Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: Top noise-canceling headphones take it up just a notch
The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, the long-awaited successor to its QuietComfort 35 II models, have a lot to live up to. The QuietComfort series is almost 20 years old and is essentially the gold standard for active noise-canceling headphones, beloved by airline travelers and open-office residents the world over for their ability to block out a good chunk of external distractions. Simply put, the QC35s are a hard act to follow, and some people aren't going to like all the changes that Bose has made in creating this new successor headphone.
They also won't like the new, higher price: The Bose 700 is $400 (£350 or about AU$570), which is $50 more than the QC35 II and the Sony WH-1000XM3, CNET's current top-rated noise-canceling headphone. (The latter has recently sold for $300 or less, in fact.) But leaving aside the debate over the new design and higher price tag for a moment, I'll say this: The Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 sound and perform better than their predecessor, and shine as a headset for making calls.
To be clear, this really is a new headphone, both on the outside and the inside, with new drivers and a total of eight microphones to help enable Bose's "evolved noise-canceling functionality." One of the biggest external changes is to the headband. The QuietComfort 35 II has a high-tech resin (read: plastic) headband, while the Headphones 700's headband incorporates a single, seamless piece of stainless steel that seemingly makes it a little sturdier. However, as a result of the new design, there's no hinge, so they don't fold up, just flat, and you simply lay them into their protective carrying case, which is larger than the QuietComfort 35 II's case.
Some will like that you don't have to bother folding the headphones while others will prefer the predecessor's smaller case. I did like that there's a little compartment in the case -- its door closes magnetically -- for storing the USB-C charging cable and the short cable for wired listening. It's worth noting that the port on the headphone is the smaller 2.5mm variety so, bizarrely, it's a 2.5mm to 3.5mm cable.
In the past, Bose has tried to shave weight off its headphones, but at 254g this model is actually about half an ounce heavier than the QuietComfort 35 II, which will remain in the line. You can feel the weight difference. Personally, I didn't find the headphone any less or more comfortable than the QuietComfort 35 II; it just felt a little different (I don't have a large head). But some other editors in our office thought the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 clamped down on their heads a little more forcefully than the Quiet Comfort 35 II, creating slightly more pressure.
The material on the inside of the headband is also different. The Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have a soft-to-the-touch rubberized inside band that's filled with air for extra cushioning while the Quiet Comfort 35 II relies on foam padding covered in a fancy cloth material for its cushioning. The rubber doesn't absorb sweat, which is good, but some people will prefer the cloth and padding on the Quiet Comfort 35 II.
The long and short of it is the Noise Cancelling Headphones are comfortable, but the Quiet Comfort 35 II and the Sony WH-1000XM3 arguably feel slightly better. On the other hand, the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 seems slightly more durable. That said, it's a good idea to store the headphones in their protective carrying case. The finish on the metal part of the band is a little susceptible to getting scratched up if they rub up against metal objects in a bag or backpack.
Built to communicate
Bose is touting the headphone's voice communication features. While the overall sound quality is a relatively small step up from the QuietComfort 35 II -- more on that in a minute -- the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 perform significantly better as a headset for making calls. The new microphones are designed to pick up your voice better (some of them are beam-forming mics) and reduce noise around you so people can hear you better in noisier environments. That goes for voice assistants as well -- the headphone supports Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon's Alexa , all of which should better understand what you're saying in noisier environments.
I made some calls from the noisy streets of New York and people could hear me even when I was standing next to a trash truck that was compacting old furniture outside our office building. The headphones do a really good job filtering out background noise. Not all of it, but a lot of it. When you're not talking, the headphones greatly reduce the ambient noise around you. However, when you speak, the headphones do let some background noise in because the microphones, even beamed into your voice, pick up some outside noise. Needless to say, the headphones' computer chips are doing a fair amount of sound processing.
There's also an adjustable sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the headphones (which prevents you from talking too loudly when on a call). The QuietComfort 35 II has some light sidetone that not everybody notices, but you can really sense it in this new model.
