The Bose QC45 Noise Canceling Headphones Reviewed

Showing the controls on the Bose QC45 noise cancelling headphones

Bose has just now (September 23, 2021) released their latest model of noise cancelling headphones, the QC45.  It is the successor to the QC35 (and before that, the QC25, and, with slight changes of appearance, the QC15 and QC2, and before that, the original Quiet Comfort headphones in 2000.

The previous QC35 headphones came out four years ago, in 2017, and a year later, Bose re-released them as the QC35 II headphones, with little changed.  In 2019, they then released the very differently designed NC700 headphones – see my NC700 headphone review, here.  Slightly surprisingly, Bose continued to sell the QC35 II as well as the NC700 headphones, and indeed, although the two models looked very different, there was little of great difference, performance wise, between them.  The other difference was price – the NC700 being more expensive, currently $379.

And now Bose has replaced the QC35 II with a new model, the QC45.  This is also slightly surprising, and one has to wonder if the NC700 is not selling as well as hoped, and/or if the QC35 II sales continued strongly, even with the new “latest and greatest” NC700.  Certainly, the design of the NC700, and slight reduction in portability as a result of the design (they don’t fold so compactly), has been controversial.

Currently, Bose is still selling QC35 II headphones at $299, and refurbished sets can be had for under $200.  The new QC45 is priced at $329, the former price point for the QC35 II.  It has been suggested that Bose is not making the QC35 II any more, just selling off remaining stock, and we expect to see the QC35 II may be discounted from time to time, for example, Black Friday.

So, what is new about the QC45?  Very little, it turns out.  Some minor changes in interface, almost no change in appearance, and almost no change in sound or noise cancelling.

But that was the short answer.  Please keep reading for a more detailed appraisal of the QC45 headphones, and of course, an answer to the ultimate question, should you buy a pair?

Also, a special bonus.  Because this entire review was made possible due to the generosity of a Travel Insider Supporter, who sent me the headphones to review, as a special thank-you for all the very kind Travel Insider Supporters I have created my first ever video “unboxing” review.  Because it is their support that makes all of this possible, it seems fair they get additional material in return.  If you’re not yet a Supporter, please consider becoming one, and get instant access to the video review, plus all the additional content on other parts of the website too.

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And now, back to the rest of the review.  🙂

What You Get

The headphones come with a nice carry case, a short audio cable, and an even shorter power/charging cable, with one end to be plugged into a USB power source and the other end a USB-C connector for the charging port on the right ear cup.

At least the charging cable is standard.  Bose is persisting in giving us a somewhat non-standard audio connector, with a regular three contact (ie stereo audio) 1/8″ (3.5 mm) connector at one end, but a narrower shorter 2.5mm connector at the other end.  Whereas the QC25 can also send microphone signals from the unit to whatever you’re plugging into (ie a phone) these do not have that capability – they will work with phone calls but only via Bluetooth.

If you need a replacement cable, you can buy one from Bose for $16, or from Amazon for about $6.  Just make sure they are “tip, ring, sleeve” three wire rather than “tip, ring, ring, sleeve” four wire type connectors.

The thing that is missing is any sort of manual.  Picture this as a use case – you are on a flight, the headphones aren’t working, and they’re flashing some colored light signal at you.  What does it mean?  If you had a manual, you could hopefully answer that question.  Without a manual, you’re more or less stuck.  The app offers you the option to visit the help website, but there you are, on a plane.  Without an internet connection.  You don’t want to be taken to a website you can’t access, you want something, right now, that will tell you what the light flashing means, or how else to resolve the issue you’re facing.

This is inexcusable.  Bose provide a large size 32 page booklet that is full of legalese and disclaimers in multiple languages, so clearly they haven’t lost the ability to print.  But whereas they’ll eagerly barrage you with 32 pages of nonsense, mainly in languages you can’t read, they refuse to give you something actually useful.

If you do some creative hunting around the Bose website, you’ll find a helpful PDF with user instructions.  Download it and keep copies on your various electronic devices.

