They say we’re in the golden age of media, which means there is plenty of content to consume on your way to work. Whether you listen to podcasts about your favorite movies, music from a new artist, or trying to learn something from a how-to video on YouTube, almost everybody is on their phones during the morning commute. If you’re a commuter, there are two ways you can go about picking a pair of Bluetooth headphones for commuting, and it entirely depends on what bothers you most. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to happy thoughts in a minute.
When you’re looking for a pair of headphones that you’re going to use every day, essentially what you’re asking is, “How do I solve this problem?” That problem is unique to everyone. Is it the loud train that forces you to rewind your music or podcasts because you missed something? Or do you want something small and easy to stash when you’re in a hurry? Whatever irks you about your morning commute is a guiding factor when purchasing headphones for the journey. If you don’t have any specific issue and just want a better overall experience, then don’t overthink it. Go with the Sony WH-1000XM4.
Editor’s note: this list of the Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting was updated on September 15, 2020, to add the Sennheiser PXC 550-II to the notable mentions section.
Everyone will like the Sony WH-1000XM4
This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the Sony WH-1000XM3 has been our top pick for some time on a number of best lists, and the newly released Sony WH-1000XM4 are even better. The Sony WH-1000XM4 are one of, if not the best pair of active noise cancelling headphones around. But when it comes to features that are important for commuters, these check all the boxes. They have comfortable earcups, fold down to a more compact size, have intuitive touch controls, ambient noise passthrough functionality, and best of all they sound great.
Sony WH-1000XM4Full Review
Sony is no stranger to good audio, having made some of the best headphones over the last few decades. But the WH-1000XM4 takes all that and translates it to wireless headphones, which is rarely accomplished so successfully. While the price may be a deterrent for some (and rightfully so), if you pull the trigger on these you won’t regret it.
Noise cancelling performance is excellent, especially as it pertains to low-frequency reduction. This means that commuters will flock to the latest Sony flagship. The frequency response has been altered a bit from the previous mode, and is now more neutral-leaning. This sound may be described by casual listeners as “boring,” but it really means your audio is being reproduced accurately. A sound signature like this bodes well for a variety of musical genres, not just the most popular ones.
What you should know
If you’re serious about getting yourself a pair of great headphones for commuting, then there are some things that you should at least be familiar with so you can make an informed purchase. While you don’t need to be an audio expert to understand any of this we do have deep dives into almost every topic if you feel like learning more about a particular topic.
Are Bluetooth codecs Important?
If you walk away from this article knowing one thing, make it Bluetooth codecs. Not only is it important when shopping for headphones for commuting, but it’s just a good thing to know next time you’re dealing with anything that plays audio via Bluetooth. So first off, what is a Bluetooth codec? A codec is something that encodes and decodes digital information. A Bluetooth codec does this with audio information. So it takes the audio that’s leaving your source device, say a phone, and encodes it into more efficient packets of information before sending it over to your headphones. The headphones then need to take that information and decode it so that it can play it back. Simple right?
The tricky part is that both your source device and headphones need to have the same codec in order to properly communicate. A favorite analogy we like to use here at SoundGuys is to think of a Bluetooth codec like a language. If two people speak the same language then they can communicate faster. If not, then they might need to use hand gestures to get the point across which, if you’ve ever tried to ask someone where the bathroom is while traveling in a foreign country, can be a slow process.
The basic Bluetooth audio codec that all devices share is called SBC, and surprisingly it’s not bad. But if you want to take advantage of higher quality music or don’t want lip-sync issues when watching videos wirelessly, then you’ll want headphones that can take advantage of better codecs like AAC, aptX, or LDAC. For those wondering why it’s so complicated, don’t worry. There’s a new Bluetooth codec on the horizon called LC3 which promises to make things a lot simpler (and better), but for now, this is the world we live in.
Is frequency response important?
