Bose investigating QuietComfort 35 after firmware complaints

Some users are complaining that the noise canceling is diminished after updating their headphones' firmware -- but CNET can't reproduce the problem.

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, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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A lot of people who own Bose 's popular QuietComfort 35 noise-canceling headphones never bother to update the firmware. But plenty do and some aren't happy with the latest update, complaining it's been detrimental to their headphones' performance -- the noise canceling in particular.

Jason, a CNET reader, recently sent me an email pointing me to an online thread discussing the contentious firmware upgrades. He said that since my review of the headphones, in which they received a CNET Editors' Choice award, "Bose has updated the firmware several times, which has rendered the ANC [noise canceling] completely useless. This problem has been ongoing for a month with hundreds of people complaining on the Bose forum."

It's unclear how many people have experienced the problem, but Bose hasn't been able to get to the bottom of it. On March 7, a Bose community manager who, coincidentally, is also named Jason (he goes by Jason_G), said, "You've told us that something is wrong, and although we have tested rigorously, we haven't been able to replicate what you've told us. We will get to the bottom of this and we need your help."

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Two pairs of limited-edition blue QuietComfort 35 headphones, one of which has upgraded firmware while the other doesn't.

David Carnoy/CNET

At the behest of Bose's engineering team, Jason_G asked for 20 volunteers in the UK and the US to send in their headphones for analysis to "determine a root cause for these reports." It took several days, but Bose eventually got what it was looking for and Jason_G announced on March 22 that initial evaluations had begun on the first batch of headphones that had been sent in.

Last week I asked Bose about its request for volunteers to return their headphones.

"We tested the latest QC35 firmware before its release, and again after its release," a Bose spokesperson told me. "Both times, we verified that the update didn't change the headphone's noise canceling. In order to understand what else might be happening, we need products back from people experiencing a problem. That feedback has come in from such a small fraction of owners, that too few have been returned for us to do that. So, we asked those customers to send us their product. We want to help, and that's not unusual for us."

This is not the first time Bose has had a problem with a firmware release. Back in January, some in the Bose forum as well as on Reddit complained that firmware 1.2.9 impacted sound quality adversely. It also introduced a bug where PlayStation Vita users couldn't connect to their Vitas. This issue was fixed in the latest 1.2.10 firmware update.

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Updating the QuietComfort 35 via a PC. Other Bose headphones, such as the QuietControl 30, can also be updated.

David Carnoy/CNET

Personally, I've always appreciated products that have upgradable firmware and can add features over time. (For instance, Bose added the ability to connect two QuietComfort 35 headphones to a device simultaneously, allowing you to share your music or watch a movie with another person.) However, occasionally updates that are intended to make a product better end up making it worse.

I wish I could report that I verified the problem that some QuietComfort 35 users are having. But I can't. After I recently upgraded a brand-new special-edition blue QuietComfort 35 from 1.05 to 1.2.10 firmware, the noise cancellation seemed as good as before.

It helped that an executive in our CNET office had the same exact limited-edition blue headphones -- Bose says it's just about to run out of that color -- and had never updated it. That made it easy for me to compare my updated review sample with his nonupdated one.

Interestingly, some QuietComfort 35 users have said they've downgraded their firmware back to 1.06, but it failed to correct the perceived noise-canceling problem.

On March 24, Bose's Jason_G posted that three headphones had been received at Bose's labs in Massachusetts. "Preliminary testings have shown that the Active Noise Cancellation was performing properly on two out of the three," he wrote, with the third pair having deformed ear cushions that needed to be replaced. An additional update will be posted as soon as Bose tests more returned units.

Update, March 27: Added Jason_G's March 24 forum post.