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Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: Top noise-cancelling headphones take it up just a notch

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-cancelling 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-cancelling mode that Bose refers to as a true "transparency" mode.

The headphones are slightly heavier than the QuietComfort 35 II but are just as comfortable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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-cancelling 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-cancelling 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.  

The touch controls are on the right ear cup.

Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

Sound comparisons

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)

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