One thing that you’ll see constantly on websites when researching headphones (including all our reviews) is frequency response. But what is it, and what does it mean. Again, there’s a full article you can dive deep into if you want to get into the gritty details, but we’re going to keep is fairly simple here. The frequency response of a pair of headphones is just a visual representation of how well those particular headphones are able to recreate sounds. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of how something sounds, all it tells you is how well the headphones do with recreating certain frequencies. How you perceive that sound is different from person to person, but the frequency response usually gives us a good baseline (pun intended) for what to expect from a pair of headphones.
So how do we come up with these graphs? Well, it’s pretty simple. You feed a known signal into the headphones and record the signal that they output. Then you can see how the signal you got is different than the one you put in. For example, if you look at this graph of the Teenage Engineering Frekvens Portable Bluetooth speaker, you can see that any sound below 100Hz is not given the same emphasis as something in, say the 1000Hz range. Practically, this means that you as the user will likely have an easier time hearing a sound at 1000Hz then a sound at 50Hz. Not because your ears suck (well, not entirely), but because most audio products, either intentionally or not, don’t perfectly recreate sounds.
How does active noise cancelling work?
Active noise cancelling is something that you hear often, but what is it? Well, the name mostly gives it away, so I guess the better question is how does it work? You can dig into the exact physics here, but the short of it is that noise cancelling headphones uses tiny microphones to listen to sounds going on around you. Then, tiny chips in the headphones are able to analyze the sounds, and reproduce an equal and opposite sound that it then plays back through the drivers.
If you’ve ever been interested in studying the properties of waves, you’ll know that this process results in something called destructive interference. By playing back the equal and opposite sound of what the microphones pick up, the headphones are able to cancel some of the sounds. While it doesn’t completely cancel out every sound, you’d be surprised how well some of the top headphones can achieve this. It should be noted that it won’t cancel everything. Some sounds, like a baby crying on the plane, are too sporadic for the headphones to cancel out quick enough. Where they really excel are consistent droning noises, like the engine of a plane or the low rumble of a train. In other words, they’re great for commuting.
Should I also invest in a high quality streaming service?
The short answer to this is no, you shouldn’t. While there are a few high quality streaming services like Deezer, Tidal, and Amazon Music HD that are great and worthwhile if you’re listening on desktop, there are currently no streaming services that I know of which offer lossless high quality streaming on mobile. If you want higher quality, you’re going to need to be on desktop which doesn’t really help you if you’re on the bus on your way to work.
What matters to commuters
Not only do people have different needs, we also all value features differently as well. What’s important to one person might not be such a big deal for another. To get a better gauge on what you the reader might be in the market for, we ran a quick poll on our Twitter to see what really matters to people.
Commuters, what’s most important to you when it comes to a pair of wireless headphones? 🎧
— SoundGuys (@realsoundguys) February 19, 2020
No surprise here, the top spot of the followers of SoundGuys obviously chose sound quality as the most important feature. If you’re nodding your head in agreement as you read this, congratulations, you’re one of us! But that isn’t the only thing people care about. The best headphones need to have a combination of all of these things, which is why the Sony headphones took the top spot.
If you want true wireless go with Apple AirPods Pro
If what you want is portability, then yes, the best option you can get are the Apple AirPods Pro. While there are plenty of great true wireless earbuds to choose from here, the AirPods Pro nail almost everything that’s important to commuters. Thanks to much improved isolation over the originals and the inclusion of active noise cancelling, these actually sound good and do an impressive job at keeping outside noise, outside.
AirPods ProFull Review
On top of that, the connection strength to your source device is great and the ability to control playback and activate transparency mode through the stem is clever as hell. But what really makes these the best for commuters is the charging case. While the actual earbuds of something like the Sony Wf-1000XM3 or the Panasonic RZ-S500W are both fantastic, the charging case of the AirPods Pro is just sleeker and easier to carry. The debate over what’s a better product can be had over on our best true wireless list, but when it comes to what’s the most portable the AirPods Pro are the clear winner.
You might also like: How to clean your AirPods Pro
The Bose QC35 Series II are the most comfortable
While there is a newer pair of Bose headphones available that we really liked, commuters might want to take a closer look at the previous QC35 II instead. There’s a few reasons for this, but the main one is that these are still one of the most comfortable pairs of headphones around, hands down. The ear cups have a soft memory foam cushion that sits nicely on the ears, especially when compared to the newer Bose Noise Cancelling headphones 700.
