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Best noise cancelling headphones for flying on an airplane
Your passport is ready, and you’ve packed your bags. You got through security and made it to the gate. Getting on the plane you remember, no matter where you’re flying, airplane cabins are noisy. Flights can take a long time, so you might as well get comfortable with the best noise cancelling headphones for flying. We’ve reviewed many of the considerations that particularly impact folks when on airplanes and whittled down the list to make your airplane flight more pleasant. Strap in for takeoff.
Editor’s note: this list was published on January 5, 2023, and is the first version of the article. Updates will follow as the market changes.
For our top five picks, you can find the isolation and frequency response charts at the end of each image gallery. You can learn more about how to read our charts here.
Why is the best Best noise cancelling headphones for flying on an airplane the Sony WH-1000XM5?
For its excellent isolation and active noise cancelling (ANC) technology, in combination with its comfortable fit, the Sony WH-1000XM5 is our pick for the best noise cancelling headphones for flying on an airplane for most people. The headband of the WH-1000XM5 is supportive and light, while the ear cups effectively seal around your ears without a lot of pressure, making it easy to wear for hours.
Boasting 31 hours and 53 minutes of battery life to a single charge, the WH-1000XM5 will last most around-the-world trips. It may not be the longest battery life we’ve tested, but considering what the battery is powering: DSEE Extreme, ANC, and Sony 360 Reality Audio, the figure is impressive. Using the Sony Headphones app you can hone in your EQ preferences, control preferences, noise cancelling preferences, and your codec choice.
A Bluetooth 5.2 connection with LDAC, AAC, or SBC codecs suits any accompanying device, and ensures you won’t run into latency issues. Furthermore, Sony continues to support hardwired connections by including a detachable cable with a 3.5mm headphone jack. This allows you to plug into media consoles to watch TV or movies too. Really, the only downsides to contend with are the price, and that unlike previous Sony flagship, Sony WH-1000XM4, this pair does not collapse into a smaller footprint. Although, it’s worth noting that if you wear the headphones on the plane, it may not matter if they collapse down.
The Sennheiser MOMENTUM 4 Wireless is a competent runner-up
Sennheiser has airplanes in mind with the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless. The first sign that Sennheiser has designed the headphones for flying is the airplane adapter included in the package for use with the detachable 2.5mm to 3.5mm cable. While the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless does not have class redefining ANC on tap, it still cancels out a lot of environmental noise. According to our review, the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless feels comfortable with glasses, and the leatherette and fabric combination works well for longer listening sessions.
With an awe inspiring battery life of 56 hours and 21 minutes, the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless is at the ready for several trips without a top up charge. That the case has ample storage and some rigidity to protect your investment does not go unnoticed either, even though the headset lacks hinges to fold down. For many it’s the excellent sound quality of the MOMENTUM 4 Wireless that pushes the Sennheiser cans to the forefront. In addition, the AAC, SBC, and extensive aptX support (aptX, aptX HD, and aptX Adaptive) means you don’t need to concern yourself as to whether latency will crop up as an issue with videos.
What about the Bose QuietComfort 45?
Bose didn’t call it the QuietComfort 45 for no reason. For many the QuietComfort series was the entry point into noise cancelling headphones on airplanes, and possibly the first example we saw of someone donning such headphones on airplanes. The general design has not changed drastically. The QuietComfort 45 is built with a folding design, unobtrusive dimensions, and just enough grip to stay put without clamping your skull—ideal for travelling.
Its default frequency response tends to amplify the treble frequencies more than necessary, however, the Bose Music app includes a couple useful EQ presets. Meanwhile, the 24 hours and 49 minutes of listening time outlasts virtually any flight. One odd quirk of the otherwise excellent ANC onboard the Bose QuietComfort 45 is that you only have the option of listening with ANC on or in transparency mode. This is fine for airplanes generally, but nevertheless unusual.
The QuietComfort 45 uses a pretty basic suite of AAC and SBC codecs, which works for Apple users, but AAC does not always perform as efficiently with Android. This potentially can lead to latency between audio and video when watching videos for Android users. For flying, however, Bose also includes a 2.5mm to 3.5mm cable, so you can directly connect the media console on the airplane, or your laptop for movies.
Apple users may want to check out the Apple AirPods Max
We know it’s not cheap, but the Apple AirPods Max is still an incredibly comfortable, stylish, and effective noise cancelling headset. Impressively, Apple has produced soft mesh ear cups that airily conform to the shape around your ears, while still isolating out high pitched noise. That Apple continues to update its flagship headphones means that throughout its life so far the AirPods Max has seen improvements to what started as already excellent ANC. That it sounds good and has spatial audio supports it as a candidate for flying.
At just over 21 hours of battery life, you’re unlikely to find yourself without audio. However, on the list of downsides, the AirPods Max requires a separate purchase of a Lighting to 3.5mm adapter if you have any interest in plugging into the media player onboard the airplane. If you choose to mainly connect your Apple device, the H1 chip and AAC codec will ensure your connection remains stable. On an airplane the AirPods Max is totally in its element.
