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Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting
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-1000XM5.
Editor’s note: this list of the Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting was updated on June 22, 2022, to include the Sony WH-1000XM5 and Bose QuietComfort 45 in the Best list, as well as microphone demos, and charts for the Jabra Elite 45h. Bose QuietComfort 35 II. Sony WH-1000XM4, Jabra Elite Active 4, and Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3 were added to Notable mentions, and a contents menu, FAQ, and format received updates.
Everyone will like the Sony WH-1000XM5
It folds, and it blocks out both high frequencies and low frequencies using effective active noise cancelling (ANC) and passive isolation, with a good battery life. Perhaps it’s no surprise, given that the WH-1000XM4 (and the WH-1000XM3 before it) topped our list, but our pick is the Sony WH-1000XM5. With its redesigned fit, it isolates even better than the previous generation without compromising comfort. The WH-1000XM5 retains touch controls, Ambient passthrough modes, and comes with a useful Sony Headphones app to really eke the most out of the headphones.
Sure, the price hovering around $400 USD is a legitimate reason to pause. In which case, nobody blames you for grabbing previous WH-1000XM4, but Bluetooth is pretty well established at this point, and anyone in need of a high quality codec like LDAC can’t go wrong with the WH-1000XM5. It also has the more common AAC and SBC codec support. In addition, the Sony Headphones app lets you EQ to your preference.
Sporting an eight microphones array with AI, the mic has very good noise rejection and voice accuracy. Take a listen.
Sony WH-1000XM5 mic demo (Ideal):
Sony WH-1000XM5 mic demo (Office):
Sony WH-1000XM5 mic demo (Street):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Of particular use on your commute is the ability to cup your hand over the right ear housing and temporarily turn on Ambient listening. That’s great for subway announcements or anything on the fly. Finally, those who like surround sound, can use the Sony 360 Reality Audio.
If you want true wireless earbuds, go with Apple AirPods Pro
If what you want is portability, then yes, the best option (if you have an iPhone) you can get is the Apple AirPods Pro. While there are plenty of great true wireless earbuds to choose from here, the AirPods Pro nails almost everything that’s important to commuters. Thanks to much better isolation over the AirPods (3rd generation) and the inclusion of active noise cancelling, the Pro actually sounds good and keeps background noise out.
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 this set of buds the best for commuters is the charging case. While the actual earbuds of something like the Sony WF-1000XM4 or the Panasonic RZ-S500W are both fantastic, the AirPods Pro charging case is just sleeker and easier to carry.
Most listeners rate the AirPods Pro mic as “okay” or “good”, which is about average. Certainly, you can use it for your phone calls.
AirPods Pro microphone demo (Ideal):
AirPods Pro microphone demo (Office):
AirPods Pro microphone demo (Street):
How does the microphone sample sound to you?
If you’re a staunch Android user, the AirPods Pro probably isn’t the best use of your cash because you can’t use all the features, but it’s definitely the archetype everyone is looking at when designing new earphones. 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 is the clear winner.
The Bose QuietComfort 45 is the most comfortable pair of commuter headphones
Bose updated the already incredibly comfortable QuietComfort 35 II with better ANC and a USB-C connection on the Bose QuietComfort 45. For commutes the folding frame and relatively compact shape make it an excellent choice on the go. ANC rates as much improved over the last generation, and it’s simply one of the best noise cancelling headsets around. One downside is that listeners can’t access a standard listening mode; it’s ANC or Ambient mode only.
The QuietComfort 45 comes with optional hardwired connection to compliment its long battery life (24 hours 49 minutes) with only AAC or SBC codec choices. While the default voicing is very trebly, the Bose Music app has an equalizer that can get the QC 45 close to perfect sounding. We chose the QC 45 over the Bose Noise Cancelling headphones 700, because the cushions feel better and it can fold for easy storage in your bag.
It’s certainly no dedicated studio mic, but the QC45 mic is fine and will work in most situations.
Bose QuietComfort 45 microphone demo (Ideal):
Bose QuietComfort 45 microphone demo (Wind):
Bose QuietComfort 45 microphone demo (Street):
How does the sample sound to you?
