Last month, Bose announced a total revamp of its headphone and earbud lineup and introduced three new products at the same time. I’ve already reviewed the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, which look (and sound) remarkably close to their predecessors. But the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are genuinely fresh and not some low-effort rehash of an existing model. Priced at $429, these are replacing Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which strayed from the company’s typical formula when they were released in 2019 — and not always for the better.
With its latest flagship headphones, Bose is walking the design back to something more travel-friendly while adding a new spatial audio listening mode, enhancements to call quality, and other improvements. The company is still contending with fierce competition from Sony, Apple, Sennheiser, and many other brands. But the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are an example of Bose at its best: they deliver powerful active noise cancellation and are wonderfully comfortable to wear for long stretches of time.
The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones bring together elements of the prior Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 with the DNA of Bose’s hugely successful QuietComfort series. The company did a nice job compiling the best attributes from each. These once again fold down for easy storage (something the NCH700 lacked) while looking far more premium and stylish than the QuietComfort 45. I have one nitpick about the case, however: it has indentations for where the ear cups sit, but this means you can only fold the headphones one particular way or they won’t fit right, which has already annoyed me on multiple occasions. There’s plenty of plastic involved in the makeup of these headphones — that’s mandatory for the all-day comfort that Bose prioritizes — but the metal arms are cool to the touch and lend some reassuring durability to the headphones.
The wider headband didn’t cause any discomfort during lengthy listening sessions, and the clamping force is noticeably lighter than the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, which could get fatiguing after an hour or so, in my experience. My review sample hasn’t produced any noticeable creaking when handling the headphones, but this seems to vary between units, and I’d be annoyed if I got saddled with a noisy pair after spending $429 on them. I wouldn’t say the craftsmanship of the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones rises to the level of something like the Bowers & Wilkins PX7 S2 or PX8, but Bose’s headphones are simply more comfortable to wear.
The controls are also more foolproof. The ear cup tap gestures from the NCH700 have been replaced with Bose’s usual multifunction button, a power / Bluetooth button, and a capacitive strip that you can slide a finger across to adjust volume. The QC Ultra Headphones can also detect when you’ve removed them from your ears and will automatically pause music accordingly. There’s still no support for USB-C audio, unfortunately, so the 2.5-millimeter headphone jack is your only option for wired listening. (The standard 2.5mm-to-3.5mm cable is included in the case.) But Bose has stepped up its Bluetooth audio chops by embracing Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform (and accompanying AptX Adaptive codec) for higher-bitrate playback — even if the end result isn’t game-changing.
Inside the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are the very same drivers that Bose used in the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 four years ago. So if you were hoping for substantial changes to sound quality or some new audiophile tier of Bose headphones, that’s not what you’ll find here. Some people might be let down that Bose chose to recycle the same drivers: at this price, other headphone makers rarely sit so still when it comes to components from one model to the next. But there’s more to the way headphones sound than drivers alone, and Bose has never portrayed itself as a “hi-fi” brand. In the end, we’re left with a pair of headphones that reproduce the company’s pleasing, clean signature sound while preserving lows and highs even when the volume is dialed down.
The core audio profile is in the same ballpark as the NCH700, but in my listening so far, the newer headphones put slightly more emphasis on bass while sounding more detailed and warm on the whole. Those improvements are subtle, so Bose is trying to differentiate the Ultra Headphones with at least one new standout feature: like the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, they include a new Immersive Audio mode, which is the company’s own take on spatial audio.
Here’s what I wrote about Immersive Audio on the Ultra earbuds less than a month ago:
Within immersive audio are two subsettings: you can choose still, which allows for side-to-side head tracking while the music stays at a fixed position in front of you, or motion, which reduces head tracking and keeps the audio sweet spot where it should be no matter which direction you turn. Bose says it has developed new digital signal processing (DSP) software that makes your music sound more multidimensional and layered “regardless of the audio platform or device.”
It makes no difference if you’re listening to stereo content or an actual Atmos song from Apple Music or Amazon Music: Bose’s processing treats them the same way. As ever, there are examples where immersive audio works wonderfully — like on The National’s new song “Smoke Detector” — and others where the vocals can sound a bit distant and the music has this faux live performance feel to it.
The story remains the same with the QC Ultra Headphones. Immersive Audio can sometimes give certain tracks noticeable depth and a bigger, more immersive presentation — especially for you classical fans out there — but the results are often inconsistent from one song to the next. When it’s good, it can bring out each layer of vocal harmony. But in the worst cases, it can make instrumentation and vocals feel squished into the center of your head instead of giving everything more room to breathe. The head tracking aspect comes across as gimmicky, as it does with other headphones that have similar features. Outside of all this, I’m confused as to why Bose is completely disregarding Dolby Atmos music and going down its own path with proprietary processing to achieve spatial audio. (Apple is guilty of the same with its option to “spatialize” stereo content, and I wish everyone would only stick to Atmos mixes for this stuff instead of faking it.)
So far, my feeling on Immersive Audio is that it’s fine but far from some killer feature that will sell anyone on Bose’s top-tier headphones. People will buy the QC Ultra for their sublime comfort and top-notch ANC. Just like AirPods, they’re greater than the sum of their parts. Noise cancellation is up there with the very best. If there have been any gains over the NCH700, they’re marginal, but you’ll definitely be able to find peace and quiet on a flight, crowded train, or in a noisy coffee shop when you’re trying to focus. A new wind block setting prevents any unpleasant mic distortion from reaching your ears if you’re walking around on a blustery day. Bose’s transparency mode (which the company calls “Aware”) continues to get more natural-sounding and is within a stone’s throw of the AirPods Max but not quite on the same level yet.
I’m not someone who has lengthy voice calls while wearing headphones; if I’m on a Teams meeting or something else important, I’d take a wired set of USB-C earbuds any day over Bluetooth. But Bose’s claims of improved call quality do seem to bear out, with the QC Ultra Headphones doing a better job than the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 at isolating my voice, according to people I spoke with.
Battery life is rated at up to 24 hours of continuous listening, although that drops to 18 hours if you’re using Immersive Audio with any regularity. Sennheiser’s Momentum 4 headphones are still at the top of the mountain in this department with a hard-to-fathom 60-hour runtime, but so long as your headphones will last through an extended flight, that’s really all that matters. The Ultra Headphones offer multipoint Bluetooth connectivity for pairing with two devices at the same time, and they’ve been updated to Bluetooth 5.3, with Bose promising LE Audio support down the line.
By nearly any criteria that matter to the company’s longtime customers, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are a vast improvement over the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. They’re exceedingly comfortable — more so than alternatives from Sony, Apple, and other rivals — and continue to provide powerful noise cancellation. Sound quality is status quo and what I’ve come to expect from Bose headphones, and Immersive Audio can be very hit or miss. But if you can get over their higher price, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones feel like a much better fit at the top of Bose’s lineup than their predecessors.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge