitted In-Ear Monitors (IEMs)?
There are advantages and disadvantages to each of these choices and we'll try to guide you through the ins and outs.
If you prefer to go the noise cancelling over-ear headphone route, there are a few limitations to consider. Firstly, you must be willing to sacrifice the storage space in your bag, and that's actually a big deal.
You also need to consider that you’ll have another device that needs charging, as well as ensuring you remember to pack the essential charging cable.
Also keep in mind that many noise cancelling headphones require a reasonably tight seal; which can, in some cases, mean that comfort is compromised.
It’s not all peaches and cream on the custom in-ear monitor route, either. Even a cheap, entry-level custom IEM will require you visit an audiologist to get the impressions of your ears. That comes at a cost, and you don't want to skimp here, plus another $800 at least for the IEMs themselves. Not to mention the wait times and shipping each way. And if the fit isn’t perfect when they come back, guess what? You’re sending them off again, and going through the waiting process once more.
Once you consider the convenience factor, the idea of strolling into a High Street store for an off-the-shelf noise cancelling headphone sounds pretty tempting, right?
Well, I’ve done plenty of flying in the past few days, so I seized the opportunity to test several pairs of headphones while flying.
The over-ear noise cancelling headphones I chose were the Bowers & Wilkins PX, which many regard as the ultimate noise-cancelling headphone. When I reviewed these previously, I compared them head-to-head with the class-leading Bose QC35. While I found the noise-cancelling ability of the two very similar, the build quality and sound of the PX stomped on the face of the QC35, leading me to conclude that the PX was the superior choice.
The on-ear headphones were the AKG K 490 NC, a budget-friendly compact noise cancelling can. These have a fairly neutral and forgiving sound signature and fold into a tight little flat semicircle for easy storage. I bought this pair in Japan back in 2014, as a gift for my partner.
For custom IEMs, I decided to leave the Westone ES3X at home and went with my Unique Melody Merlin instead. While I’m not a huge fan of the name of these, I do love their 3-way internal configuration: Each ear has one dynamic driver for lows, and four Knowles TWFK drivers (two for mids, two for highs). The end result is a warm, bassy and highly detailed response, with a perfect custom fit for my ears.
Once aboard the flight, the over-ear PX was incredibly intuitive and easy to use. As these are Bluetooth, I didn’t have to deal with any cables getting in the way. The noise cancelling was also perfect for engine noise, and they remained comfortable on my head for 10 hours or so. Although, when trying to sleep, I find over-ears can become a little difficult for me as they tend to concentrate the pressure on particular parts of my head after a while.
The on-ear AKG headphones were undoubtedly convenient in my bag, as they didn’t take up as much space as the over-ear PX. However, that’s where the convenience ended. Using a cabled headphone can be a frustrating experience coming straight from the convenience of Bluetooth, and I found myself wishing I had the option of cutting the cord.
I also find the on-ear headphones get a little hot after a few hours, while the noise cancelling isn’t as strong either (potentially due to having less of a complete seal).
The custom IEMs were an entirely different beast altogether. With 26db of attenuation, it wasn’t just engine noise being blocked out, but everything else as well. As soon as I slipped these in, it was pretty clear that even a class-leading noise cancelling headphone didn’t come close to the overall isolation that custom IEMs can provide. They're also comfortable when sleeping, but can be cumbersome to take in and out of your ear throughout the flight when talking to others, or listening to the pilot's announcements.
It’s also worth mentioning that both the B&W PX and AKG performed admirably with the in-flight entertainment system using an adapter, but the custom IEMs were not ideal. Using these revealed a constant “hissing” noise with plenty of compression artifacts on movies and music. It also felt like all the dynamic range of the entertainment was squashed, potentially to compensate for a wide range of headphones.
Despite this caveat, hands-down I still prefer the custom IEM route. The sheer strength of the isolation is unparalleled, even when compared to the bells and whistles of noise-cancelling headphones.
Let me know in the comments what you prefer to wear when flying or travelling or any other travel tips you have for good sound, on-the-go.
Constantly keeping himself busy, Matthew is a production manager, Brazilian jiu-jitsu blue belt, Head-Fi fanatic, coffee enthusiast and all-round cool Dad.
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