Take a look around any airport lounge in the world and you will immediately see a set of Bose noise-cancelling headphones. It's because they're iconic, and they're good. With the new QuietComfort 25, the first refresh in five years, everything gets just a little bit better, too.
Bose has made steady but significant improvements since 2000, when the company's first noise-cancelling cans hit the market. The original QC1s only had a single microphone listening for noise in each ear cup, and required an external pack to hold batteries and electronics. By the time the QC15s came out in 2009, everything was onboard, and the noise-cancelling tech had evolved: the headphones listened to the noise outside the ear cups, too, and blocked it from ever reaching your 'drums.
Today, the QC15s are a staple because they've got a universally appealing sound, while being so comfortable that you can wear them for an entire eight-hour flight without feeling pain. Sure, there are plenty of other good options, but people keep turning to them for a reason. Indeed, though they didn't win my Battlemodo of noise-cancelling headphones a few years ago, I've actually changed my mind in the years since. The headphones are so reliably good that I'd recommend them to anyone.
Given the success of this previous model, then, it's not surprising that the new QC25s are a pretty conservative play and more of a refinement than an overhau of the successful QC15. Bose has tweaked the formula and freshened up the design, but for the most part the cans remain the same pair that set the standard years ago.
QC25 (left) next to the old QC15 (right).
The QC25's design doesn't stray too far afield. Primarily, the headband now collapses at hinges above each ear cup for more compact storage, where they previously just folded flat. The new headband is also a smooth arc whereas before there was a subtle bend that helped reduce discomfort of having a pair of cans clamped on to your head.
The straighter line is more attractive, and thankfully Bose hasn't skimped on comfort, either – you can still wear these for hours and hours. The luxurious puffy leather pad at the crest of the headband has been replaced with a slimmer synthetic cushion, but it's still plenty cozy.
The plastic construction is lightweight and sturdy – you can give the headband a nice twist and it won't snap, and the hinge folds smoothly without feeling creaky or flimsy. The frame isn't indestructible like V-Moda's millispec cans, but if you're careful, they should hold up.
The new straighter arc and subtler cushioning is in line with the more contemporary, slim and minimal aesthetic of the QC25s. The cups have ditched the ancillary design lines, and opted for a simple matte finish with a silver logo. While the UK site only lists the standard black and white models, in the US you can spend an additional $100 on a completely customised model, painting nine different parts of the headphones in the colours of your choice. It looks like straight up ColorWare, which I don't find particularly tasteful, but it means there are thousands of different colour combinations if you want to express yourself and don't mind the import tax.
In black, though, the headphones are a handsome set that I'd be happy to wear anywhere. In the past, I've avoided Bose products much of the time because I just think the company's trademark surgical grey is old and stodgy looking, a bit like it was pulled from a Windows 3.0 application window. Though the QC25s aren't a huge departure from the old look, they're a positive step in the right direction.
The leather earpads are plush and contribute considerably to the headphones' comfort. Still, in the few weeks I tested them, the cushions popped off two times, which shouldn't ever happen unintentionally. It's not just annoying: You run the risk of losing a cup cushion; replacements aren't yet available in the UK, but set you back $40 in the US. I never had this problem with the QC15s, and neither did a few people I asked. Very odd.
On a positive note, I quite like that the cloth protecting the drivers inside the earcups is now labeled "L" and "R", so you know quickly which way to put the cans on.
Finally, the QC25s ditch the proprietary cable Bose used on the QC15s for a simple 3.5mm-2.5mm cable you can buy from absolutely anyone.
I was able to grab the cable out of one of my other headphones and use it with the QC25s, no problem. That could come in handy someday.
To use the QC25s, you simply take them out of the box, plug them into a source of your choice, press play and let the good times roll. That's actually a pretty big deal: for the very first time, Bose's noise-cancelling headphones work without batteries. Sure, the QC25s don't actually cancel noise that way, and they don't sound particularly amazing, but when your QC15s were dead they didn't work at all. Imagine getting on a plane and realising your battery is dead. You're just screwed. No music.
And when you do have electricity handy, a single AAA battery powers the headphones' noise-cancelling guts for more than 30 hours. At the office, I was able to use them for an entire week on a single battery – if I remembered to turn them off when I wasn't using them.
Still, using replaceable battery power in an era where almost every other gadget you own charges by USB feels a bit regressive. More so when you look to the future. In a few years it might be the only thing you own in the world that takes old alkaline cells. But "if it ain't broke, don't fix it", I suppose, given that you can still buy AAA batteries on practically every street corner in the world.
The noise-cancellation on the headphones is really excellent, as it was with the QC15s. The cans put you in a total fog of unawareness to the world around you. I should note that the interior guts of the headphones have been completely overhauled so that all of the digital circuitry is on a single proprietary chip, as opposed to lots of different components. According to Bose, the new guts make the noise-cancelling work far more consistently. For me, the bottom line is that it worked before and it still works now. Standing on a train platform and listening to tunes, you can't hear the sound of a roaring carriages at all.
As with the QC15s, the noise-cancellation is impressive because it has so little effect on your music. Whereas the sound quality of headphones can be adversely affected by the noise-cancelling electronics, Bose manages to make a solid sounding set of cans. The QC25s have a typically clear, balanced, somewhat sterile resonance that a lot of people find appealing, although some may prefer a slightly warmer pair.
Finally, a note on newfangled features like Bluetooth and apps. The world of headphones has changed considerably over the last couple of years, with companies such as Samsung and Parrot increasingly adding connectivity and connected features to their noise-cancelling cans. The thinking seems to be that if you've got power, there's no reason not to juice a larger feature set – but Bose seems completely uninterested in them.
Frankly, most airlines try to stop you using Bluetooth on planes, and it doesn't bother me to use a cable with my headphones because I find Bluetooth too unreliable and spotty to really be worth it. However, it's this that enables features like on-the-fly sound customisation with the app. I just don't know that I've heard anything compelling enough to make it worth my while yet.
Great noise cancelling. Super comfortable.
Not designed to travel without their case. The earpads fall off far too easily.
Should I buy it
If you need noise-cancelling headphones, the Bose QC25 cans are a safe bet. I'm not always fond of the wisdom of crowds when it comes to gadgets, but Bose has nailed this product, and if you want something comfortable that sounds good, it's OK to follow the herd here. At £269.95, the price tag is rather predictably hefty when compared to the $300 they cost in the US, but locally they're cheaper than a lot of the competition.
The QC25s are not the only option, of course, and I'm personally very fond of the Audio-Technica QuietPoint line. What's more, I'm looking forward to hearing new products like the newly announced Parrot Zik 2, which incorporate customisable digital signal processing, giving you more control over the tuning of the headphones.
As for whether you should upgrade: what shape are your old QCs in? The only really groundbreaking new feature of the QC25 is the ability to work without batteries. If the price is right for you, you might be better off with the QC15 on sale – or maybe wait a year and see how the headphone industry evolves.
What we're looking at here is awesome, but it's straight out of 2009.