In Bose's Music companion app for iOS and Android, you designate which assistant you want to use and then access that assistant with a button push like you do on the QuietComfort 35 II. If you choose Alexa, you can activate Amazon's voice assistant by simply saying the wake word "Alexa." That makes this one of the few headphones to offer always-on Alexa and it performs about as well as the AirPods and Beats Powerbeats Pro do with always-on Siri. The Jabra Elite 85h, another headphone that's great for making calls and is equipped with lots of microphones, was supposed to have this feature but Jabra ended up leaving it off after it discovered that it had too great an impact on battery life.
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I asked a Bose rep about the possible adverse impact on battery life when using always-on Alexa because the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700's 20 hours of battery life is shorter than that of a lot of its competitors (a quick-charge feature does allow you to get 3.5 hours of battery life from a 15-minute charge). The rep said that it did not have an impact on battery life and that the battery life was the same whether you had Bluetooth on or off, say, if you were in wired mode on a plane. To that end, it's also worth noting that you can use the headphone in wired mode if the battery dies. It doesn't sound quite as good unplugged -- yes, I tried it -- but it still sounds pretty decent (the bass isn't as strong) and the headphones passively muffle a fair amount noise simply by virtue of being an over-ear model.
New for Bose
This is the first Bose headphone equipped with touch controls. The touch area is on the right side of the right ear cup. I found that they worked well and that same Bose rep told me that Bose's engineers were aware of the problems that some Sony WH-1000XM3 users were having with that headphone's touch controls in cold weather and that the Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones had been tested in the cold. The touch controls supposedly work but we'll have to wait until winter to test it out ourselves.
Typically, Bose hasn't offered us much in the way of customizable settings, but that's changed a bit with the 700: You can adjust the level of noise canceling in the Bose Music app and there's a dedicated button on the headphone that allows you to toggle between low, high and a zero noise-canceling mode that Bose refers to as a true "transparency" mode.
Impressively, when you're in that transparency mode you essentially hear the outside world as your ears normally would. It's hard to tell the difference between having the headphones on or off. Holding the noise-canceling button puts you right into transparency mode (your music pauses) so you can talk to someone while you're wearing the headphones -- to a flight attendant on a plane, for example. This is similar to Sony's Quick Attention feature except that you have to touch the noise-canceling button to unpause your music -- you can't just let go of the button for your audio to start playing again.
They're also enabled with Bose AR, the company's audio-augmented reality platform, and in the future, Bose says it will add new features -- the headphones are firmware upgradable -- including an equalizer for tweaking the sound to your liking, a Dynamic Transparency mode that allows you to hear the outside world but muffles loud noises such as sirens and a Noise Masking feature that creates white noise to help you block out the outside world and concentrate without listening to music. Bose lists those features as "coming soon."
One important note about the companion Bose Music app: During my initial testing, while my iPhone X paired fine with the headphones, I couldn't get the headphones to link with the app. They connected fine with the app on a Sony Android phone and an iPad. It's unclear what the issue is, but other people have reported having connection problems to the app on iOS devices. (That might account for the initial wave of unenthusiastic Amazon user reviews, too.) But as I was writing this review, Bose came up with a fix, and I was able to connect with the app on my iPhone X. I still think the app needs some work, and I expect we'll see some tweaks to improve its reliability and features in the coming months.
The good news is the app isn't required to use the headphones. The main thing you need the app for is to set up Alexa or Google Assistant. It also lets you simultaneously pair two devices to the headphones and toggle between them. But aside from those two features, the rest of the settings aren't too vital and you can access the limited number of Bose AR apps from the App Store.
Bose noise cancellation vs. Sony noise cancellation
Bose and Sony have been battling it out for noise-cancelling supremacy over the last couple of years and Sony arguably pulled slightly ahead with its WH-1000XM3. The noise-cancelling features in the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones is slightly improved over the noise-cancelling in the QuietComfort 35 II, and its noise-cancelling performance is neck-and-neck with the Sony's. Depending on the type of noise you're encountering, you may find one a tad more effective than the other, but again, it's very close.
I have a fairly loud air conditioning system at home and I stood near a vent in the kitchen and swapped between the new Bose and the Sony. They both did an excellent job muffling the sound but the Sony was a hair better. I had the Bose at level 10 (the highest level) for noise-cancelling. If you're more sensitive to the pressure feeling of noise-cancellation technology, as noted, the Bose allows you to adjust the level of noise cancellation. The Sony also does, too -- via the app -- but you have you to turn off adaptive sound control in the companion app to get to the setting.
