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Review: Bose QuietComfort QC3 & QC15 noise-cancelling headphones

By John Walton     Filed under: travel tech, Bose, Bose QuietComfort 15, noise cancelling headphones, Bose QuietComfort 3, QC3, QC15

Noise-cancelling headphones are incredibly popular among business travellers, and the Bose QuietComfort series is a favourite with frequent flyers.

The QuietComfort headset line-up currently includes the $499 Bose QC15 and the $599 Bose QC3. So the first question that springs to mind is "Which Bose to buy?". Are the QC3s worth that extra $100?

As a music lover and cathedral chorister who has trouble fitting his entire music collection into an iPod, I was keen to compare both headphones in two typical 'business travel' environments of being in the air and in a hotel room.

First impressions

The Bose QC3 features a compact design which sits on top of the ear instead of fully enclosing the ear.

It runs off a rechargeable battery which Bose rates as being good for 20 hours -- after about ten hours of use, the first one showed no sign of running out.

(A power light on the side of the headphones starts to flash when you have four hours of juice left, although of course you won't see that light if you're wearing the headphones).

The Bose QC15 is an update of the now-discontinued QC2 model. It sits around the ear and is powered by a single AAA battery.

That's a convenience factor for travellers because AAA batteries are readily available at the airport and just about everywhere else. You don't want to be caught out mid-flight with your QC3s and a dead battery.

Both headphones come with a protective carrying case, which also has some little cards that Bose helpfully suggests you hand out to people asking you about your noise-cancelling headphones -- probably while mouthing "I'm sorry, I can't hear what you're saying because these headphones are noise cancelling, have this little promotional card instead." 

The QC3 case is slightly smaller than the QC15, and there's a pocket in the back in which you could stow your iPod.

Oddly, the battery charger for the QC3s won't fit inside the carry case when you've attached one of the half-dozen worldwide plug attachments -- you need to disassemble it first.

The QC15 case is slightly larger, although there are fewer bits and pieces to fall out and get lost.

Verdict: the convenience of running off a readily-available AAA battery and the everything-fits-in-the-case design gives the QC15s a slight edge, but there's not much in it.

On the ears

The smaller QC3 headphones sit over rather than around your ears, with squashy pads (which Bose says are made of 'memory foam') on the cartilage around the ear canal, forming a padded seal.

The larger QC15 set is a more traditional design (the same exterior package as the older QC2, if you're familiar with those, though with entirely new innards). They cup your ears and are a little bit lighter.

I found the QC3 design markedly more comfortable for an evening's listening, principally because my ears didn't get as hot as they did with the QC15. 

Verdict: a slight advantage to the QC3.

In the air

I tested both Bose QuietComfort headphones on the inaugural flight of Virgin Australia's Airbus A330 between Sydney and Perth.

It's true that larger and more modern aircraft -- especially Airbus' A380 superjumbo -- are quieter in the air, and everyone expects this trend to continue with the Boeing 787 and Airbus A350. 

But in the meantime, travellers will have to deal with older planes like the A330, which still have a fair bit of cabin noise. 

The QC15s proved slightly better at deadening sound than the QC3, but not significantly so, but for quality reproduction of music the QC3 came out well ahead, especially in loud sections.

In a plane you often need to wind the volume up a little extra, and while the QC15 had some fairly problematic distortion during the loudest sections of several tracks, there was none on the QC3.

Intrigued, I tested the QC3 set with several other tracks with loud passages, and the pattern was repeated: excellent sound reproduction. 

Verdict: in the air, a clear win for the QC3.

On the ground

In a central Sydney hotel room, with relatively noisy air-conditioning, traffic rumble outside, and some noise coming from the corridor, I put both sets through their paces with the test playlist.

The QC15 set dampened exterior noise a bit better -- particularly the clicking noise from typing on my MacBook Pro's keyboard while using the headphones, which was noticeably more audible using the QC3. I'd imagine a similar performance in office environments with keyboards. A win for the QC15 there if that's the sort of environment where you'll be using the headphones.

Both sets, when switched on, produced that odd, pressurised sensation that I always get with noise-cancelling headphones.

The feeling was  greater with the QC15 than with the QC3, so that's a mark for the QC3 over the QC15.

The QC3 once again demonstrated better dynamic range across certain types of music. Without changing any of the laptop settings, the sound from the QC3 set was richer, and there was a greater range of even the smallest sounds.

The clacking of keys from the wind instruments in the Artaxerxes tracks, or the shuffling of music on stands in the Fascinating Aida live recordings, were definitely more noticeable using the QC3 headphones.

