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Bose OE review: Bose OE

Bose OE

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Mobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakers Credentials
  • Maggie Award for Best Regularly Featured Web Column/Consumer
David Carnoy
4 min read

Editors' note (December 2, 2011): The product reviewed here, the Bose OE Headphones, has since been replaced by two updated models: the Bose OE2 Headphones and the Bose OE2i Headset. After testing those new models, we've lowered the ratings of this one from 8.0 to 7.3.


Bose OE

The Good

The Bose OE headphones have a compact design, extra-comfortable cushy foam earpieces, full sound, and they fold up for compact storage in their included carrying case. Additionally, Bose offers a 30-day home trial.

The Bad

While they're cheaper than Bose's noise-canceling models, they're still fairly pricey.

The Bottom Line

If you're looking for a good value in Bose headphones, the company's OE (On-Ear) models makes a strong case--even if they're not cheap.

Editors' note: Since this review was first published, Bose has shorted the name of this product to "Bose OE." Readers interested in this model should also check out the sibling Bose AE2 headphones, which utilize an around-the-ear design.

With a potent blend of quality products and what seems like an almost ubiquitous marketing campaign, Bose had managed to persuade thousands of people to spend large sums of money on the company's QuietComfort 3 and QuietComfort 2 noise-canceling headphones. While those models are mainstays in the business-class section of any aircraft, not everyone can afford business class--or wants to pay upward of $300 for a pair of headphones. So, Bose has come up with a model simply called the On-Ear, which borrows many of the design elements of the QuietComfort 3 but leaves out the active noise canceling and retails for a more palatable $180.

Like the QuietComfort3 headphones, the On-Ear's feature--you guessed it--an on-ear (supra-aural) rather than the cupped around-the-ear (circumaural) design of the QuietComfort 2s or the step-down TriPort headphones. Impressively, the earpieces employ a cushy memory foam that conforms to your ears nicely, and they do a better job than you'd think of passively shutting out noise (on-ear models tend to let in--and leak out--a fair amount of sound). The headphones are very comfortable, but because the deliciously soft leather pads are pressed right up against your ears, they are going to get pretty steamy on your ears if you wear them in warmer environments.

The On-Ears have virtually the same size earpieces as the QuietComfort 3s and offer a similar fit. Where the On-Ears have an advantage over their more expensive sibling is the way they're able to fold up--and flatten out--into a more compact footprint than the QuietComfort 3s. We really liked the case that ships with the On-Ear model: it's about 40 percent smaller than the case that comes with the QuietComfort 3 'phones and is more travel-friendly.

The only "accessories" beyond the case are two detachable headphone cables: one 43-incher and one 16-incher. (You can also daisy-chain them together if a long connection is needed.) Bose seems to have kept iPhone owners in mind when it designed the headphone plug for these headphones. The rubber casing around the base of the plug is not much bigger than the plug itself, which ensures that you won't have any problem plugging into the recessed headphone jack on the first-generation iPhone.

Speaking of phones, it's worth noting that Bose offers a version of the On-Ear headphones that includes an inline microphone that lets you use the headphones as a headset with your cell phone. Four adapters are included to ensure compatibility with various music-enabled cell phones. That product is called the Bose Mobile On-Ear Headset, and it retails for $20 more.

As for sound, we liked what we heard. The On-Ear headphones don't deliver quite the clarity or more thumping bass of the QuietComfort 3s, but users graduating from lower-end headphones will most likely be wowed by these headphones' crisp sound and ample low-end. Discerning listeners may note that the bass is a little on the boomy side (read: not incredibly detailed) and that the On-Ear's aren't quite as clean-sounding as some headphones we've listened to in this price range.

On Rihanna's top-40 hit "Umbrella," you can easily hear the differences between the On-Ears and QuietComfort 3s. The QuietComfort 3s' bass just has more punch to it (though, again, it's not terribly refined)--and when it comes to listening to hip-hop, punchier tends to be better. That said, the On-Ear headphones offer about 80 percent of the sound quality of the QC3s, which is pretty good, considering they basically cost half the price.

But what about the noise-cancellation? Well, as we said, the snug fit of these headphones manages to cut down a lot of outside noise--but it can't cut it like the active noise-cancellation circuitry of the QC2 and QC3 (or even the passive noise-cancellation offered by good in-ear headphones such as the Shure SE310). If we had to put an estimate on it, we'd say that the On-Ear headphones are able to muffle about half the sound of the noise-canceling models. Not bad, but the frequent traveler who wants to deaden the sound as much as possible--and is willing to pay the extra dough--would be better advised to look at the QC2 or QC3, if not the growing number of competing models. One caveat: as we've pointed out before, Bose's noise-canceling headphones, as with other headphones of their ilk, produce a slight sense of pressure on the eardrum, which some sensitive listeners find mildly uncomfortable. If you're part of this group, you'd do better going with the On-Ear headphones, or--if you don't mind penetrating your ear canals--in-ear headphones.

In the final analysis, while we can't call these Bose headphones a bargain--yes, they're still expensive at $180--they're somewhat of a bargain for Bose headphones. They may not offer best in class performance, but their compact size, appealing design, comfortable fit, and full sound make them easy to recommend.


Bose OE

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 7Performance 7