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Let’s start with the obvious: if you fly a lot, you should get some noise-canceling headphones. I’ll include trains and buses, too, since they can also be loud. NC headphones, the good ones anyway, can reduce that incessant droning that makes travel so tiresome. I never travel without them, but the style I travel with might surprise you. Personally, I prefer in-ear NC earphones. I’ve met countless frequent travelers who think I’m crazy. They also think this earphone preference is wild, as they’d never leave the house without some big, comfy over-ear headphones.

I won’t try to convince you I’m right—at least not overtly. I think it’s worth having a discussion about the pros and cons of each style so you can make an informed decision for yourself.

Travel

Also, for the sake of this argument, I’m going to lump on-ears in with over-ears. There are certainly important differences, but in this case they function more like over-ears than in-ears, so we’ll count them as such.

In defense of in-ears

I would never fly with over-ear headphones for several reasons, but the main one is size. I’m a huge proponent of traveling light. I’ve lived for months out of a backpack the size of a carry-on. OK, technically two backpacks, and that’s actually the issue. My daypack, which is my main underseat carry-on, is stuffed full of all my camera gear. I don’t have the space for over-ears. The size of the case, the extra weight—I can’t fit them. I don’t want to, either, and that’s related to the size of the headphones themselves.

You see, I typically take longer-than-six-hour flights. My longest was Johannesburg to Atlanta at around 18 hours, but I’ve done a bunch in the 15-hour range. My hope is to sleep on the plane, and the bulk of over-ear headphones is not conducive to this. Even with lie-flat business-class seats (thanks, credit card points!), your only comfortable position with over-ear headphones is on your back. I can’t sleep like that. Even in the cheap seats, when I try to lean against a window or with a pillow on my shoulder, the bulk of over-ears is unpleasant. Maybe you’ve tried and have no problem, but for me it’s a no-go.

Bose

Instead, for years I’ve flown with Bose QuietComfort 20 wired earbuds. The earbuds themselves are quite small, and they have ultra-comfortable silicone wings to securely fit in your ears without undue pressure. I’ve slept on them countless times. I’m saddened that the battery is finally going after years of service, but the QuietComfort Earbuds II offer even better noise canceling and are a likely replacement. I’ve only tested them on one cross-country flight, but they seem like they’ll work for my purposes. Regardless, both models fit in a tiny case that can fit in any pocket.

So for ease of carrying and ease of wearing, I think in-ears are the way to go.

In defense of over-ears

The main reasons over-ears are great are overall noise reduction and comfort. For a lot of people, wearing earbuds for a long time just isn’t comfortable. I get it. I’ve certainly worn some earbuds that feel great for a short listen and then get progressively more annoying to wear. I know a lot of people, my parents included, who just can’t get a comfortable fit with any of them. So over-ears are really the only option. Fair enough.

Then there’s the noise reduction itself. The electronic “active” aspect of noise canceling can be just as good in earbuds as over-ears. Over-ears, however, offer many people a better seal against the outside world. Or at the very least, they’re less seal-dependent compared to in-ears. So there’s passive isolation possible in the design itself. Typically, this helps in the midrange and occasionally the upper-midrange. Conveniently, this is where active noise canceling starts to lose its effectiveness (well, usually). So potentially, you can get an even quieter flight. The difference won’t be as big as what you get stepping up to any decent NC headphone from a non-NC headphone, but it certainly won’t hurt.

PX7 S2

We discussed the size aspect above, but even if you have the space in your carry-on and don’t mind lugging them around at your destination, there’s the question of weight. Have you worn your headphones for five-plus hours straight? How does your neck feel? Maybe I need to work out my neck more (OK, my entire body), but most headphones start to be a literal pain in my neck after a few hours. Something to consider.

For their comfort and potentially better overall noise reduction compared to some NC headphones, over-ears can be a great option.

Fly me to the moon

Largely, it comes down to two main things. First, what do you find most comfortable? What can you wear for hours on end? Second, how long are your usual flights? Two people could accurately claim they fly “a lot” and mean different things. I had a colleague who flew from Los Angeles to San Francisco and back every week. His average year and my average year were fairly close in total flight hours, but those are radically different airplane experiences.

If you’re the road warrior who just wants a few moments of peace, maybe some big over-ears are the way to go. If you expect to sleep, or at least try to, maybe some small in-ears are the way to go. That’s definitely why I choose the latter.

How about you? What’s your pick?

. . . Geoffrey Morrison
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  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed Ge · 9 months ago
    For air /train travel, I’d go in-ear every time, so long as you get ones that don’t keep falling out and provide great sound quality. By design (of the human ear) they can often naturally isolate noise  way better than over ear headphones, without that artificial electronic interference called “active noise cancellation” that affects sound quality.

     My Shure 846s are better than my Sennheiser HD280s at natural noise reduction. And yet HD280s are designed for use by DJs in very noisy clubs, and are too grippy and tight for long term wear.  Also better than any of my other headphones (and I have a few in the studio).
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Ed Ge · 9 months ago
    My vote would be Shure SEs,  the 535 or 846 with their brilliant additional wireless adapter if you want no cable. Or if you want warm hifi sound and  convenience over studio-style sound accuracy and separation, Shure Aionics. Or even the cheaper Shures if you’re on a budget, they still sound good. They all sit totally flat on my ears. They’re not “active” noise cancelling, which is a good thing if you like really excellent sound quality. Instead they rely on a perfect seal in your ears to isolate noise, and thanks to the huge range of fittings they come with, that’s probably not going to be a problem for most people. 

    I’ve had lots of “active noise cancelling” in ears, and none of them actually got rid of more noise, to my ears, than these Shures really, and all of them affected the sound quality when the electronic noise cancelling was engaged. And none of them sat so flat on my ears, or stayed in properly when walking quickly through the airport…the Shures never budge thanks to the wrap-around-your-ear design. 
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jimf · 11 months ago
    over the ear every time...i usually dont fly more than 9 or 10 hours one way, but over the ear is great.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    Doug Schneider · 11 months ago
    Geoffrey makes a good case for in-ears, but i just don't like them when I travel. First, they're too easy to lose. But second, I like the way an over-ear fits and also blocks out, say, airplane-engine sound. The only thing I don't like about over-ear headphones is that after an overnight flight, the band leaves a big dent in hair on top of your head that you can't get out.
  • This commment is unpublished.
    jimf · 11 months ago
    over the ear definitely

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