In designing its fourth-generation consumer noise-canceling headphones, the QuietComfort 15s, Bose has done something interesting. Instead of coming up with a whole new look for its headphones as it did with the QuietComfort 3s, Bose has left the basic design of its popular QuietComfort 2s intact and simply redesigned them on the inside, adding even more effective noise-canceling circuitry and improving their sound quality.
The QuietComfort 15s look identical to the QuietComfort 2s, with the same over-the-ear design, including earcups that swivel and fold flat to fit in a stylish case. (To be clear: the QC15s replace the QC2s, which will no longer be sold.) Bose has redesigned the case so that it's easier to plop the headphones in it and close it up. The resulting package is slightly bigger than a CD wallet, which makes it easier to tote, though it's still not terribly compact. As you'd expect from a set of headphones designed for frequent travelers, Bose throws in a two-prong airline adapter. The 'phones also offer a "high/low" switch, which should prevent your ears getting blasted when the pilot or flight attendant comes over the PA system.
As we said about the QuietComfort 2s, even without the noise-canceling engaged, the earcups' deliciously soft cushions effectively sealed off our ears from the noisy environment. While the QuietComfort 2s only had noise-canceling microphones (for detecting the ambient noise) on the inside of the earcups, the QC15s have them on the inside and outside, which is said to increase their effectiveness. Flipping on the noise cancellation--which pumps out "anti-noise" to proactively counteract the environmental sounds--damps down the noise even further.
Of course, there's a catch. Like all other noise-canceling headsets we've reviewed, the QuietComfort 15s produce a sense of pressure on the eardrum. Listeners sensitive to this effect may find it anywhere from mildly annoying to distractingly uncomfortable. Most of the former group will tend to forget about it as soon they start playing music or movies. If your experience is more the latter, noise-canceling headphones aren't for you--stick with noise-isolating in-ear headphones instead. (Luckily, Bose offers a 30-day money-back guarantee, so if you don't like the QuietComfort 15s, you can return them.)
This reviewer has a very loud air-conditioning system in his office that we use for testing noise-canceling headphones (it isn't quite as loud as the inside of an airline cabin but it's not that far off). The QuietComfort 15s were able to almost completely silence the sound of the rumbling fan. Oddly, the impact of engaging the circuitry may seem a bit weird--it almost feels as if you're at the bottom of a pool, almost completely shut off from the sounds above.
As with all of Bose's noise-canceling headphones, you have to engage the noise-canceling to listen to music, and when the battery dies, so does the music. Luckily, battery life is good. Bose rates it at 35 hours, and the single AAA battery, which resides in the right earcup, was still going strong after we left our tunes in a loop overnight. Those looking for a rechargeable option can either opt for the QuietComfort 3s, or invest in their own third-party battery and charger. On the plus side, sticking with standard alkalines means there's no wall charger or AC cord to worry about when traveling.
While there may not be a huge difference between this model's noise-canceling prowess and the QuietComfort 2's, a distinction is definitely noticeable. According to Bose, these headphones are designed to defeat a wider range of frequencies, going up to over 90 decibels; the QuietComfort 2s peaked more in the 84-85db range. We also tried the QuietComfort 15s in the New York City subway system, and they did an impressive job of muffling noise.
Of course, the only problem is that because these are over-the-ear headphones that offer a tight seal, it can get a bit steamy inside the cups, especially on hot days, though they "breathe" fairly well for over-the-ear headphones. On long plane rides, your skin will also get a bit moist underneath the cushions, so expect to take them off for short periods to give your ears a little air. Also note that the 3.5 millimeter cord is detachable, so if you just want to block out the outside world and catch a nap, you can do so.
In terms of sound quality, the first thing we noticed about this model compared with the QuietComfort 2s was that the overall sound was smoother and more tonally balanced. In the QuietComfort 2s and QuietComfort 3s, Bose seemed to mess with the bass a bit, pumping it up (we found it a little thumpy), but the bass on the QuietComfort 15s is tighter and punchier (hip-hop fans may prefer the bass on the QuietComfort 2s, but that's a matter of listening taste).
The QuietComfort 15s offer excellent detail. Our first reaction to the headphones was an urge to relisten to our entire library of music, a welcoming symptom of acquiring high-grade cans. That said, these are a closed-cup design, so the sound is a bit more "stuck inside your head" than you'd get from open-backed headphones. As such, they don't quite measure up to some other high-end headphones that we've tested in this price range. Still, these are probably the best-sounding noise-canceling headphones we've heard to date.
As we've said about virtually all of Bose's headphones, they aren't exactly a bargain. And at $300, these aren't either. But they are a nice step up from the QuietComfort 2s and offer improved sound and noise-canceling performance. Looking at it that way, we can at least say they they're a better deal than their predecessors or the smaller and more expensive QuietComfort 3s, which still retail for $350.