Bose looks to solve the frustration of making voice calls with headphones
Bose is nearing the release of its first new pair of noise-canceling headphones in years. Shipping on June 30th, the $399.95 Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 have an all-new design on the outside, new audio drivers inside, and finally mark the company’s switch over to USB-C charging. And some would say these are overdue: last year’s Sony 1000XM3 headphones managed to best Bose’s QuietComfort 35 II headphones at noise cancellation and battery life for the same $349.99 price.
But there are valid reasons why people still plop down hundreds of dollars for the QC35 IIs at airport gadget shops even today. They can pair with two devices simultaneously — a convenience Sony still doesn’t provide — and I’d argue they remain more comfortable for long-haul flights thanks to their airy weight. As it turns out, the NCH 700s aren’t replacing the QC35s, but will be offered as a step up from them. Bose claims that noise cancellation and audio output are both improved to some degree in the new headphones.
That said, the real story is voice. Voice calls are a painful weakness of many headphones and earbuds that are otherwise exceptional. AirPods seem to be the exception to this rule since their microphone stems are pointed at your mouth. But with most others, whenever I call someone wearing them, the other person immediately knows — because the call quality is abysmal. I either end up clumsily moving the call back to my phone or just calling back later. I’m sure you’ve had similar experiences, and it’s here that Bose is determined to make the NCH 700s stand out.
The headphones feature a new microphone system that includes eight mics total. Six of them work to deliver Bose’s signature noise cancellation when you’re listening to music, podcasts, or other audio. But two new mics work jointly with two mics from that array to optimize voice pickup and better isolate you. “All four voice pickup mics — two on each ear cup — aim two beams to pick up your voice,” a company rep told me. The end result is that you sound far better to people on the other line — but also to Siri, Google Assistant, or Alexa. (These headphones support all three.) The system can track and reject the most disruptive nearby noises around you like a bus on the street, a passing train, or a blender in another room. And it can adapt if you move or if the annoying sound source does.
Bose demonstrated its voice quality advancements by calling an on-camera employee across the street at Starbucks. To start, he wore the QC35s, and background noise was basically overwhelming whenever he spoke to us through the headphones. But then he swapped to the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, and everything — the music Starbucks was playing, nearby talkers, and coffee grinders — faded away. When the Bose employee spoke, you could faintly still hear background music, but his voice came through far clearer and was easy to understand.
Then we saw a demo involving Apple’s iOS voice dictation. The QC35s couldn’t distinguish between the person wearing them and nearby talkers, leading to a garbled, nonsensical mess of a transcript. But the NCH 700s, though not perfect, came far closer to nailing everything that was said without picking up a loud side talker. The difference was striking and should lead to significantly fewer voice command errors. Well, they won’t be your fault, at least. Siri will always be Siri.
In terms of their appearance, the NCH 700s are a step away from the QC35 design language and much more elegant. The headband runs down through the middle of each ear cup. There are no plainly visible screws or joints on these headphones, and the reason for the latter is that they don’t fold up. As a result, they come with a carrying case larger than the QC35s. (That’s an iPhone XS Max below, if you’re looking for a size reference.) Some might be disappointed by the lack of compactness, but others will appreciate the more straightforward method of stowing the NCH 700s away. Also, Bose is at least taking advantage of the added room with a handy cable compartment that magnetically latches shut.
The entire headband is made from stainless steel (with plenty of cushioning), so that should rule out any risk of it snapping or breaking somehow. The ear cups are plastic, however, and the pads inside are Bose’s proprietary memory foam material, with a cleaner look here than on the QC35s. As with those headphones, these ear pads are fully replaceable. Comfort-wise, the NCH 700s are a bit heavier on your head than the QC35s, but they still felt quite nice. Obviously we’ll need more time to better compare them against Sony and other models.
Another new aspect of the NCH 700s is that you can select from 11 different levels of noise cancellation — likely a response to Microsoft’s Surface Headphones. Even at the lowest setting, noise cancellation is never fully switched off. Instead, Bose pipes in surrounding audio to achieve what it calls “full transparency.” The intended effect is for it to sound basically identical to if you weren’t wearing headphones at all. I wouldn’t say it’s quite at that level, but the ambient mode definitely sounds more realistic than the very digital-sounding audio that some other headphones and earbuds mix in when you need a sense of awareness.