Save your money with the Monoprice BT-600ANC
Supplying noise cancelling to the masses, the Monoprice BT-600ANC punches above its price point. Its ANC effectively competes with many of the other entries on this list, and for as little as a fifth the price (depending on what you’re comparing). As with any budget friendly headset, that means compromising elsewhere, but not as much as you would think in this case. Basically, your main compromise with the BT-600ANC is that by default, its frequency response sounds a bit wonky, and it’ll improve if you add a third party EQ app. That does mean living with the imperfect sound when plugging into the airline’s media console.
Lasting an impressive 36 hours and 20 minutes, the Monoprice BT-600ANC battery life can handle your air travels. When pairing the headphones with your device, Monoprice includes not only the usual AAC and SBC codecs, but also the rarer (and welcomed) aptX HD, capable of transmitting high bitrate audio, which is great for Android users. That you can optionally plug in the headphones with the included cable rounds out the value driven package, alongside its carry case.
Who should buy the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation)?
Clearly each pair of headphones on this list takes up more space than a set of true wireless earbuds, like the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation). In terms of packing light, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) fits in virtually any pocket. The latest Apple buds possess some excellent noise cancelling capabilities too, and for the iPhone users out there, the H2 chip integration means you can reliably enjoy whatever media you’ve got on your device.
Of course there are downsides compared to over-ear headphones, such as shorter battery life (5 hours and 43 minutes). Also the Bluetooth-only connection prevents you from plugging into any media console provided by the airline. With that said, if you’re hopping on a relatively short flight and your iPhone is readily packed with your favorite podcasts and movies downloaded, the AirPods Pro (2nd generation) can cancel airplane noise very well. It probably uses the same Lightning cable (for now) as your iPhone too, so you don’t need extra cables.
The best noise cancelling headphones for flying on an airplane: Notable mentions
- Anker Soundcore Space Q45: Striking up a nice balance between price and feature set, these cans include a surprisingly good app with an equalizer, as well as good ANC. That you get get LDAC and AAC codecs for $149.99 at Amazon means it pairs with any operating system, while the 3.5mm cable means you can use it with the airplane media player.
- Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700: This pair of premium headphones cancels out noise handily. That it does not fold down, and isn’t as comfortable to wear as the QuietComfort 45 are unfortunate, given that the aesthetics are more slick. For the accident prone, the IPX4 rating is a nice feature. You can find it for $379 at Amazon.
- Shure AONIC 50: For the folks who wear glasses, the AONIC 50 has been tested as providing a pleasant fit. It’s made of premium materials, and sounds good, with a huge slew of high quality Bluetooth codecs and wired listening options. Pick it up for $249 at Amazon.
- Sony WH-1000XM4: The older sibling of the WH-1000XM5 topping our list, this set doesn’t isolate noise quite as well, although it still does a very good job cancelling noise generally. It also has the added benefit of folding hinges to take up less space in your bag, and sell for $299 at Amazon.
- Sony WH-XB910N: First off, these headphones are too bassy for most listeners, but they are comfortable, and you can use the Sony Headphones app to improve the sound with EQ. The fact it costs less than the flagship WH-1000XM5, selling for $248 at Amazon, is nothing to snub your nose at.
What you should know about noise cancelling headphones for flying on an airplane
Airplanes are loud, but with the advent of ANC, the din of the cabin need not bother you as much. Technically, you can use any noise cancelling headphones on a plane and probably have a better experience than with non-noise cancelling headphones. With that said, if you’re shelling out the dough, we have a few tips to make your purchase more wisely.
Some simple features to keep in mind when looking for noise cancelling headphones for flying, besides the noise cancelling feature, include getting closed back headphones. Pretty much all ANC headphones have closed backs, but this is just a reminder to leave the open-back headphones at home. Using open back headphones will annoy your seat mates, because they will hear virtually everything you’re listening to. Not to mention, all of the cabin noise will still reach your ears.
We recommend going for over-ear headphones, rather than on-ear headphones. They may take up less room, but on-ear headphones typically aren’t comfortable over long periods of time. In addition, from an engineering perspective, it’s simply more difficult to create an isolating seal when the ear cup pushes against your ear, rather that hugging around it as with over-ear headphones. That’s also why on-ear headphones feel less comfortable as a general rule. They’re fine for short periods of time, but it cause discomfort on a long flight. Save yourself a literal headache, and choose closed back over-ear headphones.
What you need to know about noise cancelling and flying in an airplane
Given that airplane cabin noise runs the gamut of 60dB all the way up to 114dB, averaging 85.6dB, it makes complete sense that you should want to turn it down. Ideally, your noise cancelling headphones will have both good isolation and ANC. Isolation typically blocks the high pitched sounds, like crying babies or constant chatter. It achieves this effect by creating a seal around your ear. Because airplanes tend to involve prolonged listening sessions, you’ll want to strike a balance between effective isolation and comfort.
