It is unusual that I urge you not to buy a set of headphones when simultaneously explaining they’re probably the best at noise cancelling on the market at present. More than that, my objection isn’t just on their ridiculously high price. Nor the stupid unnecessary complications and impossible to understand controls.
I should explain this before getting into the details of this review. My recommendation to not buy these headphones is because Bose disable the headphones and will only enable them if you agree to over-share way too much personal information. Shame on Bose.
So, please, don’t enable this uncalled for assault on our privacy – do headphone manufacturers really need to get realtime updates about our location? No, of course they don’t. They only want this so they can sell your information on to third parties, so they’re not only making money from their overpriced headphones, but then an ongoing flow of continuing revenue by sharing the personal data they’re stealing from you.
An Introduction to the NC700 Headphones
There’s been a surge in expensive noise-cancelling headphones being offered for sale over the last few years. Sony brought out several models, all with impressive marketing and public-relations budgets, and other companies have also explored the top of the market.
The price of noise-canceling headphones has always defied the underlying product costs. In round terms, there’s about $30 of underlying cost in a set of headphones that you’d pay $300 or more for. With the expiry of the key early patents on noise-cancelling technology (these were mainly owned by Bose), I’ve long expected the product to become more generic and prices to drop. In part, that has happened, and there are now excellent headphones to be had for under $100, even for only $50.
But at the high end, prices have been gradually rising rather than dropping. Why? How?
One element of this counter-intuitive price rise is a desperate desire/need by the high end manufacturers to justify the stratospheric prices they are charging for their headphones, and that seems to be driving a very unfortunate shift from “good old fashioned wired headphones” to something that is neither good nor wired – the rise of Bluetooth wireless headphones.
Although an early enthusiastic adopter of Bluetooth – I remember, 15 years ago, paying $150 for a Bluetooth headset for my phone – it was memorable not just for its high cost, but because it was such a terrible device in every respect, with appallingly bad sound quality such as to make it almost completely unusable! For many years I hoped the promise of simple short-range wireless connections – as easy as using a cord – would finally come to pass, but it never has, largely because, without exception, there’s never been a sensibly designed Bluetooth device, and over time, my hope has turned to despair and my enthusiasm has become quite the opposite. I write about this in more detail in my article “Bluetooth’s Big Mistake“.
But that’s only the start of the perfidy of modern expensive noise cancelling headphones. They’re no longer content with subjecting us to endlessly complicated controls on the headphones (see my review of the Sony WH-1000X M3 headphones with an interface as complicated as the ridiculously lengthy name of the product, requiring an almost 200 page instruction manual and featuring an insane 16 different types of colored light flashing sequences to indicate different things).
Now, they’re adding a further gratuitous layer of insulting unnecessary complication. They’re adding a phone based app as well – and making it mandatory to use.
Bose Wants to Destroy Your Privacy
And that’s not all. They’re not only creating an app to “help” you control your headphones, but – and now, at last, I focus accusingly at the latest Bose high end model noise cancelling headphones, their NC-700 model – they are mandating that you must use the app or else the headphones only will do limited things. This was the case with the Sony headphones, too, but the contemporaneous Bose QC 35 II headphones had an optional rather than essential app. My guess is that Bose discovered no-one ever used their app, so their response, rather than abandoning the app, was to double-down and now make it mandatory.
Moving on from that, they then tell me they need to be able to access my phone’s location. I refused, whereupon they said the headphones would not work without it. Why do they need to know my location, and why won’t they let me use my headphones without sharing my location information with them?
It also wanted access to all my contacts and call history, but it seemed to accept my refusal in that case. Why would a set of headphones want access to all my contacts?
But the app was being sneaky, it passively aggressively accepted my refusal, but after several minutes, told me it had failed to connect to the headphones, and after several tries, it eventually became apparent it would only pair if I allowed access to my contacts and call history.
One final indignity. You’ve got to have a password to open the app. Why do you need a password (especially on a probably password protected phone) just to adjust the volume or noise cancelling on a set of headphones?
This was the point where I decided to return these headphones. But I kept them for another day, to allow me to give you a review of how they actually work, if you can stomach the needless intrusions and demands of their mandatory app.
The NC700 Basic Functionality
So, what about the headphones themselves? As you can see from the picture, they have a futuristic sort of design, but not a practical one. The headphone cups lie flat, but don’t fold in like the previous generations of Bose headphones (and many other headphones from other manufacturers, too), so they take up more space in a carry bag – a carry bag that is probably already full with little or no spare space for a Bose design fail. This is yet another example of designers running amok – creating what they deem a stylish design, but never pausing to think of the practicality of how we all use and carry our headphones.
Upon opening up the box the headphones came in, I was greeted by the headphones themselves, a thick manual, and a sheet of paper that told me to download the app and press a button on the headphones to pair them with the phone.
Oh yes, the buttons on the headphones. There are three buttons, not one of which is marked with anything helpful like “Power” or “Noise Cancelling”. They don’t even have symbols. Just three buttons, two on the right ear cup and one on the left. How stupid and unhelpful is that? I think this represents the extreme expression of dysfunctional user-unfriendly design – totally unlabeled buttons, coupled with no explanation in the print manual provided.
At least there was a nice thick manual (5 1/4″ x 5 1/4″ x 1/6″). But, wouldn’t you know it. Nearly the entire manual was legalese in many different languages. There was only one double page about how to use the headphones, which only showed you how to turn them on and charge them. That’s all. The other two buttons were unexplained – everything else was to be found in the mandatory app.
