Flight test: wireless noise-cancelling headphones to suit your music

Flight test: wireless noise-cancelling headphones to suit your music

There is arguably no better piece of travel technology for the frequent flyer than a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones. The drone of engines, the chit-chat of passengers and even the squeals of crying children: you can shut them all out and focus on your music, movies or TV shows, reading a book or even settling in for a fitful doze.

But there’s a lot to consider when choosing the right set of noise cancelling headphones to accompany you on your travels. Beyond the obvious factors of comfort and battery life, there’s the ‘audio profile’ of any headphone: are its audio characteristics matched to your favourite type of music?

We flight-tested the best wireless noise cancelling headphones from Bose, Sennheiser, Sony and Beats to help you pick the right cans for your next flight.

Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II

Price: $500

Battery life: 20 hours

Comfort: the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II headphones are extremely comfortable, and at 240g they’re also exceptionally light. They sit well over your ears and the suede-like Alcantara-wrapped earcups are soft and breathable even after wearing them for hours.

Audio: Bose’s noise-cancelling technology is among the best in the market, so you can hear more of your music. However, while the sound stage is wide it lacks depth, which prevents classical or big band music from sounding natural and detracts from instrument separation.

Highs are rolled off to prevent sibilance from poorly-recorded music, but as a result female vocals, piano and woodwind instruments can sound distant and unimpressive.

X-factor: the QuietComfort 35 Series II includes inbuilt access to Google Assistant so you can issue voice commands to play music, receive texts and get search answers to commonly-asked questions.

Sennheiser Momentum 2.0 Wireless

Price: $700

Battery life: 22 hours

Comfort: Easily the most luxurious headphone in this set, the Momentum 2.0 Wireless boasts leather earcups and a stainless steel headband, although this tips the weight to 260g.

Audio: exceptional clarity of high notes on the Momentum 2.0 Wireless makes this the premier choice if you lean towards female vocals, piano and woodwind instruments. However, there’s less warmth for genres like rock and male vocals.

The soundstage combines depth as well as width, delivering good instrument separation for classical and big band tracks, and the Momentum 2.0 Wireless can also handle fast-paced, complex music without sounding congested.

X-factor: building on the highly-regarded Momentum headphone series, the Momentum 2.0 Wireless is a top choice for most music lovers.

Beats Studio 3 Wireless

Price: $450

Battery life: 22 hours

Comfort: While the design is more subdued and professional-looking than Beats’ conventional look-at-me styling – although you can choose from six colours – the 260g Studio3 Wireless headphones lack the luxurious build quality of their competitors and proved to be the least comfortable pair in the round-up.

Audio: with Beats, it’s all about the bass. Rock, metal and hip-hop sound fantastic, with a rich midrange but rolled-off highs and muddied instrument separation working against more textured and gentle genres.

X-factor: the same Apple-designed chip used in the Airpods chip makes it a snap to pair the Beats with your iPhone via Bluetooth. Just switch them on, hold them near your iPhone for a few seconds and you’re connected.

Sony WH-1000XM2

Price: $500

Battery life: 30 hours

Comfort: at 275g Sony’s WH-1000XM2 headphones are the heaviest in this group, but compensates with soft earcups and a well-designed build which evenly distributes their weight.

Audio: the well-rounded audio profile suits pretty much every genre of music , which makes these headphones a good choice if you’re blessed with wide-ranging tastes.

You’ll enjoy offers clear highs, if a notch below the clarity and extension of the Sennheisers; bass response is surprisingly punchy and almost as satisfying as the Beats; and the neutral midrange and sharp transient response handles complex music with ease.

X-factor: need to ask the flight attendant for a refill? Place your hand over the earpiece housing and the volume is automatically dialled down for instant conversation.

Jason Swire

Jason Swire

jasonswire@gmail.com /

Jason Swire is a Sydney-based writer, watch collector and author of 'Timely Advice', a beginner's guide to fine timepieces. His non-watch passions include hi-fi and whiskey, in that order.
 

21 comments

  • moa999

    moa999

    25 Jul, 2018 01:04 am

    A nice review but I don't believe any ANC is targeted at baby's crying, or other pax talking, background constant noise such as engines yes, but variable noise no.

    Any reduction in babies/ other pax is due to passive features (the cushioning) and to be honest you'd be better off with in-ear isolators for this.

