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Can noise-cancelling buds beat headphones? We spent 20 hours flying to find out

Both create an aural oasis of sonic stillness. But only one let me watch John Wick 4 for free

Hands on For years, the first thing I've packed for any trip involving long-haul flights is a pair of over-the-ear active noise cancelling headphones. I adore the cocoon of quiet they create amid the constant noise of a jet – and appreciate the way they warm my ears and head while in the air.

But even the slimmest and best-packaged units I've considered over the years become a bulky irritant to lug around once I land.

So as I headed to Taiwan for the annual Computex conference I decided to take advantage of electronics' advance to the infinitesimal and try noise-cancelling earbuds to see if they could beat their bigger brethren.

The products make the same promise as their over-the-ear competitors: they sample ambient noise and emit countering frequencies to create an aural oasis of sonic stillness, so you step off a jet with your senses slightly less scrambled.

My weapon of choice was Chinese brand Soundcore's Space A40 earbuds, which were offered to me for the test – and which at $99 occupy a price point I feel some fliers might tolerate as an investment. To prepare for the test I also loaded my smartphone and tablet with plenty of content and made sure I boarded with a USB cable handy to keep both charged.

I also brought along my old and tatty noise cancelling headphones.

To start, I familiarized myself with the A40s on the ground. Soundcore – a sibling to power bank brand Anker – delivers a solid user experience. Packaging is pleasant, Bluetooth pairing behaved itself, and a companion app used to create custom soundscapes for the A40s is solid. The earbuds ship with five differently sized tips to offer a strong chance of a good fit.

The A40s unashamedly borrow from the template defined by Apple's AirPods by nestling into a small charger/case, but with a nod to the capsule-shaped design used by early versions of Samsung's Galaxy Buds. Soundcore's chalky white case looks cute, and I was impressed it didn't pick up dirt or scratches.

Soundcore Space A40 earbuds

Soundcore Space A40 earbuds – Click to enlarge

The many buds and phones I've enjoyed over the years all have their own quirks. Sometimes these are delightful, as they highlight an instrument that others leave in the muddied background. Sometimes they're unpleasant, as they smear sound. The Space A40s produced an unusual number of such surprises – clearing some murky bass, highlighting some jangly guitar, but burying some synths. Surprises in tunes I know well persisted into a second week of use – a timeframe in which I usually stop noticing aural oddities.

In noise cancelling mode on the ground, they removed the clutter of everyday sound nicely, but sometimes produced odd artefacts: the distant low grind of road repair machines became a jittery little rumble of unnecessary loudness.

In the air they were on par with my 2015-vintage headphones. About an hour into my SYD-HKG flight I felt that perhaps their noise-canceling powers had waned. After swapping to the headphones, and finding no appreciable improvement, I reminded myself that noise-canceling kit is poorly named – it really smears out some background noise, rather than canceling it entirely.

I did miss the warmth of on-ear headphones, and I could never quite shake the worry that an earbud could come loose as I dozed. I had zero desire to be that guy scrabbling about underneath my seat trying to find an earbud down by the life jacket.

As I put the A40s through their paces, I couldn't help but notice the person next to me watching some interesting stuff on the in-flight entertainment system. That content – John Wick Chapter 4 if you must know – was not accessible with a Bluetooth connection from my buds. I tried to stay the course with the A40s and my own downloads, but my in-seat USB port was a dud – and as I had digital documents to present on arrival this produced a case of battery anxiety.

On came the headphones so I could watch Mr Wick. And while their sound-smearing performance wasn't vastly better than the A40s, I dozed off and they stayed on for most of the flight.

On the return flight, they dominated – it was an overnighter and I could not shake the fear of losing a bud. That's not a fear unique to the Soundcores. I've lost a Galaxy Bud while gardening and had them fall out when walking or talking. I've watched family members lose AirPods at awkward moments and eschew them during exercise. That combined experience, plus the A40s just not quite fitting brilliantly, combined to cruel my confidence on two long flights that took place deep into the evening and overnight.

Short haul suitability

I came away from the trip feeling that noise-canceling earbuds will beat headphones for short haul trips on which airlines don't offer tempting alternative content – perhaps stretching up to five hours aloft. But on long haul flights that might merit a longer doze, the extra warmth, comfort, and stability of wired headphones is worth it – even if it also means some extra schlepping.

So while my old headphones will come on more trips, the A40s will find a very welcome place in my technology repertoire.

I've come to realize that wireless earbuds are like sunglasses. If I pay $20 for shades, it's a false economy. If I pay $60 I'll be pleasantly surprised by how long they last and feel like I've had good value for money even though they're not cool and look their age. But if I splash on premium product, karma dictates I'll lose or damage them within weeks.

At $99 the Space 40s feel like a long-term bargain. They don't compare brilliantly to the Galaxy Buds I recently washed (dammit) and broke, but still represent fine value for everyday use and the chance to enjoy short-to-medium haul air travel a little more. ®

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