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Bose QuietComfort 25 review: The best noise-canceling headphones get better

The creator of the first industry-standard noise-canceling headphones returns with an updated model.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

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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 e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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If you're wondering how much better the QuietComfort 25 than the QuietComfort 15 , the model it replaces, that's hard to quantify. But one thing is certain: it is better.

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8.5

Bose QuietComfort 25

The Good

Extra-comfortable design; clearer, more dynamic sound; highly effective noise-canceling circuitry that's been slightly improved; new folding design allows the headphones to fit in a smaller carrying case; if the battery dies, the music now doesn't die; 21- to 30-day risk-free home trial.

The Bad

Fairly pricey.

The Bottom Line

The QuietComfort 25 model takes Bose's already stellar noise-canceling headphones and levels them up to new heights.

While the two models bear a strong familial resemblance, Bose says the QC25 headphones -- which cost $300 in the US, £270 in the UK, and AU$400 in Australia -- are totally redesigned, with better audio performance and noise reduction, plus an improved folding design that allows them to fit in a more compact carrying case.

Another small but significant change is the shape of the headband. Bose has re-engineered it to sit closer to the head, so there's less of a gap under the headband. And it's worth mentioning the headband is covered in an "engineered fabric found in high-end automotive applications." The soft, leather ear cushions have the same luxurious feel of their predecessors and Bose says the hinge or "pivot" in the earcups is made out of "cast-zinc."

Bose QuietComfort 25 noise-cancelling headphones (pictures)

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I can't say the QC25 is any more comfortable than the QC15, but like that model, this is a very comfortable headphone. It does seem a bit sturdier overall, with a thicker detachable cord. Also, the aforementioned cast-zinc hinge seems well-designed.

There's still a lot of plastic involved in the construction, but Bose appears to have struck a good balance between durability, weight, and comfort level. Yes, the headphones could be even more durable, but they would become too heavy. This model (without cable) weighs 6.9 ounces or 196 grams. By comparison the Beats Studio (2013) weighs 9.17 ounces or 260 grams.

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The headphones have a new folding design with a dual hinge. They come in black or white and can be customized with whatever color you want for an extra $100. Sarah Tew/CNET

Like the QC15, the QC25 is powered by a single AAA battery that delivers up to 35 hours of use. But what's new is that if the battery dies, the music plays on. The sound is a little weird without power -- "stunted" is probably the best way to describe it -- but at least you can get sound out of the QC25 if, for instance, it dies in the middle of a long flight. (I really wouldn't listen to it in this mode unless I had to).

In terms of extras, you get an inline remote and mic for taking calls with recent iPod, iPhone, and iPad models, as well as "select" smartphones. The long and short of it is some of the remote features may not work with Android and Windows devices but the microphone will (call quality was good).

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Folded up in their new, more compact carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

The case seems to be about 30 percent smaller than the QC15's case. It's about as small as you get for a pair of full-size over-ear headphones -- but if you're looking for noise-canceling headphones that take up almost no room in a bag, the in-ear Bose QuietComfort 20 'buds are the way to go.

That said, I did appreciate that the QC 25's case has slots for storing an extra battery as well as the included two-prong adapter for airplane use. Also, inside the case there's a diagram for how the headphones should be folded to fit inside the case (take my word, it's helpful). And it's great that Bose put a large "R" and "L" on the inside of the earcups so you can quickly figure out which is which.

Another great "feature" of these headphones is Bose's satisfaction guarantee. If you're not totally satisfied, you can return the headphones (or pretty much any Bose product) for a full refund. The trial period is 30 days in the US and UK, 21 days in Australia.

Performance

There are two big metrics for this type of headphone: overall sound quality and noise cancellation performance. Let's start with the latter. We played a recording of some airplane cabin noise in our audio room and alternated between the QC25 and QC15. Neither completely shut out the drone but the QC25 did a bit of a better job. That said, I did notice a touch more more pressure on my ears, which may bother some people more than others. For me, the pressure is only really noticeable when you don't have any music playing. If you have sensitive eardrums, it may be a deal breaker -- but that will apply to any active noise-canceling headphones, not just the Bose.

Here's the deal on the sound. The QC25 definitely has more exciting sound than the QC 15. It's brighter and clearer and the bass is tighter, which makes it a pretty zippy pair of headphones with faster, more forward sound than its predecessor.

The QC15 has a "High-Low" switch on the headphone cord that allows you to limit the volume. That's missing from the QC25, so you're essentially locked into the high setting. For some people not having ability to choose the lower setting may be an issue, but it didn't bother me at all because I always listened to the QC15 in the high setting.

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The Apple iOS friendly in-line remote. Sarah Tew/CNET

With certain tracks you feel the sound approaching the edge of harshness but stopping just short. For instance, listening to The Orwells' "Who Needs You" track, it's right at the border of being a little too bright. The same is true of Spoon's "You Got Yr. Cherry Bomb," which has a tambourine running through it that's right at the edge of being accentuated too much and overtaking the song.

Also, with the increased edginess in the treble, badly recorded tracks and poorer MP3 files will end up sounding worse, whereas the older QC15 was better at smoothing over some of those flaws.

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The headphones have a zippier, more exciting sound profile. Sarah Tew/CNET

I think most people will like the new sound, but there will be those people who may prefer the more laid-back, "warmer" sound of the QC 15. Personally, I prefer a more exciting, zippier headphone, and props to Bose for breaking out of its "safe" sound profile. Some may say it went a little too far, but the QC25 sounds better with most genres, particularly with rock music and more complicated tracks that have a lot of instruments playing at the same time.

If you're an audiophile, well, you probably shouldn't get noise-canceling headphones, for the fact is that really good passive over-ear headphones in this price range, such as the Sennheiser Momentum , are going to sound more natural and refined.

Conclusion

I have yet to come across noise-canceling headphones that do the noise-canceling component as well as a Bose model. Its options were also hard to beat for comfort. Sound quality was good but not great.

Now Bose has upped the audio performance in the QuietComfort 25. While it still may not be stellar, you'll be hard-pressed to find superior sound in another noise-canceling model. Yes, it's fairly pricey, but for those seeking premium noise-canceling headphones for travel or just shutting out everyday ambient noise while listening to music or watching video, these QuietComfort headphones are easy to recommend.

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8.5

Bose QuietComfort 25

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 8Value 8