Unfortunately, Bose hasn’t come up with anything that beats Sony’s clever method of temporarily amplifying your surroundings when needed, which is to cover one of the ear cups with your hand. Once your hand pulls away, the music returns to normal and noise cancellation ramps back up. Bose has a physical button that you can press twice to pause your music and briefly enable Conversation Mode. After you’ve handled whatever needed your attention, you can press any button on the headphones to switch noise cancellation back on and resume playback. It’s simple enough, but not quite as easy as Sony’s approach.
Bose isn’t quantifying exactly how much better the noise isolation is in the 700s compared to the QC35s, only telling me that the improvements are “subtle” and something you’ll notice in certain environments and not others. The company is by no means trying to position this as some generational leap. But reviewers found that Sony’s 1000XM3s were slightly better than the QC35s at drowning out surrounding noise, so if Bose is saying that these headphones are “slightly better” as well, it might be enough to even things up.
Sound quality is another area where Bose is setting modest expectations, saying the NCH 700s deliver improved audio performance compared to the QC35 IIs. The headphones use completely new drivers and “a brand-new acoustic design,” according to Bose. To my ears, they sounded familiar and similar to the QC35 IIs. More time is needed for a review on their overall sound quality, but I don’t think existing Bose customers will be let down.
There are three physical buttons on the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. One adjusts between three levels of noise cancellation. (By default, this toggles between maximum, medium, and full transparency, but you can choose your own preferred three levels in the Bose app.) Another activates your preferred voice assistant (and can also mute your line during calls). And the last is your standard Bluetooth pairing button. Again, these can be paired with two devices simultaneously, so if you’re watching a movie on your laptop and a call comes in, you’re covered. Bose offers hands-free support for Alexa voice commands, but using either Google Assistant or Siri will require a press of the dedicated button.
Notice that I didn’t mention any physical music controls — and that’s because Bose has ditched those buttons in favor of gestures. The front half of the right ear cup can recognize your taps and swipes. Here’s a selection of some:
Touch controls on headphones seem to be a divisive thing. When they’re done well and work consistently, I don’t mind them. But I was extremely frustrated by the cold-weather issues exhibited by Sony’s 1000XM3s. Bose is aware of the troubles Sony had and reminded me that the company is based in Boston. The 700s were tested in all sorts of climate conditions, so hopefully you won’t get any false inputs or have your music randomly go on the fritz.
Battery life on the NCH 700s is rated at 20 hours. A 15-minute charge can get you up to two hours of playback in a pinch; Bose says they take around two and a half hours to fully top off. You can tap and hold the touch surface to hear an estimate on battery life (high, low, etc.) and Bose actually gives you a more helpful time estimate on remaining power in its Bose Music app. Additional features, including a customizable EQ and the option to play white noise without any music, will come to the NCH 700s in future firmware updates. Bose must be feeling the heat from companies like Jabra, which cram software features into their earbud companion apps.
I expect the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 will be another hit for Bose. At only $50 more than the QC35s, you’ve got to wonder who will opt for the older pair. Bose seems to think that many people still might, which is why it plans to sell both headphones — at least for now. The company says it will monitor how consumers respond, and you’ve got to keep in mind that the QC35 IIs are already two years old.
I should mention that the new headphones also feature Bose AR, the company’s audio-based augmented reality platform that debuted on the $199 Frames sunglasses. Hearing real-time directions from your headphones when walking around a city does sound useful, but Bose AR is still so new and unproven that it’s not really worth factoring into your purchase or preorder decision.
Bose also had its upcoming Earbuds 500 on display in New York this week. Unfortunately, the demo units were completely nonfunctional, so it’s clear the company is still working away on these, which will eventually replace the SoundSport Free earbuds later in the year. Right now, I can already tell you two things: the case is significantly smaller, and the Earbuds 500 don’t jut out of your ears as far as the SoundSport Frees did. Those are both improvements that Bose needed to make, and the company has done so. (I still think the SoundSport Free case looks more futuristic and cool, but portability is always going to win out over aesthetics.) A noise-canceling set of true wireless earbuds will follow both of these products at some point in 2020.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge