What Noise-Canceling Headphones Should I Get?
Dear Reader: Like DVRs, iPhones and Slingboxes, noise-canceling headphones are one of those special breeds of gadgetry that inspire instant and rabid fandom in their new owners; they wonder how they ever survived without them. So we're positive you're going to be happy with your upgrade to the sound of silence.
When it comes to headphones, audio jargon is bandied about rather casually and that can be confusing. But here's the gist of your 'phone options: ones that cancel or greatly reduce noise by physically blocking it out with padding and insulation (more properly called noise-isolating); and ones with "active" noise cancellation that use clever electronics to take external sound and replace it with white noise. We like the latter because they typically block out far more sound and lack the bulk that makes it feel like you're wearing giant, heavy, sweaty pillows on your head.
You'll also need to choose between in-ear, supra-aural (on-ear), and circum-aural (over-ear) models. Since you specified that you wanted headphones, we won't recommend earbuds. Still, we want to point out that in-ear models, which are inserted deep into your ear canal, create a seal between the outer world and your inner ear, and thus naturally provide a ton of sound-proofing without any electronic assistance (although there are active versions, as well). The downside is that a fair number of people find them uncomfortable and, well, gross, since they require intimate and regular contact with juicy gobs of ear wax.
As for headphones, you've doubtlessly been tempted by Bose's celebrated Quiet Comfort line. Don't be. We'd opt for JVC's venerable HA-NC250 instead. For sure, Bose's cans do an excellent job of knocking out unwanted sound and are very comfortable. The problem for us is that sky-high $300-plus price tag, when you consider all they're lacking: a non-proprietary battery; the ability to work without power; and the ability to play audio without having to simultaneously use electronic noise-canceling. The NC-250s offer all of the noise cancellation, and for about a third of the price (JVC lists them at $200, but they can be found for less online). They also fold flat to easily fit into a carry-on bag, include a travel case, come with an airline adapter, and have a removable cord in case you want to unplug your tunes and just use the noise-canceling function while you catch some Zs. With a 50-hour life on a single AAA battery, the NC-250s should provide you with undisturbed sound wherever you travel. Plus, you can use them as regular headphones when the battery does die.