Several years ago when we first tested the Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones, it was love at first sound. Given their superb noise cancelling abilities, we liked them as much for the unwanted sounds they eliminated as the rich audio sound they did produce. Understandably, Bose wanted to expand on a good thing, but we wondered, would the companion QuietComfort 3 phones would live up to the standards set by the coveted QuietComfort 2s?
The big difference in the QuietComfort 3 headphones is the smaller, on-ear design. Whereas the QuietComfort 2's larger earpiece completely envelops the outer ear, the QC3s fit snugly on top. The more compact design is especially useful for those who wear glasses, as there is less interference with the frame.
The other big change from the previous model is that rather than a AAA battery, the QuietComfort 3s have been designed to use a rechargeable lithium-ion battery that neatly slots into the design of the right ear cup. For added convenience, the headphones come with a spare battery and compact travel charger that fits right into a wall socket, so there's no need to carry an unwieldy power cable. The charger fits into the carry case, so it's easy enough to take with you and Bose scores points by including six plug adaptors -- for North America/Japan, China, Europe, Korea, UK/Hong Kong/Singapore, as well as Australia and New Zealand -- with the product, so recharging almost anywhere you travel is no problem. With two charged batteries that last close to 20 hours each, you shouldn't be caught without power (these headphones are useless without it), even on long journeys. The power switch indicator starts flashing when there are four hours of juice left, so you'll be able to gauge battery life too.
NOTE: If you want to purchase the QuietComfort 3 headphones in the US where they are priced at US$349, be advised that the spare battery is a US$50 optional extra and the power adaptors will cost extra as well.
The QuietComfort 3 headphones fold neatly into the included 172mm by 213mm by 51mm carry case, which along with the aforementioned battery charger, holds the audio cord and any plug adaptor you might need. Bose also includes a dual-plug adaptor for use on air planes, a ¼ inch (6.3 mm) stereo phone plug adaptor and a 1.5 metre audio extension cord.
If you're using the headphones for noise reduction only, you do not need to connect the headphone cords, as even with the more compact design, the noise-cancelling circuitry resides in the in the ear cups themselves. If you are connected to an audio source, you will need to use its volume control, as there is none on the Bose headphones.
On-ear headphones are less effective at passive noise reduction as they physically do not surround the ear to block out noise. The QC3s on-ear cushions employ a memory foam covered with a soft air-restrictive leather-like material, so the headphones conform to your the ears to form a fairly tight, surprisingly effective seal to keep sound from leaking in or out.
To fit the smaller form factor, Bose engineers had to develop new electronic circuitry for the active noise equalisation component and came up with a system that reduces "hiss" and according to the company, dynamically identifies unwanted noise and reduces it. Whatever the technology behind it, the noise cancelling qualities are very effective and certainly stand up to Bose's high standards.
QuietComfort 3s borrow a feature found in Bose TriPort headphones -- small ports in the bottom of the ear-cups that increase the low-frequency output of the system. Boy, does it work -- they pump out surprisingly full bass that had us scrambling for the equaliser to turn down the cranked up bass settings on the PC we first plugged the QC 3s into. The plump bass isn't overly detailed, but these phones do put out a much bigger sound than any other portable headphones we've tested.
We used the QuietComfort 3 headphones extensively on a flight from Sydney to Tokyo. The noise cancelling worked every bit as well as its predecessor's, nicely diminishing the incessant drone from the plane's engines. Wearing them, we had to stop ourselves from humming to favourite songs on the audio channels and annoyed those in surrounding seats by chortling out loud while enjoying the poo-humour of Kenny. We've had people tell us they don't need Bose headphones as they always fly business class and use the airline's noise-cancelling headsets, but when compared head-to-head on this trip, the Qantas business class headphones didn't hold a candle to Bose in any department. If you travel overseas regularly, we recommend you bite the bullet and invest in one of the Bose QuietComfort models.
Which brings us to a final point -- the QuietComfort 3 headphones are pretty expensive at AU$599, but you do still have the option of buying the QuietComfort 2s for $100 less at AU$499. Truth be told, the QC 3s hurt our ears a bit after the 10 hour flight, so for our big lugs, the over-the-ear QuietComfort 2 headphones are more comfortable. The fit boils down to a matter of personal preference, however, as other CNET.com.au staffers have been happily testing the QuietComfort 3s on their daily work commutes, with no signs of discomfort even with ear studs and sunnies in place. (They can be a bit clammy on hot days though, so we wouldn't recommend them for exercising.)
With a smaller form factor and rechargeable battery, Bose has extended the portability and appeal beyond air travel with the QuietComfort 3 headphones, but depending on your comfort preferences, you may choose to save the extra cash and pick the more refined sound of the around-the-ear QuietComfort 2 headphones. Either way, both do the noise cancelling trick admirably and it's nice to have a choice of design.