February 20, 2019

Review: Bose QuietComfort 35

I’ll admit right off the bat that I’m new to active noise cancelling. I love music, and I love great sound, and I love cancelling background noise, so you’d think I’d be a great fit for the QC-35’s. Up until now, if I wanted to cancel background noise, I’d use in-ear monitor style headphones that you squeeze in your ear to make a seal. They work well, and effectively eliminated most background noise, but I wanted to know if active noise cancelling was any better? I decided to extensively test out the QC-35's to find out.

Short answer: It depends.

My initial reaction when I took out the review unit was a little underwhelming. The QC-35’s are plastic and very light weight. I’m used to headphones in this price range having a more premium feel, a little more weight, nicer materials, a little more solid feeling. However, when I put the headphones on, I immediately understood the advantage of making these headphones as light as possible. They were so damn comfortable, I barely knew they were on at all. Many other headphones start to weigh down on your head after a couple hours, but not these. I can wear them all day long, completely forgetting they’re even on.

Something even more amazing happened when I turned them on.

The world went silent.

I turned them off, and suddenly I was hyper aware of the air conditioner running, of the weird hum coming from the florescent lighting, of all the small little sounds we always hear and never pay attention too. I turned the headphones on again… and all those sounds vanished again. Active noise cancelling is pretty damn amazing.

Aside from a world of silence, when you turn on the headphones, a woman’s voice tells you how much battery power you have left (more than enough) and what devices you’re paired to. You can be paired to two devices simultaneously, though in real world usage switching between those devices was a massive pain and never seemed to work right. I’ve had similar experiences with other bluetooth headphones, so this isn’t a problem unique to Bose. As a general rule, if requiring your headphones to work seamlessly with multiple devices is important to you, bluetooth probably isn’t the way to go. Give me a wire that plugs in. Guaranteed to work every time.

Over the course of the past few weeks, I tested all sorts of music with the QC-35’s, and found the sound quality surprisingly inconsistent. Some recordings sounded pretty decent, some sounded great, and others sounded flat and boring. I found myself quickly switching between multiple headphones to make sure this wasn’t just in my head. It wasn’t. Recordings that sounded great on my go-to headphones sounded flat and lifeless on the 35’s, while other recordings suddenly found a new Bass-ey thump. This inconsistency might have something to with how these headphones need to model and tweak the sound to compensate for any changes due to noise cancelling. I don’t know that this is the case, but it definitely feels that way.

I also found the sound quality and EQ would change as I increased or decreased the volume. Certain frequencies would get boosted as I lowered the volume, others when I raised it. If I wanted to listen to a thumping bass heavy track, I’d crank up the volume, only to hear the bass pull back in the mix. Less than ideal. I think Bose touts this as a feature, to enhance the listening experience. Sometimes it had the desired effect, other times I wished I could turn the feature off.

When the music sounded good, it sounded pretty great, and I’d feel myself getting lost in the tunes. Adele’s breath was right in my ear when listening to her new album. I could feel the bass in Leonard Cohen’s voice on his new single. When when the music didn’t sound good, though, I’d find myself constantly playing with the volume, trying to tweak the sound, rarely with any success. Electronic music seemed to work well most consistently, while other styles of music were hit and miss.

The sound quality, even at its worst is still a step up from the 3 dollar ear buds most people use, but’s also well below the sound quality I’d expect from a headphone in this price range. The sound is also better than other active noise cancelling wireless headphones I’ve tried over the past few weeks, so for this category, these still seem to be best in class. But compared to passive noise cancelling IEMs or similarly priced bluetooth or wired headphones, the sound was usually a notch lower than expected.

The headphones can also be used as a Bluetooth headset for phone calls. The sound quality is excellent in quieter environments or in environments where the background noise is constant and consistent. When I was trying to make a call in a crowded noisy coffee shop though, the microphones seemed to amplify every sound, making me very difficult to understand to the person on the other end of the line. For 95% of phone call situations, these headphones performed well above expectations. I actually found myself reaching for these headphones when my phone would ring because the experience was markedly better than holding the phone to my ear. As a whole, I strongly recommend these for phone calls.

The QC-35’s can be used wired as well, but the 3.5mm cable that came in the box is kind of a joke. It’s ultra flimsy and feels low quality. I know these are meant to be wireless, but for a 350 dollar headphone, they could have included a heavier duty cable. When wired, the QC-35s can be used both with active noise cancelling and without. When wireless, the only option is with active noise cancelling active. There is a slight sound quality difference between active and passive listening, another slight difference between wireless and wired, but most people (including myself) won’t be able to tell the difference in most real world listening situations.

Battery life was pretty amazing. Bose quotes 20 hours for wireless listening, and 40 hours for wired, and in my testing, I usually got a little more than that.

Overall, I liked these headphones for what they were. They’re great for listening to music in noisy environments like on an airplane or train, but less great for listening in quiet places or places with inconsistent noise volumes. In those situations, I’d be much happier with a pair of passive noise cancelling IEMs or just regular headphones.

Active noise cancelling is something that needs getting used to. It can be disorienting at times, and sometimes I wish there was a way to let a little sound in. But that’s just me. I’d strongly recommend these headphones for frequent travelers. I’d be more reluctant to recommend these to people looking for the best sound for their money. For the average person looking for a massive upgrade from their phone ear buds, this could definitely be a great option, especially when paired with the QC-35’s stellar call quality.

The Quietcomfort 35’s were a great introduction into the world of active noise cancellation. I can see headphones like these coming in handy for many noisy situations, but for everyday listening, when I either want the best sound quality possible or the ability to hear what’s going on around me, these may not be my first choice. Having said that — if you want quiet — These are awesome.