A while back Chris Thomas and I pitted two of the most popular pairs of noise cancelling headphones against each other. They were the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose QC35 II. I’d recommend going back to read the article but if you don’t feel like it, then spoiler alert: the Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones won that battle. Now there’s a new kid on the block in the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 which are another great pair of headphones—but can they reclaim the crown from Sony?

Editor’s note: This post was updated on December 8, 2020, to address an FAQ about the Apple AirPods Max. 

Which have better build quality?

The Sony WH-1000XM3 sitting on a stone wall.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 is easily one of the best Bluetooth headphones you can buy in 2020.

Neither of these headphones are what we’d call “cheap,” and the build quality is a testament to that fact. If you’re spending the cash on these, it’s fair to want premium materials, and thankfully you get that here. Both pairs of headphones have a lightweight-yet-sturdy plastic construction that keeps them resting comfortably on your head without getting painful. That said, the padding on each of these is slightly different. While the padding on the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 is comfortable, it’s a little more stiff than what you’ll find on the Sony WH-1000XM3—which has a softer padding. The Bose headphones also have a headband that’s made of a lightweight metal, so you don’t have to worry about them snapping they find themselves at the bottom of a packed backpack or briefcase.

Neither the Shure Aonic 50 nor the Bose Headphones 700 (pictured, black) have folding hinges.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 use touch controls and have three buttons in total, one of which is for pairing, another is for controlling the level of ANC. and a third that can activate the Google Assistant.

Both pairs of headphones rely on touch sensitive controls on the side of the earcups for playback, and they both work fine. Swiping adjusts volume and skips between tracks and tapping pauses playback regardless of which pair of headphones you decide to go with. The biggest differences that you’re going to find in terms of build quality are the folding hinges and the overall design. The Sony WH-1000XM3 have hinges on the headband that lets you fold them down if you need to make them smaller to toss in your bag or something similar. While the older Bose QC35 II also do this, the newer Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 lose that ability. Thankfully, the earcups do swivel 90 degrees to lie flat, but if you were hoping for a pair of headphones to fold down for portability, then you’ll have to go with the Sony. Frequent travelers or commuters will know exactly how important that is when you’re trying to save space.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 on black surface with globe in the background.

Bose redesigned its flagship headset from the ground up in order to make it more appealing to the modern listener.

It’s not all bad news for the Bose headphones though, because as I stated the my full review I think these are just objectively gorgeous. The minimal design and sleek look make them something I’d want to wear on my head all the time. I don’t know if “they look so good” is enough of a reason to encourage someone to spend money on headphones.

While the differences are minute, they’re stark and should help direct you to which pair is better for you. If you value saving space then the Sony WH-1000XM3 are the way to go here, but if that’s not a problem for you and you just want a beautiful design with a sturdy metal headband then obviously the Bose is better. I can’t choose your values for you, but having used both I prefer the overall build and design of the Bose headphones, even if I do wish that they had folding hinges.

Winner: Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700

Does Bose or Sony have better active noise cancelling?

We can sit here all day discussing the beauty of build materials and the design of these headphones, but as anyone who is familiar with Greek art knows that’s a philosophical pursuit that would never end. Instead, let’s bring in some data. The objective testing that we do here at SoundGuys helps us keep opinions out of things that can be spoken about objectively, like noise cancelling.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 with the ear pads facing up on a mossy rock.

The earpads are ever-so-slightly thicker, but Sony knows when not to mess with a good thing.

First, let’s go over a bit of how you should be reading these graphs. Along the x-axis are the frequencies between 20 – 20,000Hz. Those numbers should look familiar, because that is the range of sounds that humans can hear. So even if you had the world’s best noise cancelling headphones that can get rid of all sounds in the 30kHz range it wouldn’t matter because it’s safe to assume that if you’re reading this you’re a human, and not a bat or some kind of dolphin. The y-axis is in dB and while you might typically associate higher peaks with more, it’s worth remembering that we’re talking about noise cancelling here. So the higher numbers equate to more noise that gets cancelled. In short, the higher the peaks on the graphs, the less outside noise you hear.

As should be expected from a company with as much experience in noise cancelling as Bose, the new Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 came to compete. They do a great job at attenuating ambient sounds anywhere between around 1100Hz – 18,000Hz. Unfortunately for Bose the Sony headphones are just as capable in this area. So let’s look even lower in the frequency range. If you’ve ever traveled in an airplane, taken a bus, or even stood next to an air conditioner then you’re likely familiar with sounds that are under 1000Hz. This is where you’ll find those low droning sounds of engines and fans that can be really disruptive when you’re trying to listen to music.

