Flying has never had a reputation for being the most stress-free way to travel. In 2023, more people(opens in a new tab) are prioritizing their vacations as a way to really unwind and disconnect from the stresses of day-to-day life — but starting your travels on a noisy hours-long flight with nothing to do but ride it out isn’t exactly conducive to that goal.
Once you factor in that record numbers of people are traveling by plane(opens in a new tab), it’s clear that doing what you can to alleviate your stress from the get-go is essential.
Enter: noise-canceling headphones. Even if you’re not a frequent flyer, getting a pair of headphones that can block out the sounds of a roaring engine, crying babies, or crying adults (flight delays are stressful), can make or break your travel experience.
The good news is plenty of headphones, both over the ear and earbuds alike, offer active noise cancelation these days. While having options means you don’t have to pay a lot to get in on that sweet, sweet ANC, those price differences aren’t without reason.
Some headphones, for instance, offer different levels of noise cancelation, and transparency modes that allow you to keep them on while being able to hear what’s going on around you.
Let’s not forget that ANC on its own won’t save the day — otherwise, we’d just direct you to our best noise-canceling headphones. Comfort can be key too. It won’t matter if your headphones block sound out well if you only want to wear them for two out of five hours of your flight. And for those who wouldn’t mind investing simultaneously in their in-flight headphones and general in-life headphones, a few extra features — like balanced sound and voice assistance — can’t hurt.
With that in mind, we’ve rounded up some of the best headphones for flying to make taking all of those factors into consideration way less stressful than heading to the airport.
But before we get into our picks, we’ve answered some questions on what you need to know before making a purchase.
Does paying more really get me more noise cancellation?Generally, yes. Many earphones and headphones offer noise-cancellation features but they aren’t all the same. Typically, the more you pay and the better known and regarded the brand is, the better the noise cancellation is. Brands like Bose or Sony often offer multiple different levels of noise cancellation so you can choose to be completely blocked off from the world or opt to allow some surrounding noises to come in while flying.
As we mentioned, investing more can get you some nice features to supplement your ANC, like voice assistant support, expansive battery life, advanced codec support for better-sounding music, or better call quality. If you’re a frequent flyer, the cost is almost certainly worth it.
Do noise-canceling headphones help on airplanes?Noise-canceling headphones are at their most useful on airplanes. While flying, it’s difficult to find a moment’s peace when so much is going on around you. Frequent flyers may prefer to rest or work despite airplane noise distracting them. The best way to do this is by using the best noise cancellation methods to block out what’s going on. With that in mind, some headphones’ ANC works best on blocking out people talking more than ambient engine sounds, and vice versa.
Do noise-canceling headphones help with flight anxiety?It depends on why you have flight anxiety. If you hate the idea of being “stuck” on a plane, it might not work as well as if it’s the noises that cause you anxiety. However, by being able to zone out and listen to your favorite music or podcasts, you can forget that you’re on an airplane as you won’t notice you’re flying in the same way as if you hear all the surrounding noises.
Similarly, if you hate flying because of ambient noise like children crying or loud talking, noise-canceling headphones can help hide this away from your ears, meaning you can relax better. With a combination of meditative sounds and music, the best noise-canceling headphones can whisk you away from irritants. Effectively, you can cocoon yourself away from the reminders that you’re traveling.
We’ve included something for everyone, from popular brands like Sony, Beats, and Apple. Onto the best noise-canceling headphones for flying in 2023:
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Battery life: Up to 24 hours Bluetooth range: 30 feet App-connected: Yes The Bose QuietComfort line has been a mainstay on planes for years, often the top choice of people who travel for work. The QuietComfort 45s(opens in a new tab) are no exception, coming out as an extremely comfortable pair of headphones that build on the success of the range.
Tiny mics help measure and react to outside noise, proving useful when dealing with airplane noise and more. An adjustable EQ helps maintain balanced sounds at all times, but if you want to do some manual adjusting, you can directly from the Bose Music app.
Though you can’t fine-tune the ANC as you can with the Bose 700s, the active noise cancellation on these headphones still does a more than adequate job for your flight, managing to block out higher-frequency sounds that most ANC-enabled headphones typically struggle with. A single press of the button on the left ear cup allows you to easily switch between quiet and aware modes when the flight attendant comes around to take your drink order.
Up to 24 hours of battery life is not stellar but not bad either — you can always plug them in for 15 minutes to get back 3 hours of charge for when you’re on the move or taking a short flight. As for the Bluetooth connection, it can be a bit spotty when switching among devices (especially if two are connected at the same time), but the Bose app definitely helps smooth out the process — plus, we’re willing to bet you won’t be switching between too many devices on a flight.
More than anything, we can’t overstate how comfortable these headphones are. Though the design looks nearly identical to the QC 35 II’s, Bose did well in not messing with a good thing. During our testing, we wore the QC 45s for eight-plus hours, some days with glasses, and never once did we experience unpleasant squeezing or feel the weight of these headphones.
