Get on a plane going anywhere and you'll spot frequent flyers donning noise-cancelling headphones to block out that background hiss and hum. A whole lot of the time it'll be Bose QC35 cans adorning such travellers' heads - because the American company makes what is widely regarded as the best active noise-cancelling (ANC) headphones out there.
But times have changed and competition is tougher than ever. We've seen considerable success from Sony, Bowers & Wilkins, B&O BeoPlay, among others. Bose isn't having any of it, though, with 2019 being the year to reveal its Smart Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, a built-from-the-ground-up set of over-ears that are here to regain the ANC crown.
We've been living with the 700 for two weeks, during which time we've tested them on three long-haul flights, on public transport jaunts, walking the streets and while in the office. Spoiler alert: you'll struggle to find a finer pair of over-ear noise-cancelling headphones.
Design & Comfort
- Measures: 203 x 165 x 51mm / Weight: 250g
- Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, Siri support
- Carry case included (218 x 179 x 62mm)
- USB-C charging (cable included, no plug)
- 2.5-3.5mm cable for passive listening
- Touch controls (vol/skip/pause/play)
- Black / Silver finishes available
Available in black or silver finishes, the first thing you'll see about the Bose Headphones 700 is that quality has upped its game compared to the QC35 II. Not that the latter was badly built - it used premium materials, like anodised aluminium, but simply just didn't look as though it did.
The Headphones 700 changes this. The design is built around a main stainless steel structure, with a dual-hinge headband that's designed to sit in the perfect place on any head. It pivots in all the necessary directions to cater for head length and shape, temple adjustment, and also folds flat so these cans sit comfortably when sat idle around the neck. Even when worn loosely around the neck nothing gets in the way or digs in to any degree, it's all just ultimate comfort.
We've worn these headphones for many hours at a time - including while sleeping on flights - and found them to be very comfortable indeed. There's no unwarranted pinch, yet the fit feels well adhered to the ears; there's no burrowing of the headband into the skull, because of the almost gel-like silicone material and padding used; while the leather-like earcup cladding feels sumptuous against the lobes.
But, as you'll see from our pictures, the Bose Headphones 700 don't fold. Which, if you're a QC35 user looking to go to the next level, might strike fear in your heart. We thought this might be a hurdle for many buyers, but having side-by-sided the two pairs, including their respective carry cases, the difference isn't particularly grand: ultimately the 700 is thinner and, therefore, its case is taller but less fat. So, as it turns out, we've not missed the folding ability one bit when, at first, we thought it'd be a big issue.
Besides, the non-folding design means the Noise Cancelling 700 bring a much cleaner design. There are no screws poking out of anywhere to be seen. There are hardly any folds or divisions in the materials either, it all looks wonderfully seamless. There's a small, subdued logo on each earcup - we'd advise all brands to opt for this, none of the massive logo adornment that, say, JBL seems to love - and the finish, as it's made from stainless steel, is tougher and more resistant to scratches than previous Bose headphone offerings. Sure, we're only a fortnight into wear, but so far chucking these cans into bags against other tech items hasn't caused any bother at all.
Touch control is another great benefit of this design. The front area to the right earcup's exterior can be used as follows: drag up for volume up; drag down for volume down; swipe forward to skip track; swipe back to skip back/replay track; and double-tap to play/pause.
It's all intuitive, doesn't need to be tapped too hard (although you'll get some slight resonant feedback when doing so), while the deft control of volume adjustment - it doesn't do 'one block at a time' style volume, rather it tracks your finger and can move from, say, three quarters volume to half in a flash - is super smooth. There are no unsightly markings or buttons either, making for a subtle implementation. We've found it very handy when, say, entering a public elevator and wanting to turn down our tunes, before swiping up upon exit to increase the volume and go marching down the street.
Noise-Cancelling Modes & Sound Quality
- 10 levels of active noise-cancellation (ANC)
- Additional 'Level 0' for Transparency mode
- 8 microphones system for isolation
- Beam-form voice isolation system
- 20 hours battery per charge
But the real reason you'll buy these headphones is for the active noise-cancelling technology. Which has had a total overhaul in the Headphones 700 with the introduction of 'Transparency mode' and 10 differing degrees of noise-cancellation strength.