Physical Description

The QC45 headphones continue the design style of the QC25 and 35 models, and which is only slightly different to the earlier QC15 and QC2 headphones.  They weigh almost exactly the same (8.5 oz instead of 8.3 oz) and have only very minor tweaks in appearance.

They have the same set of nondescript buttons – one button on the left cup and three on the right cup, and now the center of the three right cup buttons no longer has any marking on it (the QC35 II shows a totally inscrutable meaningless three circles on it), with the ones above and below showing a plus and minus symbol.  There is a three position slide switch on the right ear cup too – off, on, and a momentary third position which might mean something like “activating pairing mode”.  There is a single indicator light that can change color depending on what it is trying to tell you (the QC 35 II has two indicator lights, although this doesn’t really make it any easier to decode the meaning of the different colors and flashes).

The single light can be three different colors (white, amber, blue) and might be steadily on or flashing (at slow or fast speeds) or blinking between colors.  There are ten different status conditions that this one light attempts to convey to you.  Good luck remembering the difference between, eg, a fast or slow blinking white light.  Happily, most of the time, you’ll never need to know.

Initiating and Connecting Them

Upon opening the box, the only instructions were a terse requirement to download the companion app onto a phone, and then connect the headphones to the app.

I was expecting this to be a deal breaking point.  The mandatory nature of the registration and the total surrender of sweeping privacy rights that was necessary for the NC700 headphones was one of the dealbreakers that caused me to return mine.  The earlier QC35 II headphones weren’t quite so demanding, but I feared the QC45 would be more in line with the NC700 intrusiveness.

Happily, that was totally not the case.  I managed to do everything without having to disclose or share any significant personal data, and the activation process was better than the QC35 II.  Bravo.

Connecting the headphones to the phone involved several false starts and failures.  I don’t fully know why things didn’t go 100% smoothly right through the process (I videotaped it all and played it back several times to try and see what was going wrong) but eventually, on the third or fourth attempt, I got the headphones paired with the phone, and subsequently, there has been no problem with the connection being automatically re-established.

Battery Life

These days, I worry less about the battery life of my most of collection of assorted mobile gadgets.  Not only is their life good enough for most “normal” uses, but increasingly, we have opportunities to recharge, even on planes these days, and for those cases when we have no chance of recharging, a simple portable external battery pack is an easy and inexpensive way to provide some extra “top up”.  If you don’t have an external battery pack, or need another one, we recommend you get one with at least 20,000 mAh of stored power and pay $1 per each 1,000 mAh of capacity or less – ie, a 20,000 mAh unit should cost you about $20.  Here’s a listing of plenty to choose from.

Having said that, there’s of course no doubt that the more battery life every gadget has, the less the hassle factor when you’re traveling.  Murphy’s Law inevitably dictates that when you need to recharge a device, there’ll be no way to do so.  Plus, the longer the battery life per charge, the longer it will be before you need to replace the battery (or the entire unit if the battery itself can not be replaced).

This is because battery life is determined by the number of charge cycles, and the more charge cycles, the more the battery degrades, giving you less time per charge.  That means two things – longer battery life means fewer charge cycles needed, plus, with a longer battery life per charge, you can accept more degradation in capacity before feeling the need to charge.  For example, if you “need” 8 hours of battery life, if you have a device that starts off with a 10 hour battery life, once that has degraded 20% you’ll be feeling pressured.  But if the device starts off with 16 hours of battery life, it can reduce in capacity by 50% before you feel the need to replace.

Bose claim the QC45 will provide up to 24 hours of use on a full charge, with a charging time from empty to full of about 2.5 hours.  If you need an urgent bit of charge, they say that 15 minutes of charging will give you three hours of operation.  This compares with up to 20 hours from the QC 35 II.

Each time you turn the headphones on, a voice tells you the battery charge percentage.  It seems to give the percentage in 10% units – it had been telling me 100% repeatedly, then the next time I turned them on, it said 90%.

They use a USB-C connector for charging purposes.  This is the current reigning standard type of connector.  Bose provide a short charging cable, but no charging power supply – that is probably a fair omission, due to the unit not needing a particularly high-current charge rate, and all of us having an abundance of generic USB type chargers, already.

