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Bose QuietComfort 45 review: Some serious noise-canceling

The new QuietComfort 45 headphones has some nice improvements over their predecessor, including superb noise canceling and better headset performance. But are they better than the competition?

With its pedigree in active noise-canceling headphones, it's not surprising that Bose's new QuietComfort 45s ($330, £320, AU$500) are excellent. But for a lot of people, the question is just how good are they compared to Bose's slightly more expensive Noise Canceling Headphones 700 or Sony's excellent WH-1000XM4. For better or worse, the answer isn't clear-cut, especially with how prices for the Headphones 700 and WH-1000XM4 tend to fluctuate. But hopefully, this review will give a good sense of what the QuietComfort is all about and help you make a more informed buying decision.

9.0

Bose QuietComfort 45

Like

  • Comfortable headphones with best-in-class noise canceling and good sound
  • Improved voice calling with better noise reduction
  • Pairs with two devices at the same time
  • New Aware (transparency) mode
  • USB-C charging

Don't Like

  • No on-ear detection sensor
  • Not as feature-rich as Sony WH-1000XM4 for similar price

The QuietComfort 45 -- or QC45 as I'm going to call it from here on out -- has virtually the same design as its predecessor, the QuietComfort QC35 version 2 (henceforth known as the QC35 II). It has the same drivers, according to Bose, and the buttons are in the same place. However, there are small but notable changes. First off, these thankfully have USB-C instead of micro-USB. With USB-C becoming the de facto standard for charging -- except for certain Apple devices -- most new devices offer USB-C charging, simplifying our cable situation. 

Secondly, the microphone configuration is different. Not only have the mics been shifted on the headphones, but there's now an extra external microphone for voice pick up, which means the QC45 has a total of six microphones, four of which are beamforming and used for voice. By contrast, the QC35 II has a total of four, two of which are used for voice. (The Headphones 700 also have six microphones total.)

The Bose QC45 (left) looks very similar to the QC35 II, but if you look closely, there are some design differences and the microphone placement has changed.

David Carnoy/CNET

Furthermore, the headband's underside has a smooth finish rather than the micro-suede-like Alcantara material found on the QC35 II, making it easier to wipe down. Additionally, the ear pads aren't pleated and the ear cups have subtle design changes that close some gaps and give the headphones an overall cleaner look. I didn't notice it at first, but Bose also added curvature to the outer surfaces of the buttons and power switch -- making those touchpoints less sharp. You have to look really closely to see the changes, though.

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At 238 grams, the QC45 weighs just 3 grams more than the QC35, so you probably won't be able to tell a difference between their weights when they're on your head. However, the Bose 700 headphones weigh 254 grams, making those noticeably heavier. 

A lot of people really like the Headphones 700, but some people (including me) think this QuietComfort design is a tad more comfortable. Also, the QC45 fold up and fold flat while the 700, which don't have double hinges in their headband, only fold flat. The QC45 is arguably the most comfortable pair of over-ear headphones out there, although the 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 are also a pleasure to wear.

Everybody has different head shapes, of course, so what I say is most comfortable might not be the same for you, but they're all close comfort-wise. I don't have any serious complaints about any of them except that they will steam your ears up pretty good in warmer environments. The QC45s have physical buttons as opposed to the Sony's touch controls, so you don't have to worry about the controls not working in cold conditions. (People complained that earlier versions of the Sony WH-1000XM4 encountered issues in very cold temperatures, but Sony seems to have addressed the issue in the WH-10000XM4. That said, all electronics tend not to do well in super cold temperatures.)

Noise-canceling: Best of the best

The QC45 sounds similar to the QC 35 II, but they don't sound identical. I'll dig more into sound quality after I talk about the noise cancellation, where you'll see real improvement.

According to Bose, there's a new electronics package that powers the new ANC system, which now better muffles "unwanted sounds in the midrange frequencies" that you'd "typically find on commuter trains, busy office spaces and cafes." They're basically talking about people's voices. 

Judging from my anecdotal testing in the streets of New York, the noise-canceling could well be the best out right now. I also test noise canceling capabilities with a noisy HVAC unit in my apartment, and the QC45 almost completely muffled the sound of the unit. The WH-1000XM4 and Headphones 700 also do a good job muffling the sound (the Sony arguably has a slight edge over the Headphones 700), but the QC45 came out a bit ahead. If this were a horse race, we'd be talking about the winner being ahead by a horse length or less. We're not at total silence yet -- you'll still here some ambient sound -- but we're inching closer to it. 

