Traveling a lot? Hoping to do it in style and comfort? Then you need a pair of excellent travel-ready headphones. Known by serious audiophiles as “cans,” headphones are a necessity for optimal air travel, whether you’re flying commercial, sharing a private jet with a number of other people, or kicking it mogul-style on your own jet. No matter how luxurious your plane, it’s still going to be noisy. And at some point you’re going to want your own head space.
So what are the best headphones to bring with you on your next trip? We went shopping, and discovered an overwhelming number of choices. Luckily, the Sports Desk guys also double as Sound Engineers when needed, and they helped us narrow the field based on performance and comfort. Then the Style Council did a sharp edit for the most sophisticated and stand-out design. Our curated Dandelion Chandelier list follows.
But first, some basics about what makes for the best travel headphones and why (themasterswitch.com is an excellent site to learn about all of this in even more detail). When selecting a pair of expensive headphones that are fit-for-purpose for being on the road, in addition to comfort, look for these key features:
–The driver is the mechanism by which sound gets to your ears via your headphones, and there are three types: a “dynamic” driver is the most common; a “planar magnetic” produces more delicate sound but requires more power; and an “electrostatic” is extremely expensive and used only by professionals. For travel purposes, either a dynamic or a magnetic planar will be fine, but you’ll get more battery life from a dynamic driver.
–Closed back (as opposed to open back). “Closed back” means that all of the components in the ear cups are completely sealed off, hiding the inner workings and keeping the sound contained. Many of the way-cool headphones you see in ads are “open back:” that means that the inner workings are exposed, usually protected by a mesh grille. Open back cans sound much better than closed, because they allow air to circulate more freely around the driver – the sound is far more natural. The problem is that with an open back, the sound leaks out (the technical term is “bleed,”) meaning that everyone around you can hear what you’re listening to. Not a problem when you’re alone in your man cave or she-shed, but a huge issue on an airplane or in any communal setting. So for travel, it’s closed back only.
–Low impedance. “Impedance” refers to the electrical resistance of the headphones (it’s a measure of how much voltage and current they need to operate properly). High impedance means you need a lot of power, which means you need an amp. When you’re on the go, you want impedance of less than 32 ohms (there’s a grey zone between 32 and 100 ohms).
–A sturdy carrying case. Never underestimate the annoyance you’ll feel if you have a really expensive set of headphones but have to tote them around in a cheap canvas case. You need something light but durable to protect your investment.
So what would we buy if we were you? Here’s our list, sorted by the hierarchy of need:
Road Warriors: If you’re indifferent about design, and rate noise cancellation as your primary goal, there are a number of options that will get the job done reliably:
–Bose is a no-regrets choice. The QC25 ($300) was recently re-issued with a new folding design, better audio quality and improved noise reduction. We have a pair, and we love the latest iteration – the case is compact and sturdy, the headphones are comfortable, and they have 20 hours of battery life (enough to get you from New York to Singapore). The QC35 ($350) is the company’s wireless version (they come with a cable for smartphone plug-in, as well). Bose is trying to up its style game – the 35’s are customizable with nearly limitless color combinations – but they’re really about function, not form.
—Audeze. The company’s well-designed Sine ($450) model creates sound precision that many other portable headphones cannot replicate due to its planar magnetic technology. Made in Southern California, they’re lightweight and fold easily; the frame is aluminum and the headband, ear cups and ear pads are handcrafted with leather. Like Bose, they’re not the best-looking, but they’re highly functional.
–Sennheiser’s Momentum 2.0 Wireless HD1 headphones ($500) are among the most highly-rated over-ear noise-cancelling headphones currently on the market. They’re compact, comfortable and deliver up to 30 hours of battery life. These cans have touch controls, effect modes, Bluetooth, and an app that customizes your listening experience. They’re noteworthy for their sound quality and speech clarity, a serious plus when you’re on a business call. They also have a built-in limiter that avoids sudden and extreme sound level peaks (e.g. when you are connected to an in-flight entertainment system that is also used for crew announcements). If you’re open to an in-ear set, the company’s IE 800 is rhapsodically reviewed by the audio experts as “the best buds on the planet.”
–Bowers & Wilkins P9 Wireless ($899). If you’re willing to pay up for superior performance, these British-made headphones receive outstanding marks for sound quality, construction and comfort. Although closed-back, the headphones’ drivers are angled to provide a more natural sound, and they’ve been engineered to remove the sound distortion caused by vibrations between the headband and the ear cups. Crafted from aluminum and Italian leather, they come with a carrying case made from Alcantara, an Italian-made high-tech luxury material.
Jet-Setters: If you’re in pursuit of cans that are both functional and stylish, have a look at these:
–MEZE 99 Classics ($309) are designed in Romania, and have hand-carved ear cups that are made of walnut or maple, with silver or gold hardware (there are three over-ear colorways to choose from). They’re quite beautiful, look a great deal more expensive than they really are, and deliver excellent sound quality (one reviewer compared them to the highly-acclaimed and coveted Sennheiser HD800’s – a $1,400 pair of headphones – and said their sound quality is almost that good). We liked them so much, we used them in the photo accompanying this post.
