Take a look around any airport lounge in the world and you'll immediately see a set of Bose noise-canceling headphones. They're iconic, and it's because they're good. With the new QuietComfort 25, the first refresh in five years, everything gets just a little bit better.
Bose has made steady but significant improvements since the year 2000, when the company's first noise-canceling cans hit the market. The original QC1s only had a single microphone listening for noise in each ear cup, and required an external pack to hold batteries and electronics. By the time the QC15s came out in 2009, everything was onboard, and the noise-canceling tech had evolved: the headphones listened to the noise outside the earcups, too, and blocked it from ever reaching your 'drums.
Today, the QC15s are a staple because they've got a universally appealing sound, and they're so comfortable that you can wear them for an entire eight-hour flight without feeling pain. There are plenty of other good options, but people keep turning to the Bose headphones for a reason. Indeed, though they didn't win my Battlemodo of noise-canceling headphones a few years ago, I've actually changed my mind in the years since. The headphones are so reliably good that I'd recommend them to anyone in the market.
Given the success of the previous model, it's not surprising that the new QC25s are a pretty conservative play. They're more of a refinement than an overhaul of the successful QC15. Bose tweaked the formula, and freshened up the design, but for the most part the cans remain the same pair that set the standard years ago.
QC25 (left) next to the old QC15 (right).
The biggest change is the headband. The QC25's headband now collapses at hinges above each earcup for more compact storage, where the cups previously just folded flat. That headband is also now a smooth arc whereas before there was a subtle bend that helped reduce the discomfort of having a pair of cans clamped onto your head. The straighter line is more attractive, and thankfully Bose hasn't skimped on comfort to get there. You can still wear them for hours and hours. The luxurious puffy leather pad at the crest of the headband has been replaced with a slimmer synthetic cushion, but it's still plenty cozy.
The plastic construction is lightweight and sturdy. You can give the headband a nice twist and it won't snap. The hinge folds smoothly without feeling creaky or flimsy. The frame isn't indestructible like V-Moda's millispec cans, but if you're careful, they should hold up.
The new straighter arc and subtler cushioning is in line with the more contemporary, slim and minimal aesthetic of the QC25s. The cups have ditched the ancillary design lines, and opted for a simple matte finish with a silver logo. Besides the standard black and white models, you spend an additional $100 on a completely customized model, painting nine different parts of the headphones in the colors of your choice. It looks like straight up ColorWare, which I don't find particularly tasteful, but it means there are thousands of different color combinations if you want to express yourself.
In black, though, the headphones are a handsome set that I'd be happy to wear anywhere. In the past, I've avoided Bose products much of the time because I just think the company's trademark surgical gray is old and stodgy looking, a bit like it was pulled from a Windows 3.0 application window. Though the QC25s aren't a huge departure from the old look, they're a positive step in the right direction.
The leather earpads are plush and contribute considerably to the headphones' comfort. Still, in the few weeks I tested these headphones, the cushions popped off two times, which shouldn't ever unintentionally happen. It's not just annoying: You run the risk of losing a cup and having to pay $40 for a replacement set. I never had this problem with the QC15s, and neither did a few people I asked. Very odd.
On a positive note I quite like that the cloth protecting the drivers inside the earcups is no labeled "L" and "R" so you quickly know which way to put the headphones on.
Finally, the QC25s ditch the proprietary cable Bose used on the QC15s for a simple 3.5mm-2.5mm cable you can buy from Bose or anyone else.
I was able to grab the cable out of one of my other headphones and use it with the QC25s, no problem. That could come in handy someday.
To use the QC25s, you can simply take them out of the box, plug them into a source of your choice, press play and let the good times roll. That's actually a pretty big deal: For the very first time, Bose's noise-canceling headphones work without batteries. Sure, the QC25s don't actually cancel noise that way, and they don't sound particularly amazing, but when your QC15s were dead they didn't work at all. Imagine getting on a plane and realizing your battery is dead. You're just screwed. No music.
And when you do have electricity handy, a single AAA battery powers the headphones' noise-canceling guts for more than 30 hours. At the office, I was able to use the headphones for an entire week on a single battery, if I remembered to turn them off when I wasn't using them.
Still, using replaceable battery power in an era where almost every other gadget you own charges by USB feels a bit regressive. More so when you look to the future. In a few years it might be the only thing you own in the world that takes old alkaline cells. But "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," I suppose, given that you can still buy AAA batteries on practically every street corner in the world.
The noise-cancellation on the headphones is really excellent, as it was with the QC15s. The cans put you in a total fog of unawareness to the world around you. I should note that Bose actually completely overhauled the interior guts of the headphones so that all of the digital circuitry is on a single proprietary chip as opposed to lots of different components. According to the company, the new guts make the noise-canceling work much better and more consistently. For me, the bottom line is that it worked before and it still works now. Standing on a subway platform and listening to tunes, you can't hear the sound of a roaring train at all.
As with the QC15s, the noise-cancellation is impressive because it has so little effect on your music. Whereas the sound quality of headphones could be adversely affected by the noise-canceling electronics, Bose manages to make a solid sound set of cans. The QC25s have a typical clear, balanced Bose sound that a lot of people find appealing. Personally I prefer a slightly warmer, fuller sound, but the truth is that sterile as I find the QC25s, it's a winning sound signature that's loved by loads of people.
Finally, a note on newfangled features like Bluetooth and apps. The world of headphones has changed considerably over the last couple of years, with companies like Samsung and Parrot increasingly adding both Bluetooth connectivity and app connected features to their noise-canceling cans. The thinking seems to be that if you've got power, there's no reason not to juice a larger feature set. But it seems Bose is completely uninterested in them.
Frankly, you can't use Bluetooth on planes, and it doesn't bother me to use a cable with my headphones because I find Bluetooth too unreliable and spotty to really be worth it. However, Bluetooth is what enables features like on-the-fly sound customization with an app. I just don't know that I've heard anything compelling enough to make it worth my while yet.
Great noise canceling. Super comfortable.
Not designed to travel without their case. The earpads fall off far too easily.
If you need noise canceling headphones, the Bose QC25 cans are a safe bet. I'm not always fond of the wisdom of crowds when it comes to gadgets, but Bose has nailed this product, and if you want something comfortable that sounds good, it's OK to follow the herd here. The $300 price tag for the basic set is competitive, and in fact, cheaper than some competitors.
The QC25s are not the only option, of course, and I'm personally very fond of the Audio-Technica QuietPoint line. What's more, I'm looking forward to hearing new products like the newly announced Parrot Zik 2, which incorporate customizable digital signal processing, giving you more control over the tuning of the headphones.
As for whether you should upgrade: what shape are your old QCs in? The only really groundbreaking new feature of the QC25 is the ability to work without batteries. If the price is right you might be better off with the QC15 on sale. Or maybe wait a year and see how the headphone industry evolves, period.
What we're looking at here is awesome, but it's straight out of 2009.
Photos by Michael Hession