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Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: taking back the crown

Bose returns to form as it faces more competition than ever before

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Bose has a lot riding on the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Long the dominant player in this space, the company has faced formidable competition from Sony’s 1000X-series headphones in recent years; the 1000XM3s finally bested the noise cancellation of Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II headphones, and many people prefer the audio quality of the Sonys. Even Microsoft made an impressive entrance into the category with the Surface Headphones and their inventive dial controls for changing volume and adjusting NC. 

But Bose has finally returned with its own new pair of headphones. At $400, they don’t come cheap, but Bose tries to justify that cost with a premium build, even more effective (and adjustable)  noise cancellation, far better voice call quality, and yes, a long-awaited move to USB-C charging. The NCH 700s aren’t without issues — and Bose has made some frustrating unforced errors that I’ll cover later on. But they send the strong message that Bose is back, and in many ways better than ever.

The NCH 700s mark a new path for Bose headphone design, and you can sum up that direction with one word: clean. There are no visible hinges or screws, and the result is a much more modern look compared to the early-2000s industrial design of the QC35s. A stainless steel headband is the foundation of it all, running down and shrinking to a cylindrical shape that cuts through the middle of each earcup. You adjust fit by sliding the earcups up or down that steel pole. It’s a smooth movement without any clicks or feedback. I’ve got an enormous head, so for me the fit is straightforward: I just put the headphones on and pull the earcups on each side as far as they’ll go. But some people might miss the clicky slider style of other headphones.

A fresh design that’s still comfortable, but not quite as feather-light on your head

The foam cushioning between your head and the metal headband has a silicone texture — not the same Alcantara fabric as the QC35s — and there’s more silicone along the top of the headband. Speaking of the QC35s, at 0.56 pounds, the NCH 700s aren’t quite as feather light as Bose’s previous noise-canceling headphones (0.518 pounds), but I still found them to be extremely comfortable. The synthetic leather ear cushions feel great. I’ve seen complaints from a few early buyers about the clamping force on the head being too tight, but I didn’t have the same experience and never dealt with discomfort even during extended use. Others have mentioned that they can hear the headband clanking against the earcups (which are not made from metal) when walking around, but this is another issue I failed to notice. Maybe both are more of a problem for people with smaller noggins. I think the QC35 IIs still win out at overall comfort, but these are easily on par with Sony’s 1000XM3s. 

There are no physical buttons to control audio. Instead, the front half of the right earcup recognizes your taps and swipes.
There are no physical buttons to control audio. Instead, the front half of the right earcup recognizes your taps and swipes.

The tradeoff to this sleeker style from Bose is that these headphones can’t fold away for compact storage. Instead, the best you get are earcups that can swivel flat when put into the carrying case. Sony has the efficiency advantage there — the 1000XM3s can fold down — but other competitors like the Surface Headphones are in the same boat as Bose. I found that Bose’s included hard case still fit perfectly fine in my backpack, and there’s a handy little compartment that holds the USB-C charging cable and 2.5mm-to-3.5mm headphone cable.

Following the trends of modern over-ear headphone design, Bose did away with physical buttons for controlling your music on the 700s. Instead, the front half of the right earcup can detect your index finger’s taps and swipes, and this system works quite well once you master the muscle memory of where to reach. You tap twice to play or pause, swipe up to raise the volume, down to lower it, forward to skip tracks, or back to return to the previous song. A double-tap answers calls, while tapping and holding rejects an incoming call. You can also hold down on the touch area to get a reading of remaining battery life (in hours, not percentage).

Sony ran into some problems with its earpad controls, which can behave erratically in cold weather. I raised this point with Bose was told that the NCH 700s have been tested thoroughly, and the company reminded me that it’s based in Framingham, MA, a city that gets plenty chilly in winter. It’s the middle of summer here in New York, so it’ll be a few months before I can determine whether these headphones are more cold-proof than Sony’s. In either case, they’ll probably prove to be more of a hassle when you’re wearing gloves compared to Bose’s older models. 

There are still a few actual buttons around back: on the left earcup is one that adjusts noise cancellation, and on the right is a power/Bluetooth pairing button and another that activates your preferred voice assistant. One small gripe is that I often found myself pressing these by accident when picking up the headphones, and they activate the second you do so. Even implementing a split-second delay would help negate this annoyance and prevent false presses from causing frustration. 

Bose supports all three major voice assistants: Siri (on iOS), Google Assistant (on both Android and iOS) and Amazon Alexa (on both). The advantage of choosing Google Assistant is that you’ve got the option of proactive voice notifications, where your messages and other important alerts will be read to you the moment they come in. Amazon also gets a point: Alexa is the only assistant that can be accessed without pressing a button; you just have to say “Alexa.” The NCH 700s don’t support hands-free “Hey Siri” or “OK Google” activation phrases. But Alexa is of limited utility on headphones. You can change volume, control your smart home gear, and ask the usual Alexa inquiries, but even commands like “next song” or “skip this track” don’t work. I mostly stuck with Siri and it worked great — and its recognition was a little more accurate than usual on account of the impressive mics. 

Two devices can be paired and connected with the Bose NCH 700s at a time, so you can constantly keep them linked to your phone when listening to audio on a laptop or tablet. If a call comes in, the headphones are smart enough to automatically pause music on that other device so you can quickly answer. Sony’s headphones do not have this feature and it’s frustrating to use them with more than one device as a result. 

