Headphones that ease the pain of public transportation

A durable, noise-isolating, travel-friendly headphone can transport your brain to its happy place, so check out my top picks to make your urban commute a little more bearable.

I sympathize with the hordes of urban dwellers who begrudgingly subject themselves to the purgatory of daily public transportation -- the screeching teenagers, sticky floors, and potpourri of smells are part of the reason I ride a bicycle. That said, there are things you can do to ease the pain of your commute.

First, don't look at anyone -- gawkers are universally creepy, so pick a spot on the ground and stare. Next, source a pair of headphones using the following criteria as your buying guide: durable, compact, noise-isolating, and "closed-back," meaning they won't betray your privacy and leak your music to fellow commuters.

This list includes both circumaural (over-ear) and in-ear, bud-style headphones. Both styles are suitable for noise isolation, though you may prefer active noise-canceling headphones if your ride is extra-annoying. If not, earbuds with well-fitted tips (silicone or foam) can be just as effective at muting the world around you.



Soul by Ludacris SL300 Sarah Tew/CNET

Soul by Ludacris SL300

With a generous handful of accessories like a hard-shell case and two detachable cables, these active noise-canceling over-ear headphones are a great fit for travelers looking for a sartorial edge. In terms of their actual fit, the headphones have minimal contact points on your head aside from the leather padding underneath the headband and on the earcups. We found them more comfortable to wear over long listening sessions than the Monster Beats by Dr. Dre headphones.

The SL300 headphones are suitable for blocking outside noise and add a colorful sonic boost to bass-heavy genres like hip-hop, house, and rock music. We recommend them over competing models like the Beats by Dr. Dre thanks to their more controlled low-end that doesn't sacrifice ambient noise isolation. Read the full review.


Sony XBA-4 Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony XBA-4

The XBA-4 is the flagship model in the Sony XBA line, and employs four balanced armature drivers (full range, tweeter, woofer, and superwoofer drivers) in each earpiece.

The headphones come with four sizes of silicone eartips and three sizes of noise-isolating tips, making it easy to find the proper size to achieve that all-important fit. With excellent noise-blocking performance, a comfortable fit, and a sleek design, the XBA-4s are sure to satiate any audiophile's desire for balanced in-ear headphones. Read the full review .


Sony Digital Noise-Canceling Headphones Sarah Tew/CNET

Sony Digital Noise-Canceling Headphones

The Sony MDR_NC200Ds may not sound quite as good as the Bose QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones, but the $150 price break is enough to warrant a solid recommendation. Their build quality is certainly tough enough for daily commuters, and they easily fold up to fit into the included protective storage case.

There's a lot to like here. Excellent design, flavorful sound, and these guys cost $100 less than the Bose QuietComfort 15s. At $200, they're not cheap, but comparatively speaking they're reasonably priced and worth checking out if you're in the market for a pair of noise-canceling headphones. Read the full review .


Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Noise-Isolating Headphones Sarah Tew/CNET

Bowers & Wilkins C5 In-Ear Noise-Isolating Headphones

We tend to prefer earphones that carry a neutral, balanced sound and work well with all kinds of music, and the C5s are right up our alley. What's nice about them is you get rich, detailed, natural sound that delivers deep bass without overaccentuating the low end like some competing earphones.

With three different sizes of eartips to choose from, you should be able to get a tight seal from one set, and most users shouldn't have a problem with the Secure Loop design. But ears come in all different shapes and sizes, which is why we have to temper our praise and say that the Bowers & Wilkins C5s are wonderfully designed earphones with excellent sound quality -- but they may not be perfect for everybody. Read the full review .


Ultimate Ears 700 Noise-Isolating Earphones Sarah Tew/CNET

Ultimate Ears 700 Noise-Isolating Earphones

The UE700's dual-armature driver design puts two speakers in each earbud -- one that accents high and midlevel frequencies, and another that delivers thumping, natural bass. They're also smaller than most, purposefully slim for comfort, and travel at only 11.6 grams per earbud.

Logitech lowered the price of the Ultimate Ears 700 to $150 when it took over the company a few years back, which makes these headphones some of the most affordable dual-driver earbuds on the market right now. You'll notice a big difference in sound if you're upgrading from the stock headphones that came with your music player, and as long as you don't mind the lack of a remote control on the cord, the Ultimate Ears 700 headphones won't disappoint. Read the full review .


Aiaiai TMA-1 Professional DJ Monitoring Headphones Sarah Tew/CNET

Aiaiai TMA-1 Professional DJ Monitoring Headphones

Though these are technically made for DJs, they're also just as suitable for your daily travel needs. Inspired by the design of the Sennheiser HD 25 model, the $200 headphones have a stripped-down physical profile with no joints to weaken their structural durability. Their solid construction is backed by a detailed headstage that makes them an excellent candidate with universal appeal.

With an even helping of tight bass, level mids, and sharp high tones, the TMA-1s complemented every genre of music we pumped through them, so we won't limit our recommendation of them to DJs alone. The tough construction and efficient sound isolation mean that students, mixing engineers, commuters, and office jockeys will all enjoy their standout performance. Read the full review .

 

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