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Travel Resources

Gadget Guide: Travel Headphones

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Headphones play the soundtrack of your life – whether you’re walking at sunset on the sweet sands of Maui or stuck on a layover in Cleveland. But it was only a few decades ago when you used the travel headphones that came with your Walkman. And didn’t ask questions.

Today your options for headphones are just as plentiful as the devices you’re plugging into – smartphones, tablets and laptops, MP3 players and maybe even still the rare, vintage Walkman. If fact, in today’s marketplace, you can even pay more for some headphones than for the devices that they’re connecting you to.

Here are some factors to keep in mind when shopping and selecting your next travel headphones, as well as a couple of options to keep on your radar.

How to Choose the Right Travel Headphones

When it comes to sound, there are few golden standards. One ear hears differently than another. What’s comfortable to one traveler is aggravating to another. And a long list of variables ranging from your budget to something called sound leakage will impact your buying decisions. Here are a few areas to investigate:

Budget: You can find headphones for $5, $50, $300 and even $1,000-plus. Today’s $5 headphones sound better than they did decades ago, but be careful of buying them at the airport duty-free shop, where you may get some sticker shock. One piece of advice to keep in mind is just how versatile a pair of travel headphones can be. In other words, if you decide to spend several hundred dollars, can you connect the headphones to all your devices? Can you run with the headphones and then use them for quiet study?

Portability: Are headphones compact? Do they fold up? Do they come with a protective case? Think about how and where you’ll carry your headphones throughout your adventures, wherever they may lead you.

Sound leakage: You may be more aware of this sound phenomenon through the travel headphones of others than through your own headset. Leakage occurs when sounds seeps out of headphones and into everyone’s shared listening space. Headphones with poor sound leakage sound like a boom box. Those with superior sound protection are like vaults – your neighbors will never know what you’re listening to.1

Fit and comfort: It’s your choice of whether you want the classic on-ear or over-the-ear design or the more modern in-ear or earbud fit for headphones. Because all ears aren’t made the same, many earbuds come with tips of different shapes, sizes and materials that can be changed in and out until you find the best fit for you.

Technology: There are two main features you’re looking at – along with bells, whistles and other unique innovation that manufacturers may be introducing to the market. The first is wireless Bluetooth capability. As a general rule of thumb, you’ll compromise audio fidelity by going wireless on entry-level headsets, but the higher-end models will match the output of their wired competition. Second, think about noise-canceling capability. Airports and train stations can be loud. Depending on who you’re sitting next to and what they’re doing, whether it’s gabbing to a friend or watching a movie without travel headphones, the actual plane and train can be overflowing with unwanted sound, too.

Top Travel Headphone Picks

As we mentioned up top, there have never been more choices when it comes to headphones. This is just a small sample size of the available options (and it doesn’t include the last-minute line-up of Skullcandy, Sony and other brands you’ll find for sale at the airport 30 feet from your gate.) So choose wisely and listen to your head, before listening to your podcasts, music mixes and movie downloads.

Bose QuietComfort 15 travel headphones. The Bose QuietComfort 15 are among the most consistently top-rated travel headphones by a number of consumer electronics critics and publications. Featuring an over-the-ear design, the headphones are touted for their superior comfort and superb noise-cancelling ability. They’re lightweight, highly portable – oh, and they sound pretty amazing as well. (There is also the equally highly rated QuietComfort 20 model, which features an earbud design, a slimmer size and even better noise cancelling than the 15 series.) Find them at Bose stores or Bose.com, or through other online retailers (Amazon.com, Crutchfield.com, etc.)2

Beats by Dre Executive Headphones. Designed to help you hear and be seen, Beats are built to be a listening and music accessory. Boasting state-of-the-art noise cancelling capabilities, these over-ear headphones comes with an airline adapter so that you’re good to go at 30,000 feet. The choice of everyone from leisure travelers to professional athletes, Beats are available at major brick-and-mortar and click-and-mortar retailers, including Staples, Best Buy, Walmart and Target.

Bowers & Wilkins C5. Smaller, lighter and a bit more stylish, these in-ear headphones are loved by many, and loathed by some. The reason for the dissension isn’t the sound; rich bass tones earn especially high marks. The rift is all about fit. While some reviewers call them the most comfortable earbuds ever made, others strongly disagree. There is a reason: all ears aren’t shaped the same. Available at the usual web retailers, including Crutchfield.com and Amazon.com.3

Philips CitiScape Downtown. While the other headphones on this list cost up to several hundred dollars, here is a slick pick for budget-minded travelers. Available at under $100 depending on the retailer, these over-ear Philips headphones look cool and sound better. MusicSeal Technology limits sounds leakage. Plus, a built-in microphones allows you to use the headphones for calls, too. Find them on Amazon.com, Newegg.com and eBay.com.45

When you’re on a 12-hour flight with noisy seatmates, and you either need to complete your company pitch deck or just want to get lost in your own thoughts, having the right travel headphones is critical. It’s not just about listening to whatever content you choose, but doing so with the utmost sound fidelity and comfort. Once you find the right headphones, it’s hard to travel without them.


Sep 30, 2014