Before every trip I take, I spend an inordinate amount of time looking at my headphone wall and drawer, trying to determine which could be the best pair to take. My aim, of course, is to be comfortably cocooned in music, cancelling the sound around me to the point where I can pretend I’m not in a metal tube filled with strangers. So, today I decided to be That Person on my flights to and from Sydney and took three pairs of over-ear headphones to work out which are the best noise-cancelling headphones for travel in 2024.
There are a lot of options for this category, but my backpack is only so big and I can only properly test so many pairs in two 1.5-hour flights. So, I narrowed the field down to the three main over-ear contenders around the $500 mark: the Bose QuietComfort 45 II, Sennheiser Momentum 4 and Sony WH-1000XM5.
The main categories considered were comfort, audio quality and noise cancelling. I have worn all of these separately on long-haul flights in the past, but in recent years I’ve only travelled with one Bluetooth over-ear pair, one wired in-ear pair and one set of true wireless, so I’ve never before been able to directly compare on a plane, which is different than on a train due to pressure changes and different kinds of sounds.
I have to admit, I went into this thinking that there would be one clear winner, and the other two would still be pretty good. Surprisingly, there was one clear loser, and the “winners” weren’t as obvious.
If you’re travelling, you’re likely going to be wearing the same pair of headphones for a long time. I always make sure to bring at least two styles when I travel, so it’s easy to switch between them when my ears get fatigued from a particular shape. But being able to stave off that fatigue, and keep the rest of your head comfortable, are important factors.
I was surprised by how much my skull hurt after wearing the Bose QuietComfort 45II for an hour. I got the kind of headache I remember from wearing headbands in primary school. They put too much weight on the top of my skull.
The Sennheiser Momentum 4 were comfortable for a while, I liked the ear cups in particular. But I found that after a while they pressed my glasses and mask into my face a bit too hard for comfort.
In this case, the Sony XM5 was the clear winner. There is just enough padding on the band to be soft, but not so much that it adds too much bulk. The ear cups create enough of a seal for some passive noise cancellation, but not so much that my glasses become much of a problem for at least 5 consecutive hours (sometimes longer).
Winner: Sony XM5
This is the category that’s probably at the top of people’s list for travel. I’ve long thought of the Sony XM range as the head and shoulders stand out for noise cancelling, so I was shocked when It turned out to not be quite as good as the Bose.
But let’s start with the loser. I am currently wearing the Sennheiser Momentum 4 with noise cancelling on, and music at 70% volume. The overhead announcement is talking about the inflight wifi, the man in 9C won’t stop coughing, and earlier I could perfectly hear a fairly quiet conversation between the people sitting behind me. I am deeply, deeply unimpressed.
Especially in comparison with the Bose QuietComfort 45II. The Bose didn’t completely cut out the sound of the woman in 8C shuffling through her papers, or the hum of the older plane, but I’m not longer having to listen to the conversations of those around me. With the Sennheisers on, I was bothered by the sound of the man in front of me watching Ben Shapiro on headphones with a lot of audio bleed. Had I been wearing the QuietComfort the whole time, I would not know that man was watching Ben Shapiro, and I wish that had been the case. On the flight up to Sydney, with the Quiet Comfort on, I could still hear the kids behind me chattering, but the volume on them was way down.
With the Sonys on, I can hear a lot more of the hum of the plane, but even less of the chatter. For example, I’m somewhat bothered by the higher pitch of the sound of the plane, that hum, but I couldn’t hear the people behind me who just got up to change seats.
So, both the Bose and Sony headphones are very good at noise cancelling, but they both cancel out different sections of noise.
Verdict: Bose QuietComfort 45II wins if you’re ok with hearing a little bit of human noise but want to cut out machine noise. The Sony XM5s are better if you don’t mind the higher-pitched machine hum, but would rather not be aware of the people around you when you have music on.
This is controversial, especially coming from an audio nerd, but when it comes to travel headphones, audio quality is important, but not as important as comfort and noise cancelling. This is partially because comfort and noise cancelling are what I care most about when I’m trapped on a plane, and also because headphones just sound a bit different when on a plane because of the pressure. There have been headphones I’ve loved on flights and hated on the ground, and vice versa.
But, audio quality is still really important, and I’m pleased to say that all three pairs perform really well.
I think the Sony XM5 is the best all-rounder pair. But that could also be because I’ve spent the most time with them and I’m more used to their tuning. But listening to my usual headphone-testing songs, like Simmer by Hayley Williams, is just such a treat. There’s such clear separation on all the little details. Every breath, hi-hat strike, and note get the space they need to convey the stress of the song.
Sticking with Simmer and moving to the Bose QuietComfort 45II, there is still a good sense of separation and space, but I no longer feel like I’m sitting on the floor in the middle of the band watching them work. It’s clear and well-presented, but it lacks the emotion and urgency. The bass isn’t as present either. In the chorus, it comes together a bit more, but the song doesn’t sound as special or feel as much.
Switching over to the Sennheiser Momentum 4s, and the details get lost under all the noise of the plane. On the ground, I really loved these headphones. In the sky, they sound flat and boring.
To find the winner between the two remaining contenders, I’ll go to two livelier songs: Full Heart Fancy by Lucky Chops and The Invisible by Conquer Divide.
The Bose QuietComfort 45II does a great job of presenting the brightness and light of Full Heart Fancy. It’s such a joyful song. It soars. While it’s certainly not sounding the best I’ve ever heard it, it still sounds really good.
On the Sony, there was a bit more brightness and emotion, but I think the bass dominates more than it should on Full Heart Fancy, pushing the sousaphone to the background.
The Invisible has more urgency, rage and a touch of quiet defeat. On the XM5, you can really hear that full range of emotions. The bass is strong, and walks right up to the line of overwhelming the song, but doesn’t quite cross it.
With the Bose, there’s a touch of noise on The Invisible, which is unexpected. The bass is also just a bit washed out, so the song lacks power. In fact, the Bose performs very poorly on this song, after being so close on the other tests.
Winner: The Sony XM5 is the clear winner here, particularly if you like bass-heavy music.
In the end, the Sony XM5 is the best of the bunch, but by a narrow margin. The slightly better noise cancelling on the Bose QuietComfort 45II might give it an edge for people who value that, and who find the headband more comfortable than I do.
In this head-to-head, I was shocked by how poorly the Sennheiser Momentum 4s performed. I had expected them to be much closer to the rest of the pack.
But comfort and superior audio quality, along with better masking of ambient conversations, mean that I’m pleased to crown the Sony XM5s the best over-ear headphones for travel going into 2024.
Lead Image Credit: Alice Clarke
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