A purer tone was particularly clear and more "present" in the choral music. The QC15 also suffered from some noticeable crackling and distortion in loud parts with a great vocal pitch difference (when sopranos were shrieking and basses rumbling, in other words). 

Verdict: a fairly strong plus in the QC3 column on the ground.

Conclusion

The QC3 came out a clear winner, despite my initial thoughts that the around-the-ear form of the QC15 would be better. If you're considering dropping $500 on a pair of headphones, I'd definitely recommend finding the extra $100 for the QC3. 

It's an even easier choice if you happen to be in the US, where the strong Aussie dollar and cheaper in-store prices make the QC3 a relative bargain at US$349, although the international power adaptor and second rechargeable battery aren't included in US-market sets.

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About John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

 

Have something to say? Post a comment now!

1 on 3/6/11 by jokiin

Bose seem to regularly cop a hiding from audio purists, I suspect those same people don't fly often, I have the QC2's and have used them for the last five or so years, probably the best travel accessory I ever purchased

One thing I will say though when I purchased my QC2's they were also retailing here for $599 which I found hard to justify, I purchased mine from a Bose store in LA though at USD $299 including a bonus CD player, these new models are also significantly cheaper in the USA so if it fits your travel plans I'd definelty be looking to purchase overseas http://www.bose.com/controller?url=/shop_online/headphones/noise_cancelling_headphones/index.jsp

On one of the following trips I took a friend into the same Bose store and he managed to pick up a set of factory refurbished QC2's for USD $199, they don't have them all the time but worth asking

2 on 27/1/12 by cbstrav

3 on 27/1/12 by cbstrav

I doubt the writer of this critique even wore the QC3 with their lame analysis. I've used the QC15 for nearly a year now and a colleague of mine was sitting next to me on a flight and observed that my QC's were considerably better. If you can hear the noise around during a flight from the unsealed area around your ears than it really doesn't matter how good the sound coming from the earphones. Plus, wouldn't you suspect that the sound technology in the QC3 would be recreated in the QC15?

How much did Bose pay you to justify the considerable increase in expense for an inferior product?

1 on 27/1/12 by John

Sorry mate, no conspiracy here — as I said in the conclusion, I genuinely did prefer the QC3s. It's a personal opinion, natch, based on my own preferences, and my own ears. (As I said in the review, I was surprised that the over-the-ears style sounded better to me.)

You are absolutely welcome to your (and your colleague's) preferences for the QC15s, which are a decent set of cans. 

For the record, we never take advertorial, and where airlines or hotels provide us with flights or rooms we state so clearly.

4 on 13/4/12 by romaau

Since this article is republished, I thought I would call out that these have gone down in Australian price to adjust for the Australian dollar.

They are now $399AU for the QC15 and $449AU for the QC3. Australian retailers are Bose store that offer free delivery and Myer.

5 on 13/4/12 by Andif

I must say I am at a point where I have the chance to buy either one. I originally bought QC2 simply on the great reviews and for the noise cancellation. My wife wasn't sure until she took her first flight and used the headphones. She was astounded at the difference and was very grateful we bought them. How ever here comes the current dilemma, the enclosed ear cups of the QC15 giving better sound reduction during flight, versus the awesome soft comfort and clarity of the QC3. How much difference was there, I mean if you can hear the clicking of your keys in your hotel room, did they really work on the airplane? For noise cancelling is the QC 15 really the pair to buy ? Hope you can help before i commit.

1 on 16/4/12 by John

Well, all your questions are answered in the review -- I would absolutely fork out the extra for the overear versions.

6 on 24/5/14 by Graham

Went shopping today for an upgrade to my Sennheiser CXC700. I had pretty much decided that my next headphones would be Bose.. but which ones?

The Bose merchandise display fails to allow customers to touch, feel and understand the product. The QC20 was ignored because it was inaccessible behind a perspex display and ear buds looked funny. I understand that putting them in my ear is unhygeinic, but not being able inspect and understand the funny white bits wiped this product from contention.

Because they are much more compact (out of the case) the  QC3 was seriously considered. Which is more comfy... the "over ear (QC15)"  or the "on ear QC3)"? Tough decision! But then I realised that the QC3 uses a rechargeable battery and apparently only has a running time of about 4-8 hours. Worse, only one battery comes with the product. In other words the QC3 would be useless for getting from Oz to London.

"You can charge in a USB outlet on board" I was told. So what do you do while it is charging?  Really? No thanks... I can do without another cable to get tangled while I try to sleep.

So the final choice?  QC15 by default. AAA battery lasts 35 hours and you can carry a spare! The noise cancellation is so good it is spooky and you can detach the cable completely if you are like me and like to use noise cancelling headphones with no music to sleep in silence.

 

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