Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones Review
Simon Lucas auditions the latest premium noise-cancellers from this iconic brand…
QuietComfort Ultra Headphones
AUD $649 RRP
Here's a brand that doesn't need an introduction. Everyone knows Bose, after all, and anyone who takes even a passing interest in stuff like this knows it was Bose who had the big idea for noise-cancellation in consumer headphones in the first place. So, a new pair of Bose noise-cancellers is never not a big deal.
Where the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are concerned, however, anticipation is tempered just a little by apprehension. After all, Bose has priced its newest pair of range-toppers well in excess of what nominal rivals like Sennheiser and Sony are charging for their equivalent models. Heck, these new headphones are more expensive than the latest PX7 S2e by Bowers & Wilkins – and B&W is a company that knows how to slap a premium price on its products. With the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, it seems like Bose is targeting Apple and its AirPods Max – and as we all know, nothing disastrous ever happens to companies that seek to take on Apple at its own game, does it?
Bose obviously gave itself a bit of a fright with the design of the outgoing Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 – after all, that was a mildly distinctive pair of headphones. For the replacement, the company has retreated into far more generic and anonymous design language. If it wasn't for the big brand logo on each earcup, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones could be the product of one of any number of manufacturers.
Once you get your head inside a pair of QC Ultra, the design choices start to make a bit more sense. A combination of synthetic leather, moderately tactile plastic and a quantity of aluminium keeps the weight of the Bose down below a quarter of a kilo, while judicious amounts of headband and earcup padding, along with some carefully considered clamping force, ensure they're comfortable to wear even over extended periods.
Bluetooth 5.3 with multipoint connectivity and SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive codec compatibility takes care of wireless streaming. There's a 2.5mm socket next to the USB-C input on the left earcup that lets the Bose operate using a wire, too. And no matter how you end up getting your audio content on board, it's delivered by a couple of free-range dynamic drivers, the specifics of which are a closely guarded secret. What seems definite, however, is that these drivers are carried over unchanged from the outgoing NCH 700.
As well as straight stereo sound, these drivers can also treat you to the Immersive Audio feature that Bose has included on all its latest headphones. A variation on the 'spatial audio' theme popularised by Dolby Atmos, it can track the movements of your head or stay locked no matter how you move. But in any event, it wants to create a more immersive presentation of music than is available from regular stereo. For Luddites, however, this can be defeated in the Bose Music control app.
The app itself is a paradigm of good sense. Logical, stable and very comprehensive, it boasts EQ adjustment, various noise-cancellation options (including the ability to create a bespoke ANC setting using a ten-stage slider), firmware updates and plenty more besides, along with the more usual playback and volume controls. The app even lets you define the function of one of the very few physical controls on the Ultra Headphones.
The suite of physical controls is on terraced edges of the right earcup, and it's a combination of push/push buttons and capacitive touch surfaces. On the outer edge, there's a power on/off/Bluetooth pairing button and another button taking care of play/pause, plus skip forwards/backwards and Immersive Audio options. On the inner edge, just close enough to be easily fouled when you're attempting to use one of the push/push buttons, there's a capacitive touch-strip that can be swiped upwards to increase volume and downwards to reduce it. Touch and hold this control, and it can either cycle through your immersive audio options, wake your source player's native voice assistant, give an aural indication of battery level, or resume Spotify, providing your app is up-to-date.
The earcups are also home to a total of ten microphones; there are five on each side. Four of these are external, and three of them are feed-forward items taking care of voice capture, while the fifth is an embedded feedback mic. As well as voice-assistant interaction and telephony, this mic array takes care of noise-cancellation too. ANC modes extend to quiet (i.e. on), aware (transparency) and immersion (as already discussed).
Leave Immersive Audio switched on the entire time, and these headphones will last around 18 hours between charges. Keep it switched off, and that figure rises to an almost-acceptable 24. Charging takes place via the USB-C socket, and a full charge takes around three hours. A 15-minute pit-stop should be enough to keep you listening for a couple of hours.
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones create a special environment in which to listen. The company has been at the forefront of active noise-cancellation technology for decades now, and the QC Ultra are just the latest demonstration of the company's complete mastery of the technology. Without leaving any hint of a counter-signal, without any disruption of the noise floor, the Bose headphones simply take the overwhelming majority of external distractions out of the equation. They're remarkable noise-cancellers of the type we have all come to expect from the brand.
Listen to a big FLAC file of The Band's The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down in plain stereo, and there's plenty to enjoy about the way the QC Ultra perform. Detail levels, for example, are remarkably high in every department. This is especially apparent in the midrange, where Levon Helm's vocal and the supporting three-part harmonies come alive with personality and attitude. At the top of the frequency range and the bottom too, these phones are never less than attentive to transients, to the minor occurrences at the back or the edge of the soundstage that less capable designs ignore altogether.
The song also demonstrates the judicious tonal balance of the Bose phones. There's an organic quality to the tonality here that's instinctively correct. No matter if the instrument is electric or acoustic, it sounds entirely convincing and natural. The attack and decay of individual notes or hits is such that the rhythm – which can be rather club-footed if handled unsympathetically – is rendered with real positivity.
Engaging the Immersive Audio feature certainly makes a difference to the way recordings are presented, and sometimes it's easy to make a case for it to be preferable, or at least a worthwhile alternative. Sometimes, however, it is not. A TIDAL-derived file of 100% Dundee by The Roots makes the first case in quite some style. In all circumstances, these headphones deliver the song with punchily straight-edged authority, keeping momentum levels high and allowing the voice tracks in the midrange all the space they need to express themselves to the full.
Switch from stereo to immersive, though, and it's as if the soundstage has been pulled and stretched in all directions. Without losing anything where focus or organisation are concerned, the QC Ultra gain scale and space to the left and right, from front top back, and from top to bottom. If the intention of the immersive audio technology is to create a sort of sonic bell-tent inside which the listener might make themselves comfy, there's no arguing with its effectiveness where this recording is concerned. Examining the constituent parts becomes far easier if that's your thing, and the sensation of being inside the recording is quite pronounced.
Switch to a similarly sized file of The Four Tops' I Can't Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch), and the effect is altogether less enjoyable. In stereo, this is a recording of the old school, with drums and strings over to the right, keys and horns to the left, and voices front and centre. But when Immersive Audio is summoned, the picture becomes vague and confused to the point that the tambourine suddenly becomes the major player. Levi Stubbs' impassioned vocal gets hazy around the edges, a veil thrown over his desire to communicate directly. There's a lack of precision about the technology's ability to deal with this relatively antiquated recording that makes things sound disorganised. And for some reason, things are a little more trebly than in stereo, too.
No matter how you decide to render your music, these headphones' facility with detail retrieval and tonal unity, with dynamic headroom and rhythmic certainty, is always to the fore. This is an unalloyed good thing.
If I put my big, ostentatious audiophile hat on, it's possible to make a case for the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones on the basis that they sound convincing and enjoyable, that their noise-cancelling is up with the best around, and that they feature an interesting new technology in Immersive Audio. “What more do you want headphones for?” is basically how the argument goes. Yet there's no getting away from the fact that these headphones are optimistically priced when judged by the standards of their peers. Where aesthetics, materials and 'pride of ownership' are concerned, they really don't make much of a case for themselves. Overall then, these are very capable performers but not exactly great value for money.
Simon was editor of What Hi-Fi? magazine and website and has since written for Wired, Metro, the Guardian and Stuff, among many others. Should he find himself with a spare moment, Simon likes publishing and then quickly deleting tweets about the state of the nation (in general), the state of Aston Villa (in particular) and the state of his partner’s cat.
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