The killer app is making calls

Voice calls are one of the stellar strengths of these headphones. Bose built an entirely new mic system from the ground up, and it shows: the NCH 700s are better at isolating your voice from background noise than just about any other headphones I’ve ever tried. 

In all, the headphones contain six microphones for noise cancellation. But Bose pairs two of those microphones with two others for a four-mic system that’s optimized for voice pickup.You can talk to people at a normal volume on loud streets and they’ll still hear you clearly. Same goes for voice assistant commands: the mic array does an astounding job staying on your voice and ignoring environmental noise or even other people nearby. If you talk on the phone a lot, this is a huge selling point for Bose’s new headphones and might justify the extra $50 over the QC35s, which are only so-so at voice calls. The people you’re chatting with will be able to tell the difference. If you don’t, you might not care about the progress Bose has made. 

Bose says it has improved both noise cancellation and overall sound quality with the NCH 700s, and that checks out with my experience using them so far. When the adjustable noise cancellation turned up to 10 — this can be done by tapping the NC button or through the Bose Music — the isolation is more powerful than the QC35 IIs and neck and neck with Sony. I’ve never been sensitive to the “ear suck” phenomenon or uncomfortable pressure that some people experience with noise-canceling headphones. If you are, I’d definitely advise trying these in a store first. 

Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 pictured with the Sony WH-1000XM3s and Microsoft’s Surface Headphones.
Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 pictured with the Sony WH-1000XM3s and Microsoft’s Surface Headphones.

When you drop NC all the way down to zero, Bose actually pipes in surrounding audio instead of leaving you with muffled sound. It’s a more realistic “ambient mode” than I’m used to with other headphones and earbuds. The company told me that the goal was making it sound like you’re not wearing headphones at all, and Bose came pretty close to nailing that sensation. There’s also a conversation mode that’s activated when you hold down the NC button: music is temporarily paused and outside audio is amped up until you press a button or tap the gesture area. 

The improvements to noise cancellation and sound quality aren’t huge, but they’re noticeable

In general, audio playback does seem a little richer than the QC35 IIs. Bose has never been a head-rattling bass monster, instead favoring a clean, balanced low end that can span many different types of music. There’s ample separation between vocals and instruments and an engrossing depth to the soundstage — even if it’s not as wide or detailed as non-noise-canceling headphones at this price point. The audio tuning of the NCH 700s is very Bose, not quite as warm as Sony’s cans, but it’s refined, crisp, and lively. There’s no ability to adjust EQ at this time, but Bose says it plans to add that option in the future. 

I wish I had equally nice things to say about Bose’s smartphone app, which is an important utility for controlling the NCH 700s. Right now it’s a bit of a mess. For one, you can’t use it without creating a Bose account. You’ll never get beyond the splash screen. There’s little reason for Bose to force its customers into creating accounts for a headphone companion app. These are $400 headphones, and requiring a login to use the Bose Music app — without any choice to skip forward without one — leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This company has found itself in controversy over data harvesting before, so the lack of a “just let me use my headphones” option is a little disconcerting. 

If you open the app on a plane without Wi-Fi and you somehow got signed out, you won’t be able to access settings for the NCH 700s. And early buyers of the headphones have found themselves randomly signed out of the Bose app; I’ve run into the problem myself numerous times with the iOS version of the app. (Tip: to avoid logout issues, make sure your headphones are connected to both the regular and Bluetooth LE listing of the headphones in your settings.) There are things you can do in the Bose Music app that aren’t available in your phone’s general Bluetooth menu. With the app, you can easily jump between all of your paired devices with a tap, adjust the amount of your own voice you hear when on calls, or customize the three presets of noise cancellation that you toggle between when pressing the NC button. By default it’s 0, 5, and 10, but you can save whichever three options you like best. 

Bose needs to make its app more reliable regardless of whether there’s an internet connection, and customers should really be able to bypass the whole account process. The Bose Music app is the worst part of using the NCH 700s, and it’s in urgent need of improvement. (It was updated on the same day as this review with bug fixes, so the company is certainly trying.) You can use the headphones and their noise-canceling powers without ever installing the app, but you’ll be left without some advanced options. 

Bose estimates the NCH 700s at 20 hours of battery life, which is good, but about 10 hours short of what Sony is able to achieve. You’ll be told how much time is left whenever you turn them on, and the app clearly displays battery status as well. I’ve been using them for a little over a week and have only needed to plug in once. Charging them up over USB-C takes around two and a half hours, but even a 15-minute charge is enough to get you over three hours of listening time if you can’t wait that long. 

With the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, Bose has successfully played catchup with the strong competition it now faces in a category that this company helped create. My only reservation is price: I understand Bose’s reasoning for keeping the QC35 IIs around, but I wish those had seen a price cut and made way for the NCH 700s at that $350 mark. If you already own Bose’s previous pair of noise-canceling cans (and assuming the noise cancellation is still strong), you should stay put with those. Same goes for the Sony 1000XM3s. But if you’re on the lookout for new NC headphones right now and can spare the cash, you can’t do much better as a complete package. The comfort is there, Bose’s noise cancellation is about the best you can get, they sound good, and multi-device pairing is something you’ll quickly appreciate. And you’ll never want to go back to talking to people on other headphones. 

But Bose, please, please fix the app. 

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