Tips to pick the right commuter headphone for travel
You might be part of the millions of travelers and commuters going about their business every day, but nobody does it like you do. That’s right! Everything your mom ever told you is absolutely correct; You’re special!
Because the way you travel is so unique, it’s important to carefully consider the options and pick the one that works for your needs. It’s like picking what you’re going to have for lunch. Your coworker can totally eat their vegan all-soy faux meat wrap, but an overflowing burrito whose flavor can’t be contained by a simple flour tortilla might be more your style.
Here are the main considerations to help you choose the best headphones for airplane, bus, train, car, or any other way you like to travel:
Look at the price tag
Obviously the price is going to impact your decision. It’s typically the first thing anyone looks at (and runs away from) when choosing anything. But in the case of commuter and travel headphones, the price says way more than how thin your wallet will be after the purchase.
Ever hear the phrase, “You get what you pay for?” Well, it’s true. In the most basic sense, the more expensive the headphones, the better the quality. If you want the absolute best of the best, just look for the higher price tag. It’s as easy as that!
Here’s what you can expect to pay for travel headphones at different quality levels:
Of course, that’s not always the case — which is why there are so many words left to read in this article — but price is a pretty good indicator of the quality you can expect from your ear-pleasing investment.
How do you like to travel?
The way you get from point A to point B says a lot about the type of headphones you should get (not to mention your knowledge of Archimedes’ theories). The way you listen to tunes in a car might not be the best when you ride the rails on a train.
Keep your favorite travel method in mind as you look through these various headphone features to find the one that fits your ride.
Traveling can be noisy business — and no, not just because of the person next to you who won’t stop talking. Considering a nice conversational noise level is around 60 decibels (dB) and an increase of ten decibels means something is twice as loud, here’s how loud different travel methods can be:
|Type of Transport
||How Loud It Sounds
X2 as loud as a regular conversation
60 - 85DB
X4 as loud as a conversation (might hurt your ears)
80 - 95DB
X5 - 6 louder than a conversation (super loud especially outside the bus)
Over X8 louder than a conversation (can cause possible hearing damage)
With that said (at a reasonable volume; we’re not yelling), you might want some noise cancellation with your headphones to survive the daily commute — and avoid unnecessary conversation.
There are two types of noise cancelation you can choose from:
- Passive noise insulation (PNI) – The headphones are built to block outside noise from getting to your eardrums, typically with specific molding to fit your ears, tighter seals, or denser foam around the cups.
- Active noise cancellation (ANC) – The headphones use the built-in microphone to listen and produce a sound that’s equal and opposite to the outside noises, actively canceling it out.
The best headphones for traveling have active noise cancellation. They’re typically better at eliminating ambient background environments, like the constant drone of a plane engine or subway cars clanging down the tracks.
However, the “active” part of active noise canceling also means it drains the battery quicker. And all that Batman-like tech also can drive the price tag into the Bruce Wayne range.
If you generally travel using a less-noisy method — like by car, bike, foot, camel, hang glider, etc. — you might not necessarily need the power of ANC. But that doesn’t mean it’s not nice to have sometimes!
Headphones with passive noise insulation are basically equivalent to wearing earplugs that also play music. They’re great at blocking out just about everything and anything, much like your dad at holidays.
Officially, passive noise insulation headphones can provide better outside noise reduction than the best headphones with active noise cancellation, but it all depends on build quality and the fit around your ears.
The driver is the speaker of your headphones. It’s what transforms all those useless buzzing electrical signals into useful, entertaining, and commute-quickening sound. And if headphones were a car, the driver size would be equivalent to horsepower.
Typical driver sizes for in-ear headphones are around 8mm to 15mm, and over-the-ear headphones can range anywhere from 20mm to 50mm.
As you might have guessed, the larger the drivers, the louder the headphones. So if you want some major bass-booming power to drown out a plane or train, get some headphones with big ol’ drivers!
Just be aware that driver size doesn’t always correlate with sound quality. Just because a race car has more horsepower than a Cadillac doesn’t mean it’s going to be a more comfortable ride. If you want the best sound, the quality of the drivers is just as important as the size — and that’s where choosing a quality manufacturer comes in, but we’ll get to that!
Bigger might be better in many respects, but not every travel method lends itself to giant-ass headphones. The airline gate attendant might get you for having an extra bag if your headphone carrying case is the same size as your luggage!
Thinking about portability is an important part of any travel headphone purchase.
First, consider how much storage you have on the go. Do you carry a big backpack with plenty of compartments, or do you run lean and mean with just a small briefcase? Naturally, the less storage space you have, the smaller headphones you’ll need.
If you don’t carry a bag at all, a pair of quality earbuds to slip in your pocket might be the best option. They might not have the same level of comfort or sound quality as their larger over-ear counterparts, but they can’t be beat when it comes to portability. And if you don’t have pockets at all, it’s time to return that outfit!