Comfort in Use

The headphones are of the “around the ear” design, with the cups surrounding your ear and resting on the bone of your skull.  As long as you don’t have extremely large ears, that shouldn’t pose a problem, and it is nice not to be squeezing your ears as would be the case with “on the ear” type headphones (which don’t do as good a job of passively blocking sound), or possibly irritating them with “in the ear” type earbuds.

The ear pads are soft and slightly squishy, probably made from some form of memory foam.  Bose says it has improved the manufacture of these so there are less “wrinkles” in the fabric, not that it had been an issue with the previous models.  Make sure the foam makes a good seal, it is surprising how much sound can leak in otherwise.

They were comfortable to wear for several hours non-stop, although my ears did start to feel “hot” after a while.

Noise Cancelling Capabilities

If you’re looking at spending $300+ on a set of noise cancelling headphones, the two things that should matter to you the most are the comfort of the headphones (anticipating you’ll be wearing them for many hours on a long flight) and the effectiveness of the noise cancelling itself.  Most of the $300+ that you’re paying goes into the noise canceling ability (well, actually, to be blunt, most goes into profit!) of the headphones.  Sound-wise, you can get massively better headphones at the same price, or comparable headphones for music listening without noise canceling at $100 or so.

We compared the QC45 headphones to their predecessor, the QC35 II headphones, in a series of different ambient noise environments set to approximate the background noises you might hear on a plane.  We created these with an imaginative range of different sound sources, all mixed together in varying amounts for a glorious cacophony of noise, ranging from a “rain sounds” sleep generator noise and a white noise generator to various fans and motors and even varying amounts of a vacuum cleaner, too.

In case of interest, you can see the audio spectrum charts for some of the environments I was testing in, on the left.

Happily, Bose abandoned the nonsense of multiple levels of noise cancelling it offered in the NC700 headphones, and offers either “full on” or what it calls “aware mode” which seems to be a “mainly off” setting.  Of course, we used the full on setting, and matched that with the QC35 II headphones also in “full on” mode.

The noise cancelling is stunningly good.  But, after perhaps half an hour of changing the background sound mix, and swapping/swapping/swapping the headphones endlessly, we were up unable to convincingly persuade ourselves that the QC45 headphones were appreciably better than the QC35 II headphones.  Perhaps, a very teeny tiny bit better, but that was all.

We even swapped units with our eyes closed to try and avoid any sort of auto-suggestion or bias, and kept coming back to the conclusion that, if indeed there is any improvement in noise cancelling, it is very subtle.

We also quickly compared with our older QC25 headphones, and that merely confirmed the hierarchy of effectiveness we’d already established – the QC25 is at the bottom of the pack, then comes the QC35 II, which very slightly edges out the QC25 in noise cancelling performance, and now the QC45, which very slightly edges out the QC35 II in performance.

If you already have either the QC25 or QC35/35 II headphones, there is no reason to upgrade to the QC45 headphones, based on noise cancelling performance.

Controlling Audio

One of the biggest mistakes Bluetooth designers make is allowing remote devices (such as headphones) to control the functions of the device they are connected to.  I say this because the device being controlled (typically a phone) usually has nice convenient on-screen controls and prompts, and/or obvious keys for volume on the side of it.

We all know how to answer a phone call, change the volume, and so on.  If we’re listening to music, we know how to start/stop the music playing, skip forward or back a track, and so on.  Most of all, the phone or other device is almost always within our reach when we’re using headphones.  The Bluetooth connection is not intended for us to remote control something in a different room, it is intended as a way of controlling things that are immediately within reach.  That does beg a question – why do we need Bluetooth at all?  That’s a question few technophiles have paused to consider, but I increasingly find myself lamenting the lack of a simple old-fashioned wire.

So, with your phone in front of you, why would you want to ignore its own simple and intuitive controls and instead memorize what one, two, and/or three presses of that one over-worked center button does when playing music – especially if these are headphones you only use when traveling, and with days/weeks/months between uses, you almost certainly forget all the many different meanings of that one button.

I’m not even going to tell you what the different button presses do.  Happily, 99% of the time, you can (and should) ignore them entirely.  I recommend you use the controls on your phone/music player and ignore the controls on the headphones.

Managing Phone Calls

But to give you an example of remote controlling your phone, you can answer an incoming phone call, if you are connected via Bluetooth to your phone, by pressing the center button on the right earcup.  That sounds not too complicated, but if you hold it too long, instead of answering the call, you reject it.  Similarly, if you want to reject a call, you press that button and hold it for a while – if you don’t hold it long enough, you’ve answered the call.

What could possibly go wrong with using the same button to answer or reject a phone call?

If you want to mute the call, you double press the button on the other side of the headphones.  Make sure to remember which side to use, otherwise who knows what will happen.

Again, none of this is necessary.  Our clear preference is to simply use the easy to understand buttons on the phone itself.

Sound Quality

I was expecting reasonably good sound from the headphones.  Bose has steadily improved the sound in their headphones over the different generations.  To test the headphones and give them their best chance of performing well, I used a wired rather than Bluetooth connection, and used FLAC recordings as a high quality source.  I switched the headphone electronics off rather than on, presumably allowing for the most direct and unprocessed path from sound source to headphone transducers.

But when I first started playing some piano music (always a demanding instrument and great for testing with), I heard distortion in the upper notes.  Although I’d never noticed it before, I wondered if it was a problem with the recording.  I changed to a different recording of piano music, and again heard a harshness and lack of purity.  One third piano recording also disappointed.  I was truly puzzled, the sound was so much worse than I’d expected, and I wondered if there was a problem with my music player, so I switched to a pair of high quality but low-cost regular headphones, the wonderfully clear and clean Sony MDR-7506 (currently $100 or less on Amazon), to get a “baseline” sound.

I immediately heard some “tape hiss” from the recording that was playing (it was recorded in 1964, long before all digital came along) that I’d not heard through the Bose headphones.  While I’m happy not to hear tape hiss, if the tape hiss was not being heard through the Bose headphones, so too is “real music” also being lost.  I then cycled through the three piano recordings, and this time enjoyed the clear clean sounds that I was accustomed to hearing.

I was stunned by how bad the Bose sound was.  Then suddenly I realized the issue.  I tried again, still with the wired connection, but this time with the headphones powered on.  The sound quality was massively improved, like “night and day”.  My guess is if the headphones are switched on, the incoming audio is processed to compensate for the characteristics and weaknesses of the headphone speakers, so you get a corrected rather than raw sound, and the corrected sound is clearly a great improvement.

This was rumored to be the reason why earlier generations of Bose headphones would never work unpowered – the speaker sound, unprocessed, was just too bad.

Conclusion – good sound, but only if powered on.  Bad sound if powered off.

One of the surprising limitations with Bose’s Bluetooth connection is that it doesn’t support any higher-grade music-quality protocols.  There are now advanced high fidelity audio type connection protocols available, and are used by some of the Bose competitors such as Sony, but Bose still hasn’t adopted these.  So don’t expect the Bluetooth audio to be quite as good as the wired audio.  But, to repeat again, you’re not getting these headphones for audio excellence.  You’re getting them primarily for noise cancelling.

Accessing Your Phone’s Virtual Assistant

If you have Google Assistant, Alexa, or Siri active on your paired phone, you can command it by pressing the middle button on the right earcup for one second, then speaking a command, without needing to use the “wake word”.  So, instead of perhaps saying “Alexa, play Classic FM”  you would just say, after the button press, “Play Classic FM”.

This did not work well.  Unlike the similar feature on the QC35 II, pressing the middle button did not create any sort of feedback sound to tell you that you’d pressed it for long enough and that the assistant was now active and listening.

That perhaps might not have mattered, if the button long-press always worked.  Unfortunately, it didn’t.  So, after pressing the button, you then found yourself speaking uncertainly, wondering if you’d get any response or not.

The big problem with lack of response is that if your phone is in standby mode, it won’t switch to active mode by itself when you press the button on the headphones.  So, the first thing you have to do is check your phone and unlock it if it has switched to standby mode.

