I picked up a set of Bose noise cancelling headphones. I have been quite unhappy with the sound of my Apple iPhone‘s factory-standard earbuds right from the beginning. Yes, the whole “white” thing is cool for a bit until you realize that the great sound experience you are looking for just does not appear while using Apple’s earbuds. I have also been looking for noise cancelling headphones.
Why was I interested in noise cancelling headsets? Let’s just say I have a really great neighbour who sometimes enjoys different types of music than me and it seemed easier to buy these for those times when I would rather listen to something else!
So it is rather funny that I listened to my first set of Bose Quiet Comfort QC15 Headphones while visiting an Apple retail store in San Francisco, California. They had all types of headsets on display for demonstrating their quality, noise cancellation, etc., and this one beat them all, hands down. The store was bustling with well over 100 very eager Apple fanatics, lining up and grouping up to play with and throw their money at the recently released iPads. It was also located on Stockton, just off Market Street, in one of the busiest areas in San Francisco’s downtown core. Add to that the noise from the amplified Apple Genius giving a training session on the aforementioned iPad, as well as the Genius Tech Support bar and the other large batch of regulars who make up the customers in the Apple stores and I think you will understand how loud it was in there. It was noisy!
I put many headsets on while I was in the store, but these were the only one that drowned out the din of the store and let me listen to the music. It sounded like I was alone in a hall somewhere listening to a private concert. That was impressive!
After a few weeks of thinking it over, comparing alternatives, and speaking with some knowledgeable audiophile friends, I decided to buy a set and try them out at home. I mean, who needs to eat? I could do to lose a few pounds anyway…
(All images are from the originals on the Bose site. I made no changes other than cropping and sizing to fit)
The quality of workmanship is high on this set, considering there is a significant amount of plastic. The band is covered with a leather wrap, and the earpieces are also leather. This device is actually quite light and comfortable to wear over extended periods of time. Trust me, I’ve done it.
Yup, it’s there. Yup, it works! As a matter of fact, it works great!
One night I was doing laundry and listening to the usual washer and dryer audio detritus when I decided to put these puppies to the test. I didn’t even have music playing in the background, I simply placed the set on my head and threw the battery power switch. Instant silence. Wow!
I have a friend who swears by his set of QC15s for all airline flights. He said you just sit down, put the headset on, and you can easily avoid talking to the chatty person beside you, eliminate the engine roar, and ignore everyone else on the plane. His advice: if you do any amount of traveling, these are a must to own. After my experience in the Apple store and now my quiet laundry day revelations, I would have to agree with him. I have a trip to Toronto in a few weeks, I’ll have to do my airline tests then.
How does it work? The QC15 headset is battery operated. Somehow, they trapped a Leprechaun into each headset and somehow that Leprechaun stops noise from entering by using a magical sound-capture device. Or maybe it uses electronic frequencies and electronic engineering. I can’t remember which…
In any case, it takes one AAA battery to power these bad boys into noise cancellation mode, and the propaganda states you get about 40 hours of listening with each battery. This is actually quite good compared to some others headsets I have researched. BUT… while requiring batteries isn’t unusual for noise cancellers, what happens when your battery dies is disappointing with these ones. These headsets become expensive ear warmers without power. Not ony does the noise cancellation feature stop working, the headset stops working, there is no sound at all!!! That is a major flaw, and one that I think could (and should) be rectified by Bose in future models.
While I understand that power is needed to create a noise-cancelling environment, these headsets are dead in the water if your AAA battery dies on you. So, “always keep some spares around” is good advice, but in all honesty, why did Bose miss the boat so badly on this one? Why not simply allow them to function as normal headphones when batteries are dead and/or the switch is off? Others headsets do, why not Bose?
OK, it is good that they created a detachable cable. The cable is by far the most likely item to wear on a headset. It also has a detachment mechanism that will withstand normal tug, but will also release if there is a sudden tug, as my 4 year old daughter proved by jumping on my lap while I was drowning out her cartoons…
It is also a single cable, and it plugs into the left ear piece.
But while they very properly made the cable a separate piece, they also counter-sunk and moulded the end of the cable that plugs into the bottom area of the left earpiece… That means you must order genuine Bose replacement cables and, an even bigger mistake on their part, Bose must manufacture a different replacement cable for each of their products. Not smart. Really. Think about it, nobody would question a generic looking cable that plugged into the bottom of a pretty moulded earpiece!
One of the things they tell you not to do in the manual is plug these headsets directly into the older dual-prong airline audio systems. (Yes, I read the manual, right after I had used the headset for a few days…) Luckily, they provide an adaptor for the old style plugs.
(Sorry about the lack of good images for this – this is all they had on the website and I was too lazy to set up a photo shoot for this thing. Sue me…)
The headphones come with a great little carrying case that is semi-hard sided. Nothing says “Steal Me” quite like an identifiable carrying case, but hey, life is all about labels and branding these days!
