Bose QuietComfort 3 Review

quietcomfort3 5 520x312 Bose QuietComfort 3 Review

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.

Design

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.

Battery life

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.

Sound Quality

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.

Noise Cancellation

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.

Conclusion

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.




14 Comments

roj on September 11, 2010 4:58 PM

If it’s Bose, it’s overpriced mediocre quality fodder catering to those who fancy name brands and form over function. The company has been pandering that rubbish for thirty years and remains remarkably consistent at it.

End of discussion.

WalkGood on September 11, 2010 5:38 PM

Passive noise cancellation is very different with customs versus universal iem’s, IMHO it’s so much better that one cannot compare them without actually trying them, I didn’t know you had the opportunity to try customs to make such a claim … When I tried the qc3’s for a few days I honestly wasn’t impressed with the sound quality or the noise removal, nothing compared to a good fitting custom monitor and the size is bad for travel. BTW I wouldn’t pay 1200 for ue11s either but you do know they are negotiable and have specials, back when I got mine I did get a great price. Also today one has many other more affordable custom options available from very affordable prices to the Über high and even the jh13s/16s are cheaper. But interesting opinion regardless

Mikerman on September 11, 2010 7:19 PM

Interesting point-of-view as to active and passive noise cancellation.

In contrast, I’m of the reverse mind, at least in my own comparison. A number of years ago, I compared on a plane flight the noise-blocking and cancellation experience with my Shure E2C in-ear buds with triple-flange ear buds, and my Sony noise cancellation in-ear buds (that worked in that capacity). I found that while they were close, the Shure phones had me with a slightly more noise-free experience. Combined with the lack of any battery and battery compartment, I decided that the Shures were the way to go, for less fatigue (from noise) on flights and purer listening.

_scott on September 11, 2010 7:37 PM

The claim about Tinnitus reduction and/or removal is ridiculous. How can the headphones cancel something that is subjective?

Martin Sägmüller on September 12, 2010 5:02 PM

“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, as passive noise cancellation to me is a joke compared to this.” <– since you didn't ever hear the isolation properties of the UE11 or other custom IEMs, I doubt you should have such a bold opinion about it. FWIW, they isolate at least as well as any active NC phone I ever tried. With the UE11 I listen on the same volume level in an airplane as I would at home in quiet surroundings. — Also, tinnitus is an issue with the hair cells in the ear’s cochlea, no external microphone can counteract that in any way. Here’s some more about this: http://www.tinnitus.org.uk/index.php?q=node/104

Wumbo on September 12, 2010 5:43 PM

It seems pretty useless that the only noises this thing can block out are the white noises that the brain automatically begins to ignore after a minute anyway. Hurray? I can read a book in a room full of people talking indecipherably, but as soon as I hear the individual noises, concentration becomes impossible. It’s seems that’s exactly what this can’t handle.

Interesting proof of concept… Not useful yet.

Jerry on September 13, 2010 5:49 AM

Is it any better than the Creative labs aurvana x-fi which is about $200 cheaper? http://us.store.creative.com/Aurvana-XFi/M/B000V5QAYE.htm

justam on September 15, 2010 1:44 AM

Well, if you do want good sound quality + active noise cancelling, I have seen people use nice IEMS in conjuction with a QC3. What they do is they wear their IEMs, and then pop the QC3′s on top of that (QC3′s aren’t connected to the source). Of course, $350 for something just to remove external noise might be a bit pricey… but just something I’ve observed people do on buses.

Taikaw on September 16, 2010 10:19 AM

What I don’t like about these headphones (other than the price) is that they have very bad sound isolation.
Even at a low volume, all of the sound goes outward for everybody to listen to, while I can’t hear anything other than the music.

I can’t listen to my embarrassing song collection with these!

Lemuel Bacod on September 17, 2010 2:53 AM

I bought these because how small and portable it is, also the form-factor is very nice….

joe c on September 19, 2010 1:41 PM

tried many active noise headsets because trying to study in a noisy environment, people talking, neighbors yelling dogs barking outside.

it makes your eardrum vibrate

it does not cancel all sounds leaving out the 2000-4000 range and
you end up hearing many things, irrespective of how loud.

i find them uncomfortable, plus it makes music sound different and weird.

passive was much more effective at actually “canceling” noise of most kinds except very loud.

Andreas Ødegård on September 20, 2010 12:01 PM

@Martin:
I guess my point didn’t come across right with that sentence. Check out the updated paragraph and you’ll see what i actually meant to say.

As for the tinnitus part, I don’t have it myself so what I learned came from people I know trying the headphones on – without knowing they were noise cancelling headphones – and commenting on the tinnitus effect afterwards. According to your article, it is in fact theoretically possible for the system to work that way, but the problem is getting a noise profile that matches the tinnitus sound. Personally, I would think that it’s possible for ambient noise to in some cases be close enough to have some effect. I have no reason to believe that someone who’s had tinnitus for decades would suddenly get a placebo effect from trying headphones with a technology he didn’t know existed at the point he tried them, and seeing that that article had to be written in the first place it’s at least possible that it might work for some. In other words not a fool proof cure in any way, but something that might work for some people.

iMarco on October 6, 2010 2:13 PM

Nice review.

Yes, these headphones are quite horribly overpriced, and the sound quality is not as good as it should.
And, to make matters worse, Bose are pushing them like they were pure state of the art, which they obviously are not.

However, I still think they have a reason of being.
The sound cancelling is not bad, as well as the portability factor.
For those who who travel a lot, and don’t like to wear IEMs, these might end up being a good pair of headphones.

josh magram on April 30, 2011 5:29 PM

I was so excited to get my QC 3 headphones. Everywhere i had seen the ads and been impressed when I tried them out. I am not rich so it takes a lot of research and prompting to get me to buy something that is $349 but bought them I did.

The reality is they are good noise canceling headphones but they are not worth $349. Yes, their ads in every magazine, site and airline magazine must be incredibly expensive. But I never bought anything based on ads till now. What a mistake. Never again. I hope you don’t make the same mistake.

- If the battery dies then they don’t work. This headphones don’t work without a charged battery unlike many others.
- The battery takes a long time to charge.
- They are heavy on you head and heavy to carry around. There are others that are much lighter.
- The earcups degrade and the plastic cushion above your head degrades. This was the worst. They both crumble and leave a back oily residue if you leaving them sitting for any period of time. When you call their tech support they say its not on the warranty and it costs you $50 to get new ones, these are simple pieces of plastic. I am sure the batteries and other parts are the same way.
- Their tech support was totally unhelpful and left me feeling cold about the whole company.

Disappointment doesn’t begin to express how I feel. Worst of all they are just not worth that amount, the extra $200 is all illusion from the ads.

Never again will I buy a Bose product. I make it a point whenever it comes up to let people know the reality behind the “emperors new clothes”:
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Emperor's_New_Clothes

Chose any company but bose for your audio equipment.

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