I test headphones for a living — these are the best for travel

Sony WH-1000XM4
(Image credit: Sony)

As audio editor, sound quality is everything even when I'm choosing a pair of headphones to take away with me on my travels. But there are other factors to consider when seeking the best performance on the move. 

The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones may have been around for a while, but they continue to be my favorite headphones for travel. I confess that I feel slightly guilty that I don't prefer the newer WH-1000XM5 version, which replaced the XM4 last year, but there are solid reasons for making them my travel choice. 

Firstly, they're foldable, which makes them so much more practical for sliding into my work or travel bag, and the protective case is a lot smaller too. And judging by the number of fellow travelers on my work commutes also sporting the older version of Sony's XM-series headphones on their head, I'm not alone.  

Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)
  • The Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are priced at $349 / $350 / AU$438 through the Sony website. They're also available via online retailers including Amazon, Best Buy, and Walmart, and are regularly discounted.

Selecting a pair of headphones to accompany me on my routine work commutes to and from the Tom's Guide office, or on my trips away, was not a decision I made entirely consciously. My choice came about as part of the natural day-to-day test routine while evaluating new headphone designs over the past 12 months. Eventually, I realized that I kept coming back to this one pair of headphones again and again, and they've stuck as my go-to travel companion for their high performance and practical reliability.

Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Sony)

Travel utopia

Look around any airport, city street, or train station, and it's easy to appreciate that a pair of the best headphones or earbuds are an essential accessory to the way many of us travel and how we use the time. Headphones have become a vital element to the way we get our entertainment fix. Whether that's catching up on our favorite shows or movies downloaded to one of the best tablets or best phones to pass the time on a flight, listening to our best-loved tunes offline while walking to the office, or just tuning out the noise around you with a pair of the best noise-cancelling headphones, a pair of good-quality headphones can make all the difference to your journey.

Sony WH-1000XM4 vs WH-1000XM3

(Image credit: Reagan Coule/Tom's Guide)

What I look for in a pair of travel headphones

Although I am fortunate in that I get to try out plenty of different headphones, most headphone buyers have one shot when it comes to selecting the perfect travel headphones. So it's a good idea to think about what features will work best for your travel needs. 

For me, first and foremost, any pair of headphones have to sound great — compromise on sound quality and I might as well read a book to while away the time on a long flight or train journey. They also need to offer superior levels of comfort, robust build, and solid connectivity to be considered a valued companion for my travel plans. Oh, and they need to look pretty respectable, too.

Battery life is another important factor to consider, along with whether you want a set of headphones with some kind of noise cancelling tech to block out the sound of your fellow travelers. 

As it happens, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones score highly across the board, and have effective noise cancelling and battery life that runs to at least 30 hours playback time.   

Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM4: Control app connectivity

I'm always trying out new wireless headphones on my train journeys to and from the office, but I've lost count of the number of times I've been unable to connect to partnering control apps downloaded to my playback device. Some apps are vital for adjusting the noise-cancelling levels, or tweaking the EQ settings for a sound balance that suits your tastes. But these are often rendered useless on my travels due to poor network and Wi-Fi connectivity. 

You see, as well as the Bluetooth wireless connectivity between the playback device carrying the audio signal to the headphones, some control apps need to connect to external servers via the internet using a Wi-Fi or a mobile network, and signals can be patchy when traveling on public transport. 

Then, of course, there's the firmware updates, which are required far too regularly for my liking, and often seem to pop up just as I go to start listening to a pair of headphones on a long journey home.  

Sony's Headphone Connect app has been very reliable so far. I haven't suffered from any connection issues or firmware updates during my daily commutes. In fact, I managed to perform all of the audio customization adjustments I suggested in my how to make Sony's headphones sound even better without any app connectivity issues whatsoever while on a train journey home.

Sony WH-1000XM4

(Image credit: Regan Coule/Tom's Guide)

Sony WH-1000XM4: Great for comfort

If you're going to wear a pair of headphones on a long journey, you want them to be comfortable. And as it turns out, comfort and fit have been great for me on the WH-1000XM4. I can easily spend the majority of my journey time with them placed on my head without any discomfort from the clamping force or the earpads making my ears hot. I do often give my ears a break after an hour or so, though, just to prevent any kind of listening fatigue or tiredness setting in. But when we originally reviewed them in 2021, our reviewer found that he managed to wear them for three hours daily during a three-day weekend without any problems. 

I found the headband extenders are flexible enough to get just the right fit, and the plush cushioning on the earpads is like resting my head on a soft pillow. The larger earcup cutouts provide good ventilation, which prevents moisture buildup during long listening sessions, too.

Having listened to the XM4 headphones extensively to compare them to the next-gen WH-1000XM5 flagship version, it's easy to understand why the older version continues to be so popular given their great sound and ANC performance, build, and practical foldable design. 

Although the new flagship headphones should be applauded for moving the XM-series on and bringing eco credentials to the design, they're less practical from a travel point of view. And it looks as though Sony and plenty others agree. 

Despite being superseded, Sony's XM4 headphones continue to be available and are easily the most popular travel headphone I see on my work commutes — and I know several colleagues in the Tom's Guide office who feel the same. These are the best kind of traveling companion; one that helps me switch off and relax, and makes the journey time to my destination pass more quickly.

Planning on a longer journey? Then check out my recommendations for the best headphones for travel

Lee Dunkley
Audio Editor

As a former editor of the U.K.'s Hi-Fi Choice magazine, Lee is passionate about all kinds of audio tech and has been providing sound advice to enable consumers to make informed buying decisions since he joined Which? magazine as a product tester in the 1990s. Lee covers all things audio for Tom's Guide, including headphones, wireless speakers and soundbars and loves to connect and share the mindfulness benefits that listening to music in the very best quality can bring.