Headphones For Air Travel – What’s Best?

So I’m a month into my engagement to the west. I must say I miss my music weekends. However the beaches down this side aren’t so bad and neither is my ever increasing budget for more hi-fi.

I’ve done a fair deal of air travel in the last few weeks, and thought I’d write a brief review of headphones for the purposes of air travel (and earphones/canalphones, which I will categorise as headphones from here on to save wear on my keyboard).

I have a number of headphones, all with certain strengths and weaknesses. However, the effectiveness of headphones is much more dependent on the listening environment than the headphones themselves. Listening to headphones in a quiet room is a completely different experience, and requires different gear, compared with using headphones in a car, or on a plane.

The key factor here is ambient noise.

If there was no ambient noise, nearly all headphones would be open, medium/large in size and nobody would bother with earphones/canalphones. The choice of headphone design is essentially a matter of where it will be used.

So, what’s best for a plane? I tested a number of my headphones:
- Apple iPod stock earphones (free, with iPod)
- Random Audio Technica canalphones (Not sure of model, bought a few years ago for $30 at an airport)
- Audio Technica ATH-ANC3 (Noise cancelling, canalphones $250)
- Alessandro MS-2 (Open headphones, $300)
- Bose Quietcomfort 15 (Noise cancelling, closed headphones $400)

Here’s what I found.

Apple iPod stock earphones
These were the first I tested. They weren’t exactly horrible, but it was obvious that they were hardly adequate. Sound quality is rather poor and noise reduction is lacking. In fact, I have some of those little foam “socks”, which I put on and improved noise performance tremendously. Still, I wouldn’t bother with these. Even the poorest quality canalphones would be an improvement.

Random Audio Technica canalphones
These were a significant improvement on the iPod stock earphones (as expected). However only in the form of noise reduction (clearly). Surprisingly the bass performance on these earphones was quite disappointing and was even beaten by the iPod stocks. If I had to travel I’d choose these, but only as better-than-airline-headset earplugs…

Audio Technica ATH-ANC3
Now we’re getting somewhere. The active noise cancellation is a stark change from the “leaky” noise supression of the other headphones. The sound quality is good and noise cancellation really works. If you’re travelling at night, just leave your mp3 player on with some quiet music. The noise cancellation really helps to reduce the sound of the jets, which, after about 4 hours of travel will sound like a roar when your breakfast comes and you need to take them off to talk to the stewardess. Yummy.

Alessandro MS-2
Don’t even bother with these. For an hour flight they’d keep you entertained, any longer and you’d have trouble justifying wearing them. On an aircraft, comfort in being able to move is key, and these won’t allow you to rest your head sideways, or really in any position other than sitting up straight. Open headphones are nearly useless on aircraft. I love these headphones otherwise, but leave them at home…

Bose Quietcomfort 15
I borrowed these off a friend after he raved to me day and night about them. So I tried them on. They’re extremely good. The roar of the jet goes to a dull murmur in the background, and Diana Krall really sings. The sound is albiet, a little dry, but I suppose that’s the effect of extreme noise reduction. There’s little ambience to it, but it’s a good compromise. One annoyance, despite the excellent sound performance, is the fact that these headphones are as big as the Alessandros. While I found them better fitting and much more comfortable around the ears, they still don’t allow you to rest your head. Only use if you’re not sleeping.

Audio Technica ATH-ANC3 by a clear margin. Canalphones do a lot to reduce noise, and adding noise cancellation makes air travel much easier. The Bose headphones have a nicer sound, but if I was to choose them on sound I’d be going for the Alessandros. Open headphones are completely useless on planes, and while active noise cancellation works quite well, insulation from noise works better. For pure comfort and noise reduction, canalphones with noise cancellation are the way to go. If you’re not going to be sleeping or resting your head, you could also consider the Bose headphones.

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