    For those looking at cheaper options (below $100) I recommend a look at Bluedio. I've got the T4S and it's quite decent and AND works on a plane although muddles the sound a little. They now have a T5 and T6 out as well.
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  • aggie57

    aggie57

    25 Jul, 2018 01:54 pm

    This is a good point. Noise canceling is great for steady noise, but you can hear conversations several rows away.
    I do find they’re great in a sports car on a noisy Australian course chip road though!
    Member who gave thanks

    Jordan Rowland

  • luckyfnq

    luckyfnq

    25 Jul, 2018 03:20 pm

    Well I use the QC30, and all I can tell you is as soon as I turn those suckers on I hear nothing, no babies no engine noise, turn them off and its all back, if your a frequent traveller on a plane you should really try them out! I had a set Sennheisers and Sonys before, but these Bose just do a fantastic job at shutting it all out perhaps not the best acoustic sounding device but as far as cancelling out the noise brilliant.
    Members who gave thanks

    Lister Bass, Jordan Rowland

  • sdtravel

    sdtravel

    25 Jul, 2018 07:31 am

    I have a set of qc20's I like because they are easy to sleep with. I am looking to re replace them. I take it there is nothing in the in ear range that comes close to any of these.
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  • aggie57

    aggie57

    25 Jul, 2018 01:51 pm

    Same here. I like they’re small, light, have good battery life, plug into the phone and into the aircraft audio, and have decent if not great sound. My older QC3’s sit at Ho,e in the cupboard. Too big.
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  • Nic Jay

    jnic

    25 Jul, 2018 03:45 pm

    To save weight and size, I use the Bose QuietComfort 20 In-Ear noise-cancelling earbuds. They are a bit critical in terms of sitting them in your ears to seal outside noises from seeping through but after a while they just sit in there and work !!! They are well suited to having one ear on a pillow for sleeping too.

    I used to use the full-size Bose headphones but the in-ears work almost as well and can fit in a pocket when not in use.

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  • sdtravel

    sdtravel

    25 Jul, 2018 03:57 pm

    My current QC20's are a bit beaten up after 4+ years of use. Im looking at what to replace them with but cant find a good alternative that has bluetooth and also somehow supports a cable to be plugged into the IFE systems. Probably too much to ask.
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  • Mahesh

    Maheshh

    26 Jul, 2018 04:26 pm

    Hi, I have the Bose and they support both bluetooth and cable connection. I use the cable connection when connecting to IFE. If you trying to use Bluetooth on the IFE that is not possible - although I am told there are adaptors one can buy
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  • Leo Alcano

    loinkloth

    25 Jul, 2018 08:09 am

    I have 3 of the 4 in this article and listened to the Momentum repeatedly at a shop. I find the Sony the best all-rounder esp when u switch between watching videos and listening to music. If not, the Bose.
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  • HugoDrax

    HugoDrax

    25 Jul, 2018 09:47 am

    I've been thinking on the wireless headphones but am confused by...
    - I guess they connect via bluetooth, I thought that many airlines don't let you use bluetooth in flight and it is disconnected in airplane mode?
    - Is there a one/two/three pin plug that goes into the socket in the airline seat and which has a powered bluetooth signal generator in it in order to broadcast the IFE to the headphones?
    I've been using my B&O non noise-cancelling and non-wireless headphones for many years!
    No member give thanks

  • turbojezz

    turbojezz

    25 Jul, 2018 12:51 pm

    I think you are missing the B&W headphones. The P3 series 2 are my favorite headphones. Not crazy expensive and they go LOUD! Volume always kills the noise :)
    The PX series should be considered if you need wireless & noise cancelling.
    No member give thanks

  • Dave

    Grannular

    25 Jul, 2018 12:59 pm

    The Qantas store recently had a sale on the Bowers and Wilkins PX at $348 + 2k points. I picked myself up a set and htey are absolutely fantastic. Interestingly enough, I had a look at the tracking and they shipped from JB Hifi
    Member who gave thanks

    marcellinus

  • marcellinus

    marcellinus

    25 Jul, 2018 02:41 pm

    @Grannular I did exactly the same thing and very happy with purchase - excellent sound and build quality. However, I will admit that the Sony and Bose are more comfortable. But ultimately I wanted headphones with great sound and the Sony's were more expensive and felt more flimsy and the Bose overrated sound-wise.
    No member give thanks

