Companies such as Sennheiser make noise-canceling headphones that are smaller and cost much less than Bose models. Apparently, Bose has received feedback from consumers who prefer these smaller designs, especially for everyday on-the-go use rather than just airplane travel. In other words, the company hopes to get more people walking the streets with these headphones. To that end, the company sells a $40 adapter that lets you use the QuietComfort 3s as a stereo headset for multimedia cell phones, such as the Nokia N91 or the Palm Treo models.
The big question, of course, is whether Bose has succeeded in its quest to go smaller while not sacrificing anything in the way of performance. Well, the short answer is yes--mostly. On the noise-canceling front, this model appears to be just as affective at diminishing external airplane noise to a hush (no, it doesn't completely shut sound out). One caveat, however: The QuietComfort 3s, like most other noise-canceling headsets, produce a slight sense of pressure on the eardrum, and because the earpiece is directly on your ear, it's arguably a hair more present in this model than in the QuietComfort 2s. Listeners sensitive to this effect may feel uncomfortable.
As far as sound goes, like with the QuietComfort 2s, the first thing we noticed when we put the QuietComfort 3s on was the bass. The new model, in fact, offers fuller bass balance; it's richer, warmer, and plumper, though it isn't as detailed. That kind of bass--and overall sound--is appealing on hip-hop tracks, but it can be a little overpronounced on acoustic jazz pieces, for example. In other words, these guys sound big--you won't mistake them for smaller headphones--but they aren't incredibly clean. And one other small thing worth noting: the QuietComfort 3s are less sensitive and don't play quite as loud as QuietComfort 2s. It's a small difference and shouldn't be a factor with the vast majority of portable music devices and movie players, but it's one reason that especially attentive listeners may wish to opt for (or stick with) the older, larger models.
In the end, if you're trying to decide between these headphones and the QuietComfort 2s, we can only say the choice isn't easy. The smaller form factor and rechargeable battery are definite pluses in favor of the Bose QuietComfort 3s, but the more refined sound and the over-the-ear design of the QuietComfort 2s have their appeal. If money is no object, you can't go wrong with either model, but ideally, we'd like to see the company drop the price on the QuietComfort 3s and QuietComfort 2s to $299 and $249, respectively. We think $350 is a lot to pay for headphones, even those with a rechargeable battery.
Steve Guttenberg contributed to this review.