Which makes the entire concept of using the headphones rather unhelpful and – as often as not – frustrating.  If you have to go to your phone first to check and possibly change its status, why then switch from the phone to the headphones, and why learn yet another infrequently used command when the phone is now in your hand and ready to use, directly?  Just thinking about this makes my brain hurt….

As I said in the preceding section about controlling audio, most of the Bluetooth automation features are unhelpful, unnecessary, and complicated, rather than helpful, necessary, and simple.

Should You Buy the QC45 Noise Cancelling Headphones?

If you already have a set of QC25 or QC35 headphones, there is no need to upgrade, unless (for QC25 users) for some inexplicable reason you want the Bluetooth capabilities.  If you have the earlier QC15 headphones, there is a noticeable improvement in noise cancelling.

But, in such a case, should you spend $329 on the QC45, or $299 on the QC35 II?  Actually, the real question is probably whether you should buy a reconditioned set of QC35 II headphones or a new set of QC45 headphones.

I spoke with Bose to try and understand what the reconditioned headphones are.  I was told they are usually only very lightly used, if at all – they might have been ordered by mistake or unwanted when received.  So they are unlikely to be two or three years old and well worn.  My concern with age and use is whether the battery in them is starting to age, but that doesn’t seem a problem if they are very-nearly new.  The reconditioned headphones also have the same one year warranty as do new headphones.

So, for most people, I suggest the $200 or so price for a nearly new reconditioned set of QC35 II headphones is by far the best buy.  But if you must buy new, then I’d probably suggest you spend the extra $30 and get the latest QC45, not necessarily for any obvious enhancement, but just to have “the latest and the greatest”.

The other issue is whether you should buy any Bose headphones or a different brand.  At the high end, the Sony WH-1000XM4 headphones are very well regarded.  I earlier did a side-by-side comparison of the WH-1000XM3 headphones and the QC35 headphones, and noted the Sony headphones had excellent sound and slightly better noise cancelling, but were a nightmare to try to understand and use.

The WH-1000XM4 headphones reportedly have some further improvement in noise canceling, so they would appear to be opening their lead up over the Bose products.  They are priced at $348.  Certainly, they would be a much better choice than the NC700s, but the QC45 is probably a better choice than the NC700 product, too.

The other option is to look at less expensive headphones that are almost as good, but massively less expensive.  In that context, and most recently, I was very impressed with the Wyze noise-cancelling headphones, which I review here.  At $60, you can buy multiple sets of the Wyze headphones and still have plenty of money left over.  Their noise-cancelling is almost as good, their sound is almost as good, and their price represents an outstanding value.

Summary

The biggest change in the Bose QC45 headphones compared to their predecessor, the long-lived QC35 series, is simply the model number.  Bose almost seems like their heart and focus is no longer in noise-cancelling headphones at all – or maybe there is no longer much remaining to add or improve.

Bose used to have the high end of the headphone market almost exclusively to itself.  But now it is sharing it with Sony, and to a lesser extent, with other companies too.  It is a shame that the Bose response was to come up with the disappointment of the NC700 new design, and then follow it up with an almost unchanged QC45 model.

If Bose were to make any change, the most appropriate might be to trim the price, or to release a third model at a lower price point (and perhaps without Bluetooth).  Instead, this “more of the same” product is unexciting.

But, although not a major change from the QC35 II headphones, the Bose QC45 headphones are, in their own right, an excellent product.  If all other considerations don’t argue against them, you’ll be pleased and proud to own a pair.

2 thoughts on “The Bose QC45 Noise Canceling Headphones Reviewed”

  1. mangalicker94

    I would have been glad if you could have gone in more depth what the graphs represent. Is the gray columns noise and the yellow one the ANC? It’s a bit confusing. Ohterwise, cool and nice review.

    1. David Rowell – Seattle, WA, USA – New Zealander now living in the United States.

      The grey is recent peak, the yellow instantaneous noise. It doesn’t show how much has been cancelled. That is very difficult (but not impossible – just difficult as in “expensive”) to measure.

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