Best Bluetooth headphones for commuting

They say we’re in the golden age of media, which means there is plenty of content to consume on your way to work. Whether you listen to podcasts about your favorite movies, music from a new artist, or trying to learn something from a how-to video on YouTube, almost everybody is on their phones during the morning commute. If you’re a commuter there are two ways you can go about picking a pair of Bluetooth headphones for commuting, and it entirely depends on what bothers you most. Don’t worry, we’ll get back to happy thoughts in a minute.

When you’re looking for a pair of headphones that you’re going to use every day, essentially what you’re asking is, “How do I solve this problem?” That problem is unique to everyone. Is it the loud train that forces you to rewind your music or podcasts because you missed something? Or do you want something small and easy to stash when you’re in a hurry? Whatever irks you about your morning commute is a guiding factor when purchasing headphones for the journey. If you don’t have any specific issue and just want a better overall experience, then don’t overthink it. Go with the Sony WH-1000XM3.

Everyone will like the Sony WH-1000XM3

This shouldn’t come as a surprise, as the Sony WH-1000XM3 has been our top pick for some time on a number of best lists. The reason for this is simple: they’re damn good. The Sony WH-1000XM3 are one of, if not the best pair of active noise cancelling headphones around. But when it comes to features that are important for commuters, these check all the boxes. They have comfortable earcups, fold down to a more compact size, have intuitive touch controls, a monster 24 hour battery life, and best of all they sound great.

Sony is no stranger to good audio, having made some of the best headphones over the last few decades. But the WH-1000XM3 takes all that and translates it to wireless headphones, which is rarely accomplished so successfully. While the price may be a deterrent for some (and rightfully so), if you pull the trigger on these you won’t regret it.

What you should know

If you’re serious about getting yourself a pair of great headphones for commuting, then there are some things that you should at least be familiar with so you can make an informed purchase. While you don’t need to be an audio expert to understand any of this we do have deep dives into almost every topic if you feel like learning more about a particular topic.

Bluetooth codecs

If you walk away from this article knowing one thing, make it Bluetooth codecs. Not only is it important when shopping for headphones for commuting, but it’s just a good thing to know next time you’re dealing with anything that plays audio via Bluetooth. So first off, what is a Bluetooth codec? A codec is something that encodes and decodes digital information. A Bluetooth codec does this with audio information. So it takes the audio that’s leaving your source device, say a phone, and encodes it into more efficient packets of information before sending it over to your headphones. The headphones then need to take that information and decode it so that it can play it back. Simple right?

Shot of the Bluetooth codec options in Android.

Bluetooth codecs in Android.

The tricky part is that both your source device and headphones need to have the same codec in order to properly communicate. A favorite analogy we like to use here at SoundGuys is to think of a Bluetooth codec like a language. If two people speak the same language then they can communicate faster. If not, then they might need to use hand gestures to get the point across which, if you’ve ever tried to ask someone where the bathroom is while traveling in a foreign country, can be a slow process.

SBC aptX aptX HD AAC LDAC bluetooth codecs profile audio

Represented is the max transfer rate (kbps) of each respective Bluetooth codec—but maximum transfer rate is only half the story.

The basic Bluetooth audio codec that all devices share is called SBC, and surprisingly it’s not bad. But if you want to take advantage of higher quality music or don’t want lip-sync issues when watching videos wirelessly, then you’ll want headphones that can take advantage of better codecs like AAC, aptX, or LDAC. For those wondering why it’s so complicated, don’t worry. There’s a new Bluetooth codec on the horizon called LC3 which promises to make things a lot simpler (and better), but for now, this is the world we live in.

Is frequency response important?

One thing that you’ll see constantly on websites when researching headphones (including all our reviews) is frequency response. But what is it, and what does it mean. Again, there’s a full article you can dive deep into if you want to get into the gritty details, but we’re going to keep is fairly simple here. The frequency response of a pair of headphones is just a visual representation of how well those particular headphones are able to recreate sounds. It isn’t the end-all, be-all of how something sounds, all it tells you is how well the headphones do with recreating certain frequencies. How you perceive that sound is different from person to person, but the frequency response usually gives us a good baseline (pun intended) for what to expect from a pair of headphones.

Frequency response of portable speaker by Teenage Engineering and IKEA

The IKEA and Teenage Engineering speaker doesn’t have much low end, but that’s expected from a speaker of this size.

So how do we come up with these graphs? Well, it’s pretty simple. You feed a known signal into the headphones and record the signal that they output. Then you can see how the signal you got is different than the one you put in. For example, if you look at this graph of the Teenage Engineering Frekvens Portable Bluetooth speaker, you can see that any sound below 100Hz is not given the same emphasis as something in, say the 1000Hz range. Practically, this means that you as the user will likely have an easier time hearing a sound at 1000Hz then a sound at 50Hz. Not because your ears suck (well, not entirely), but because most audio products, either intentionally or not, don’t perfectly recreate sounds.

How does active noise cancelling work?

AKG N700NC: Headphones standing vertically against a window.

The AKG N700NC are one of the best active noise cancelling headphones you can get, and they work just like everything else.

Active noise cancelling is something that you hear often, but what is it? Well, the name mostly gives it away, so I guess the better question is how does it work? You can dig into the exact physics here, but the short of it is that noise cancelling headphones uses tiny microphones to listen to sounds going on around you. Then, tiny chips in the headphones are able to analyze the sounds, and reproduce an equal and opposite sound that it then plays back through the drivers.