Best sound quality
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Battery life: Up to 30 hours Bluetooth range: 33 feet App-connected: Yes Read Mashable’s full review of the Sony WH-1000XM5 headphones.
Sony’s latest and greatest over-ear noise-canceling headphones are the WH-1000XM5(opens in a new tab)s. Though they’re not an essential upgrade for those who already own the ultra-popular WH-1000XM4s, the improved noise cancellation and fuller sound make the stronger pick for those in the market for a new pair of headphones.
Besides sounding amazing, they offer exceptional travel functionality with the “quick attention” mode, activated simply by covering your right ear cup, allowing you to hear announcements and flight attendants without completely stopping your music. Voice assistant support, crisp call quality, and a great battery life of up to 30 hours complete the package for those moments both on and off the plane. Pretty much every review under the sun mentions that balanced and impressive sound from these headphones. Considering noise cancellation often is most effective in tandem with music or other audio you play, this might be appealing to more than just the audiophiles out there.
The biggest drawback is that these headphones don’t fold up, and the carrying case is quite tall, though slim. Still, if sound quality is more important than portability, they’re not that much bulkier than other headphones on this list (and more travel-friendly than the AirPods Max). Mashable’s assistant reviews editor Miller Kern wrote the XM5s were “probably the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever tried,” making them a great pick for folks who love hearing their music shine while enjoying some ANC.
Best budget pick
Battery life: 40 hours Bluetooth range: 33 feet App-connected: Yes While having active noise cancellation at the ready while traveling might sound great, spending hundreds of dollars for it might sound decidedly less so. If you’re not looking for the most top-quality ANC out there, the Anker Soundcore Life Q20s are one of the best entry-level picks on the market.
Though basically a fifth of the price of most of the top picks for over-the-ear headphones out there, the Life Q20s wear comfortably and their sound comes through balanced. Their design isn’t anything to brag about but the ear cups do fold in and up, so storing them isn’t a huge pain. Just make sure to grab your own case if you don’t want them floating freely in your bag.
The middling ANC means that it can block out some background noise, but especially high or low-frequency sounds are likely to break through. The battery life, however, is anything but middling, offering 40 hours of playtime. Overall, these headphones epitomize the word decent – but that’s not a knock against them at all.
Best overall ANC
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Battery life: Up to 20 hours Bluetooth range: 33 feet App-connected: Yes Read Mashable’s full review of the Bose Noise Canceling 700 headphones.
The Bose 700s(opens in a new tab) are truly top-of-the-line headphones for active noise cancellation, which is the most important quality in a pair of headphones for many frequent flyers.
They offer 11 levels of ANC so you can finely tune your experience, blocking out as much or as little as you want. You can create up to three different presets between 0 and 10, so you won’t have to filter through all eleven options every time you want to change the settings. This level of customization is not common among headphones, really setting the Bose 700s apart from its competitors. Alongside that, they sound great, with bass strong and mids suitably crisp, delivering the audio quality you’d expect from Bose.
Other features include built-in voice assistant support so you can easily use Alexa or Google Assistant to look up information or control your headphones. Mashable tech reporter Alex Perry notes in his review the comfort of the rubber padding on the headband and the foam earcups, even when worn for longer periods of time. He also said these headphones are great at blocking out background sounds while on calls, which makes them especially ideal for frequent travelers who often find themselves on the phone while waiting in noisy airport terminals. To top it all off, they fold flat, and come with a zip-up case for safe transport. The major downside of these headphones is the battery life, which like the AirPod Maxs, only goes up to 20 hours.
Best for Apple loyalists
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Battery life : 20 hours Bluetooth Range: Up to 300 feet App connected : No Read Mashable’s full review of the Apple AirPods Max.
Almost as soon as you finish unboxing the AirPods Max, they connect to your device, courtesy of Apple’s H1 chip. If you’re not too keen on frantically messing with your Bluetooth settings on your iPhone or iPad at the airport gate, this is a huge plus.
The AirPods Max aren’t just an easily pairing pretty pair of headphones, either. With the help of eight microphones, these headphones provide excellent active noise cancellation. Switching into transparency mode comes with the push of a button, so there’s no messing with finicky touch controls to hear what’s going on around you. In addition to ANC, they have fantastic sound quality, and support spatial audio.
Their battery life, however, is a bit lacking compared to similarly priced headphones, thanks to the fact that they have no power button. They will go into a low-power mode, but you can never completely turn them off. However, this does allow for easy switching in between devices, and for the “Find My” feature to always work. And 20 hours of battery isn’t bad. In a pinch, five minutes of a charge can get you an hour and a half of battery life.
The carrying case is unfortunately, as former Mashable tech reporter Brenda Stoylar wrote in her review, “possibly the dumbest thing Apple has ever designed,” so these headphones are probably best for people fine with wearing them for the entirety of their trip.
They might not check every single box, and there are definitely comparable options for cheaper, but for those deep in the Apple ecosystem who want a pair of over-the-ear headphones, they could very well be worth the price.
Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Battery life: 6 hours (up to 30 hours with charging case) Bluetooth range: 30 to 60 feet App-connected: No Read Mashable’s full review of the Apple AirPod Pros.
Earbuds rarely offer as tight a fit as over-the-ear headphones, but the Apple AirPods Pro(opens in a new tab) provide you a good middle ground between the comfort and convenience of earbuds while still offering solid ANC. With their recent second-gen upgrade, Mashable tech reporter Stan Schroeder deemed these, “the first pair of earbuds I’d actually consider taking on an airplane.”
The ANC ante has been upped with the latest Pros, which offer even more sound-blocking power than the already great first-generation model. The design remains the same, so you can easily stow the charging case in your bag or pocket. Adaptive transparency mode allows you to hear outside noise once more with a press of the stem, while still dampening unwanted noise. To add to the aural experience, these buds do have spatial audio, though that feature is infamous for working great with some songs and not working at all with others.
Plus, the easy pairing AirPods are known for being even more efficient thanks to the upgraded H2 chip found in these earbuds.
Best Bose and Sony alternative
Credit: Stan Schroeder / Mashable
Battery life: Up to 30 hours Bluetooth range: 98 feet App-connected: Yes Read Mashable’s full review of the Bowers & Wilkins PX7.
The Bowers & Wilkins PX7(opens in a new tab) are designed gorgeously. Sleek yet large, they come with a carrying case that keeps your beloved headphones safe, even if they do fold awkwardly at times. Bowers & Wilkins are a well-known name in speaker technology and that level of expertise shows here. The Bowers & Wilkins PX7 sound powerful with an impressive soundstage effect.
Alongside that, noise cancellation is great and adaptive, so the four built-in mics get to work to drown out the source of any outside noise. Unlike many other headphones with noise cancellation, the ANC hiss is minimal, and the sound quality doesn’t suffer much, even when the ANC setting is turned to its highest setting. Though you can always fully turn off the ANC if you want to hear more of the world around you, lifting up an ear cup will pause whatever you’re playing, allowing you to enjoy your quiet, get your drink order in with the flight attendant, and never miss a second of the podcast you’re listening to.
The carbon fiber material they’re made with makes them light and more comfortable than most over-the-ear options. That, along with their 30-hour battery life, makes them a pretty decent choice for longer flights.
Five out of seven of these headphones have been hands-on tested by Mashable staff, including past and current tech reporters, senior tech editors, and our deputy reviews editor.
The remaining headphones, the Anker Soundcore Life Q20s, were selected after extensive research into specs and customer reviews. We’ll be continuing our testing process to give you our most accurate personal opinions, but we selected these headphones based both on the conclusions of our research and the reliability of Anker.
As of May 2023, we’ve hands-on tested the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones and updated the product information accordingly.
Each pair of headphones, hands-on tested or not, was chosen with the following criteria in mind:
Comfort: As we mentioned above, the quiet of active noise cancellation becomes much less enjoyable if the headphones delivering it squeeze your head for the entirety of your flight. Any headphones that weren’t favored for long-term wear didn’t make our list.
Battery life: If your headphones’ battery is going to die 30 minutes into your flight, they’re not going to cut it for even the shortest of trips. Our picks were typically in a higher price range that have better battery life and quick charge options for the times when you forget to juice up your headphones the night before you leave.
Active noise cancellation quality: There are lower cost options for ANC, but not all active noise cancellation is delivered the same. That’s why we focused on picks that either offered multiple levels of ANC, or delivered a strong level of ANC on its own, that didn’t require music to make a noticeable difference.
Portability: Over-the-ear headphones are going to deliver the best noise cancellation possible, but they are bulky. To keep these picks travel-friendly, we looked for headphones that fold up or that come with sleek carrying cases.
Durability: Taking your headphones with you through TSA lines just opens them up to more wear and tear, so we went for higher-cost picks that are likely to survive the journey. Plus, we made sure to choose headphones that will last you for years, so the upfront investment is worth it.
Frequently Asked Questions Noise-canceling headphones work by reducing unwanted ambient sounds using active noise control. A microphone captures the ambient sounds before an amplifier generates sound waves out of phase with the unwanted sounds. That way, the music you’re listening to shines through the noises you don’t want to hear like babies crying, people talking, or general airplane noise.
Generally, noise cancellation works best with constant droning sounds like a plane engine rather than sharp sounds like voices, but the best noise-canceling headphones still do a good job of blocking these out to some degree.
Some headphones offer passive noise cancellation (also known as noise isolation) rather than active noise cancellation (ANC). Instead of using microphones to filter out undesired sounds, these headphones rely on soundproofing by physically blocking outside sounds using the materials they’re made out of. It’s less effective than using a pair of headphones that use active noise cancellation but it does mean there’s less of a strain on battery life.
Some people also prefer passive noise cancellation as active noise cancellation has been known to make people feel pressure in their ears. When using headphones for travel though, this is less of an issue and also generally something that frequent flyers will learn to live with over excessive noise.