For an all around contender, get the Shure AONIC 50
The Shure AONIC 50 is a great pair of commuter headphones that warrants its exorbitant price. This headset has the most effective and consistent low-frequency noise cancelling we’ve tested. Sub-bass notes are rendered one-half to one-quarter as loud as they’d sound sans-noise cancellation which is quite good, though not the best.
Looking beyond noise cancelling, it’s apparent that the Shure AONIC 50 is built well, too. Lily spends most of her days wearing glasses and finds the AONIC 50 comfortable with or without her spectacles.
Hold up! Something’s different:
This article’s frequency response and isolation charts were measured with our old testing system. We have since purchased a Bruel & Kjaer 5128 test fixture (and the appropriate support equipment) to update our testing and data collection. It will take a while to update our backlog of old test results, but we will update this review (and many others!) once we’re able with improved sound quality measurements, isolation performance plots, and standardized microphone demos. These will be made obvious with our new chart aesthetic (black background instead of white). Each new mic sample begins with the phrase, “This is a SoundGuys standardized microphone demonstration …”
Thank you for bearing with us, and we hope to see you again once we’ve sorted everything out.
Shure upped the mic quality of the AONIC 50 with a firmware update. It doesn’t beat out most dedicated boom mics you’d find on gaming headsets, but it’s not bad either.
Shure AONIC 50 microphone demo (Old) (firmware 0.4.9):
How does the microphone sound to you?
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 has improved through firmware updates. Plus, the microphone sounds great when in a quiet environment, say if you’re working from home.
Save some cash with the Jabra Elite 45h commuter headphones
For those who 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 Elite 45h. The design of these on-ear Bluetooth headphones for commuting is perfect: the foldable hinges help you store and transport these cans with ease. Plus, a 54-hour battery life means that you don’t have to worry about charging between uses, which is eco-friendly too.
One of the strengths of the Elite 45h has to be its microphone. It reproduces all voices accurately—including deeper voices, which typically sound distorted on internal headphone mics. The main drawback, however, to the Elite 45h is its on-ear design. It won’t isolate you as well as the other over-ear headphones on this list. It also doesn’t support any Android-friendly high-quality codecs, which is a bummer. But for the price, the Elite 45h is still a great pair of headphones that most commuters will find sufficient.
The Jabra Elite 45h microphone quality rates as better than average, and it does a good job of reducing background noise. During high winds the other person will hear audio clipping, but in less than ideal conditions, that’s not unusual.
Listen to the demos below and let us know what you think!
Jabra Elite 45h microphone demo (Ideal):
Jabra Elite 45h microphone demo (Street):
Jabra Elite 45h microphone demo (Wind):
How does the microphone sound to you?
Apple AirPods Max has good noise cancellation at a price
It’s true that the Apple AirPods Max technically has some of the best ANC of any headphones, but have you looked at the price? We like the headset’s design, comfort, and ANC in our comprehensive review, but it costs $549 USD. Meanwhile, the comparatively excellent, Sony WH-1000XM5 (for example) costs about $150 less than the AirPods Max. Don’t just take my word for it; we did a shootout.
The AirPods Max headphones also only use AAC and SBC codecs, which as you know, is not the greatest Bluetooth codec—granted, it’s also the best you’re going to get if you’re an iPhone user anyway. So if you’re flush from your crypto-currency stock investments and have an iPhone, go for it. If you really want that Apple eco system integration the AirPods Max can supply, though, you’ll want a better case, and it doesn’t exactly fold down.
The best Bluetooth headphones for commuting: Notable mentions
- Anker Soundcore Life Q35: This offers a great value for less than $100 USD, with decent active noise cancellation, a 40-hour battery life, and a comfortable design for extended listening periods.
- Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2: Audio-Technica’s headset is hard to find but if you can get your hands on it, you’ll be pleased with the LDAC support, sound quality, fit and finish here.