This case should serve well for keeping the headset and cable protected from most day-to-day hardships and from the wear and tear of being inside backpacks and laptop bags. It also has a pouch for holding your airline adaptor, some corny “About my headphones” cards you are supposed to give to people who are so interested in your head fashion (Bose? WTF???), and some extra room, which is great for your spare batteries! (and of course the crappy Apple earbuds that you will need to use if you run out of batteries…)
Review by the numbers
Design 8.5/10 – The overall design is awesome. I would almost rate it as flawless, if it weren’t for what I see as a major example of form over function –
Sound Quality 9.5/10 – The sound quality really is awesome! I have placed these on the heads of several people who were very skeptical of the price and they were suitably impressed. One of the first things I listened to when I received them was a podcast of an interview by CBC’s Q host Jian Ghomeshi with Van Morrison from last Fall and I could hear every nuance, every tapped finger, every half-breath… Impressive.
If there were one weakness, it would be with the bass. It seems a tiny bit weak. Now, I’m not a fan of massive, hard-hitting bass all the time anyway, so this really doesn’t concern me (it really isn’t THAT noticeable), but the fact I noticed it means someone who was a metal head or acid rocker or similar may be a bit disappointed.
Functionality 8.5/10 – I would love to rate these higher, but their major strength – noise cancellation – is also what takes away from their functionality. Unless you are well-insured, don’t try wearing these while walking around in traffic-filled streets. I guarantee you won’t even hear the car or bus that takes you out… Also, the fact that without battery power they are useless is a big detractor. Yes, I purchased a 4-pack of AAA batteries to ensure this never happens, but this level of headset really should at least work without noise cancellation when the battery dies mid-flight.
Value 8/10 – Value is always like beauty, in the eye of the beholder. These headsets are phenomenal, no question. But they are also at the high end of the spectrum, even for noise cancellers. $299 USD ($349 CDN) is a steep price to pay for a headset. Period. What is a fair price? Not sure. My Shure SRH440s were about $120 CDN and provided a similar sound quality, but they were bulkier, heavier, and not as comfortable to wear for long periods of time. They were also not noise cancellers.
Overall Assessment – If you can afford them, they are worth their weight in gold for noise cancellation. They also have a great sound and are very comfortable to wear for long periods of time. But if you have a relatively controlled noise environment and don’t fly or travel by public transportation much, save your money and buy something without noise cancellation for $100 – $150 less and you will get really great sound that doesn’t need batteries.
Mobile Communications Kit
Despite the initial price tag, the QC15 is designed specifically as a headset and not for use with a smartphone right out of the box. I was a little concerned about this when I was doing my research, because I wanted something to use mainly with my iPhone, and I already had a set of Shure SRH440s that I had to take off whenever I received a call on my iPhone. That was a pain and I was not willing to continue doing it. I looked into other options.
Shure has a mobile microphone adaptor (they better, they are known for microphones!), but it does not replace the headset cables, it simply acts as an adaptor, giving me an even longer set of cables to deal with Shure headset cables are 10′ and coiled – imagine carrying that cable around, attached to your iPhone!
So research showed me that Bose has a “Mobile Communications Kit” (MCA), which can be purchased for use with the QC15s for about $50. As I have already described, an add-on like this is a must for anyone using their iPhone as their music source. It also has various cable size adaptors, which might be handy, but the default connector fits my iPhone 3GS perfectly, so not so necessary for me.
As you can imagine, after having forked out for the headset, I was a bit queasy with the idea of a $50 price tag on top of that. I kept thinking “it is just a microphone and cable!”.
But when they arrived, whether or not I agreed with the methodology, I understood the price. The cable replaces the original cable and the end that inserts into the headphones is engineered to fit exactly into the same spot and fill the missing curved area, just like the original. Remember when I said it would have made more sense for Bose to make the cable jack more generic? This is where they would have saved on manufacturing costs, and I could have saved on the retail cost.
However, with all the great work and thought put into the rest of the piece, would it be too much to ask for a talk/end button? Their mobile earbuds have it, their over the ear mobile set have it… Did they just forget???
Review of the Mobile Communications Kit…
Design 10/10 – Although I think it was stupid of them to make the cable the way they did, I am sure someone thought it was prettier this way (and I’ve already beat them up about that issue above).
Sound Quality 10/10 – (of the microphone) Anyone I talked to has stated the sound quality when speaking with me was great. I have yet to try it outside on a windy day or in a busy area, but I will eventually.
Functionality 5/10 – I gave it a 5/10 because it functions as a microphone allows me to answer calls without removing the headset. But that is only 50% of the functionality of a smartphone microphone. I must actually take the iPhone out and touch the screen to answer and answer AND end calls… Major fail for Bose on that one. Fire that design engineer!
Overall Assessment – They are designed specifically to fit, the microphone quality is great, and the cable is short. That makes this device great to use with your iPhone and QC15 headset. But the lack of a Talk/End button is really annoying and I would have to recommend anyone looking at this (or any other headset they use with a smartphone/iPhone) to look into the Griffin SmartTalk adaptor for less than 1/2 the price.