Noise-Canceling Headphones Face-Off: Bose vs. Sony
Consumer Reports puts the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II and Sony WH-1000XM3 to the test
Bose has long been a favorite of consumers looking for the best noise-canceling headphones. But recently, Sony’s WH-1000XM3 has generated a lot of attention in the audio community. Many internet reviews argue that the Sony is the better headphone, edging out Bose’s flagship model, the QuietComfort 35 Series II.
The two headphones are evenly matched when it comes to reducing outside sound, and both score among the best headphones in our ratings for their noise-canceling ability. But there are clear differences when it comes to sound quality.
“The key factor in our audio ratings is accuracy, or how closely a model reproduces the sound of an original recording,” says Rich Fisco, electronics testing program manager for Consumer Reports. “By that metric, the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II comes out ahead.”
No headphone is perfect, but the Bose’s audio shortcomings are minor. In comparison with the 1000XM3, the Bose produces clearer, more lively sound. That means it will be easier to appreciate the details of your audio, whether it’s a brush hitting a cymbal on your favorite Miles Davis track or the crunch of the Hulk pummeling concrete in “Avengers: Infinity War.”
The 1000XM3’s sound is more than decent, however, and CR’s testers say this model is a solid choice for people who care about good quality. But in comparison with the Bose, the audio is more muffled and there are some noticeable sonic quirks. For example, the bass is overpronounced and slightly distorted.
The QuietComfort and the 1000XM3 have many similar features, but each has perks the other lacks. Both work with smart assistants, and can be connected over Bluetooth or with an audio cable, even with the power off. The Bose’s advertised 40 hours of battery life beats the Sony’s 30 hours, but Sony’s quick-charge function helps cover the difference, promising 5 hours of play time after a 10-minute charge.
Both have variable noise-canceling, meaning they can be adjusted to let in more or less sound. The Bose has a dedicated button that cycles among noise-canceling options. You can adjust the level of noise-cancellation on the 1000XM3 using Sony’s free phone app, but that’s harder to do on the fly.
However, on the 1000XM3 you can hold your hand to the right ear cup to mute audio and trigger ambient sound monitoring, which amplifies noise from your environment so that you can do things like listen to announcements in an airport. That’s a handy tool the Bose doesn’t have.
You’ll find controls for calls, volume, playback, and skipping tracks on both models. The Bose uses buttons for these functions, and the Sony features touch and tap controls which may be appealing to some users, though our technicians say they’re easy to trigger accidentally.
Sony also has a free smartphone app you can pair with your headphones for some extra features. It includes an equalizer and a setting that adds echo and other effects to make it feel like you’re listening to your music in different environments, like an arena or a club. (CR tests audio with these features off.)
Bose has its own smartphone app that you can use to install firmware updates and change the function of the QuietComfort’s buttons, but it doesn’t do much else.
The 1000XM3 is also compatible with Sony’s proprietary LDAC high-resolution audio streaming technology, though you’ll need other specific Sony products to use it. But CR’s audio experts question the value of high-resolution audio files and say that you may need better-sounding headphones than the 1000XM3 to appreciate the difference anyway.
Both headphones fold and swivel flat for easy transport and to fit in their carrying cases, which are included with your purchase. However, our testers say the 1000XM3 has a poor folding design, which may pinch your fingers if you’re not careful with them.
Like many over-ear headphones, the Bose and the Sony produce some pressure around the ears, though the QuietComfort 35 squeezes a bit less.
In both cases, some people may have trouble getting a good fit—though that’s not uncommon with over-ear headphones. Users with smaller heads may find that both models feel unstable and might get a suboptimal seal around the ears. The Sony is more likely to pose problems for users with larger heads, though, such as cramped ears and a less-than-ideal ear-pad seal.
Fit is important, and not just for comfort. A poor fit can make the bass sound subdued and reduce the effectiveness of noise cancellation.
The 1000XM3 has a built in Noise-Canceling Optimizer function meant to measure and correct for these problems, but CR hasn’t tested the feature.
Which One Should You Buy?
You could do a lot worse than the Sony WH-1000XM3. Its audio quality is admirable, and this model is a great choice when you want to cut out the world and focus on your music. And depending on how you use your headphones, functions such as the Sony’s ambient sound monitoring could make it a better choice for some people.
But the bottom line is that the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II outperforms the Sony where it counts: It’s the clear winner when it comes to sound, and for $350, you deserve the best.
“The QuietComfort 35 II the WH-1000XM3 are both great headphones, but in the end, we think Bose has made the superior product,” Fisco says.
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