- Bose QuietComfort 35 II: This looks practically identical to the QC 45 but uses the older microUSB charger. Noise cancelling is not as good, but the default sound is great. Find it for the right price and it’s still a winner.
- Microsoft Surface Headphones 2: This headset doesn’t have the best noise cancelling performance, but it has the smoothest Bluetooth multipoint around. If you’re a commuter tethered to multiple devices, the Surface Headphones 2 is a great productivity tool.
- Monoprice BT-600ANC: The sound quality is a bit wonky here, but if you prioritize ANC above all else, you’ll get plenty of use out of this pair of sub-$80 USD headphones.
- Sennheiser PXC 550-II: This pair of sub-$200 over-ear headphones is an amazing value for its price. It comes 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. If you want a more affordable, but less comfortable, option, get the Sennheiser HD 450BT.
- Sony WH-1000XM4: With the latest XM5 on the street, now is a great time to find this headset on discount. ANC is not quite as good, but it’s still better than a lot of the competition.
Looking for more portable alternatives?
- Beats Fit Pro: With an IPX4 water-resistance rating, good ANC, H1 chip integration, and software that works on Android and iOS, this set of workout earbuds is incredibly versatile.
- Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: With automatic ear detection and good sound quality, Bose’s flagship true wireless earbuds can reliably hush your fellow commuters for around 5 hours, 30 minutes of playback with ANC on.
- Jabra Elite Active 4: This well rounded set of earbuds is the perfect companion for your Android device with aptX (no AAC), great ANC, and a IP57 rating in case you’re caught in the rain.
- Sennheiser CX Plus True Wireless: These buds have everything you know and love about the original, but with added active noise cancellation.
- Sennheiser MOMENTUM True Wireless 3: The current flagship earbuds incrementally improve on the previous generation with very good noise cancelling, and stabilizers to improve your fit. It has a very pleasant sound and aptX codecs to top it off.
- Shure AONIC Free: This pair of true wireless earbuds doesn’t have ANC but it doesn’t need it. The passive isolation is so darn good that it performs as good or better than most noise cancelling true wireless earphones.
- Sony WF-1000XM4: The newest set of premium earbuds from Sony takes all the features of the XM3 and improves upon the formula. It’s not cheap, but it does a great job.
What you should know about the Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting
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 to 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 are codecs key to determining the sound quality when shopping for commute-worthy headphones, but they’re also just a good thing to know next time you’re dealing with anything that plays audio via Bluetooth.
What is a Bluetooth codec? A codec is something that encodes and decodes digital information. A Bluetooth codec does this with audio information. The codec takes the audio from your source device, say a phone, and encodes it into more efficient packets of information before sending it over to your headphones. The headset then takes that information and decodes it, so that it can playback audio. The tricky part is that both your source device and headphones need to have the same codec in order to properly communicate.
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. Good news though, 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? Simply put, the frequency response chart is just a visual representation of how well a pair of headphones can recreate sounds.
Frequency response isn’t the end-all, be-all of how something sounds; all it tells you is how boosted or under-emphasized certain frequencies sound through the headphones. 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.
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.
Should you invest in a high-quality streaming service?
While the short answer used to be no, today plenty of music streaming services offer lossless mobile streaming like Apple Music, Deezer, Qobuz, and Amazon Music HD. Bear in mind that if you use cellular data to stream lossless audio files on a regular basis, you’ll quickly eat away at your monthly data allowance.
What do you look for in a good pair of commuter headphones?
Not only do people have different needs, but 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 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.
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 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.
Frequently asked questions about the Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting
No, you don’t absolutely need noise cancelling, as demonstrated by everyone using headphones without ANC on the bus for decades. With that said, it’s much easier to accidentally crank your volume above what’s safe for your hearing without ANC, because with all that environmental commute noise drowning your audio out, you’ll want to turn up the volume. In lieu of noise cancellation, some companies have added Adaptive Sound features to turn up or down volume in response to environmental noise, like in the Google Pixel Buds A-Series. We find this mostly annoying at SoundGuys, because it alters natural dynamics in music, but maybe you don’t.