I've used both headphones in an open office environment and the streets of New York (and in the subway) and they both work well, tamping down the noise around you in those environments. To declare one an absolute winner (from a noise-cancelling perspective) is difficult because I can't walk around swapping them on and off everywhere I go, but I don't think anybody will be disappointed with the Bose's updated noise-cancelling abilities.
Bose has made some improvements to the sound quality in its new model, too. The Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones sound a little better than the QuietComfort 35 II, with more overall clarity and bass definition. Listening to our test tracks, including Alt-J's 3WW, Rag'n'Bone Man's Human and Spoon's You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb, I came away thinking that the Sony's bass had more energy and a little more oomph to it but the Bose's bass sounded a little tighter. The Sony is the warmer headphone and is the better pick for hip-hop and electronic dance music. The brighter Bose will bring out more detail in jazz and classical material, with slightly better separation of instruments.
CNET's home audio editor Ty Pendlebury, whose musical tastes skew toward rock, liked how the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 sounded. He thought they were well-balanced and clean sounding. Do they make you want to go back to listen to your whole library to hear it in a way you hadn't ever heard it before? Probably not if you've already been exposed to exceptional headphones. But these are very competent headphones with an appealing sound that's easy to listen to over long periods (with their warmer sound, the Sony headphones may be even better for long listening sessions). I wouldn't call them better or worse than the Sonys. Both sound excellent for noise-cancelling headphones, but if your tastes run toward beefier bass, you're going to dig the Sony more. If you prefer more detail, you may find yourself leaning toward the Bose. (Note: the Sony gets a slightly higher rating for sound partially because it delivers the quality of sound it does at a slightly lower price point).
One other piece of good news on the Bose: I noticed no lip-sync issues with video when paired to an iPhone X.
Bose or Sony?
There are lots of good noise-cancelling headphones out there (check out our full list of best noise-cancelling headphones), but as soon as I got the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, people were asking me whether I thought it was better than the Sony WH-1000XM3. Unfortunately, it isn't a simple yes or no answer. In some ways it's better and in some ways it isn't. Here's a little scorecard that will hopefully inform your buying decision.
Points in favor of Sony WH-1000XM3:
- Lower price (the WH-1000XM3 seems to be frequently discounted to $300)
- Slightly more comfortable
- Better battery life (30 hours compared to the Bose's 20)
- Meatier bass
- Case is slightly smaller
- We like the look of the Sony slightly better
Points in favor of Bose:
- Sturdier headband
- More detailed sound
- Always-on Alexa voice assistant is an option
- A programmable button allows you to quickly toggle between 3 levels of noise cancellation of your choosing
- Superior voice communication (cell phone calling)
- Bose AR as an added feature
There are only two things that ultimately gnaw on me about the Bose: Its higher price tag and its incomplete app experience. It's an excellent noise-cancelling headphone with high-tech features and impressive overall performance, but I'd have liked to have seen Bose price it at $350 and lower the price of the QuietComfort 35 II to $300. It may shake out that way in due time. And while the updated app fixed my initial pairing problems, it still lacks all of the features Bose promises for the headphones.
We'll update this review once Bose releases the updated software down the road. Until then the Sony, especially when it's discounted to $300 or less, is the better value.
Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 specs
- Weight: 254g
- Over-ear design
- New acoustic and electronics package with new digital signal processing
- New eight-microphone system
- 11 levels of noise cancellation
- Adaptive voice system
- Built-in voice assistants (one-touch access)
- Low-power wake word (for Amazon Alexa voice assistant)
- Conversation mode
- Active EQ Sound Management (coming soon)
- Touch controls
- Over-the-air updates
- Bluetooth 5.0
- Bluetooth range: Up to 33 ft. (10m)
- Battery charging time: Up to 2.5 hours
- Quick charge time: 15 min for 3.5 hours
- Battery life: Up to 20 hours
- USB-C charging
- Supported codecs: SBC and AAC
- Two color options: Black and silver
- Price: $400 (£350)