Bose QuietComfort 35 IIFull Review
The second reason you might want these instead of the newer ones is that the Bose QC35 II fold at the hinges, which is especially important for anyone that wants to be able to stuff these into a bag once you get to your destination. Of course, they do charge via micro-USB so you’re not exactly future-proofing yourself. Also the price hasn’t dropped significantly since the release of the newer version, but if you want the better pair for commuting, this is the way to go.
For the best noise cancellation get the Shure AONIC 50
The Shure AONIC 50 is a costly headset that warrant its exorbitant price, especially for anyone who spends much of their month up in the clouds. This headset has the most effective and consistent low-frequency noise cancelling we’ve tested. Sub-bass notes are rendered 1/2 to 1/4 as loud as they’d sound sans-noise cancellation—something that can’t be said about Sony or Bose’s flagships.
Shure AONIC 50Full Review
Looking beyond noise cancelling, it’s apparent that the Shure AONIC 50 is built well, too. According to a Shure representative, the yokes are made from aluminum, while the ear cups are resin and the ear pads are made from a synthetic protein leather. Lily spends most of her days wearing glasses, and was pleasantly surprised by how comfortable the AONIC 50 was with or without her spectacles.
When we initially tested the microphone, it performed well but did a poor job of rejecting background noise. However, this is something the Shure team is working on improving through firmware updates. Plus, the microphone sounds great when in a quiet environment, say if you’re working from home.
Shure AONIC 50 microphone demo (0.4.9 firmware):
To save some cash get the Jabra Move Style Edition
For those that don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of headphones (and who could blame you) then you might want to look into something like the Jabra Move Style Edition on-ear headphones. While these also don’t fold, they are on-ears so they’re not that big to begin with. Plus, they have about 12 hours of battery life which is enough for a solid week or two of commuting.
Jabra Move Style editionFull Review
The cons of these are that because they’re on-ears, isolation isn’t going to be on the same level as some of the other headphones on this list. They also don’t have any high-quality codec support which is a bummer. But for the price, these are still a great pair of headphones that most commuters will find sufficient.
Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting: notable mentions
- Beats Powerbeats Pro: With an IPX4 water-resistance rating, a ridiculously long battery life, and an H1 chip for a seamless and reliable connection, these true wireless earbuds are perfect for even the most active on-the-go lifestyles.
- Sennheiser PXC 550-II: These sub-$200 over-ear headphones are an amazing value for its price: complete with a great sound profile, amazing ANC performance, 20-hour battery life, extensive codec support (AAC, aptX, and aptX Low Latency), and a foldable design for easy storage and transport.
- Sony WF-1000XM3: Featuring a comfortable fit, intuitive playback controls, and best-in-class active noise cancelling, these earbuds will help comfortably drown out the world around you—all while you’re on the way to work or class.
- Sony WH-1000XM3: Now that the Sony WH-1000XM4 are available, their predecessor is likely to go on sale real soon. If you want more high quality codec options and don’t need the new features of the WH-1000XM4, go with these.
Why you should trust SoundGuys
The SoundGuys team has decades of experience dealing with audio between us, and many years under our belts individually. Every product that we recommend has either been personally handled by at least one of us or has been thoroughly researched as well. We’re a small team and understand that getting our hands on every single product is impossible (though we try), so we of course take into account the audio community at large turning to trusted experts and resources to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. We’ll always cite appropriate sources and give credit where credit is due.
Furthermore, you don’t have to worry about a product being put on a list due to paid advertising as that’s not how we do business. We don’t get paid by companies to put their products on our list, instead our writers are paid purely based on output. The site itself makes money through affiliate links, so every time you purchase something from our site we get a little kickback. So thank you!
Hopefully one of these headphones gets the jobs done for what you’re looking for, but if not then we recommend checking out some of our other lists as well. And if you value saving money and portability over everything else then check out some true wireless options.