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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: a new ANC and spatial audio king

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Earcup/logo close-up.
Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones
MSRP $429.00
“Noise cancellation and spatial audio have a new king, and it is the Bose QuietComfort Ultra.”
Pros
  • Premium materials and design
  • Excellent comfort
  • Best-in-class noise canceling
  • Natural-sounding transparency
  • Impressive spatial audio
  • Hi-res compatibility
Cons
  • Tricky volume control
  • ANC can't be turned off

Bose fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are a return to form for the company after its four-year experiment with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. I say experiment because the NCH 700’s design was a significant departure from the company’s previous efforts and not everyone fell in love with the new direction.

Though very light and comfy, the NCH 700 could only fold flat, had middling battery life, introduced touch controls, and didn’t necessarily move the needle in the right direction on sound quality.

By contrast, the QC Ultra (which have replaced the NCH 700) fold flat and fold up, they (mostly) ditch the touch controls. And Bose has gone to great lengths to put these new cans on par with (or even ahead of) wireless headphones from Sony, Apple, and Sennheiser with its version of spatial audio called Bose Immersive Audio, plus support for lossless and hi-res audio. Their price reflects that effort: the QC Ultra are $429, a $30 price hike over the NCH 700.

After spending over a week with the new QC Ultra, I think Bose has delivered a fantastic set of wireless noise-canceling cans that can stand toe-to-toe with the other flagships.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: design

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Whether you get them in black, white, or sandstone, the QC Ultra are classic Bose in all the right ways. In addition to the welcome return of the dual-folding design, Bose has upped the luxe factor by fabricating the headband sliders and earcup forks from aluminum. This might offer small benefits in terms of durability, but it definitely adds an element of class, especially as buyers compare them to the all-plastic build of the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones in travel case with accessories.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Ironically, despite the critiques that were thrown at Bose for its fold-flat design of the NCH 700 — which Sony, Sennheiser, and Apple all copied — when you compare the zippered travel cases of the QC Ultra and NCH 700 side by side, there isn’t a big difference in size. The QC Ultra’s case is narrower than the NCH 700’s by an inch or so. Inside, you still get a USB-C cable and a 2.5mm to 3.5mm analog cable, though these are now stowed inside an elastic internal pocket instead of the slick hidden compartment that graced the NCH 700’s case.

The headband has been widened from the NCH 700’s dimensions, and the soft rubber has been replaced with even softer and better-cushioned synthetic leather, which is also used on the ear cushions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: comfort, indeed

Simon Cohen wearing Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones in white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The QC Ultra are essentially identical to the NCH 700 and Sony XM5 in weight at 8.96 ounces, which keeps them among the lightest noise-canceling headphones you can buy. On your head, they feel solid and balanced, with a clamping force that’s just strong enough to keep everything where it should be, and no more. Compared to the NCH 700, you notice two things right away: the Ultra’s headband does a better job of distributing pressure, and they hug your head more securely. For me, that makes them more comfortable than their predecessors, especially across the top of my head. Overall, I think I still prefer the Sony XM5 (they just feel lighter) and Sennheiser Momentum 4 (cozier), but I’d take all three over the AirPods Max in terms of comfort any day of the week.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Earcup interiors.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The headband sliders are very grippy. Once you set their length, they don’t budge at all. This also makes them tricky to adjust. The technique that usually works best on many headphones — expanding the headband to its biggest size, putting the earcups on your ears, then reaching up with your fingers to pull the headband down to the right size — won’t work with the QC Ultra. There’s just too much resistance.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: controls and connections

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Right earcup controls.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Touch controls can be great, and I’ve had good experiences with them on Sony, Sennheiser, and Bose headphones in the past. But I just prefer physical buttons. They work predictably, you know exactly where to press with your thumb or fingers, and they don’t care if you’re wearing gloves.

So am I happy with the QC Ultra’s controls? Mostly, yes. Bose has managed to consolidate three buttons, plus touch controls on two earcups on the NCH 700 down to just two buttons and one touch control on a single earcup on the QC Ultra. The heavy lifting is performed by the multifunction button, which controls playback, ANC modes, and call management.

NCH 700 users might miss having a dedicated button for ANC — I kind of miss it myself — but that’s tempered by my huge relief at not needing to cycle between three different ANC modes every time I press it.

Perhaps the biggest change is the elimination of the voice assistant button. Not only is the assistant button gone, but so is the assistant. The NCH 700 gave iPhone users a choice between a button-activated Siri and a voice-activated Amazon Alexa, while Android users could choose between Google Assistant and Alexa. The QC Ultra is strictly BYOA (bring your own assistant), and if you want to access it, you’ll need to enable the shortcut option (a long press on the volume touch control) and select voice assistant access as your preferred shortcut. The other options are to hear the battery level announced, change immersive audio mode, and Spotify Tap.

I’m not a big voice assistant user when it comes to earbuds and headphones. But there’s no denying the convenience of being able to summon one hands-free, so it’s a shame to see this convenient feature disappear.

The combo power/Bluetooth button is self-explanatory, which just leaves volume control — a raised 1.5-inch line that sits a little farther out from your head than the buttons. Because it sits in the valley of the earcup, it’s easy to find with your thumb. But it suffers the same fate as many touch controls — it’s inaccurate. Intuitively, you might think you would begin at the bottom of the line and slide your thumb upward or downward gradually to slowly increase or decrease the volume as though it were a real slider. But no — you need to use small, swiping gestures instead. These can shift volume a little or a lot, and it’s hard to master the difference between these extremes. Unfortunately, there’s no setting in the Bose Music app to help you out. You either figure it out, or you remain vaguely frustrated by it, as I have been.

Still, Bose partially redeems itself by giving the QC Ultra the wear sensors that the NCH 700 lacked, so now you can automatically pause your tunes when you remove the headphones. In fact, when you remove them, you can choose to have them enter a standby state after a certain amount of time to save power. They’ll power back up as soon as you put them on again.

As with Bose’s other headphones (though notably, not its wireless earbuds), the QC Ultra support Bluetooth Multipoint for two simultaneous connections. To get the most out of it, the QC Ultra let you see and manage those connections in the Bose Music app, and they also announce the connected devices when you power them on, which can be very handy. If you find it annoying, you can also turn it off.

Transitioning between connected devices is seamless. Unlike some Multipoint devices, which make you choose between running a hi-res codec like aptX Adaptive or using Multipoint, the QC Ultra have no such restrictions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: sound quality and spatial audio

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Top of earcup close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The QC Ultra may be a throwback in terms of design, but their sound quality is decidedly evolutionary. The NCH 700’s sound signature is centered on Bose’s energetic approach to high frequencies, putting a lot of — some might argue too much — sparkle into vocals, while taking a conservative approach to bass. The QC Ultra step the sparkle back just a smidgen, but they add copious amounts of low-end. This puts them closer than ever to Sony’s more bass-forward tuning, such that the Sony WH-1000XM5 and QC Ultra now sound like slightly different interpretations of the same sound signature.

For me, it’s a move in the right direction — I happen to enjoy Sony’s sound a lot — but I wouldn’t be surprised if some Bose fans find it too thick through the low end.

If you don’t love it, the Bose Music app provides EQ presets that deemphasize that extra bass. You can also manually adjust the low, mid, and high EQ sliders. But, maddeningly, Bose still doesn’t let you save those tweaks as your own presets.

According to Bose, its CustomTune technology automatically adapts the sound of the QC Ultra to your ears every time you put them on. You’ll hear the same zoomy Bose startup sound that the company uses on its other headphones, but this time, that sound is used to analyze the shape of your ears. Does it work? It’s impossible to say — Bose doesn’t give you the option to turn it off.

Owners of select Android handsets can take advantage of the QC Ultra’s adoption of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform, which — depending on your phone — can deliver lossy hi-res audio at up to 24-bit/96kHz or lossless CD-quality audio at 16-bit/48kHz, via Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec.

If you’re a Spotify junkie, there’s probably zero benefit to be had. But those who have jumped on the lossless and hi-res lossless train via services like Amazon Music, Apple Music, Qobuz, and Tidal will be able to hear a more nuanced rendition of their favorite tracks. Thanks to the QC Ultra’s Bluetooth Multipoint, I was able to place my iPhone 14 side by side with a Snapdragon Sound-equipped Motorola ThinkPhone and perform reasonably quick A/B comparisons using Apple Music.

Both sounded great. But where the iPhone delivered thick, meaty sound, especially in the lower-mids and bass, the ThinkPhone offered a more refined, precise, and detailed performance.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: earcup fork detail.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Where things get really interesting is the QC Ultra’s new support for spatial audio. There are two distinct versions of spatial audio. When a track has been recorded in an 3D format like Dolby Atmos Music and is then played back using software that can render multichannel 3D sound into just two channels for headphone listening (like Apple Music), I consider it “native” spatial audio. Native spatial audio will work on any set of headphones.

But you also can apply computational audio to good ol’ stereo recordings to create a simulated 3D sound either in an app or in hardware like the QC Ultra. I think of this as “virtual” spatial audio.

Traditionally, attempts at virtual spatial audio have had mixed results. It can sound fake or forced. And it can have a damaging effect on some frequencies as the software tries to widen the sound field. In short, it can sound bad enough that you revert to regular stereo and never look back.

With its Immersive Audio, Bose has created the best virtual spatial audio I’ve heard so far. It gives you a genuine alternative to stereo that doesn’t sound cheesy or forced. It preserves detail and frequencies better than any competing system and, depending on the track, you may actually prefer it to the original recording.

The QC Ultra also provide sensor-based head tracking that lets the Immersive Audio mode untether your music from your headphones, giving you the sense that the music is being played from stereo speakers mounted in front (and slightly above) your listening position. Turning your head does the same as it would in real life — it sounds like you’ve turned away from the source of the music and it happens in perfect sync with your head movement.

Not everyone will like Bose’s Immersive Audio — just like not everyone will like native spatial audio tracks in Dolby Atmos Music. But for those who do, it’s a killer feature.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: noise canceling and transparency

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: headband close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Here’s what you really want to know: the QC Ultra cancel noise more effectively than the Apple AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5. If you want better noise cancellation, you’ll have to switch to wireless earbuds like the Bose QuiteComfort Ultra Earbuds or the Sony WF-1000XM5. But when it comes to wireless headphones, the QC Ultra Headphones are the current king of quiet.

The QC Ultra provide impressive levels of hush in a variety of scenarios. I haven’t had a chance to put them to the quintessential ANC test of an airplane cabin during flight. But given how they perform in other locations like noisy city streets, riding a transit bus, or working in a busy coffee shop, I have every reason to think they’ll ace the cabin test too.

They’re also insanely good for transparency. Until now, the transparency gold standard has belonged to the AirPods Max, and deservedly so. They’re excellent. But the QC Ultra sound more natural. The AirPods Max put a slight emphasis on higher frequencies — arguably a smart move that helps you hear voices more clearly — while the QC Ultra have a more neutral sound. Since both headphones give you roughly equal amounts of situational awareness, it’s going to come down to personal preference, and I prefer the QC Ultra.

Plus, Bose actually one-ups Apple via the QC Ultra’s Active Sense — an option when you’re in transparency mode that listens for loud noises and automatically kicks the cans into ANC mode to protect you hearing. Apple has this technology, too, but only on its AirPods Pro Gen 2 wireless earbuds. The AirPods Max (for now) lack this feature. It works well, but there can be up to 2 seconds of lag between a loud sound (like an emergency vehicle siren) beginning and Active Sense kicking in. On the AirPods Pro, it’s almost instant.

Bose also has rethought the way you work with ANC on the QC Ultra. On the NCH 700, you could reach into the Bose Music app and manually adjust the amount of noise cancellation at any time. But the headphone controls required that you cycle through three favorite ANC settings. Those settings could be any amount of ANC you wanted, but you couldn’t choose to use just two of them — a limitation I never understood.

On the QC Ultra, favorites have been replaced by Modes, and they’re far more flexible. You can create as many modes as you like, and each mode can have its own level of ANC, or you can select a wind block option that overrides ANC control. But the best part is that you can then pick which of these modes will be your favorites, as long as there are at least two favorites at any given time. Want to switch between maximum ANC and maximum transparency? Just select the default Quiet and Aware modes as your two favorites. Want to toggle between transparency and wind noise mode? Create a mode that uses wind noise and then select it as a favorite along with Aware mode and make sure Quiet mode is deselected.

It’s a great system with just one flaw: you can’t create a mode in which ANC is simply turned off to preserve battery life. In fact, there’s no way to turn off ANC at all — you can choose how much you want (or you can pick transparency), but there’s no setting to eliminate both.

There’s also a somewhat idiosyncratic aspect to Modes. Bose includes a default mode for Immersive Audio, which is illogical. Immersive Audio can be enjoyed whether you’re using full ANC or transparency — it’s a layer on top of your ANC preference, not its own thing.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: call quality

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Earcup/logo close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

If we lived in a world where Apple had never created the AirPods Max and Sony had never created the WH-1000XM5, I’d be telling you that the Bose QC Ultra Headphones are the best wireless headphones for call quality. It wouldn’t be hard to defend that statement. Even in noisy conditions, the QC Ultra all but erase environmental sounds, leaving just your voice. And when you’re in transparency mode, you can hear your own voice very clearly as well.

However, the QC Ultra struggle at times to keep your voice from wavering or sounding echoey as it strives to eliminate those unwanted background noises. Sony and Apple do a better job with this balancing act, keeping your voice sounding more consistently audible regardless of what’s going on around you.

But just to be clear: The QC Ultra are still excellent for calls — especially indoors. And if you have a Snapdragon Sound-equipped phone, your voice will sound richer and fuller thanks to aptX Voice. It’s just that the AirPods Max and XM5 are better for folks who need to take their calls in a wide variety of conditions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: battery life

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. USB-C charging port and analog input.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Bose, like Apple, seems to believe that no one really needs their wireless headphones to last more than about 20 to 24 hours between charges, and maybe it’s right. But given that companies like Sennheiser and Sony have proven that far more juice than that can be packed into a set of wireless cans (up to 60 hours in the case of the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless), it’s a bit difficult to commend the QC Ultra for their 24-hour stamina — a number that drops to 18 hours when using immersive audio and ANC — especially when there’s no longer an option to extend that time by disabling both modes.

There is a quick-charge option: 15 minutes will buy you an extra 2.5 hours of playtime (2 hours in immersive audio mode), so even if 24 hours isn’t quite enough, you’ve got a Plan B.

One thing to keep in mind with the battery is that you’ll need it even for wired listening via the included analog cable. If the battery is totally dead, you can power it directly using the USB cable, at which point you can listen wired or wirelessly, but the QC Ultra can’t recharge simultaneously.

I’ve managed to find some minor nits to pick with the Bose QC Ultra Headphones, but overall, these wireless headphones are seriously impressive. They cost a bit more than their predecessors, but make up for the extra investment by delivering a better design and tons of features. Some of those features, like Immersive Audio, noise canceling, and transparency mode, represent the current state of the art and are reason enough to consider upgrading from the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

And if you’re contemplating your first set of serious wireless headphones? I’m confident you won’t regret going with the Bose QC Ultra.

Simon Cohen
Simon Cohen covers a variety of consumer technologies, but has a special interest in audio and video products, like spatial…
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