That was my last year. This article reflects what I learned during that time about enjoying music on the road.
Fortunately, portable audio is stronger now than ever, with many wonderful products that can provide even the most jaded audiophile a satisfying musical escape.
However, reaching that escape requires delicate balancing and compromise. What fits or is permitted in your carry-on, and what audio equipment (if any) are you comfortable checking? How many different wires or adapters will you tolerate? What’s your budget? Since late January, some travelers feel the weight of additional considerations as well.
After a year of refinements, my travel audio setup evolved to the following:
This setup packs up nicely for travel in four small cases: three from the gear they hold, and one repurposed airline toiletry case for the rest.
My “traveling-while-audiophile” system includes four categories of gear: personal listening setup, casual listening headphones, portable speaker system, and convenience accessories. Below are my thoughts on each category, and some examples of specific gear that work for me.
The traveling audiophile’s primary source of music is a personal listening setup that pipes music directly onto or into her ears, not loudspeakers in a room. So a carefully-chosen personal listening setup is key. Sound quality, comfort, style, and price are important in all personal listening setups. The traveler’s personal listening setup adds two more criteria: packability and isolation.
Just as the loudspeakers are the most important component in a home audio system, the earphones or headphones are the most important component in a personal listening setup. The first decision to make is, earphones or headphones? “Earphones” have transducers that physically plug into the ear canal. “Headphones” have transducers mounted in earcups connected by a headband.
Earphones unquestionably pack better. A single headphone earcup may be larger than packed-up earphones. Earphones also isolate better: about 30dB isolation at 1kHz and 15-20dB isolation at 300Hz.
However, headphones are generally more comfortable than earphones for extended listening, because they rest on the head rather than inside the ear canal. Headphones sound more expansive than earphones.
Headphone bass is more realistic, because headphones act on the whole ear and surrounding tissue while earphones fire right at the eardrum. Headphones also have the practical advantage that you don’t need to yank something out of your ear to hear someone talk. So headphones are better for use both during long commutes and inside the “war room” environments business travelers know well.
Ultimately, the choice between earphones and headphones is a close call based on personal preference, and in truth many earphones are small enough to make the choice not “either or” but “both and.” Still, I prefer headphones despite earphones’ unquestionable packability advantage.
While the choice between earphones and headphones is a close call, the decision between closed back and open back headphones is not. “Closed back” headphones enclose the driver’s back-wave within the earcup. “Open back” headphones let the driver radiate into the surrounding environment.
While most high-end headphones are open back, closed back headphones clearly make better travel companions. Closed back headphones typically provide around 15dB of isolation at 1kHz, much less than earphones but still meaningful isolation. By contrast, open back headphones effectively provide 0dB isolation until very high frequencies, because the driver and baffle block a little sound. For obvious reasons, a closed back headphone also leaks less sound out than an open back headphone.
While great sound is necessary for a traveler’s headphones, sound quality alone is not sufficient. Form factor also looms large. Smaller is generally better, though I find a “pancake” easier to pack in a carry-on briefcase with a laptop and other business gear than a “brick.” That holds even when the brick takes up less volume. So I prefer headphones with solid headbands and earcups that swivel flat over headphones with folding headbands.
Lastly, accessories can make or break headphones in a traveling system. A case is useful. A durable case or a case with storage for accessories such as a longer cable or airplane adapter is better. A durable case with accessory storage engineered into the case’s dead space is best of all.
After trying several headphones, NAD’s Viso HP50 stuck with me.
First, the NAD Viso HP50 meets the necessary condition: they sound great. I refer you to Carlo lo Raso’s thorough SECRETS review for a detailed description of their design and sound, including Paul Barton’s “RoomFeel” tuning.
In addition to some of the finest sound I’ve heard from closed back headphones, NAD’s Viso HP50 hits all of the practicality points for traveling headphones. They fold flatter than many headphones, because the headband is thin and the cups swivel flat. The earcups are also relatively compact. Their case has proven durable, and its smartly-designed removable accessory-storage insert fills dead space while providing a measure of crush protection.
There are two further attributes of the NAD Viso HP50 worth highlighting.
First, NAD birthed an innovation that should be standard on every travel-focused headphone going forward: a stereo cable that plugs into either earcup!
That sounds like a small thing, but often it’s the difference between a cable draped over your keyboard – or over your airplane meal! – and a cable tucked neatly out of harm’s way.
Second, Carlo discussed some fit issues with the back of the earcups in his review. I also had this problem. I solved the fit problem by stuffing the back of each pad with half of a cotton disk from a hotel amenity kit. With that extra cushion, the pads sealed correctly at my jawline
This field hack resolved my only qualm with the NAD Viso HP50. They’re long-term travel buddies.
While NAD’s Viso HP50 headphones run very well directly from iDevices and MacBooks, I also carry a portable DAC-amp. A DAC-amp connects to your source via USB or Lightning cable. It takes over digital/analog conversion and headphone amplification from your source. Some potential advantages of a separate DAC-amp are a lower noise floor (especially with sensitive headphones), greater voltage swing for high impedance headphones, and more advanced digital/analog conversion. Do those technical improvements provide a sonic improvement, or even a sonic difference? Depends on the situation.
There are many advanced portable headphone DAC-amps on the market. See recent SECRETS reviews of Oppo’s HA-2SE and Sony’s PHA-3, as well as a recent DAC-amp roundup. However, my current portable DAC-amp of choice is a long-discontinued HeadRoom Total Bithead.
The Total BitHead includes “crossfeed” processing, which I find pulls the soundfield forward and reduces listening fatigue. Crossfeed is an attempt to simulate the sound of speakers by introducing a slightly delayed and frequency-shaped signal from each channel into the other channel. The idea is that you hear the sound each ear would actually hear when listening to speakers in a room. Here’s HeadRoom’s explanation of crossfeed, from the Total BitHead manual.
While I like crossfeed, it is deeply unfashionable today. If you don’t share my appreciation for crossfeed, Oppo’s HA-2SE is a superb DAC-amp. It looks great, works with iDevices, sounds fantastic, is well priced, and even serves as a power bank for your phone. My perfect travel headphone amp would be an HA-2SE fortified with DSP parametric equalization and crossfeed.
What about the source? I use my MacBook or iPhone as source. I do not consider that a handicap. I also use a Mac as “transport” for most 2-channel home listening, and have not heard a reason to change.
While a reference portable listening system is key, sometimes you just want some tunes for a workout, or you want to enjoy a podcast or audiobook in peace. While carrying multiple headphones may seem counterintuitive, dedicated-purpose headphones often make sense when traveling.
Dedicated workout headphones are a compact save wear and tear on your better setup and are lighter on the head. I have not looked at fitness headphones in over a decade. My pick at that time, Sennheiser’s PMX 100 neckband headphones, have proven durable even though I usually just rotate the earcups flat and toss them into a bag. NuForce’s BE Sport 3 earphones show how the fitness headphone market is evolving.
I also believe separate noise cancellers add value. I resisted noise cancellers for a while. Good ones are expensive, and just don’t sound comparable to audiophile headphones. Because of that double whammy, SECRETS has not yet reviewed any noise cancelling headphones or earphones.
However, on one trans-Atlantic flight I tried a colleague’s Bose QC25’s and instantly heard the appeal. Did they sound as good as my NADs? No. They were comparatively hazy up top and thumpy down low. Their electronics hissed a little bit between songs. But…splendid relaxation! No more jet engine thrum. I was sold. They were exactly what I needed to fall asleep, and stay asleep, on an overnight eastbound trans-Atlantic flight.
After surveying the market, I chose Bose’s QC20i noise cancelling earphones. Bose’s noise cancelling technology is widely praised, and justly so.
Why earphones? I cannot justify carrying two pairs of full-sized headphones! Bose’s QC20i have similar midrange and treble isolation to other earphones. Below 300Hz, where passive earphones start to lose isolation, these provide 20dB or greater isolation. They also have an “aware” button that allows you to hear someone without removing an earphone.
Bose’s QC20i’s are very comfortable for earphones. They don’t insert deeply, and the concha braces hold them securely in place. They also sound pleasant. The midrange is smooth and clear, though they have some hitting-a-wet-cereal-box effect on kick drums and some treble hardness. But dissecting noise cancellers as if they were JBL’s flagship speakers misses the point. Try them for your This American Life or Pod Save America fix on a long flight, and you’ll get it.
