This post was updated on October 23, 2018 to include new picks, pricing, and information about audio
For better or for worse, there are a few audio companies that rise out from audio forums and become a part of our culture. Obviously, a company like Beats is one that comes to mind. But for a long time when you thought of active noise cancellation, Bose is what came to mind. To the vast majority of people, it probably still does. But it might take some time before the average person starts thinking of the Sony WH-1000X M3 before they think of “those Bose headphones”. Still, even without the title of king of active noise cancelling Bose has a healthy product line-up of headphones ranging from true wireless earbuds to home audio speakers. In this article, we’re going to focus on a few of the best Bose headphones around. Starting with a classic: the Bose QC35 II.
Most people should just go with the tried and true QC35 II
The reason we the QC35 series II is probably best for most people is because of one thing: active noise cancelling (ANC). Every since the QC15 and QC25, the Bose brand has been synonymous with long flights. That remains true with the new newest QC35 II. Though we’d say that the top spot for best active noise cancelling headphones was taken by the Sony WH-1000X M3, that doesn’t make the QC35 II any less good. You can see from the chart below that these do a swell job at cancelling outside noise.
Bose QC35 IIFull Review
But it’s not just the active noise cancelling that makes these a go-to, they’re also extremely comfortable and fairly portable as well. The plush earpads make wearing these for hours at a time a breeze, and it’s not uncommon to see people asleep on planes wearing these. You’ll get roughly 20 hours of constant playback and that’s with Bluetooth and ANC turned on. Of course, if the battery dies you can always hardwire these in assuming you still have a headphone jack. Plus, the series II of these headphones come with Google Assistant compatibility making it surprisingly easy to access it without reaching for your phone.
Want something even more portable? Check out the Soundlink on-ear wireless
If you don’t see yourself taking too many flights and you want something smaller and easier to carry then the Soundlink on-ear wireless headphones are for you. They fold down nicely to a compact size thanks to the plush padding are also comfortable whether you’re spending hours at your desk or just commuting to work. If you’re tired of the low quality ‘buds that came with your phone and are ready to take your headphone to the next level, these are a worthy upgrade. You can also just pick up another pair of inexpensive earbuds to that are actually good, but that’s up to you.
Bose Soundlink On-ear HeadphonesFull Review
You’ll get roughly 15 hours of constant playback which could easily last you a week or two of commutes (depending on your commute), and handy playback controls on the right ear cup let you switch between tracks and adjust volume without every needing to unlock your phone. The bass is definitely lacking here so if that’s what you’re after you might have to get a pair of Beats, but the heavy emphasis on mids means that vocals sound great.
If you’re headed for a run just grab the Bose Soundsport Wireless
The Soundsport Wireless has become a fairly popular option for casual use but don’t let that fool you, these were made for the gym. The first impression taking these out of the box isn’t great with large earbuds that seem all too likely to fall out of your ears, but in practice, they’re one of the better fitting wireless earbuds available thanks to the StayHear+ ear tips. Whether you’re going to be lifting in the gym or going for a run, you shouldn’t have any issues with these falling out of your ears. Of course, they’re not as stylish or sleek as something like the Jaybird X4 or Tarah earbuds, but the more subtle design still gets the job done.
Bose Soundsport wirelessFull Review
The Bose Soundsport wireless comes with a battery that will last you roughly six hours of constant playback, which isn’t great but should be more than enough for the average gym session. The control module that’s on the cable connecting the two earbuds lets you control music playback and answer/end phone calls if you can’t get to your phone. On top of that pairing to them is easy if you have an Android phone thanks to NFC compatibility, but if you’re on iOS you’ll still have to go through the usual setup in settings. Unfortunately, these don’t come with an IPX certification, but Bose still claims that they’re sweat and water-resistant thanks to a hydrophobic cloth that keeps moisture out of the internal compartments.
Want a better version of the Airpods? Check out the Bose Soundsport Free
These are the updated version of the previous Soundsport wireless, but in this case, Bose really ditched all wires. The Bose Soundsport Free earbuds are true wireless just like the Airpods but come with plenty of useful features that are missing with Apple’s Airpods. For one, a better fit. Though they’re not as… unique-looking as the Airpods are, the Bose Soundsport Free use an eartip/wingtip combination to stay in your ears during movement. Buttons along the size also let you skip between tracks and control volume without needing to access any sub-par voice assistants (Siri shade).
Bose Soundsport FreeFull Review
Like the Soundsport Wireless earlier on the list we’d be lying if we said these are gorgeous, but again, they get the job done. You’ll get an IPX4 build that protects against sweat and water along with one of the longest lasting batteries of any true wireless earbuds we tested at 4.58 hours of constant playback. They also come with a small but sturdy charging case that will give you an extra ten hours.
Looking for an alternative? Check out the Optoma NuForce Be Sport4
If you don’t want to spend too much on a pair of ‘buds you’re going to bring with you to the gym, then allow us to put the Optoma NuForce Be Sport4 earbuds on your radar. The name is a mouthful, but these ‘buds offer a lot of what you’ll get with the Soundsport Wireless, minus the price tag. You’ll get an IPX5 sweat-resistant build with plenty of ear tip options to choose from so they stay in your ears during your workout. On top of that, they have AAC support so if you’re using an iPhone you can listen to your music at higher quality.
Optoma Nuforce Be Sport4Full Review
They also two handy features that the Soundsport wireless are missing, one of which is magnetic earbud housings. It might not seem like a big deal, but when you’re not listening to music and just want to let them hang around your neck this ensures that they won’t fall off accidentally. These headphones will also last you about 10 hours, which is significantly more than the Soundsport wireless have to offer. Plus, they have a quick-charging feature that will give you two hours of playback time for only 15 minutes on the charger. Not bad for around $80.
