I wrote last week about the new Solitude XCS2 noise cancelling headphones. The quick summary of that review is that they offer very good sound quality that is better than Bose, but their noise cancelling isn’t as good. Oh yes, and their cost is (currently) one third of the price of the Bose QC25 headphones ($98 instead of $299). (Update/Note – we don’t believe the Solitude XCS2 headphones are available any more and the company seems to have disappeared.)
But what of the Bose QC25 headphones? If the ultimate in noise cancelling is important to you, should you spend the extra $201 and get the QC25 instead of the Solitude? This review attempts to answer that question (TL;DR : Probably). (Update – the QC25 headphones are now available for $170 on Amazon, making for a much easier buying decision.)
As background, this is the fourth generation of noise cancelling headphones from Bose. I’ve reviewed all previous generations, and each has been a discernable improvement over the previous product. The QC1, QC2 and QC15 are no longer available.
More recently (updated, 2017) the QC25 have in turn been supplemented by a newer QC35 and subsequently QC35 II model, which adds Bluetooth capability and rechargeable batteries (two features we generally dislike). There is also a very different looking NC700 set of headphones that have very slightly better noise cancelling. The oblique benefit of the appearance of the QC35 model (which sell for $350) and the NC700 ($400) is that Bose have reduced the QC25 to $170, making it an obvious and easy choice for most people, most of the time.
What You Get and What is Different
Bose has made a major change in their design philosophy with the QC25. Unlike virtually every other noise cancelling headphones out there, all the earlier Bose models would not work without the power being turned on. We believe this was because they were ‘shaping’ the sound to compensate for any acoustic issues and didn’t want to allow you to hear the unshaped sound passively routed through due to quality problems.
That limitation would occasionally – not often but occasionally – become a problem if the battery died on a long flight and all of a sudden, your headphones became totally useless. The solution was easy though – always carry a spare battery. But it is nice to see that Bose now allows you to pass the sound through ‘in an emergency’ without mandating power.
Externally, there are three obvious changes to the headphones. The first is a clever new way of folding them, so they take up less space (see picture, above). Although I carry mine ‘unprotected’ in my travel bag, their carry case is matchingly smaller now and I’m tempted to use the carry case for the better protection – I tend to break my traveling headphones from the stress of unprotected travel long before they otherwise would be due for replacement. The carry case has a clever space which holds a spare battery and the dual prong airplane adapter.
The second change is a new color – they are now in a gunmetal grey type color rather than the matt chrome of the QC15. Except that – they are also now available in other colors too. There is a standard white finish too, and then various optional other colors that cost ridiculously more are also available – an extra $100 for choosing from a large range of other colors, and the ability to customize the colors of different parts of the headsets. But this does point to how, for some people, a set of headphones is more a fashion accessory than a functional product, and if you really want your headphones to be in ‘Candy Apple’ or ‘Root Beer’ or ‘Zest’ color (or a mix of all three) then by all means, press another $100 into Bose’s outstretched hands!
Oh – there’s one other choice you also have to make when ordering a set – do you want them with the Android or iOS control cable? As well as having a microphone built in to the cable, there is also the ability to do some limited controlling of your device from the headset itself. But I see this as at best a neutral feature, and perhaps a negative one. I’d rather have no controls on the cable, just a microphone, and the cable more universally able to be used with all phones. Remember that your phone is never going to be any further away than the other end of the cable, so do you really need to learn up a new set of remote control functions when the phone itself is within arm’s reach to start with!?
You can also buy a spare second cord for the other type of phone. This costs a ridiculous $30 from Bose. Note also the cords are non-standard, so if (when!) you either break or lose the cord, you’ll be facing this $30 fee to replace it.
The third change is a nice little touch. They now have muted letters “L” and “R” printed on the fabric inside the ear cups. I’ve often found it difficult, in the dim light of a night-time airplane cabin, to tell from the tiny raised letters on the headphones, which side is left and which is right – the new design makes it much easier to see this.
The headphones come with the necessary AAA battery and also an airplane dual prong type adapter. But what they don’t have is a 1/4″ adapter – if you want to plug your headphones into a high quality sound source like a regular receiver, with a ‘full size’ diameter socket, you’ll have to buy one of those separately. That’s a minor annoyance, but an annoyance none-the-less, and an unnecessary omission for something (originally) costing $300. Headphones priced well below $100 come with this adapter as standard.
Also gone is the former High/Low switch in the connecting cord on earlier models that would selectively attenuate the sound level in the headphones. Instead, if you use the airplane/two-prong adapter, it automatically reduces the volume level for you – whether you wish this or not!
Bose offers a one year ‘limited’ non-transferable warranty.
The headphones sell for $299 everywhere – Bose is very strict about not allowing any retailer to discount their product. The headphones can be found on Amazon for a very appealing $170.
How They Perform
Bose is well known for two things. Consummate noise cancelling, and very strong branding which – for many people – obscures an underlying struggle to provide anything better than average quality sound. Both characteristics remain true for this latest generation of noise cancelling headphones.
In terms of noise cancelling, the QC2 was a big improvement over the QC1, and with much less electronic hiss. The QC15 was another huge improvement over the QC2. But it seems they are now reaching the limits of what current technology allows, and the QC25 is a very subtle and possibly incremental rather than enormous advance over the QC15. (Note – I had one of the early model QC15s, and could hear some small improvements; I understand that Bose had a midlife ‘half model’ improvement to the QC15s that may have improved their noise cancelling a bit, in which case the difference would be even smaller.)
They are perhaps a tiny bit better than the QC15, but if you already have a pair of QC15 headphones, should you now rush to upgrade to the QC25? Probably not. The extra tweak in their noise cancelling is probably only 1 dB, or at the most 2 dB, and possibly with a slight extension of the frequency range that the cancelling works well within. I spent the better part of an hour swapping between the QC15 and QC25 headphones on a recent flight between Auckland and Honolulu, and while the QC25s were probably slightly better, it truly was a very slight improvement.
The background random hiss generated by the electronic circuits was almost inaudible in a quiet room, and very closely comparable to the same hiss level on the QC15 headphones.
How about the Solitude XCS2 headphones (now discontinued/unavailable)? The QC25 headphones are obviously better than the XCS2 when it comes to pure noise cancelling alone. If the only thing you want your headphones to do is drown out the background noise on a flight, then – well, actually, even the QC25s don’t obliterate the noise. They reduce it substantially – more than 20dB, maybe even 25dB, but they don’t totally eliminate it. If you want the ultimate in noise insulation, buy a pair of shooter’s earmuffs that offer 34dB or more of passive noise blocking. But you can’t also play music through them (I guess you could route a pair of earplugs in though).
If your objective is more realistically to reduce the noise on a plane (or in an office/bus/train/anywhere) from ‘too loud’ to ‘acceptably quieter’ then the QC25s definitely do this. But so too do other noise cancelling headphones, and having moved from an absolutist ‘I demand perfect silence’ to a more reasonable ‘I want less noise but some is okay’ the question becomes where on the price/performance continuum you decide to compromise.
In particular, and with the XCS2 as an alternate, the question becomes ‘Is the better noise cancelling of the QC25 worth paying an extra
$200 $50 for?’
And wait – there’s a second question you need to be asking yourself as well. Which is more important to you – excellent sound and good noise cancelling, or acceptable sound and excellent noise cancelling?
Which probably makes it a good time to talk about the sound.
The QC25s sound slightly better than the QC15s, but not as good as the XCS2s. There’s more difference in sound quality than in noise cancelling.
Update – the reduced price of the QC25s makes much of this price related angst obsolete. Get the QC25 headphones.
For the first time ever, the QC25 headphones will play music whether the noise cancelling is turned on or off. The sound quality seems to be better with the noise cancelling turned on.
But, while better than the not-very-good QC15, the music still didn’t ‘sing to me’ when listened to through the QC25 headphones. Sure, I could hear the music acceptably well, and if doing nothing more than watching a movie with dialog, score, and sound effects, it is probably perfectly good. But if you’re wanting to listen to music by itself, the music is flat and doesn’t inspire or engage you as much.
Maybe I’m becoming too extreme an audiophile? But when I’m listening to a piece of music, I find myself, with the XCS2 headphones, marveling at the purity and impact of the sound, as well as enjoying the tune. I can hear the singer and imagine if they’ve got a sore throat or just had a drink of honeyed tea, I hear the percussive impacts of the hammers on a piano’s strings, and so on. But there’s none of the same all-involving experience with the Bose product.
I’m reminded of a claim made by the Pono high quality music player – with the extra sound quality provided by the Pono player (assuming it is matched with a high quality recording to start with) you get to feel the ’emotion’ of the music. I’d not really seriously considered that claim until doing A/B testing between the Solitude and Bose headphones from a high quality music source.
The Bose headphones are also slightly less sensitive than the Solitudes – you need to turn the volume up higher to hear music at the same level through the QC25s compared to the XCS2s. That’s no big deal, unless you’re starting to get hard of hearing and typically need the volume at max to start with, in which case you should consider getting a headphone amplifier such as this excellent unit from Fiio.
A higher volume level also means you’re draining the battery in your audio player slightly faster, too. Bose don’t quote sensitivity or impedance figures for their headphones, but clearly, sensitivity is lower than the XCS2 and possibly impedance is higher.
The Bose QC25 headphones are a minor improvement on the previous version QC15 headphones, and if you already have a set of QC15 headphones, there is no reason to upgrade. The QC25 model now has a newer stablemate, the QC35 II, but we see no advantage and only hassles by switching to the QC35 model. Plus, pricewise, you can buy two pairs of QC25 headphones (at $170 a set) for the cost of a single set of QC35 headphones (at $350). Similar arguments apply against the even newer and more expensive NC700 model.
So, if you’re looking for acceptably good sound, and best-of-breed noise cancellation, the Bose QC25 headphones are your best choice. Sure, you can get cheaper noise cancelling headphones for half the price, but in this case, you get what you pay for, and the QC25 are clearly better at noise cancelling than anything else. You’ll clearly hear the difference.