If you’re in the market for active noise canceling (ANC) headphones, the best noise cancelling headphones seem to be the Sony WH-1000XM3 and the Bose QC35 II. But how do you decide which one is right for you? Thankfully, we don’t leave things up to taste here, we can break it down for you.

Editor’s note: this comparison was updated on April 22nd, 2020 with a better explanation of microphone results.

Hardware

Bluetooth headphones live and die based on their connection quality, and it’s tough to get a good sense of what you’re getting into unless you read in-depth reviews. However, when it comes to the Bose QC35 II and the Sony WH-1000XM3, you’re talking about two top-of-the-line ANC headphones. You’re not going to “pick wrong” here. However, there are a few differences you should be aware of.

 Bluetooth CodecsWired connectionControlsWeightCharge port
Sony WH-1000X M3AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, LDACYesTouch gestures255gUSB-C
Bose QC35 IISBC, AACYesPhysical buttons234gmicroUSB

As you can see, the Bose QC35 II are showing their age a bit, as they offer only microUSB charging, whereas the Sony WH-1000XM3 are equipped with a USB-C port. Additionally, the QC35 II falls behind in Bluetooth codec support, only offering SBC and AAC connectivity.

Both headphones have great controls built-in, but they have different philosophies behind them. The Bose QC35 II gives users control with physical buttons and a slider, where the Sony WH-1000XM3 offers controls through its touchpad on the right ear cup. A series of gestures allow you to change tracks, volume, play/pause, access your voice assistant, or pipe in outside sound so you can hold a conversation without taking the headphones off.

The Google Assistant button is located on the earcup.

Headphones still have plush padding

Both batteries last around 24 hours with a playback volume of 75dB, so there’s no clear winner here outside of the specifications listed above.

Noise canceling

The Bose QuietComfort 35 II’s voice assistant command works with both Android iOS.

Bose has long been the gold standard when it comes to ANC, but as time moves on, more and more companies have made digital ANC work in their favor. Sony is one of those companies.

A chart showing the active noise canceling performance of the Bose QC35 II.

It may not block out a lot of noise, but the Bose QC35 II does a good job in the low end (the most important frequencies.

The QC35 II offers an impressive amount of attenuation across the board, making them great for flights and subway rides, but Sony wins this head-to-head, as it attenuates far more noise.

A chart detailing the noise canceling performance of the Sony WH-1000XM3.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 make the world melt away around you.

See how much more of that line reaches into the green and blue? The Sony WH-1000XM3 is much better at canceling noise above 100Hz than the Bose is. However, because the Bose QC35 II can block out more sub-100Hz noise, it does a better job at killing unwanted car engines and low rumbles.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3.

Sound quality

A photo of a man wearing Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones.

The Sony WH-1000XM3’s exterior boasts a soft-touch material.

This one’s another close result, but the results are more a matter of taste than anything else.

A chart detailing the frequency response of the Bose QC35 II.

The Bose QC35 II have a very neutral frequency response, which is great for tinkerers.

Out of the box, the Bose QC35 II have an excellent frequency response (note emphasis) that doesn’t really make any one range of notes stand out over others. This is excellent for equalizing your music if you wish. However, the headphones only support SBC and AAC. Higher-bitrate listening isn’t a possibility on these headphones, so you may notice some compression artifacts in louder music.

A chart showing the frequency response of the Sony WH-1000X M3.

The Sony WH-1000XM3 on the other hand, have a note emphasis that boosts bass a decent amount, but doesn’t get too crazy with it. The headphones offer a response that’s far more consumer-friendly, and it still can be equalized in the app. But the big thing here is that the WH-1000XM3 supports aptX, aptXHD, and LDAC Bluetooth codecs, meaning it will be able to support higher-quality music streaming. That’s a big advantage over Bose’s QC35 II.

Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3.

Microphone quality

There’s a clear winner here, and it’s the Sony WH-1000XM3. On the following charts, the closer to 0 the line is, the better the result. You also probably aren’t recording anything but your own voice with these headphones, so I’ve limited the scale to the voice band. For those keeping score at home, the voice band is the range of frequencies that a human voice can occupy, at maximum 50-4,000Hz.

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.

As you can see, the Sony WH-1000XM3 doesn’t really alter your voice in any way, nor does it have trouble picking it up. This is an excellent microphone for voice quality. Just be aware, though, that it tends to pick up everything around you as well.

A chart showing the microphone performance of the Bose QC35 II in the voice band.

The Bose QC35 II handles the voice band very well, but if you have a deep voice you could find some issues with your call quality.

The Bose QC35 II, on the other hand, attenuates sounds under 200Hz to combat what’s called the proximity effect. Ever listen to a podcast where you can tell the speaker is too close to the mic? That’s the thing.

While it has the benefit of killing noise in your recordings, it also makes low-pitched voices half to one-quarter as loud in voice calls because the Bose QC35 II’s microphone doesn’t emphasize those notes at the same level. While that might not sound like a professional recording at all, this is actually a good response for phone calls and voice chats, as the sounds we need to hear for speech intelligibility will be louder in comparison.

Winner: Bose QuietComfort 35 II.

Should you buy the Sony WH-1000XM3 or the Bose QC35 II?

Both are exceptional headphones, but there are tradeoffs on either. However, in most respects: the Sony WH-1000XM3 (the best headphones Sony has to offer) is the runaway winner here. Not only does it perform better than the Bose QC35 II, but it also has more up-to-date hardware and costs a full dollar less than the Bose. Believe us, it’s all about that dollar.

Of course, sales happen, and maybe the shortcomings of the Bose QC35 II don’t seem as bad because they fit you better—that’s fine! Pick up the headphones you like better—even if it’s just because you like Bose headphones or Sony headphones in principle. However, if you’re looking for longevity, future-proofing, and sound quality: the Sony’s the easy winner here.

Frequently Asked Questions

The Sony WH1000XM3 has been out for well over a year. Where is the newer (or improved) model ?

Headphones tend to have a longer shelf life than smartphones do, so updates to existing lines tend to happen at longer intervals. For example, the WH-1000XM3 was a bit of a surprise when it released only a year after the Sony WH-1000XM2, mostly because it was so similar to the old model (outside of the USB-C connector). It's more usual to see update schedules around 2-4 years, if ever.

Is the Sony or Bose headset for cancelling out the sound of people talking, lawn mowers, and air conditioners?

Between the Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QuietComfort 35 II, the Sony headset is your better pick for noise cancelling performance. The upcoming Sony WH-1000XM4 should introduce even more effective ANC, but we've yet to receive any official word on the release date. In the meantime, if you want the best noise cancelling you can get, get the Shure Aonic 50.