–Master & Dynamic MW60 wireless foldable over-ear Bluetooth headphones ($549) are good-looking and high-performing. What’s not to like? They have four times the average industry signal range, a 16-hour battery, a noise-isolating microphone and rich, warm sound. The aesthetic is industrial-chic and urbane, and there are three color options, all with stainless steel and aluminum hardware. The headband is made from premium cowhide, and the ear cups from lambskin. They’re marketed by their manufacturer as a “modern mobile thinking cap.” Love that line. We’re in.
–Beyerdynamic T5p (2. Generation) ($1,299) sleek silver and black headphones receive excellent reviews for use on-the-go or at home. Lightweight and durable, they’re hand-crafted in Germany. They’re closed back, but many audiophiles report that they “sound open-back” (a good thing!) The sound is described as clear (as opposed to warm) with deep bass. They come with a good-looking hard-shell carrying case, and a 5-year warranty. The only downside? There’s more bleed on these than others you might choose – so if you’re the boss, go for it. If people hear your tunes, so be it. But perhaps make a different choice if you’re not in a position to exert your authority over your travel companions.
–Audio-Technica ATH-W5000 ($1,200). These stylish, premium-looking cans feature striped ebony ear cups (very handsome, and the wood is said to provide superb acoustic characteristics); the ear pads are cushioned in leather (the company is known for its ultra-comfortable total-ear-fitting design); and the headphones feature a lightweight magnesium alloy frame. Other well-thought-out design elements include a Y-cable with an elastomer sheath to help prevent tangles. They come with a luxurious padded hard-shell storage case. Reviewers reported very little sound leakage, good clarity and a “tasteful” bass level. Sounds good to us.
–Honorable mention: the Parrot Zik 3 ($400) is a very handsome pair of noise-cancelling headphones, with numerous options for colors and textures, including faux crocodile and top-stitched (these are reminiscent of a Chanel quilted handbag). The “bone-conduction sensor” helps pick up low frequencies of your voice for better phone calls, and a sensor detects when the headphones aren’t on your head and automatically pauses the music. Cool! The downside? It comes with an uninspiring cloth carrying case that doesn’t do the product justice – that’s a miss that kept it off our final list.
Supersonic: If money is no object, and you want something that makes a true design statement and delivers audio quality commensurate with the quality of your suitcase and its contents (and the private jet you’re probably going to be taking), here’s the top of the line:
–Fostex TH900 ($1,500) are attention-grabbing and deeply luxurious: the ear cups are a gorgeous deep red, and the housings are made of Japanese cherry birch wood (which has a rigid and dense texture to facilitate maximum acoustic performance). The housings are finished using a traditional “Urushi” lacquer applied by a group of artisans in Japan. The ear pads are made of advanced synthetic Japanese leather derived from eggshell membrane, and the company’s logo is applied to the housing in platinum foil. They come with an elegant desktop stand for storage. Reviewers rave about their comfort and sound quality (the company used to make headphones for Denon, and only in recent years launched its own brand of cans). They’re not for shy and retiring types, but alphas will love them.
–Mr Speakers Ether C ($1,549) headphones, designed and manufactured in San Diego, CA, are extremely hard to find and highly beloved by insiders. They’re award-winning, and you’ll have instant audiophile street cred if you show up at the terminal with them. They employ planer magnetic technology, and they’re ultra-lightweight. Finished in sleek silver, they come with a brown leather hard-shell carrying case.
–Ultrasone Edition 8 Palladium ($1,700) headphones will be loved by aesthetes the world over; they’ve been described as “Mercedes-class.” Hand-crafted in Germany, they have a number of features not found elsewhere, including ear protection from magnetic field radiation via ULE technology. The company’s S-Logic Plus Natural Surround Sound technology reflects sound off the outer ear to create a more enveloping listening experience; the technology also provides a lower dB output with the same perceived loudness (meaning that you can hear well at lower volume levels, which may reduce the risk of hearing fatigue). The ear pads and headband are made from Ethiopian sheepskin leather. The finish is a sleek brushed silver, and is totally private-jet ready. The headphones come with a carrying case crafted from Madras goatskin, and there’s a 5-year warranty. Want even more? The Edition 5s are among a small handful of closed-back ultra-expensive headphones – they’re $2,600 each.
–Audeze LCD-XC headphones ($1,800) have ear cups made of equatorial African Bubinga wood, leather ear pads, and either lambskin leather or micro-suede headbands; they employ planar magnetic technology and deliver clean, accurate sound (one reviewer said it was the best closed-back he’d ever heard). They’re understated luxury at its best.
–Final Audio Design Sonorous X ($5,000) are described by one reviewer as “the last pair of headphones you’ll ever need.” They arrive in a fur-lined wooden box, the drivers are titanium, and the ear cups are made of stainless steel and aluminum, finished in gold leaf. They’re really large, and they block environmental noise quite well. These Japanese-made cans were a bit too bling-y for some members of the Style Council (they’re BRIGHT gold), but the experts say that the sound quality is impeccable. They’ve got swag to spare, and they might be perfect for how you roll.
It’s almost wheels up, so we have to stop here. However you manage take off, we hope this helps you bring your music into the wild blue yonder.