All of this is quickly adjustable from within the Bose Music app, when paired to the headphones via Bluetooth. However, as you won't always wish to dig into that app, a dedicated button on the left earcup controls noise-cancelling in two ways: either on/off, if that's how it's setup in the app; or by cycling through three user-selected levels (that's 0, 5 and 10 by default, but could be, say, 6, 8 and 10) as you so desire.
Bose is renowned for its noise-cancelling tech because it delivers a strong form of it - which is great for travellers looking to cut out train, plane and other on-the-go sounds. But sometimes it can arguably be a bit too much, like being sucked into a vacuum. With the Headphones 700, the option to dip to, say, level 7 rather than full-on 10 may be perfect for those looking for more subtlety. Even level 0 (which is the Transparency mode) offers some isolation of sound, but allows for most sound - particularly voice, so conversation is easy - to pass through.
All this makes these new cans far more versatile in their appeal. As does the addition of voice assistants, with Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa and Apple's Siri all supported from the off. You simply have to choose which one you're using from within the Bose app and job's a good'un - activation takes place using the dedicated button on the right earcup. The placement of this button is rather odd, however, as we accidentially fired up a non-registered assistant a number of times, interrupting playback, when we were looking for the Bluetooth pairing button instead. Fortunately you don't have to have it active.
Noise-cancelling technology is one thing, but Bose steps things up with voice isolation technology in the Headphones 700. Indeed, it's the first company to use what it's referred to as an 'adaptive quad microphone system' to isolate voice from surrounding noise - which could be useful in video, conference or phone calls.
As much as we love the idea - and it worked well when tested on the streets of central London - we just don't really see the 700 series as the pinnacle place for such a technology to arrive. Perhaps it's just our way of being, but over-ears tend to not feel like headphones for wearing when making phone calls. But, hey, each to their own, and when this tech is deployed elsewhere we're sure this upgraded beam technology will be greatly received.
Far more important to us is sound isolation and cancellation. While walking the streets in a relatively stiff breeze it became apparent that these cans do a great job of resisting excess wind tear (that kind of distorted horrible rumble that's often unavoidable due to the presence of microphones used in noise-cancelling). Sure, the 700 can't negate it 100 per cent, but as there are so many microphones present in the design the headphones can adapt which are used and when, even based on wind direction, and keep a cleaner listening experience. It's the best we've experienced from such a pair of headphones and doesn't write-off walking down the road while listening to music.
When it comes to sound quality the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 also deliver with aplomb, offering crisp highs, zinging mids and plenty of bass. The low-end really comes to life with the noise-cancelling maximised, where it almost feels connected to your brain. And how we do love a cerebral rumble. But it's not all about low-end: whether we've been listening to spoken voice in the Chernobyl podcast, or banging out the tunes thanks to the Hospital Records podcast, there's great range in the handling here. If the battery calls it a day then there's a 2.5-3.5mm cable included in the box for passive listening.
Speaking of which, the on-board battery is said to provide up to 20 hours listening time. The use of USB-C for recharging, however, means just 15 minutes at the plug can provide some 90 minutes playback, which is potentially very handy should you forget to switch the noise-cancelling off (a feature which can be set to auto-off from within the app - but isn't by default for those travellers who like to leave the ANC on, even if there's no signal running to the headphones, typically as an aid to sleep). We've been getting closer to 15 hours per charge, but that's still pretty good going - and a handy spoken voice tells you how long is left when switching the headphones on each time.
The app is also adept, offering the ability to pair with two devices - which is great for having a phone and a laptop connection switch with ease - and the source point to all the detailed settings. Sadly, however, there's no equaliser (EQ) adjustment here, which we'd love to see. Not because we don't love the 700 sound profile, just that some tracks/recordings can do with a specific boost from time to time.
These over-ear headphones bring a much higher degree of build quality, comfort and ANC adjustment compared to the QC35 model, along with impressive sound and battery life.
There's also smart assistant integration for the big three (Google, Amazon, Apple), a solid app for various customisations (but no EQ, sadly), well integrated touch-based controls, and sound quality to rival the best competition out there - including the Sony WH-1000XM3.
Having used these over-ears for a fortnight we can think of no other pair we'd rather take on our travels. Bose is boss when it comes to noise-cancelling - and the 700 is proof.
This article was originally published as a preview on 2 July 2019 and has been updated to reflect its real-world, lived-with experience in full review format.
We praised the Sony for great sound and great noise-cancellation. Having used the Bose we prefer the tidier design. On the face of it, however, it's a toss-up between the Sony and Bose for best-in-class at this price point.