For instance, some headphones can isolate very well, but have vice-tight grips, which do not bode well for hours on end. This is particularly true for people who wear glasses, because some headphones clamp down too hard for comfort.
Whereas isolation blocks those incidental high pitched sounds, you’ll want ANC that comprehensively filters the midrange and low pitched noises in the airplane cabin. In particular, you want your ANC to cover around 1000Hz and below roughly. ANC is well suited for the cabin environment and the droning sounds of the aircraft’s engine. Considering, that ANC works by inverting waveforms to “cancel” out the noise, a droning waveform that has minimal variability (unlike the baby that starts and stops crying) is the perfect application of the technology. What you want to make sure is that whichever headset you pick affects the important lower frequencies, because not all ANC is created equal.
Battery life is important for flying, but so is a headphone jack
You might have moved on and away from the headphone jack, but in flight entertainment has not necessarily moved with the same speed. Indeed, some flights feature apps that allow passengers to access media from devices and laptops, in which case your Bluetooth headphones will do just fine, but not all airplanes have this. So, you’ll want to make sure your headphones have the option of using a headphone jack. In addition, check that the headphones you pick don’t have any odd quirks like turning off the ANC when you plug in a cable for instance.
Plenty of airplanes still require a hardwired connection to watch movies on the media players built into the back of seats.
If the in-flight entertainment of your choice consists of downloaded selections of podcasts, music, and videos on a personal device then you’ll want to check your headphones have the battery life to last your flight. Nobody wants to get caught with a dead battery in the midst of a show. Bluetooth headphones have reached a point where you don’t really need to worry if the battery will last your flight if fully charged. However, if you’re planning to board with noise cancelling earbuds, you’ll definitely want to check that the battery life can handle the length of your flight. In imperfect circumstances, a fast charge function might be important if you board with a battery not fully charged, eking out an hour or two from a few minutes of charging.
If you’re just listening to music AAC is best for Apple when asking which codecs are best for flying (it’s also the only codec other than SBC that Apple device support, so you don’t exactly get to pick). For Android, something like aptX or LDAC yields better audio than AAC, and if you’re watching video, definitely aim for something better than SBC or AAC. Otherwise, you may encounter latency in audio and video synchronization.
Which accessories will make your noise cancelling headphones for flying better?
Everyone has their own preferences and rituals with flying, but you may want a couple of items to improve the experience. For your headphones you probably want a case. Some of our selections already come with a case. Typically, look for something that occupies minimal real estate in your bag, but offers some protection from crushing. Internal pockets in a case can help keep your accessories together, like the charging cable too.
You might’ve noticed that some airplanes use an unusual two pronged connector for the built-in media players. Sometimes you can just plug in your headphones into one of the jacks and it’ll still sort of work. Sometimes it doesn’t work. To save you the hassle of purchasing the crummy earphones airlines hock, just get yourself an airplane adapter. It’s small and pretty cheap. You can stow it in your headphones case when not in use.
Check with your airline about capacity limits, but a battery power bank pack can improve most travelers’ experiences. Some cabins have USB ports for convenient charging, but it’s not unusual to discover the one at your seat doesn’t actually work. Given that many folks fly with power hungry devices, keeping a battery pack on hand can help if your headphones’ battery drains before you land.
How we test the best noise cancelling headphones for flying on airplanes
We subject all of our headphones to the same set of tests from repeating battery life tests to utilizing our Bruel & Kjaer 5128 for finding frequency responses and noise cancelling efficacy. In addition to using our objective measurements to support our findings, we also review each set of headphones hands on to see how well they perform their intended uses. At the end of the day, some products are better on paper than in reality, which is why we test and try everything we review.
How we choose the best noise cancelling headphones for flying on airplanes
Through consulting our staff’s extensive knowledge and comparing all of our objective tests, we’ve selected the best noise cancelling headphones for flying on airplanes. The Best list here is not representative of a single individual’s opinions. Rather, it is the culmination of our shared expertise as an organization, as informed by objective measurements and reviews. For this list we consider the variable and unique needs of individual travelers with particular features that are necessary criteria to meet. To name a couple features we look for: good noise cancelling, comfort, and connectivity.
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Frequently asked questions
The best noise cancelling headphones are the best because they do most of what you want and need in the best headphones. So, it’s no surprise that you’ll see some similarities between our selections. The list here attempts to capture some of the central concerns for folks on airplanes like comfort, optional wired listening, and effective ANC.
Yes you can use Bluetooth on an airplane. You will need to put your device into airplane mode. Unless told otherwise by the flight attendants, you can use Bluetooth while in airplane mode. Most of the time you’ll also need a hardwired connection to use the media player console aboard your plane.