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(Pocket-lint) - Before the world was more or less put on hold for two years there was this thing called travel. And if you travelled a lot, especially on planes, then the de facto choice for noise-cancelling over-ear headphones was Bose with its QuietComfort range.

Now there's more opportunity to travel once again, the tail-end of 2021 sees the American audio brand release the QuietComfort 45 - or QC45 for short - delivering much the same design as the well-established range has long presented, but with a few tweaks over its QC35 II predecessor.

Whilst the world stopped, however, headphone manufacturers most certainly did not: the likes of Apple has jumped aboard, with its AirPods Max; Sony has shot up the ranks like a cannon with its super WH-1000XM4; even Bose had previously gone a little more suave with design in its NC Headphones 700. So is there still a logical space in the market for the QC45 to reign supreme?

What's new?

  • Improved active noise-cancelling (ANC) technology
    • Simplified to two levels: 'Aware', 'Quiet'
  • Increased battery: to 24 hours per charge
  • USB-C charging port (finally!)

If you own the QC35 II then you'll see the QC45 as a tweaked and refined modification of that very product. The newer over-ears have a slightly redesigned ported design, to boost the volume, but the physical drivers and earcup sizes haven't changed (to the best of our knowledge).

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 6

The battery life has been boosted by an alleged 20 per cent, though, so 24 hours of life per charge for the QC45 is a decent innings. Better still, the QuietComfort 45 finally adopts USB-C, so it's out with the aged Micro-USB of old - which also means faster charging. 

Elsewhere simplification of the active noise-cancellation (ANC) system - it's stripped down to just two modes - means the always-on ambient noise reduction is either working full-clap or with passthrough 'Aware' mode to permit some external sounds through.

Design & Features

  • Included: Headphones, Case, USB-C charging cable (305mm), 3.5mm-to-2.5mm audio cable
  • Headphones dimensions: 184 x 152 x 76mm / Weight: 240g
  • Case dimensions: 211 x 145 x 51mm / Weight: 180g
  • Synthetic leather earcup and headband cushions
  • Glass-filled nylon reinforced headband
  • Voice assistant compatible via phone
  • Colours: Black, White Smoke
  • 24-hour battery life

As we say, physically speaking the QuietComfort 45 are pretty much a mirror of the QC35 II. Which is fine enough: these are light headphones with all the cushioning and adjustments in the correct places; they're just not the most dashing looking headphones in 2021's world - in particular because Bose's own NC 700 are, to our eyes, even more refined.

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 1

Shown here in their black finish - there's no silver option this time, which is probably for the best as it looked too faux metallic - the nuts 'n' bolts of the QC45's build are largely hidden unless you go staring directly at them, but there's still more on show than you'll see in some other contemporary headphones.

Not that it really matters: the QC45 wears not only its heart on its sleeve, but all its buttons too. These aren't the kind of hide-away-the-controls type of headphones, as you can see from the physical buttons scattered around the earcups. There's a trio on the right, comprising volume up and down, between which is a pause/play/skip nub. On the left side there's a single ANC button to jostle between its two noise-cancelling modes.

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 8

Adjusting the volume is therefore easy - although we miss the swipe controls of the NC 700 to be honest - but that central nub is far too closely sandwiched between the up/down adjustments so you might not get the correct reaction from it when pressing (a track skip rather than pause, for example). It takes a bit of getting used to, basically, but spacing out the design more would have made this control button more useful overall.

Those small criticisms aside, we can say that the QC45 over-ears are supremely comfortable. We've been wearing them day-long in the office and the combination of low weight and cushioned earcups means you'll barely notice them on your head. They don't clamp too tightly; conversely they're not so loose that they'll fall off or slide forwards when you move about. "Just right" as Goldilocks would say.

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 2

The QC45 also come with a carry case, which is extra handy for travelling purposes, plus the headphones' folding design keeps the overall footprint to an even more acceptable level for packing them away easily. However, the case really isn't that much smaller than the NC 700's equivalent, so the QuietComfort's once unique sale point is now less of a wow point.