So not only a total fail on explaining what the three buttons are on the headphones themselves, but a further fail in the non-manual. They really want to force you into their app, don’t they.
For me, and perhaps for you too, I want to use noise cancelling headphones for four things :
1. To shut out airplane noise when flying. I don’t want to have to turn my phone on to do that and drain its battery. I just want to put my headphones on my head and turn on their noise cancelling.
2. To listen to music on my music player. My music player is exactly that – a music player, and doesn’t run any apps, nor does it have Bluetooth – similar to iPods, if anyone remembers those, but more modern and higher quality.
3. To watch videos on my Amazon Kindle Fire HD10 tablet. The Bose app doesn’t run on the Kindle Fire HD10.
4. To watch and listen to AV content on an airplane in-flight entertainment system. This of course requires wired headphones and doesn’t have the Bose app.
So these headphones either don’t work or aren’t optimized for any of these four scenarios. In the good old days, all a pair of headphones needed was a single button to turn their noise cancelling on or off. They do not need, and should not have, any more controls.
Of course, the idea of over-engineering headphones is nothing new. Over the nearly 20 years of reviewing dozens of noise cancelling headphones, I’ve regularly seen bad ideas come and go, usually in two forms. The first bad idea has been a volume control. That’s just a gratuitous way of wasting the battery in your audio device. If you need to adjust the volume, you should always do it at the audio device, never at the headphones. Using the headphones to adjust volume can alter the sound curve and the impedance, as well as wasting battery power in your audio device.
The second bad idea is a noise cancelling level control. You only need an on and off button. I’ve never encountered any situation when I’d ever want “half noise cancelling” or any other setting (the NC-700 headphones have a ridiculous ten levels of noise cancelling – rampant ‘featuritis’ present for no reason other than because it can be). It is unthinkable that a person would pay hundreds of dollars in premium to get a set of noise cancelling headphones with the best possible noise cancelling performance, but then reduce how well they cancel background noises.
The NC700 app not only incorporates both these features, but it also offers other gratuitous nonsense like an equalizer. Assuming a reasonably decent sound in the headphones, you never ever need or should use an equalizer, because all you’re doing in such a case is changing the sound from the way it originally was and the way the artists, producer, and recording engineer wished it to be heard. Equalizers sometimes make sense for a sound system using loudspeakers to adjust to the acoustics of a room, but are unnecessary in a set of headphones, which have a totally controlled sound environment to work within.
Noise Cancelling Comparison
I compared the NC700 headphones to four other sets of noise-canceling headphones. The NC700s came top of the list, sharing that rank with, believe it or not, the least expensive of the headphones.
Both the NC700 and a set of the ultra-new Wyze noise cancelling headphones (first batch quickly sold out, currently out of stock – I’ll be reviewing them soon) were excellent at noise cancelling, but had slightly different characteristics. The Wyze were better at low frequencies, the NC700s were better at high frequencies. Which was better? I really couldn’t say, because of the slightly different characteristics. There was one other enormous difference, too : whereas the Bose NC700 headphones list for $379, the Wyze headphones list for $50.
Next came the Bose QC35 II headphones, with very similar performance to the NC700, but not perhaps every so slightly, not quite so good. The Bose QC35 II headphones are $299, and occasionally drop a bit in price on sale (review pending).
Next came the Bose QC25 headphones, again with similar performance, but again, slightly inferior. Sadly, these – the last set of “normal” wired headphones made by Bose – are no longer available. A shame, they were excellent performers; if you ever find a pair for sale, buy them. My review, five years ago, can be seen here.
Last came the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 headphones. But the “last” position should not be considered as a poor performance, they too did very well, but were not quite as good as the other headphones. They are $60 or $65 on Amazon (depending on color)
Surprisingly, it seemed that the biggest variation in noise cancelling quality now is how well the ear cups seal around your ears. That made testing slightly more difficult, because it wasn’t as simple as just swapping from one set of headphones very quickly to another to compare, you had to then spend a few seconds getting the most optimum fit before full noise isolation was achieved.
Sound quality was reasonably good, but you should never choose noise cancelling or Bluetooth headphones for sound quality. For highest quality audio, you want high quality headphones with a nice old-fashioned piece of wire connecting them to the amplifier output.
The NC700 headphones were reasonably comfortable, but felt a bit flimsy with their new method of connecting the ear cups to the headband.
They claim “up to 20 hours” of battery life, whatever that means. Battery charging is by means of a USB-C cable. They have a one-year non-transferable warranty.
The headphones come in three colors. We used to like buying the muted grey/black color headphones, but now choose lighter colored ones. They are easier to see and not sit on in darkened airplane cabins, and to not to leave behind at the end of a flight.
I’m not obsessed with privacy, but things have become ridiculous where, after spending $379 for an overpriced set of headphones, they refuse to work unless you agree to share your location with the headphone manufacturer, as well as your contact list, details of the music you listen to, and goodness only knows what else. That is unacceptably intrusive.
Happily, there are other headphones out there that work as well as the Bose headphones, and cost less – much much less, in the case of the new Wyze headphones that provide almost the same level of noise cancelling, at less than 1/7th the price.
Don’t give in to this latest needless attack on what remains of our privacy. Don’t buy the Bose NC700 headphones.