Some people are fine relying on headphones. However, if you crave music in the air around you, you need some sort of speaker. Like noise cancelling headphones, SECRETS hasn’t reviewed many travel-friendly speakers. Bluesound’s Pulse Mini sounds great, but is a little large for business travel. Eventually I discovered Riva’s Turbo X.
Riva makes “lifestyle” speakers, but they have serious audiophile bona fides. Riva’s president, Rikki Farr, is a live sound innovator. Chief Engineer Donald North designed no holds barred drive units for Aurasound. He also handcrafts exotic tube headphone amps for his Donald North Audio (DNA) brand. DNA used to sell an innovative speaker, the Sequence, with an open-baffle Aurasound woofer and a patented offset concentric midrange array.
The Riva Turbo X’s sound shows this heritage. Its spectral balance is well-tuned. There’s a real perception of heft to music considering its size, without bloat. The Turbo X is capable of higher output than a respectful hotel-dweller will use, and can effortlessly provide background music for an after-hours poker game in a hotel conference room. Thanks to Riva’s “Trillium” signal processing, the Turbo X even throws a plausible soundstage with distinct image placement, if you position it carefully for the side-mounted drivers to reflect correctly and sit on axis with the front driver.
Riva also made the Turbo X a practical travel speaker.. It has a battery, so you can use it off the grid. The back panel has a USB port that can charge a phone, though unfortunately Riva did not include a USB DAC or AirPlay. The input options are Bluetooth or wired aux-in.
Unlike a headphone system or portable speaker, accessories don’t make the sonic experience…until you need something and don’t have it on hand!
The single most useful accessory one can pack is a power strip. Hotel rooms rarely have many power outlets, so a strip provides useful capacity. This power strip was about $15 and worth the added bulk. I picked it because Amazon reviews confirmed the USB outlets work on 220V power.
I recommend a power strip with USB jacks that will work wherever you might travel, so you can charge devices directly the strip and leave their USB power bricks at home. Don’t plug a device into a non-transformer power strip unless the device is rated for use with the wall AC voltage at your destination. While laptops and travel electronics often have universal-voltage power supplies, double check your specific equipment rather than assuming.
A portable router is also potentially useful. Hotel WiFi is often awful, and a hotel’s wired internet connection may be much faster. I picked up this router based on a colleague’s recommendation. It’s tiny, cheap, and faster than the WiFi network in any hotel I’ve stayed in.
Carefully selecting cables for travel further helps avoid frustration. Obviously, you need at least one phone charging cable. I keep two: a longer one to keep in the hotel room, and a short one in my briefcase. A thin HDMI cable may also be useful. Many hotels have HDMI ports on a desk or bedside table so you can watch content from your laptop on the room’s TV.
Some other potentially useful cables: network cable, 3.5mm auxiliary audio cable, and whatever other charging cables your other gear may require.
Wires are annoying to keep up with, but you can mitigate that annoyance by picking the brightest colored wires you can. Bright colors make wires harder to forget in a hotel room when packing up.
A final note about accessories: periodically purge unneeded ones. For example, I found I was almost always near a trusted, plugged-in laptop with a free USB port. So I stopped carrying a power bank for my phone. Under different circumstances a power bank may be useful, or even essential. Always consider data security implications before plugging your phone into a public USB charger, especially if your phone contains privileged, protected, or classified information.
Extended travel does not mean leaving music behind or coping with bad sound. True, the best way to enjoy music while traveling is live. If time permits, seek out the local orchestra or associated chamber ensembles. Find the jazz clubs. Explore other local music scenes. But business travel schedules may not mesh with performance schedules.
Fortunately, there are many great-sounding and useful products for the traveling audiophile. Four categories of products to consider when planning travel are a personal listening setup, casual listening headphones, portable speakers, and convenience accessories. The advice above comes from my experience. I think makes a useful starting point, but everybody travels a little differently. It is worth some effort and experimentation to find the travel audiophile setup that works for you.