  • Trevor Tennant

    trevort

    25 Jul, 2018 03:19 pm

    Agree with previous comments regarding the ability of NC headphones to block out babies crying etc. They are not deigned to do this. They work on interrupting low frequency sound waves (like engine drone) and not high-frequency sounds. Also find it odd that someone would want to spend circa $500 on NCH for use on an aeroplane. Who really cares or notices "preventing sibilance from poorly-recorded music" or "female vocals, piano and woodwind instruments can sound distant and unimpressive." when you're on an aeroplane? It is not a sound studio! I have the $200 Sony WH-CH700's and my wife has the $200 Bose Quiet Comfort 25's, and both are excellent.
    No member give thanks

  • oldfolky

    oldfolky

    25 Jul, 2018 03:34 pm

    I have the previous model of the Sony MDR-1000 and they are great. Audio quality is great and the noise cancelling highly effective. I would never be so rude as to hold even a short conversation using the audio pass through but it is useful to hear what is going on around you.

    I wear them pretty much every day in a noisy hotdesking office as week as on the plane. This though uncovers a bit of a problem. The ear pads have got a little worn and, to be honest, a little stinky after a couple of years use. Unfortunately new pads are over $60 each (per ear) and only available from spare parts dealers who also charge an arm and a leg for shipping.

    Bose on the other hand sells pairs of earpads for a much more reasonable price so I would probably choose those if I were buying now.
    No member give thanks

  • Davedownunder

    Davedownunder

    25 Jul, 2018 04:10 pm

    The hard part about choosing noise cancelling headphones is the ability to test before buying. I have had two pairs of the Bose (wired) QCs and my wife has a pair of the Beats. I upgraded the Bose (after they stopped working) with a JBL E65. Having flight tested all, compared to the two above the JBL sound is as good and the noise cancelling I think better. About $150 cheaper.


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  • John Vallance

    jonvall

    25 Jul, 2018 05:23 pm

    And here is another one . . . Audio Technica ANC40BT in ear bluteooth NC's which support two phones via BT.
    Use them daily whilst driving listening to music via one phone and receive calls from both.
    Have used them "wired" on long haul as I didn"t bother sourcing a BT transmitter and they Work a Treat!
    allows me to kill most of the noise and enjoy programme or SLEEP! Happy Days . . . & nights.
    No member give thanks

  • davdent

    davdent

    25 Jul, 2018 05:39 pm

    I have used the QC20 earbuds for almost 5 years. I used the 3’s and then 15’s, Sony’s top NC over ear headphones.

    The 20’s are the best at “screaming babies” and the most convenient and comfortable of all I have used. They are an absolute bargain on eBay at the moment at around 200. I will buy another set at this time because mine must die soon. I only use them for flying so they have lasted well. I have read reports that using them routinely can lead to early failure.
    No member give thanks

  • petercr

    petercr

    25 Jul, 2018 06:45 pm

    I had a pair of QC15's that I unfortunately lost in Changi last year. At Xmas I bought a pair of Sennheiser PXC550 to replace them and they're fantastic. I've used them on domestic flights with the onboard entertainment and tablet as wired 'phones and via Bluetooth with my phone and (via a $20 dongle) with my desktop PC at home... I tried the Bose and Sony equivalents before buying but they didn't seem as good...
    No member give thanks

  • rune

    rune

    25 Jul, 2018 08:28 pm

    An alternative to in ear ‘phones like the Bose QC20’s is to consider noise isolating from Shure or Etymotic. Shure have wireless variants (http://www.shure.com/americas/bluetooth-earphones), and the sound quality and noise reduction properties are better in my opinion. It can take some time to get use to the in-ear buds (they sit deeper in-ear than NC variants), but the trade-off is better isolation and sound. You won’t be able to hear the flight attendants or the in-flight announcements at all.

    No member give thanks

  • JayRay377

    JoelRainey

    12 Jan, 2019 09:41 am

    Hi All,
    Newbie to noise cancelling wireless on flights and am looking to buy a set before a long haul to the US next week.
    How does one connect to the in flight via Bluetooth on planes?
    Thanks
    JR
    No member give thanks

Guest

23 Jan, 2019 07:04 pm

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