These have a new Aware mode that lets you hear the outside world. That's like the transparency mode on the AirPods Pro and plenty of other headphones, including the 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4. It does sound pretty natural, but it's not quite to the level of the AirPods Pro's transparency mode. You still get just a bit of passive noise isolation while wearing the headphones in Aware mode.

bose-qc45-usb-c

Bose has changed the look look of the ear pads slightly and added USB-C charging.

David Carnoy/CNET

Ultimately for noise canceling I would give these a slight edge over both the Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4. That said, you can't adjust the level of noise-canceling like you can with those models, which offer a more robust feature set, particularly the Sony, which adds an ear-detection sensor that pauses your music when you take the headphones off and resumes it when you put them back on. Also, you can't can't tweak the QC45's sound in the Bose Music app; there are currently no equalizer settings though Bose could add them in the future. These use Bose's Active EQ that optimize the sound using AI, depending on the track and volume levels. 

Very good for calls

Thanks to those additional microphones and their placement, headset performance has also improved, with better noise-reduction during calls. I made calls with the QC45, the Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM4 on the streets of New York and both Bose models had superior noise reduction during calls than the Sony. Also, callers said my voice sounded slightly clearer with the Bose headphones.

With the Bose QC45, when I wasn't talking, callers said they heard almost no background noise, even when cars were going by. The 700 seemed to do a little better job filtering out ambient noise when I was speaking, but the QC45 was close and it's possible that with a firmware upgrade Bose may be able to improve the digital processing so the filtering is as good as the 700's.

Like the Sony WH-1000XM4, these offer true multipoint Bluetooth pairing. That means you can pair the QC45 with two devices simultaneously -- such as a smartphone and PC -- and when a call comes in on your phone, the audio will automatically switch from your computer to the phone when you answer the call. They're equipped with Bluetooth 5.1 and support the widely compatible AAC audio codec but not AptX

Sound quality: Similar, but not identical, to QC35 II

As I said, these sound similar to their predecessor and apparently have the same drivers. But any time you make any design changes (even subtle ones) or add a new chip for sound processing, it can change the sound. I thought these had just a touch better clarity and bass definition, but the differences are quite subtle. I was going back and forth between the QC45 and QC35 II with certain tracks, including Rag and Bone Man's Fall in Love Again, and unless my brain was playing tricks on me, I thought the QC45 did sound better. 

I was more sure that both the Headphones 700 and Sony WH-1000XM4 sounded slightly superior in their own ways. The 700 is cleaner and more natural sounding and tuned more for audiophiles, while the Sony has bigger sound overall with more dynamic bass and a slightly wider soundstage. It just sounds a little more open. 

As for battery life, it's good though not quite as good as the Sony's. According to Bose, you can get up to 25 hours on a single charge and a 15-minute charge will get you three hours of battery life (I was able to wear them for a few days without a problem). You can also plug them in and go wired to get more battery life with Bluetooth off. And I should note: If the battery dies, they do work in wired mode and sound good as passive, nonpowered headphones.

Bose QuietComfort 45: Final thoughts 

The QC45 are excellent noise-canceling headphones with good sound, top-notch noise-canceling, good headset performance and solid battery life. They're a clear upgrade over QC35 II. That said, if you already own the QC35 II, I don't think they're quite enough of an upgrade to make them an instant must-have unless you really want USB-C charging. And if you already own the 700, these aren't an overall upgrade. (The 700s are over two years old, so they're probably due for an upgrade in the not-so-distant future, though Bose does seem to take its time upgrading its headphones.)

If you don't already own a pair of premium noise-canceling headphones, all three of the models I've talked about here are appealing choices. I've declared the Sony the winner in the past, but that was partially because the Noise Canceling Headphones 700 cost more. And ultimately the price can be a big factor in making a buying decision, especially when it comes to buying expensive headphones that a lot of you probably think are overpriced. The Sony sporadically dips to $278 on Amazon and went as low as $248 on Prime Day. We may see its price in that range again this holiday buying season.

The Noise Canceling Headphones 700 dropped to $229 on Amazon Prime Day in the white rose gold color and should see good discounts this holiday season as well. Bose sells refurbished 700s for $279.

I can certainly recommend the QC45 -- you'll be happy with these headphones if you buy them. However, they'd ideally cost a little less to create more of a price delta between themselves and the 700 (and the Sony), making them feel like a slightly better value. I feel like their list price should have been $300, the same as what the QC35 II cost (that model started out at $350 but dropped to $300 after the 700 came out). I suspect it'll get there soon enough. 

Yes, that's a murky verdict for those looking to choose between these three great pairs of headphones, all of which live in a similar price range. At the end of the day, while I would have liked for Bose to upgrade the Noise Canceling Headphones 700, it's good to see an old favorite return with a refreshed look and better performance.