From wireless in-ears to full-on cans, which headphones are right for you? Steve Dinneen offers sound advice.
Bang and Olufsen Beoplay H4
These on-ear headphones are a masterclass in minimalist design, with distinctive gold detailing on each can and beautiful twisted fabric wires visible beneath the headband; wear the H4s and you’ll be the envy of the business class lounge. The lamb-skin padding is attached to a thin, adjustable headband and they can be folded flat when not in use.
The sound is what you’d expect from Bang and Olufsen (great) and a welcome addition is compatibility with the Beoplay app (Android and iPhone), which allows you to customise your listening experience (sound profiles include “commute”, “workout” and “podcast”), and check the remaining battery life. They are wireless but, like most headphones in this category, come with a cable should you want to jack yourself into the in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. They come in charcoal grey and the battery should last 19 hours.
Beats Solo3 Wireless
iPhone users should be especially eager to get their hands on these headphones by Beats, one of only three non-Apple branded sets to include the new W1 chip for seamless syncing, the others being Beats’ Powerbeats3 and BeatsX wireless in-ear headphones. Convenience isn’t the only reason to consider them – they are also a cracking all-round option, whether you’re bowling down Oxford Street, listening to a podcast or running a cable out of them to watch La La Land during a flight.
Beats seems keen to move away from its blingy image of yore, with the gloss black and gloss white versions dominating the ad campaigns, but they also come in rose gold, gold, silver, red and ultra violet. The battery lasts an astonishing 40 hours, with just five minutes of charge giving you three hours’ playback.
V-Moda Crossfade Wireless headphones
If you want a pair of headphones you won’t find anybody else wearing, look no further than the V-Moda Crossfade, the striking, futuristic design of which was created in collaboration with top DJs and producers. While the term “rugged” conjures images of boxy iPhone cases, these headphones prove that sturdy doesn’t have to mean ugly – they are designed to last and should survive being chucked in your hand luggage, even without the reinforced carry case they’re sold with.
All that polished steel isn’t light, but there is plenty of padding under the headband so they are still comfortable for long listening sessions. They come in four colours – phantom chrome, white silver, gunmetal black and, most eye-catching of all, rouge. The battery will last up to 12 hours, with three hours of playback from only 30 minutes of charging.
Sennheiser PXC 550 Wireless
These wireless noise-cancelling headphones from the German masters of audio hit the sweet spot between affordability, sound quality and functionality. The over-ear cans are solidly – if unspectacularly – constructed, and are able to fold away when not in use. Even better, when folded, the active noise-cancelling automatically shuts off, saving battery life.
Not that you need to worry too much about running out of juice – a single charge will last 30 hours, long enough to get you to Auckland with some to spare (if you do forget to charge them, or want to hook into the IFE system, they come with a wire, too). Playback is rich and deep, and you can control your music with the touch-pad on the right.
Bose QuietControl 30
These wireless in-ear buds are Bose’s first active noise-cancelling headphones that give you a choice of how much ambient sound you want to block (probably a lot if you’re sitting on a plane, less if you’re waiting at the gate). They have a controversial “collar” design, a rigid horseshoe that sits around your neck, meaning gravity isn’t always straining to rip the buds from your ears.
This also houses the battery (ten hours from a full charge), so there’s no bulky weight on the cord like there was on Bose’s QC 20 headphones. It does, however, become uncomfortable after prolonged use, especially if you’re wearing a shirt. The buds themselves are the most comfortable on the market, and sound quality is great, if not quite earth shattering.
When Apple axed the 3.5mm jack from the new iPhone, the tech world reacted like it had slaughtered a field full of sacred cows. Its solution was the Apple AirPods, which are not as ridiculous as they first appear. Sure, you are going to lose them at some point (tellingly, Apple sells individual replacements for each ear), and they do look a bit silly, but the sound quality is better than you might expect. They don’t reach the heights of rival units from the likes of Bose, but music is clear and nuanced.
They also sync like a dream – pair them the first time with your device and after that they will automatically do this whenever you put them in your ears, and disconnect when you take them out. There is no option to run a wire out of them, though, so they won’t work with IFE systems.
Bowers and Wilkins P9 Signature
If money is no object and you don’t care about noise cancellation or wireless connectivity, these beauties from Bowers and Wilkins should be near the top of your list. With a retro design featuring brushed aluminium and soft brown leather, everything about these over-ear cans exudes quality.
Unlike some top-level headphones, these are made with travelling in mind, with the default cable the perfect length for plugging into your phone (there is also a five-metre version for when you’re in the house), and hinges to (slightly) reduce their size when not in use. Sound quality is excellent, with incredible clarity. Well-moulded cans will also help to block out ambient noise and stop you from driving the person next to you mad by leaking sound into their personal space.
Audio-Technica is one of those brands that music geeks go wild for. It produces some wonderful, top-end headphones that allow musicians and producers to discern individual instruments amid vast orchestral pieces. Buyers of this kind of tech tend to eschew wireless headphones for their lack of depth compared with wired versions. These over-ear sets, however, boast high-res audio, which is capable of playing higher-than CD quality music, and the fidelity is hugely impressive, especially at this price point.
The design is functional but uninspiring, with physical buttons for skipping tracks, changing volume and answering phone calls. The battery is another selling point, with a lifespan of 38 hours between charges, making it one of the best-in-class for long-haul flights. The SR5BTs also come in a blingy white and silver colourway, if that’s your thing.
Coming in at the more expensive end of the in-ear headphone market, AKG packs plenty of features in to justify your outlay. The buds come in a variety of sizes and, combined with the over-ear hooks that form part of the cable, they fit snugly enough to form a decent passive noise-cancelling shield.
It comes with two cables, one “straight”, the other with an in-line remote for skipping tracks and controlling volume (Android and iPhone compatible). But the USP is the inclusion of three sound “filters” that you can switch in for extra bass, high boost or reference sound. In practice, this is a fiddly task that most users will rarely bother with. But these are aimed squarely at the dedicated audiophile, the kind of person who will fill their iPhone with gigantic high-res audio downloads and know which filter to use when they switch from Bach to Kanye midway across the Atlantic.
Sony MDR-100ABN h.ear on Wireless NC
If your ideal long-haul flight involves catching up on half a dozen movies, these over-ear headphones with active noise cancellation are a great choice. While the cancellation and music playback are inferior to alternatives from Bose, Sennheiser or Bowers and Wilkins, there’s something about the balance of sound that works brilliantly for speech-heavy films. You will also struggle to find this much tech in rival cans for anything like this price, making them a good option for those on a budget.
The build quality isn’t great, especially at this price point, with lots of plastic and some frankly atrocious colours (cinnabar red, bordeaux pink, lime yellow, viridian blue), but also black. When the battery chokes, you can run a wire from them to keep listening and, if you have an Android phone, you can pair them using near-field communication (NFC).