Bose Debuts New Headphone Trio: Hands-On With New QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and Earbuds
Bose has released new flagship headphones and earbuds along with a replacement for the QuietComfort 45 headphones. We got an early look and listen to the new QC Ultra Headphones.
David CarnoyExecutive 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.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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For those who follow Bose, it won't come as much of a surprise that it's finally unveiled its new flagship QuietComfort Ultra Headphones ($429) in advance of the holiday buying season. That's because purported images of the new headphones leaked online months ago. But what's a little bit shocking is that Bose, usually slow to introduce new headphone models, has also released a new set of flagship earbuds -- the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds ($299) -- only a year after launching the QuietComfort Earbuds 2. On top of that, the new, numberless QuietComfort Headphones ($349) are replacing the QuietComfort 45 headphones.
As for release dates, the QuietComfort Headphones are scheduled to ship on Sept. 21 in black, white smoke and cypress green, while the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are due to ship in early October in black and white smoke colors. All the new QuietComfort or QC models, as they're often referred to, are available for preorder now.
Of the three models, only the QC Ultra Headphones feature a totally new "more premium" design that's sort of a cross between the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the QuietComfort 45s. The 700 headphones had some metal parts but the QC Ultra Headphones incorporate an aluminum yoke and arms that slide into the headband. The headphones feel durable and weigh about the same as the Headphones 700 (252 grams). Bose reps told me they're designed to fit a wider range of head types. They seemed very comfortable in my limited time using them.
The QC Ultra Earbuds offer some small design refinements, including a new "metallic treatment," but they look the same as the QC Earbuds 2 while featuring an "improved interlocking fit" with slightly upgraded stability bands (there's a notch in them that prevents them from moving). The QC Headphones have the same design as the QC 45s and don't seem like much of an upgrade while costing $50 more.
The QC Ultra Headphones feature a mix of physical control buttons along with touch controls for volume. It's also worth noting that they use the same drivers as the Headphones 700 but the ear cups are different.
Bose adds its own flavor of spatial audio
While Bose mentions that all the new QC models feature "world-class noise cancellation," the real feature it's hyping this go around is something it calls Immersive Audio, its custom version of spatial audio. Bose says that Immersive Audio "goes beyond special effects and creates a wider, more spacious soundstage so your content becomes multi-dimensional and layered, regardless of the audio platform or device."
Like other headphones that feature spatial audio -- Apple's latest AirPods, for instance -- the QC Ultra Headphones and QC Ultra Earbuds have two spatial audio modes: one "still" mode without head-tracking engaged and a "motion" mode that uses head-tracking and allows the audio to "move with you, so it's always in front of you."
I got a demo of the QC Ultra headphones using the Immersive Audio feature and it does indeed widen the soundstage, but it's hard to tell if it's any better than Apple or Dolby's spatial audio. Once I get a review sample, I'll be able to compare them side by side.
I also listened to a set of demo tracks that Bose had set up on Apple Music. I was a fan of the Headphones 700's sound and the QC Ultra Headphones' sound came across as clean and well-balanced with good detail and deep but well-defined bass. Since the QC Ultra Headphones have the same drivers as the Headphones 700, most of the audio quality gains come from the more powerful chipset with improved digital processing power. Bose also has a feature that optimizes the sound for your ears.
Qualcomm chipsets for the Ultras
Bose has been using Qualcomm chipsets in its recent headphones and it says both models feature Qualcomm's Snapdragon Sound Technology Suite (QCC5181 chipset) and have support for the aptX Adaptive audio codec, including lossless and low-latency capabilities for Android and other devices that offer aptX compatibility. There's also Swift Pair for Android while Apple users get the AAC audio codec that's also compatible with Android devices.
The QC Ultra Headphones and QC Ultra Earbuds are equipped with Bluetooth 5.3 while the new QC Headphones use Bluetooth 5.1 and lack Bose's Immersive Audio feature. The over-ear models have multipoint Bluetooth pairing but the QC Ultra Earbuds still don't have it. Bose is still working on adding that feature to the buds, Bose reps told me.
Both the Ultra models are LE Audio ready, which means they can be upgraded via a firmware update to include LE Audio features such as Auracast that would allow you to tune into audio broadcasts over Bluetooth, say from a TV at your gym. The LE Audio standard also includes support for the LC3 audio codec.
Improved voice calling for the QC Ultra Earbuds
Voice calling was improved on the QC Earbuds 2, but it still wasn't that great and couldn't match the voice-calling performance of Apple's AirPods Pro 2, which did better in noisier environments. Now Bose is promising the noise reduction and voice pickup really is good with the QC Ultra Earbuds. "With the support of dynamic microphone mixing and adaptive filters, voice pickup is more intelligible in less-than-ideal environments," Bose says.
Previously, Bose did a good job with the Headphones 700 and QuietComfort 45's voice-calling performance, and the QC Ultra Headphones offer similar voice-calling performance to the Headphones 700, according to Bose reps. I was told they have five microphones in each earcup (four external and one inside the earcup) that help drive both the noise-canceling and voice-calling performance.
I'm eager to start making calls with both Ultra models to test whether they live up to Bose's claims.
Optional wireless charging cover accessory
Weirdly and somewhat sadly, Bose didn't include wireless charging with last year's QC Earbuds 2 (most $300 true-wireless earbuds feature wireless charging). And weirdly and somewhat sadly again, it doesn't include wireless charging with the new QC Ultra Earbuds, which apparently have the same charging case as the QC Earbuds 2. However, Bose is now offering a $49 silicone case cover accessory that slips over either case and enables wireless charging.
The QC Ultra Headphones offer 24 hours of battery life with Immersive Audio turned off and 18 hours with it on (the new QC Headphones are also rated for 24 hours of battery life but don't have Immersive Audio). Meanwhile, the QC Ultra Earbuds are rated for six hours with Immersive Audio off and four hours with it on. Comparatively, those aren't great battery life numbers and it appears that the Immersive Audio uses quite a bit of processing power.
New Bose headphones early first impressions
While in some ways both QC Ultras don't seem like major upgrades to their predecessors, they certainly are welcome upgrades and appear to offer some improvements to sound quality and slight improvements to noise-canceling performance -- and in the case of the QC Ultra Earbuds, we may see some legitimate improvements to voice-calling performance.
The QuietComfort Headphones don't seem like much of an upgrade to the existing QuietComfort 45s, which cost $299, so I expect them to see some decent discounts going forward. Yes, they're cheaper than the QC Ultra Headphones, but they're still $350 and it seems like most people playing in this price range would -- and should -- just jump up to the $429 QC Ultra Headphones.
But I'm sure I'll have a lot of additional thoughts and opinions once I fully evaluate all these new headphones. Stay tuned for that.