Finding good travel headphones is hard. There are literally thousands of different kinds of headphones out there, and most are ridiculously expensive. How do you know that you aren’t investing in headphones that sound like two tin cans bouncing down the stairs until the cord breaks a week later as you are boarding a 12 hour flight?
How to find the best travel headphones
Everyone has a different amount they are willing to spend for what they are looking for in headphones. Some people want to wear massive bright green tuna cans on their head so they can let everyone know they care about their sweet tunes. Others want to isolate themselves from all the noise in the world so they can focus on their audiobooks, even on a crowded plane.
We’re going to focus on the best all-around headphones specifically for travel. We want to keep things as small as possible while still sounding great, feeling comfortable, and surviving the long nights twisted up in a corner of your pocket while you sleep with them in.
Option 1: The Cheapskate
When you skimp on price, you sacrifice something. Ideally it’s not audio quality or comfort, as without those two things, you might as well be listening to the free headphones they give you on the plane. Those things feel like you stuck knives in your ears that happen to be vibrating random frequencies.
The best thing to sacrifice is durability. When you pay less, you replace things more frequently, and you just need to figure out which makes more sense for you. For a long time I just picked up JVC HA-FX5s (such a catchy name!), and they are honestly amazing for the price. They only cost $5-15, have a built-in air cushion that makes them feel amazing, and have great sound quality. However, the longest a pair has lasted is one year. Before too long, the air cushion will start to tear off and the cord will break, but at this price, just get a new pair. It takes a lot of them to add up to one fancy pair of headphones.
If you are looking for budget headphones that still sound and feel great, get these.
Option 2: The Audiophile
If you want to immerse yourself in your music completely, able to hear all the little notes in any kind of loud situation on the road, there’s really only one way to go. Isolating headphones. While traveling, the best option for these are the Etymotic ER-4Ps.
These are pretty much the ultimate when it comes to losing yourself in music wherever you are. Even on a loud plane with a baby screaming next to you, slide these in your ears and all you will hear is silence until the first notes play. You will hear details of your music you never noticed before. Fingers sliding along guitar strings, missed notes, and simply a perfectly balanced audio that sounds as it was meant to be heard.
The only real downside to these headphones is how they achieve that complete sound isolation without surrounding your ears. These slide deep into your ears in a way that will feel strange and uncomfortable at first. Eventually your ears acclimate and you forget they are there, and all you have is amazing sound. Until it’s time to take them out and it feels like you are removing something from deep within your head.
Honestly, it’s not as bad as I’m describing, but it will seriously squick you out the first couple times you go through it.
Option 3: The Middle Ground
There isn’t often a middle ground with things. Usually you go cheap and replace often, or you go high end and stop worrying about it for life. And honestly, there isn’t much of a middle ground with headphones. It’s taken a lot of research, ripped cords, broken earpieces, and horrible audio over years to finally discover that diamond in the rough. And honestly, I would never have discovered these if I hadn’t been traveling.
A pair of headphones I was researching died while I was in Tokyo. I realized that I was in the electronics capital of the world, typically 20 years ahead of everyone else, and I needed to take advantage of this. I headed down to Akihabara (“Electric Town”), the center of all electronics in the known world, and started touring electronics stores. Huge supermarkets. Tiny vendors in alleys. Anywhere that had headphones I could try out, I would test them using a range of different music I had on my iPhone, to compare them all with the same source.
They were all what you would expect. $20 headphones sounded tinny. $500 headphones sounded amazing, but were bulky. $120 headphones sounded alright, but not 6 times better than the $20 headphones. I probably tried out over 100 different kinds of headphones, getting sick of listening to the same songs over and over.
Suddenly there was a pair that sounded amazing. They blocked a fair amount of sound and still felt comfortable moving around. They had solid bass, but not overpowering. They even had a microphone and a volume/smartphone remote sleekly built in so you could answer a call while listening to music without missing a beat. On top of this, they just looked beautiful and minimalist.
The Audio Technica CKS55i (what’s with these catchy names?) is only sold in Japan, so you won’t see a lot about it outside of that country. However, we live in the future now, and importers on Amazon will sell it to you without a markup, and even throw in free shipping.
They come in black, white, and red/black. There’s even a version without the phone/volume controls if you want to save a few bucks, but it’s ridiculously convenient to turn down the volume while listening for a train station, then turn it back up without ever pulling the music player out of your pocket.
As for durability, these headphones have been with me through dozens of flights, trains, and horseback rides over the last 2 years, and they don’t show the slightest bit of wear. I get the feeling these are going to last a long time.
While the sound quality that isolation headphones give you can be nice, they can also be dangerous while walking down the street. You might not hear a honking horn or someone calling your name, and you have to go through pulling them out and putting them back in every time someone wants to ask you a question. For that reason, I prefer these headphones that block out a lot of noise, but not everything. You can decide which headphones make the most sense to you.
If you are looking for those big bright green cans to let everyone know about your sweet tunes, perhaps you forgot that this is a site about minimalist travel. I’ll let you go pick up some Beats by Dr. Dre while I lose myself in the next episode of Radiolab.