I purchased the Bose QuietComfort 35 II noise-canceling over-the-ear headphones earlier this year after going on somewhat of an audio research binge. I’m not really an audiophile, but I was getting tired of the tinny response and discomfort of earbuds. I had used Shure SE215’s for a while, but they broke eventually, and I never found them fully comfortable. I could get used to them, yes, but I always knew they were there. (They did have good sound once you got a seal, so there is that).
First and foremost, I was getting sick of headphone cables. I got my first smartphone earlier this year too (Google Pixel 2), and it has no audio jack. Now, I’m not complaining about this; I think wireless audio is the right idea, and I’m going to support it with my wallet. I understand why folks with perfectly good headphones but no jack are getting bent out of shape, but I hope it is obvious to most reasonable people that this transition was going to happen at some point. It’s like the whole brouhaha with USB-C ports vs. USB-A ports. USB-C is the future, but most people have computer peripherals that have USB-A connections. So what is a manufacturer to do? Ignore the old standard and get cries from angry customers that think they want to sell dongles (which is usually not true, since people can buy 3rd-party adapters too)? Or stick with USB-A ports and get roasted by computer reviewers for sticking their head in the sand and resisting change?
Anyway… wireless was highest on my priority list. Then, in roughly descending order of importance:
- Battery life
- Noise cancellation
- Sound quality
I use headphones a large number of hours every day: college is a noisy place, and it is much easier to simply put on headphones than bother trying to convince other students/roommates/whatever to be respectful and keep the noise down. This is why comfort was basically my biggest factor: I’m going to be wearing these a lot. Good battery life follows since it is necessary to keep the wireless headphones, well, wireless. Noise cancellation comes next for obvious reasons (and a not so obvious one: effective noise cancellation lets you use much lower volume levels, which are better for your ears over time).
I’m a picky person when it comes to my ears: I don’t like sticking things in my ears more than I have to. Since I want to get a motorcycle eventually, earplugs are in my future. Similarly, I’m interested in trialling earplugs for sleeping since I’m a pretty light sleeper. That’s two areas where, to my mind, putting things in my ears is practically unavoidable. I suppose it would be more minimalistic to make do with a single pair of custom molded in-ear headphones (these bluetooth 31dB noise isolating headphones are a pair I’ve had my eye on for motorcycling) – the sound quality and even bass is quite good for custom-molded headphones – but I just don’t like the thought of fully blocking my ears for 8+ hours a day (or even more if I sleep with them). Earwax is also a non-negligible concern when you wear in-ear headphones, and I’d just rather not deal with it if I have the choice. Finally, over-the-ear headphones – even ones that audiophiles aren’t as fond of, like most Bose headphones – have a far superior “sound stage” to in-ear headphones, which means, essentially, that music you listen to will feel less “in your head.”
Speaking of sound quality, while like I said I’m no audiophile, I do want headphones that “sound good” (= good highs, mids, and lows without overwhelming bass or underwhelming bass). I like music a lot (in an eclectic way – I listen to an awful lot of different things), and it can sometimes be helpful in focusing, getting one pumped for something (e.g., exercise), and so forth. My headphones shouldn’t get in the way in this regard. (I know that seems to be setting the bar pretty low, but you’d be surprised how many products won’t be able to cleanly reproduce sound without distorting it in some major way).
My experiences with the QC35 II’s
Now that I’ve had the QC35 II’s for a few months, I can say that I really like them. They are super comfortable and light, and I can wear them upwards of 10 hours in a row with little to no discomfort (I haven’t actually gone much longer than that, but I assume I’d be just fine doing so). The sensation in your ears from the noise cancellation is a bit disconcerting for a while, but you get used to it pretty fast. To my unprofessional ears, the audio is just fine – a heck of a lot better than any other pair of headphones I’ve ever owned (not that this is saying much). These over-the-ear headphones do not have a particularly tight clamp (which I consider very much a good thing), and I don’t think I’d feel comfortable exercising with them in any way.