Most over-the-ear headphones built for commuting and traveling can fold to nestle cozily into a carrying case. Just make sure the carrying case is small enough to fit in whatever bag you travel with. Some headphone designs don’t fold down as small as others.
Traveling isn’t the gentlest of tasks. How often do you beat your bag against the seats as you walk down a plane or bus aisle? You want your headphones to be tough enough to handle your daily commute.
Durability comes down to build materials. The two most common build materials for headphones are metal and plastic. If we need to explain which is the more durable material, perhaps your time would be better spent with a coloring book than buying headphones…
But just because a pair of headphones contains as much plastic as the Kardashians doesn’t mean they’re equally as useless. Some of the most durable headphones contain both plastic and metal parts to ensure strength and a lightweight design.
If you want the toughest headphones around, look for designs that use metal in breakable spots, like the hinges around the cups. And for over-the-ear headphones, leather or synthetic leather ear pads will outlast their cheaper plastic counterparts.
You can also find headphones made of wood, which is stronger than plastic but not quite as strong as metal. They might be durable, look cool, and provide unique sound quality with natural acoustics, but they’re also porous which makes them highly sensitive to the wear and tear of everyday life. They’re great for studio headphones but not so much for daily commuter life.
Most headphone batteries can easily take on even the longest commutes, but if you regularly travel long distances, you might want a pair of headphones with an extra-long battery life so you don’t have to fist fight someone for an outlet in the airport.
Most wireless headphones can easily go for 15 to 20 hours without needing a charge, even the cheap stuff. But you can get extended battery life in higher-level headphones to take on even the most daunting commutes and trips:
- Basic models – 15-20 hours
- Mid-level – 20-30 hours
- High-end – 40-60 hours
All those amazing features you cram into your headphones like noise cancellation or bigger drivers all do eat away at the battery life. But luckily, most headphones allow you to toggle certain features, so you can get more hours out of your battery in a pinch.
Of course, you can get unlimited playtime if you choose wired earphones without any active noise canceling or fancy features, but what’s the fun in that!?
Wired vs. wireless
It’s the 21st century. Nobody likes cords anymore! And that’s why wireless headphones are typically preferred by commuters everywhere. The cords don’t snag on arm rests and elbows as you walk down the bus or plane aisle. And let’s be honest, headphones look a lot cooler without cords (unless you’re in an iPod commercial from 2004).
Technically, wired headphones produce better sound quality. But you’re riding the train, not mixing the latest Foo Fighters album. Modern wireless Bluetooth technology is advanced enough that unless you’re the biggest audiophile on the planet, you likely won’t notice the difference in sound quality.
Open-back vs. closed back
If you do a search of the most expensive and best quality headphones on the market, you might find some in the ridiculous high-end price range that are open back.
Open back headphones, as the name might suggest, have no covering over the internal workings of the headphones. They allow air to pass straight through the ear cups.
While this may prevent low-frequency buildup and allow the headphones to sound more natural, they’re also terrible in loud environments like public transportation. Their noise canceling abilities would be akin to a fish climbing a tree: just not gonna happen.
If you want a pair of headphones to accompany you on your travels or daily commute, get something with a closed back that will block out the exterior noise. Save the open-back headphones for your next studio gig.
Give them a listen
The best way to determine if anything is a good fit for your needs is to test it out first — just like when you get free
lunch samples from Costco.
If possible, always try out a pair of headphones before you buy them. That’s really the only way to tell if it has the sound quality and feel you’re looking for.
When testing a pair of headphones, try to play a mix of songs that really push the limits. Classical and acoustic music can showcase the sound quality nuances, while big electronic beats push the bass to the max.
If you want a few hints for perfect headphone testing songs, Spotify put together a setlist dedicated to testing headphones!
While you’re listening to a few of your favorite tunes, be sure to pay attention to the fit, comfort, and weight of the headphones. You’re going to be wearing these bad boys for long periods of time, and there’s nothing worse than going to work with an ear or head ache.
Try to wear the headphones for at least 20 minutes to really get a sense of how they’re going to feel as you commute and travel. And with AMS’s 45-day return policy, you can even test a pair of headphones for a month and a half of your daily routine before making any decision!
But unfortunately, we don’t accept returns on in-ear headphones and earbuds because, well, that’s gross…
Can you stand your reflection?
Fashion might be second to function, but it’s still an important consideration when choosing the perfect pair of travel and headphones.
There are so many styles of headphones out there ranging from super cool “steal your spotlight and make everyone stare at your gorgeous headphones" to more basic “still lets your face be the star of the show.”
Shop around to find the ones that best fit your style. You never know when you might want to catch the eye of that person sitting across the subway on your way to work…