Bose’s QuietComfort 25 headphones are the best noise-cancelling (NC) headphones in the world. But that doesn’t mean you should buy them.
This headset rates so highly because Bose’s technology blocks noise more effectively than any other comparable pair of headphones. It also produces reasonably good audio quality, but that’s definitely a secondary concern. (The QuietComforts also have some other nice features, like the ability to play audio while the NC is dead, a removable AAA battery, and a removable audio cord.) But just because the tech beats out the competition in its category doesn’t mean these are actually excellent headphones.
To achieve the noise-cancelling effect, NC devices simply play music at a lower quality than comparable headphones that aren’t simultaneously blocking noise. The active NC technology creates an odd ear-pressure sensation that feels weird and a bit uncomfortable after extended use, making the experience far less natural than that with a standard set.
To be clear: The audio quality on the $300 QuietComfort 25s is very good, far better than what you’ll find on cheaper normal headphones or most other NCs, but nowhere near as crisp or bassy as other $300 headsets built only for high-quality listening.
I worry that customers will buy these headphones assuming NC is only a perk and has no drawbacks.
If you do most of your listening in a residential neighbourhood or a quieter office, spend your money on over-ear headphones engineered to get you the best possible quality for your money, like the $117 Audio-Technica ATH-M50x. Their passive noise cancelling (AKA the sheer thickness that keeps sound out) should be more than enough for a good listening experiences 90% of the time. Occasionally you’ll find yourself bothered by a mower or barking dog, but in return you get premier quality unblemished by NC’s pressure on your ears or weaker sound.
Don’t get me wrong: I love my QC25s, even if I have to take them off every couple hours to ward off pressure headaches. But I live ten feet above street level in New York City, where city noise, clattering subways, and random strangers’ conversations are a fact of life.
If your situation is similar, or if you’re a frequent flier, work in a loud office, or just hate distruptions, a top-tier NC headset like the QC25 could be right for you. But when you buy noise-cancelling headphones, know that there’s a trade-off involved. You’re losing some quality and comfort for a technology that will cut out some, but not all, noise.