What you should know
What is active noise cancelling and how does it work?
For commuting to school or elsewhere, noise canceling headphones are a great choice for young people’s auditory health.We said that Bose is known for their active noise cancelling, and if you don’t know what that is we’re here to help. Active noise cancelling headphones use basic physics (if there’s such a thing) to get rid of unwanted outside that could have a negative effect on your listening experience. We have a full explainer of the details here, but the gist of it is due to something called destructive interference. It works like this. if you combine a wave that has an amplitude of +1 with a wave that has an amplitude of -1, you get 0. Since sound is a wave of pressure changes, the same rule applies. Thanks to quick processing and tiny microphones, headphones like the Bose QC35 II can pick up sounds around you, determine their amplitude, and then create a sound with the opposite wave and play that back through your headphones. The pressure changes cancel each outside and as far as your ears are concerned, there’s no sound to be heard.
Of course, this process isn’t perfect. For one, it doesn’t work too well with sudden bursts of sound. So it might not protect your ears from that crying baby on your next flight, but it will do a pretty great job at cancelling out the constant, low hum of planes and buses. To get rid of some other sounds that are around you, you’ll need to rely on something else that we should talk about: isolation.
Why is isolation so important?
Believe it or not, the human body isn’t perfect. We evolved to hear the most important sounds, not all sounds. This comes into play when we listen to music. If your surroundings are perfectly quiet and under your control, then you can relax with your favorite pair of cans and focus on all of the intricacies of your favorite songs. This is the kind of scenario that makes having a listening station so fun.
Unfortunately, that isn’t how most people experience their music. If you’re not listening to your music in a car, you’re probably listening in crowded buses, gyms, loud city streets, or rumbling trains. In these less than ideal situations you’re surrounded by loud sounds. And when there are two sounds of a similar frequency, your brain will ignore the lower one and just focus on the one that’s louder. This is called auditory masking and while it sucks for music listeners today, it was great for our ancestors that had to survive in the wild and listen for predators.
So how does one prevent this? With good build materials and plush padding. Over-ears like the QC35 II have both a hard ear cup that physically blocks sounds from getting to your ears and plush earpads that help to form a seal around your ears. Earbuds like the Soundsport Free’s aren’t great at isolating you from the outside as they don’t really cover your ears or go all the way in like some in-ears, but even they do more to block outside noise than something like the Airpods. If you really want to help out your earbuds with isolation, make sure you get a proper ear tip.
Is Bluetooth really so bad?
You may have heard that Bluetooth sucks, and you should totally never buy wireless headphones. But is Bluetooth really that bad? Well, kind of. While Bluetooth quality and codec technology have improved greatly over the last few years, you still won’t get the same level of quality that’s attainable with wired headphones.
We tested a few of the major Bluetooth codecs (the technology responsible for transferring higher amounts of data between your headphones and source device, thus resulting in higher quality) and found that they don’t all live up to their claims. In our testing, even AAC isn’t all it’s cracked up to be unless you use only iOS devices. Luckily (or not so luckily), your old ears most likely won’t even be able to hear the frequencies that are lost during the transfer. So while it’s technically true that wired headphones sound better, you’ll need to be a very keen listener to pick up the differences in most cases.
Is Bluetooth dangerous?
A quick Google search brings up a plethora of scary headlines that might make you want to toss your phone out of the window and reach for the tin-foil hats, but there really isn’t anything to worry about. Bluetooth just isn’t powerful enough to damage you in any meaningful way. It all comes back to science. As you may or may not remember from your Earth science classes, visible light is only a small section of the full electromagnetic radiation. Along with visible light are other types of waves like gamma rays, x-rays, radio waves, ultraviolet waves, etc.
Some of these waves, like gamma rays and x-rays, are what we call ionizing. This means that they’re strong enough to knock electrons off of your DNA and cause some serious and permanent damage to your cells. While it’s true that Bluetooth, radio, and even Wi-Fi waves carry energy, they’re just not powerful to do this. Hence why they’re in a category called non-ionizing energy waves. So no, your headphones aren’t going to damage your DNA, but you should definitely avoid tanning beds which actually do damage.
Do I need to burn-in my headphones?
If you hang around audiophiles enough or find yourself down a rabbit hole of audio forums on the internet, one phrase you’ll hear tossed around is “burn-in”. This is the belief that your brand new headphones need to be used for a certain amount of time before they can reach their peak performance state. I’ll save you the hassle of trying this for yourself and just tell you that it’s not true. The argument for burn-in is that the components that make up your headphones need to be used in order to get rid of some of the rigidity in the drivers, thus allowing them to move more easily for better sound. Kind of like how you need to use a baseball mitt for a while before it becomes readily responsive to your hand. While it’s true that the drivers will loosen up and play more freely, the changes this has on the headphones is less than a 1dB difference. To put it bluntly, you can’t hear that. If you want to dig even deeper into this topic you can read our full explainer.
Why you should trust us
Besides doing nothing but read and write about audio between the hours of 9-5 Monday through Friday, we’re also lucky enough to use plenty of audio products. And by a lot, I mean a lot. Adam has been doing this for almost four years, while Chris has double that experience working with companies like USA Today and Reviewed.com. Lily also got plenty of audio experience thanks to her working around tons. of audio equipment in radio stations. Between the three of us and the ocasional help of our technical colleagues over at Android Authrity, we think we know a thing or two about audio.
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