Picking the Best Headphones for the Road Warrior

Posted by Kevin Hanson | Posted in Technology, Travel | Posted on 16-10-2009-05-2008

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As both a fan of music and a frequent traveler, I have been in constant search for the best pair of headphones. Like many, I started first with the included iPod / iPhone earbuds. To be honest, I actually find them to be pretty good, especially when walking around the city. The added convenience of the speaker for talking on the phone makes them a great default pair of headphones. But my love for these default headphones ends immediately when i step on a plane. Once the engine noise fires up, the only way to hear music is to blast the volume. Quality suffers, and because your headphones are competing with the engine noise, your ears are stressed and could possibly become damaged. Read on to find more about my slow progression to find my favorite headphones for the frequent flier!

I quickly grew tired of my iPod earbuds. They were simple, compact, but they a pain in the neck on the plane. No case meant I had to pull tangled cables out of my bag. In addition, the drivers were fighting a losing battle against engine noise, and I was having to max out the volume just to hear anything.

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The Bose QC3 Noise Canceling Headphones

A coworker of mine recommended that I check out the Bose QC3 headphones. The Bose QC3s are over-the-ear style noise canceling headphones. They have a very cushiony pad that fits over your ear, and a tiny battery is embedded into the side of the headset. They are extremely comfortable to wear, and they do a great job of canceling out engine noise. They are a premium product, and the word “premium” applies to the price as well. MSRP: $349.95. OUCH. I was working for a company that had a policy for frequent travelers called the “Road Warrior Fund.” An employee could expense up to $500 per year of things that would help to relieve the stresses of travel. Bingo. So I went to my local Bose store, or actually the one in the Burlington, MA mall, and picked up a pair.

Going from the iPod earbuds to the QC3s was night and day. To hear music at the same level as before, I would only need to put the volume on my iPod at 50% vs 100% previously. The strain on my ears was significantly reduced, and [sarcasm] finally I could blend in with all the other business folks in first class! [/sarcasm] The sound quality really is great. I really had no initial complaints. It was after time that I became a bit annoyed.

First off, the case is pretty large. Take a look below at a side by side comparison of the QC3 case, the Skullcandy Full Metal Jacket case, and the JAYS Q-Jays case.

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For those who like to travel light, the Bose QC3s may not be for you. The included case is really durable and nice, but it’s just plain huge. I’ve seen people bring it on separately, rather than pack it inside of their carry-on. For me, I try to keep the size of my carryon down as much as possible. The smaller my bag, the more room for my feet. I made it work for a couple years, but the size really annoyed me. Another thing that bothered me was that they weren’t comfortable to sleep in. When I sleep on the plane, I usually rest my head against the inside wall of the plane near the window. These headphones are bulky enough that it will press awkwardly on the side of your face and they’ll dislodge. The fact that they are battery powered will bother some, but the battery on the QC3s is GREAT. I’ve flown cross country and back without a single sound outage. So the battery life isn’t an issue. That being said, there were a few times I would charge my QC3s the night before a trip, only to forget to throw them in my bag when I left in the morning. So it is another thing to remember.

I was ready to try something new. A buddy of mine recommended Shure earphones, but I wasn’t sure if I was pretty to plunk down a large amount of cash for noise isolating earbuds. I was concerned that I wouldn’t like the way they felt or that they wouldn’t cancel out airplane noise properly. There are countless articles that tout the benefits of noise isolating headphones over noise canceling headphones. I found the Skullcandy Full Metal Jackets on sale so I gave them a try.

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Skullcandy Full Metal Jacket

Let me start off by saying that I was REALLY impressed. You can find the Full Metal Jackets on sale pretty often. They’re less than $30 at Amazon right now, in fact. The first time I tried these, I was a bit weirded out. iPod earbuds rest right in the outer portion of your ears, typical can-style earphones go over your ears, but these go DIRECTLY INSIDE your ears. They go deep in your ear canal. That’s actually how they achieve their effect. They create a seal, blocking external noise, and pumping in your tunes. For those who are thinking they might want to try noise isolating headphones, I really recommend the Skullcandy set.

You do get what you pay for, though. The cord gets tangled very easily, the plastic cover sealing where the earphone cords meet the primary cable broke, and the cord gets frayed near the earbud after time. They really do sound great, though. They sound even better when you think of the price. Just like with my QC3s, I was able to listen to my iPod at a low level of volume and still block out most of the engine noise. On top of that, I could sleep with these in my ears! Leaning my head against a cushion no longer dislodged the giant cans on my ears. And to add to the convenience of it all, the case is extremely compact, and I don’t need to remember to charge them the night before every trip! And while the sound quality was quite good for $30 headphones, I was ready to step it up to a higher quality pair. After doing my research, I decided on the JAYS q-JAYS.

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I didn’t take time to snap detailed unboxing pictures, but if you would like to see a good unboxing video, go here. The q-JAYs come on a relatively short cord with two adaptor cords. I understand that many people appreciate the fact that the length can be adjusted, but I find it somewhat annoying to have a dongle in the middle of my headphone cord. I’ll get that pet peeve out of the way up front. After this complaint, which is more of a personal thing, I have nothing but great things to say about these earphones. The sound quality is GREAT. They have a dual armature design, meaning that in each tiny earphone, there is a tweeter and a woofer. And by tiny, I mean TINY. Once you put these in your ear, your ear pretty much swallows them. You can lean against a wall, and you’ll hardly feel anything pushing against your ear. Things just sound so incredibly crisp.

The pack comes with a variety of tip sizes, so you can pick the one that most snugly fits your ear size. I love the fact that my music seems louder, even though my iPod is on a lower volume setting. The q-JAYS do an amazing job keeping external noise out of my ear canal, and the sound quality they produce is really superb. So after a few years of trying out different headphones, I think I’ve finally settled on the pair for me, until something better comes a long :-) .

Concluding this post, I must say that all 3 of the products I discuss here are really great. The Bose noise canceling headphones, while bulky and requiring a battery, really do produce great sound. And the Skullcandy Full Metal Jackets deliver EXCELLENT value. At $180, the q-JAYs aren’t cheap, but you could buy two of them for the price of one set of QC3s… I feel that they deliver excellent value and quality. I give them my full recommendation for all road warriors!

Comments posted (2)

You know, I have had multiple different in-ear headphones (Shure E2c, E4c, SE110; Etymotic ER6i, ER4P) and I do just wonder how many in F cabin (and on airplanes in general) buy Bose because they see other people wearing them????

In-ear headphones are superior in EVERY way:
-more noise isolation
-SUPERIOR isolation and by PASSIVE means (no batteries, and not cancellation of waves)
-better sound quality per $
-wayyy more compact
-does not mess hair

Of course, it is not my business to approach people and say “hey, try these out”. Senn and Shure could really benefit from a marketing campaign

I hear ya! And I have to be honest… when I first got my Bose headphones, I felt like I was part of some type of “club” in the sky! It took me a long time to realize that not only do in ear headphones sound way better, but they also take up WAY less space! My bag has never felt so spacious!

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