Review: Bose QuietComfort 3 (QC3) Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones
Pros: Bose’s first “on-ear” noise-cancelling headphone design, applying active noise-cancellation and comfort technologies taken from its earlier QuietComfort headphones to a smaller and equally comfortable alternative. Includes rechargeable battery and wall charger, carrying case with detachable strap, two headphone plug adapters and two lengths of cable.
Cons: Smaller earpieces provide far less passive noise isolation than earlier QC2 design, resulting in listener’s ability to still hear external loud noises while QC3 headphones are on; not as good for noisy motorized travel applications. Overall sound quality leans warm and soft, lacking for detail and treble in a familiar Bose sound signature that’s not befitting the high price.
After releasing its first QuietComfort Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones for travellers more than a decade ago, and especially since the release of its even more popular QuietComfort 2 sequel three years ago, Bose Corporation has been a moving target. Numerous companies have tried to prove that they could offer QuietComfort-like experiences at lower prices, while Bose has continually re-engineered its product to keep ahead of them. Today, we review the two most recent offerings in the noise-cancelling headphone market: Logitech’s considerably cheaper and similar Noise Canceling Headphones (iLounge rating: B+), and Bose’s own follow-up, QuietComfort 3 (aka QuietComfort3 or QC3, $349).
[Editor’s note: Due to differences between these companies’ preferred spellings of the word “canceling”/“cancelling”, we use their different spellings for their product names herein, and apologize for any confusion it may cause you as a reader.]
A bit of backstory helps put the QC3s in proper perspective. The original $299 QuietComfort model was developed to help consumers - primarily travellers - filter out persistent low growling noises such as airplane or automotive engine sounds, plus as much other ambient noise as possible. This was achieved through combining large, “passive isolating” earcups - capable of screening out some high- and midrange noise - with built-in “active noise-cancelling” microphones that could detect and counterbalance external low-frequency sounds. Though the first QuietComfort was considered somewhat unwieldy, Bose’s 2003 followup $299 QuietComfort 2 headphones - and a quietly released “second edition” version with improved sound balance (iLounge rating: A-) - made substantial improvements, and are widely considered to be the design competitors have to beat.
Selling for a $50 premium over the QC2, QuietComfort 3 is - at least for the time being - not intended to replace its predecessor. Both products remain available in Bose and other stores, and come equipped with the same general collection of pack-ins. Bose’s new carrying case drops QC2’s ballistic nylon exterior and is a bit smaller, but remains black in color and otherwise similar: it includes a detachable carrying strap, a gold adapter to let you use the QC3’s with a home stereo amplifier, a black and gold adapter with two prongs for use on airplanes, and two cables - one for standard connection to the headphones, the other a 5-foot extension cord. There’s also a stack of “Courtesy Cards” inside each case, with Bose contact information you can hand off to people who ask you about the headphones. It’s a funny touch, and more appropriate to the QC2s than these, for reasons described below.
Rather than merely aping the QC2 design or coming up with a cheaper, lower-quality offering, Bose has actually gone in a different direction with the QC3, foregoing essentially all of QC2’s earcup-style, “around-ear” passive noise isolation in favor of smaller, cushioned “on-ear” speakers. Consequently, QC3 is the family’s smallest and lightest design yet, and though it uses the same black and silver coloration of the most recent QC2, you can clearly see other differences: each speaker measures 2 7/8” high by 2 1/4” wide, versus the 3 4/5” high and 3” wide QC2 pieces. Though they’re nowhere near as small as in-canal earphones or most of the cheap clip-on earphones out there, they’re very small by noise-cancelling standards, as the picture next to the brand-new Logitechs suggests, and weigh less: 5.6 ounces with the cable, versus 6.9 ounces for the QC2.
So if the QC3s are smaller, lighter, and less ear-isolating, why are they more expensive? There’s only one answer we can offer: Bose includes a new proprietary rechargeable battery pack, which slides into the top of the right earpiece, and provides around 20 hours of continuous playback per charge. We’ve been told by Bose that the battery will last for 500 recharge cycles; it takes 2 hours for its first charge and then around 15 minutes thereafter. Also included is a wall charger, which is small enough to take anywhere, and fits in the included carrying case.
As with the QC2, the only control on the QuietComfort 3 body is a power switch, with an icon that glows red when the power’s on. If the switch isn’t turned on or there’s no battery power remaining, no audio can be heard through the headphones, a complaint about the QC2s that wasn’t remedied here. If this concerns you, bear in mind that you’ll also have to cough up $50 for a spare battery, versus around $5 for a pack of eight AAA cells - only one was enough to power the QC2s. In other words, you’ll have to make sure the QC3’s battery is topped off before you travel, or you’ll be in for some serious disappointment until you find a power outlet.
Given the arguable added benefits of a rechargeable battery, we might have been willing to look past QC3’s higher price if it provided a better-than-QC2 listening experience, but in short, it doesn’t - this is the major reason we suspect Bose isn’t ready to kill the QC2 quite yet. As we noted in the Logitech review earlier today, the QuietComfort 2s have become the reference standard for consumer noise-cancelling headphones, even though the most recent second edition version follows the Bose tradition of intentionally skewing warm and soft rather than delivering neutral or especially clear audio. As with the company’s similarly warm-skewing speaker systems, and despite audiophile criticisms that the QC2s lack high- and midrange detail and clarity, average consumers rarely register major complaints about their design or sound quality.
Why is this? We think the answer is in the QC2’s specified application. Active noise cancellation is intended for use by travelers - generally, passengers in mass transit vehicles with ever-present low rumbling engine noises - so Bose’s own low-end sound skew naturally fits with what’s going on outside of the earcups. Even though the earcups are currently not in vogue because of their large size and lower portability, their ability to offer a combination of passive isolation and long-term comfort is hard to rival, adding to their specific appeal for long trips. Additionally, the presence of ambient and more difficult to filter high- and midrange noise naturally reduces even a serious listener’s ability to make out all the details in those parts of the audio spectrum. Under lab-like conditions, audiophiles can poke holes in all of the QC2’s performance characteristics, but in real-world testing, people like them if they can afford them and don’t mind their size.
The QC3s are different: they perform considerably better in a quiet environment than in one with lots of ambient noise. Under optimal conditions, they sound almost exactly like the QC2s, with a warm but not especially detailed midrange, ear-pleasing bass, and just enough treble to let you distinctly hear high claps or other sharp sounds. Drums and strings reverberate soothingly, and though they don’t stand out from anything else on the relatively flat soundstage, voices are as clear and smooth as you’d hope. Put succinctly, this is good, not great sound for the price.
But whereas the QC2s are engrossing enough to essentially make the world around you disappear almost immediately, the QC3s won’t, unless you have small ears, and even then, probably not as effectively as the QC2s. The QC2’s bigger cups and their around-ear cushions do a comparatively excellent job of passively isolating your ears against mid- and high-frequency noises, effectively blocking out plenty of ambient sound before you ever flip the power switch to the on position. Once they’re powered up, it’s easy to get lost inside their sound - an almost imperceptible hiss is all you may hear during silences, unless you’re near something extremely loud that’s not low-pitched. With the QC3s on top of your ears, lots of ambient sound flows in - the same boombox or adjacent crying baby that is mostly mooted by the QC2 design is audible in the QC3’s. In other words, if the guy next to you on the plane wants you to tell him all about your new headphones, you’re much more likely to hear him ask, though you might not want to give him one of Bose’s cards.
Frankly, the only reason to prefer a pair of noise-cancelling headphones to other alternatives is its ability to filter out various sorts of outside noises, so in the absence of strong performance of this feature, it’s hard for us to recommend the QuietComfort 3s to most iLounge readers. Though they sound good - again, not great - when you’re in quiet environments, they’re not standouts in noisier ones, and you can do substantially better on both sound quality and passive isolation for the $350 asking price. Even though you’ll need to compromise an inch or two on size and an ounce or two on weight, we’d sooner recommend the cheaper QC2s instead, or the much cheaper Logitech Noise Canceling Headphones if you’re willing to accept fewer frills and some compromises on sound quality. At this price, if you’re willing to consider in-canal alternatives, you should also consider some of the stronger passive isolating earbuds from companies such as Etymotic (ER-4P) and Ultimate Ears (super.fi 5 Pro), which deliver similar ambient noise reduction and superior audio quality through tiny, earplug-like designs.