An attenuation chart for the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 depicting the ANC performance overlaid atop the passive isolation performance; ANC is good, but minimally affects sub-bass frequencies.

Low-midrange sounds are quieted to sound half as loud when ANC is enabled compared to when it’s disabled.

Here again the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 came to play, with a respectable level of noise cancellation in the ranges of 100Hz – 1000Hz. This means that sounds in this range will be reduced by about half. Plus, they also have different levels of noise cancelling, so you can control how strong you want the ANC to be. You can make them go at full power, or go in the opposite direction and use the microphones to hear what’s going on around you just like the transparency mode on the Sony WH-1000XM3. Not bad at all.

A chart of the Sony WH-1000XM3 noise cancelling and passive isolation performance.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 offer excellent noise cancellation, as well as high-end isolation.

Still, if you look at the Sony WH-1000XM3 graph you’ll see that these are significantly better in this range. Those annoying low droning sounds you’ll come across while traveling or commuting will be reduced to about a quarter as loud, which just beats out the Bose headphones. While the Bose headphones have some seriously great active noise cancelling, the Sony WH-1000XM3 still retain the crown here.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3

Which pair of headphones has the better microphone?

I’m not going to go over destructive interference and wave phases like I wrote about in our how noise cancelling works article, but one thing that consumer headphones need to work are good microphones. Thankfully, the microphones on both the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and the Sony WH-1000XM3 are top-notch and you won’t have any serious problems with either of them. That said, one is still better than the other here.

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 on a wooden bench with the focus on the Bose logo.

The headphones have a minimal branding with just the small Bose logo on the side.

First, let’s start with the frequencies along the x-axis again. When it comes to microphones in your headphones, these aren’t designed to pick up minute far off sounds. These are made to pick up the voice of the human talking into them and (hopefully) little else. The important notes in the human voice range max out at around 3000Hz.

That’s not to say that the frequencies above that aren’t important, but you don’t need them to hear (and hear fairly clearly) what someone is saying which is why our graphs focus on those particular frequencies. On the y-axis is the actual response, or how loud a particular response is reproduced. In a perfect scenario, every frequency will be perfectly picked up by the microphone and equally loud, resulting in a straight horizontal line at 0dB SPL. As we all know though, the world isn’t perfect and the graphs look a little more bumpy.

Either way you're getting a pair of headphones where your microphone is more than good enough for phone calls.

If a particular note falls below that 0dB SPL line, that means that the microphone picked up that note a little lower than you’d expect it to. On the flipside, if a note is above 0dB SPL it means that the note was picked up slightly louder. Some manufacturers tweak their hardware to pick up some notes better than others depending on what their engineers deem important. As both Sony and Bose have world-class sound engineers, it’s safe to say that either way you’re getting a pair of headphones where your microphone is more than good enough for phone calls and the like. Still, that doesn’t mean we can’t compare the two.

The frequency response for the microphone shows a sharp drop off under 200Hz.

The Bose microphone does a good job with the main parts of voices, but anyone with a deep voice will be slightly cut off as frequencies less than 200Hz won’t be nearly as loud.

Looking at the graph for the microphone of the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 you’ll see that they do a good job of hovering around 0 dB SPL for the most part with the exception of a sharp drop off under about 200Hz. Practically, this means that if you have a lower voice like our Executive Editor Chris Thomas does, then some of deeper notes in your voice won’t come across as loud making you sound a little higher. This is done to combat what’s called the “proximity effect,” which you’ve heard before. Ever hear someone with a really boomy voice on a podcast or radio program? That’s what we’re talking about here. This headset won’t subject anyone on a call with you to this.

A frequency response chart for the Sony WH-1000XM3's microphone performance in the voice range.

It’s too bad the headphones overuse dynamic compression to pick up quiet sounds, because otherwise the microphone on the Sone WH-1000XM3 is stellar.

Now moving to the Sony WH-1000XM3 graph you’ll see a fairly flat line that doesn’t fluctuate much away from the ideal of 0 dB SPL. This means that the microphone should pick up your voice more or less as it is without changing it too much. It’s pretty easy to see that if Sony wins here, but if you still want to hear it for yourself make sure to listen to both demos below. Unfortunately, this microphone doesn’t correct for the proximity effect mentioned earlier, so if you have a lower voice, anyone on a phone call with you may not have a great time.

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 mic demo:

Sony WH-1000XM3 mic demo:

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As is the case with anything that can receive updates the microphone quality and ANC strength can potentially change in the future, so these demos are as the headphones are in mid-2020.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3

If you care about battery life, go with the Sony WH-1000XM3

A photo showing the microphone array of the Bose Noise Canceling Headphones 700.

The microphone array (shown here as the holes in the side) records the noise around you to calculate how to cancel it

This section is a little easier to gauge the winner since all you have to do is see how long the headphones last. To test this, we leave the headphones playing music at a constant output of 75dB with active noise cancelling turned on until they die out and then compare how long each one lasted. In our testing we found that the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 lasted 21 hours and 25 minutes while the Sony WH-1000XM3 lasted 24 hours. Seeing as both headphones have identical USB-C inputs for charging, Sony comes out on top here again.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3

Which pair of headphones sound better?

There’s a lot that goes into sound quality and while many people will argue that sound is subjective, but that’s not entirely true. Sure, how you perceive sound and what you consider pleasurable is subjective, but sound itself is nothing but physics.  That means it can be measured. Now to be fair, we don’t have the most sensitive testing equipment in the world so don’t take these graphs as law. Our testing is good enough to give you a good estimation of how a pair of headphones should sound. Your results will vary, because your ears aren’t those of a strange hearing robot in a sound booth like ours. The best advice we can give you is to try both pairs of headphones out if you can and see which one sounds better to you.

That said, there are some characteristics of both headphones that we can point which may point you in the right direction. Starting with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, you can see that these do a really good job at reproducing sounds across the frequency range, though there is a slight bump in the lower frequencies (pink) that give lower notes a bit of extra emphasis.

That said, if you like bass then you’re probably better off with the Sony headphones since they give even more emphasis to lower notes. Not to say that they’re overbearing but lower notes do sound a little louder on the Sony headphones. On the flipside, the Bose headphones give a good amount of emphasis to frequencies in the mids so instrumentation will sound a little louder on these.

Of course, this all comes with the caveat that you can change the sound of either of these headphones if you use the companion apps for either. Both the Bose Music and Sony Headphones Connect apps have rudimentary equalizers, so you can play around with how your headphones sound a bit to match your needs.

SBC aptX aptX HD AAC LDAC bluetooth codecs profile audio

Represented is the max transfer rate (kbps) of each respective Bluetooth codec (greater is better). Each waveform depicts a transfer rate of 100 kbps.

That’s not the only aspect of these headphones that you should be concerned about either. Another important feature with Bluetooth headphones that you should be aware of is are Bluetooth codecs. These are like languages that Bluetooth products “speak” in order to transfer data wirelessly. The more data that can get transferred means that the sound can be better. To take advantage of a codec both your source (like your smartphone) and the headphones need to be compatible with the same Bluetooth codec. If they’re not, then both will default to SBC—which is fine, but not the best.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 on the other hand feature basically all of the important Bluetooth codecs

The Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 use AAC here which is good enough, but still not the best as it doesn’t have the highest transfer data rate. The Sony WH-1000XM3 on the other hand feature basically all of the important Bluetooth codecs including AAC, aptX, aptX HD, and LDAC which is Sony’s proprietary high-res codec. Throw in the fact that the Sony headphones have a standard 3.5mm jack instead of a 2.5mm jack like the Bose headphones do, and it’s pretty clear that Sony has the higher performance ceiling.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3

Should you buy the Bose Noise Cancelling headphones 700 or the Sony WH-1000XM3?

For those keeping score, the Sony WH-1000XM3 are still better than the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 in almost every way that counts. Not to mention that while the Sony WH-1000XM3 aren’t cheap at around $280 USD, they’re still cheaper than the Bose headphones at $339 USD—especially when the WH-1000XM3 is on deep discount after the release of their successor: the Sony WH-1000XM4. Whichever way you go, you’ll get amazing active noise cancelling, great sound, premium build materials, intuitive controls, and decent microphones for your phone calls. These are both class-leading products and you’ll likely be more than happy owning either one. However, we tend to believe that the Sony WH-1000XM3 represents the better value.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do these compare to the new Apple AirPods Max?

The new Apple AirPods Max have memory foam ear pads and a nice design if we're not counting the strange-looking carrying case, though the headphones are a bit bulkier than the Bose and Sony competitors. These active noise cancelling headphones are direct competitors to both the Sony and Bose headphones, but since we haven't had the chance to run an objective ANC test on them yet, we can't say whether they perform better or worse. The headphones also have 40mm dynamic drivers which reportedly produce amplified bass and treble notes, but once again, we haven't had a chance to objectively test the frequency response yet. We do know that they have Apple's proprietary H1 chip, making for easy pairing and battery optimization with iPhones, and they also have Spatial Audio, which mimics surround sound. They're retailing for $549 starting on December 15, 2020.