Sound & Noise-Cancelling

  • Two forms of active noise-cancelling (ANC): Aware, Quiet
  • Proprietary TriPort acoustic headphone structure

Although Bose doesn't release specification data about the internal components of its products, the QuietComfort 45 doesn't really need you to know how large its drivers are. All you need to do is listen to just how well they deliver sound - because these are impressive over-ear headphones, there's no doubting that.

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 7

First up, the active noise-cancelling (ANC). If you're listening wirelessly then it's always on, activated by the little pull-switch to the centre of the right earcup. This is part of the reason that travellers like these headphones so much: slide that switch on, you needn't even connect a wireless source, and you can have perma-ANC to cut out the outside world's droning and hissing sounds, which is great on a plane when you're trying to sleep.

It also raises a potential issue: forget to turn this switch off and the battery will drain, as we found out overnight when returning to a non-functioning set of cans. Oops. An auto-off option within settings would be helpful, as would an auto-off detection when removing the headphones from your head - a surprise omission here.

Fortunately, thanks to the new USB-C port, charging is a whole lot quicker than in previous QuietComfort guises. Just 15 minutes on the plug can deliver three hours of listening time, which is to say around 12 per cent of the whole battery. If you want to totally refill then it'll take just under two hours (the 80-100 per cent part is always slower for battery preservation's sake).

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 9

But back to ANC for a moment. Not only is it stupendously good, the simplification of it - click the action button for 'Quiet' (i.e. 'on'), or press again for 'Aware' (i.e. passthrough) - and that's all you've got to worry about. When it's active you really know about it; it'll drown out all kinds of sounds, from washing machines, to whirring fans, even groups of voices to a decent extent.

Having ANC on also enhances audio quality, as is the case with any headphones of this type. It means the QC45 sounds super, too, delivering thumping bass, sparkling highs, and a good mid-section to keep everything grounded. There's not the kind of openness to the earcups that'll see them slip around and the high-end fields 'move' as a result, either, it's a really rigid yet spacious sound delivered very effectively.

Pocket-lintBose QC45 review photo 17

The Aware mode lets a fair degree of extra sound through, so you'll easily hear passing cars and such like (maybe even too loudly, really), while wind tear is minimal when out and about - as we tested when on an evening walk in the local village one evening - thanks to the positioning of the microphones. It's these mics that are also used for wireless calls, but the quality isn't all that - the NC 700 do a much better job in that regard.

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Verdict

If you're looking for top-drawer noise-cancelling headphones that have a folding design and do away with touch-based controls for physical buttons then the Bose QuietComfort 45 most certainly sit at the top of the stack.

That said, the advances in the QC45 over their predecessor are relatively mild, and the headphone world has moved further along in design terms - including Bose itself, with the better-looking NC Headphones 700 - that the QuietComfort option, whilst still very strong, might not have the same immediate lure that it once did.

Context aside, however, there's no doubting that Bose is absolutely on point when it comes to active noise-cancelling (ANC) power, sheer audio clarity and quality, and its finally up to date with the must-haves such as USB-C fast-charging and strong battery life propositions. Clearly, then, the QC45 remain ideal headphones for frequent travellers.

Also consider

Pocket-lintAlternatives photo 1

Bose NC Headphones 700

No, they don't have a folding design, but we do think the visual appeal is that much stronger, we prefer the button-free look, too, and find the swipe controls to be excellent. The active noise-cancelling is a little more complex, by which we mean more detailled in its range of options, but that only makes these over-ears all the more accomplished in our view. The price is hardly any different either.

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Pocket-lintAlternatives photo 2

Sony WH-1000XM4

If it doesn't have to be Bose then the next best thing in the world of active noise-cancelling goes to Sony's WH over-ears. The way sound is cut out is super, so if you can get these for a better price than the above 700 NC then, well, it's a tempting choice that's for sure.

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Writing by Mike Lowe. Originally published on 13 October 2021.