Bose is one of those brands that you either hate or love. On ABi, the former seem to be the norm, mostly because the price is so much higher than similarly performing gear. Still, Bose does have some interesting products in their line up, and one of them is the Bose QuietComfort 3 headphones that I got my hands on a few months ago. They use active noise canceling technology to give you peace and quiet, but how do they perform compared to other noise reduction methods?
In the box
The contents of the box is quite impressive. It contains the headphones, audio cable (which is detachable from the headphones), two batteries, a battery charger, a bunch of different travel plugs and an adapter to use the headphone jacks on planes. The fact that it comes with two batteries is a major plus because it of course doubles how much you can use these without getting to an AC outlet.
Bose went with an semi-open design for the QuietComfort 3, with a very small mesh on the back which I at least assume is for letting air out but that is otherwise closed off. The pad have a supra-aural design, which means they sit on top of the ears and don’t cover them fully. This allows for the headphones to be smaller and more portable, and one of the things I like about them is that you can easily wear them around your neck without them turning into a head restraint. While these are meant for use on planes more than anything, they work just as well for everyday use and so to me that requires headphones that aren’t the size of my head.
The size of the pads is something along the lines of those on the new Sennheiser HD218/228/238 .The leather pads themselves are closed with the exception of in the middle where they have a fabric mesh, which is a somewhat uncommon design that I have only seen elsewhere on the HD218/228/238. I’m guessing this helps the audio go into the ears instead of anywhere else, and can best be described to be something in between closed headphones and open headphones. The right pad has the on/off switch and the battery while the left side has the audio input and presumably most of the actual electronics. Both sides also have microphones on the bottom, which is needed for the noise canceling feature.
The headband has a leather pad on top as well to make the headphones comfortable to use, and all in all they are rather comfortable. The headband can be a bit on wide side though making the headphones grip your head a bit to loosely for my taste. You definitely can’t run with these on, they’d fall off in a second. They aren’t made for running, of course,so I’m guessing they compromised on the secure fit in order to make them more comfortable in the situation they’re designed to be used in; sitting still in a seat on some sort of public transport.
As for the batteries they are rechargeable battery packs that are very nicely designed to slot into either the charger or the headphones and in both cases complete the oval design of either. It looks like an integrated part of both the charger and headphones to such a degree that you get confused as to if there are batteries the first time you see them. As for the audio cable, it’s detachable in order to be able to use the headphones more comfortably without anything connected to them (just for canceling noise, in other words). The cable has a 3,5mm headphones jack in one end and a 4 pin 2.5mm jack in the other end. I would go as far as calling the cable proprietary because the connector on the headphones themselves is recessed and so you will have trouble fitting any 2.5mm jack in there. I also don’t understand why the headphone side of the cable is a 4 pin connector while the other side is a 3 pin; unless there is some sort of electronics in the cable (which I highly doubt considering the thickness of it) it makes no sense to have 4 pin in one end and 3 pin in the other as the effective amount of pins would be 3 pins anyways – and even if the other end was a 4 pin connector, once it was plugged into a player it would revert to 3 effective pins.
The rated battery life of these is 20 hours, which I have no problem believing. In the months I’ve used them I’ve never run out of battery power before I’ve had one of those “I should prob charge those soon, before they run out”-moment. That means a total of 40 hours, and you might be able to buy spare batteries from Bose if you need more. That much battery life is needed though since the headphones don’t work without the noise cancellation off, which is a very peculiar design choice. It would have been very easy to add a feature to override the internal electronics if there is no battery power left in order to allow the headphones to be used as normal headphones.
The QuietComfort 3 are $350 headphones. DO they sound like $350 headphones? No. In fact, I’m willing to bet you could easily find $100 headphones that would outclass these. That’s not to say they sound bad, really, they simply don’t sound very good. The sound signature is more on the bassy side, and we’re talking quantity not quality on the bass. I don’t know if this might be a side effect of the noise cancellation, but it might very well be since it seems to work better on higher frequencies. Compared to my DT770 which are half the price the QuietComfort 3 sounds a bit like you’re wearing a bag over your head and the headphones on the outside of that. For $350 I’d have expected better, but then again this isn’t a pair of headphones you buy because you want good sound quality.