How active noise cancelling actually works

Constructive and Destructive Interference Sound waves of equal amplitude, offset at 1/2 wavelengths result in compression waves with an amplitude of 0—canceling out the sound.

If you’ve ever been interested in studying the properties of waves, you’ll know that this process results in something called destructive interference. By playing back the equal and opposite sound of what the microphones pick up, the headphones are able to cancel some of the sounds. While it doesn’t completely cancel out every sound, you’d be surprised how well some of the top headphones can achieve this. It should be noted that it won’t cancel everything. Some sounds, like a baby crying on the plane, are too sporadic for the headphones to cancel out quick enough. Where they really excel are consistent droning noises, like the engine of a plane or the low rumble of a train. In other words, they’re great for commuting.

Should I also invest in a high quality streaming service?

The short answer to this is no, you shouldn’t. While there are a few high quality streaming services like Deezer, Tidal, and Amazon Music HD that are great and worthwhile if you’re listening on desktop, there are currently no streaming services that I know of which offer lossless high quality streaming on mobile. If you want higher quality, you’re going to need to be on desktop which doesn’t really help you if you’re on the bus on your way to work.

codec compression test - how audio compression works

Be sure your streaming services uses a compression such as Opus, AAC, or Ogg.


What matters to commuters

Not only do people have different needs, we also all value features differently as well. What’s important to one person might not be such a big deal for another. To get a better gauge on what you the reader might be in the market for, we ran a quick poll on our Twitter to see what really matters to people.

No surprise here, the top spot of the followers of SoundGuys obviously chose sound quality as the most important feature. If you’re nodding your head in agreement as you read this, congratulations, you’re one of us! But that isn’t the only thing people care about. The best headphones need to have a combination of all of these things, which is why the Sony headphones took the top spot.

If you want true wireless go with Apple AirPods Pro

If what you want is portability, then yes, the best option you can get are the Apple AirPods Pro. While there are plenty of great true wireless earbuds to choose from here, the AirPods Pro nail almost everything that’s important to commuters. Thanks to much improved isolation over the originals and the inclusion of active noise cancelling, these actually sound good and do an impressive job at keeping outside noise, outside.

On top of that, the connection strength to your source device is great and the ability to control playback and activate transparency mode through the stem is clever as hell. But what really makes these the best for commuters is the charging case. While the actual earbuds of something like the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Master & Dynamic MW07+ are both fantastic, the charging case of the AirPods Pro is just sleeker and easier to carry. The debate over what’s a better product can be had over on our best true wireless list, but when it comes to what’s the most portable the AirPods Pro are the clear winner.

You might also like: How to clean your AirPods Pro

The Bose QC35 Series II are the most comfortable

While there is a newer pair of Bose headphones available that we really liked, commuters might want to take a closer look at the previous QC35 II instead. There’s a few reasons for this, but the main one is that these are still one of the most comfortable pairs of headphones around, hands down. The ear cups have a soft memory foam cushion that sits nicely on the ears, especially when compared to the newer Bose Noise Cancelling headphones 700.

The second reason you might want these instead of the newer ones is that the Bose QC35 II fold at the hinges, which is especially important for anyone that wants to be able to stuff these into a bag once you get to your destination. Of course, they do charge via micro-USB so you’re not exactly future-proofing yourself. Also the price hasn’t dropped significantly since the release of the newer version, but if you want the better pair for commuting, this is the way to go.

For a stylish pair of headphones go with the Master & Dynamic MW65

If you like objects that are not only functional, but also make a statement then look no further than the Master & Dynamic MW65. Yes, they’re expensive, but damn do they look good. The premium leather and metal materials mean they can easily withstand the everyday wear and tear of commuter life. Of course, these don’t have hinges for folding, but if you wanted something super convenient you’d be getting something else.

These aren’t just for looks either. Just like a Rolex or a Leica, these headphones look great but they perform well too. Not only do they do a good job at reproducing notes all throughout the frequency range and have aptX compatibility, but they also have solid active noise cancelling and isolation. Of course, it isn’t going to outperform the Sony headphones or the AKG N700NC in active noise cancelling, but they still get the jobs done.

To save some cash get the Jabra Move Style Edition

For those that don’t want to spend hundreds of dollars on a pair of headphones (and who could blame you) then you might want to look into something like the Jabra Move Style Edition on-ear headphones. While these also don’t fold, they are on-ears so they’re not that big to begin with. Plus, they have about 12 hours of battery life which is enough for a solid week or two of commuting.

The cons of these are that because they’re on-ears, isolation isn’t going to be on the same level as some of the other headphones on this list. They also don’t have any high-quality codec support which is a bummer. But for the price, these are still a great pair of headphones that most commuters will find sufficient.

Hopefully one of these headphones gets the jobs done for what you’re looking for, but if not then we recommend checking out some of our other lists as well. For those looking for active noise cancelling, we’ve got you covered. And if you value saving money and  portability over everything else then check out some true wireless options.

Disclosure: We may receive affiliate compensation in connection with your purchase of products via links on this page. Even though we may receive compensation, we always give our honest opinions, findings, beliefs, or experiences on each product. See our ethics policy for more details.

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