Now, there are a couple nitpicks. Firstly, I have never been able to get them settled on my head in such a way that they seamlessly work with my glasses when I’m walking. If I don’t rearrange my glasses after putting them on, I get a rubbing sound when I walk. And if I don’t sit there and fiddle for a while, the glasses will feel “too connected” to the headphones (rather than resting on the bridge of my nose as normal), and thus the glasses wobble up and down every time I take a step. Don’t get me wrong, they “work” with glasses – it just takes too much adjusting for me to be bothered most of the time. For my use case – wearing these when I am working, studying, listening to music, etc. – this doesn’t really matter. And if you don’t have glasses, there is no problem whatsoever. (But then there are sunglasses, etc.).
Secondly, there is noticeable audio lag from input sources when using the wireless. This is a case of me being misinformed about the technology when I was buying it – I thought I would be able to watch videos with synced audio just like I would with normal headphones. However, the delay from wireless transmission is noticeable enough that it just doesn’t work: lips and audio are out of sync. If I ever want to use these headphones for watching videos on YouTube or Netflix or whatever, I plug them in.
Thirdly, I was sometimes getting a hissing/crackling sound when I paired the headphones to a Windows computer. I knew it was just the Windows computer since they worked with my Android phone just fine. After some digging, it turned out that this was caused by the headphones being perceived by Windows as a headset with a mic. You can fix this according to these threads:
I consider this a fair nitpick because the default behavior was the hissing/crackling and there was nothing about this anywhere in the materials that came with the headphones. Of course, this is more a Windows problem than a Bose problem, but for headphones coming in at more than $300, you sort of expect them to just work, or have it be very clear how to fix any problems that might come up (like, I don’t know, not working out of the box when you pair to Windows computers?). Some consumers will not be savvy enough to spend ~30 minutes searching around on support forums to find out what the problem is, and for these people, I could in no way recommend the headphones if they use Windows. Why? Because they’ll probably end up thinking that this hissing is just the price one pays for external noise cancellation, and then miss out on crystal-clear audio because nobody ever told them otherwise.
Finally, the charging cable that comes with the headphones is puny, like 6 inches. If you actually charge things by plugging into computer USB ports (or a powered tabletop USB hub) this would work fine, but if you plug in USB chargers to power strips on the floor (like me), this cable will frustrate you.
So would I recommend them?
Definitely. I read a lot of reviews when I bought these earlier this year (e.g., this one), and they were far-and-away the best match for my requirements (as above): namely, they were (and may well still be) the most comfortable noise-canceling headphones on the market with reasonably good sound. Since I bought these, the Sony WH-1000XM3 have come out, and may be a better match for some people. And there are other good options as well.
For the purposes I use them for (working, studying, listening to music for long periods of time in imperfect sound environments) I think they are definitely better for me than the other two kinds of headphones I am looking at: noise-isolating custom-fit in-ear headphones, and bone-conduction headphones. These other headphones (neither of which I own) would seem to me to fulfill other purposes: the former being good for straight up blocking (as opposed to canceling – which doesn’t really help reduce the decibel level of loud noises, but makes background noise less perceptible by sending inverted phase sound waves at the same amplitude = destructive interference) very loud noises (like wind noise on motorcycles at highway speeds), and the latter being good for exercising on roads when you really don’t want to block environmental noise (for safety reasons) so much as add music for your own enjoyment (or have GPS instructions that you can actually hear, etc.).
I’ll report back if I ever end up trying these other kind of headphones for these other purposes. The Bose QC35 II’s definitely aren’t the ideal headphone for every situation, but they are quite good for what I use them for, enough so that I think they were well worth the money I paid for them. I would recommend waiting for them to go on sale if you can, since I’ve seen them drop $50-$70ish off what I paid for them (on various sites) several times since I’ve bought them.