Unlike Martin’s headphone reviews, I won’t focus on the sound quality because I don’t have the experience to analyze it properly like he does, and I also don’t have 42000 pairs of headphones. Instead I’ll focus on the noise cancellation feature, which frankly is the only reason anyone would ever buy these headphones considering the price. Other headphones use this technology too, such as the Sennheiser PXC series, but unfortunately I haven’t had a chance to try those out.
What I can say is that the noise cancellation on the QuietComfort 3 is very good. Compared to the built in noise cancellation of some Sone players, this is actually more than a gimmick. Noise cancellation works by using microphones on the headphones to catch the outside noise, invert the frequencies and then output those with the audio into the ears, and in so doing canceling out a lot of the outside noise. This works best on contineuous noises such as plane or bus engines, collective background jabbering etc and not as well on direct speech. The result is that you basically remove the background noise that is always there in some way or another. The result is actually quite fascinating, and I’ve had people try them on and find them creepy because if it’s already quite quiet in the room the added silence from wearing these makes it sound unnaturally quiet. There’s always some sort of background noise in any given place, even if you don’t really notice it. Remove it, and the lack of that noise that you didn’t notice is actually something you do notice.
Many people have said that they’d rather use passive noise cancellation, in other words closed headphones or IEMs. It’s not the same, in any way. When you wear some sort of “device” to block the outside noise, such as IEMs, you’re still aware there is noise and that the reason you can’t hear it is that you have something in your ears. To me it’s an unnatural feeling and while I don’t mind I also wouldn’t mind actual silence. That’s what noise cancelling headphones provide: actual silence. When you put them on, the amount of background noise is reduced or completely removed. It’s not blocked, it’s removed. The difference can be hard to explain, but with noise cancelling headphones on you feel like the world around you is actually silent, you don’t feel as though you’re simply blocking it. I guess a fitting simile would be to say that it’s like sticking your hand into a bucket of water: if you’re wearing gloves, you don’t get wet, but you still have your hand in water and you know the gloves are the reason you’re dry. The feeling of sticking your hand into a bucket without water is completely different, even though the result is the same; you’re dry. That’s pretty much how I can describe the difference between blocking noise, and removing noise, but it really is something you have to try to fully understand the difference.Part of it is also that the headphones are so light and open that you don’t feel like you’re strapped down by “ear protectors”.
Of course this isn’t magic, and you’ll still be able to hear noises if they’re loud enough. However, in any case it removes enough noise to make pretty much any situation more endurable. At work, I went from not being able to hear anything at full volume with normal open headphones while on the tractor, to being able to listen to people speaking on a podcast on half volume with the QuietComfort 3. On the train and on the bus I can still hear nearby people jabber in the background, but I can easily hear my own stuff too, without getting the headache I normally get when using passive noise cancellation like IEMs for too long.
Another interesting aspect of these is that they seem to reduce tinnitus. I’ve had people with tinnitus try them on and find that the tinnitus noise is either reduced or removed. I’m not a doctor so I don’t know the exact reason for this, but if I were to guess I’d say that the inverted frequencies from the headphones actually counter some of the tinnitus noises the same way they do normal noise. To have people be excited about headphones because it finally gives them some piece from tinnitus isn’t something that passive noise blocking headphones can claim in any case.
The bottom line is that the noise cancellation feature works very well, and I can see how these types of headphones are popular with travelers. I haven’t tried Sennheisers offerings in this niche, but if they’re as good or better than the QuietComfort 3 those should be some very nice choices as well.
What it really comes down to is how much you need noise cancellation. If you like me only use it once in a while it’s not worth $350 and I wouldn’t pay $350 for these, but if I were traveling more I wouldn’t hesitate to lash out money for a good pair of noise canceling headphones. I would definitely try out the Sennheiser models before making a choice though, at least the smaller (cheaper) models as the PXC350 and PXC450 are way too large to qualify as travel headphones in my book. The QuietComfort 3 has great noise cancellation, but rather crappy sound quality considering the price. That being said, I’d still rather have the sound quality of the QC3 with the noise cancellation it has than a pair of Ultimate Ears UE11 $1200 IEMs with passive noise cancellation when out traveling. Passive noise isolation can in many cases isolate more noise than active noise cancellation, but it’s done in different ways. I use IEMs and closed headphones all the time, but they always make me feel a bit closed in and so I do prefer open headphones. Problem is open headphones don’t work well in public places, but the QC3 do. That is of course a matter of personal preference, other people might prefer the noise isolation a good pair of IEMs give them.