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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: The sound is all around

Our Rating :
$429.00 from
Price when reviewed : 449
inc VAT

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are very impressive in quite a few ways but don’t look or feel as premium as they sound

Pros

  • Light and comfortable
  • Outstanding noise cancellation
  • Detailed and convincing sound

Cons

  • Shamelessly expensive
  • Don’t look or feel remotely special
  • Immersive Audio can be a hindrance

Bose is busy giving its headphones and soundbar ranges the Ultra treatment right now – and the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are the new flagship model in the company’s roster of wireless over-ear options. And they’re priced to match.

You’d be hard-pushed to notice from the way they’re presented, though. The build quality is fine and there’s nothing the matter with the materials from which they’re made – but do these Bose look or feel like they cost similar money to Apple’s AirPods Max? Not a chance.

They are light and comfortable, however, and their control app is one of the best around. Sound quality is very impressive in stereo too, while the new ‘Immersive Audio’ can deliver a very persuasive sense of spatial audio when fed the right kinds of content.

And because this is Bose we’re talking about, you can take profoundly impressive (and, inevitably, class-leading) active noise cancellation as a given. When it comes to dealing with external distractions, apparently with no effort at all, Bose remains a master.

None of this alters the fact that brands as prestigious as Bowers & Wilkins, Sennheiser and Sony will sell you a similar model for quite a lot less money than this. So you need to ask yourself a question that centres around both value and perceived value…    

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: What you need to know

These headphones represent the top of the Bose wireless range, and as such are extensively specified and priced accordingly. At a glance, they don’t do anything that much more affordable alternatives from the likes of Sony can’t – but Bose will no doubt be banking on its peerless reputation, particularly where noise cancellation is concerned, to make the asking price seem fair enough.

Light weight and careful design mean these are comfortable headphones to wear for long stretches. Numerous (mostly) well-implemented control options mean it’s easy to get your bidding done. A new Immersive Audio feature wants to give all your music the spatial audio treatment. And Bluetooth 5.3 with multipoint connectivity and aptX Adaptive codec compatibility form the basis of everything Bose is trying to do.

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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: Price and competition

The Bose QuietComfort Headphones will set you back £449 if you’re shopping in the United Kingdom. In the company’s native America, the going rate is a slightly more palatable $429.

This is confident pricing on Bose’s part. Nominal rivals from companies with the credibility of Bowers & Wilkins (PX7 S2), Sennheiser (Momentum 4) and Sony (WH-1000XM5) are all significantly less expensive – which means as rivals they’re getting more nominal every day.

The optimism of this price tag brings the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones closer to the Apple AirPods Max than anything else – which means Bose is suddenly involved in a competition that has as much to do with intangibles like lifestyle and pride of ownership as it has with the nuts and bolts of performance. Hands up who can remember the last time anyone got the better of Apple where this sort of thing is concerned.

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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: Design and features

The previous wireless noise-cancelling range-toppers in the Bose lineup, the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, are replaced by the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones – and the changes where design is concerned are obvious.

The 700 were a bit of a departure for Bose inasmuch as they appeared to have had some attention paid to their design – the company has retreated from such prettification for these new headphones, and the result is a product that doesn’t seem to have been designed so much as it has been constructed.

The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are utterly functional lookers, with nothing about how they look or feel suggestive of a premium price point. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the way they’re made or the materials from which they’re built – this is Bose we’re dealing with, after all. But some synthetic leather, a lot of plastic and a touch of aluminium are hardly the most luxurious or indulgent materials.

There’s sufficient articulation in the hanger arrangement for the Ultra to fold small enough to fit into a fairly compact carry-case. And at 250g, they’re light enough to stay comfortable for hours on end – the comfort quotient is helped no end by some very well-judged clamping force and equally judicious padding of the earcups and headband. They’re routinely available in black or white, and there’s a Sandstone colourway that’s exclusive to www.bose.com.

As far as features are concerned, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are a mixture of the new and the already proven. The drivers that deliver sound fall into the latter category – they’re carried over, fundamentally unchanged, from the outgoing Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. This being Bose, the details of size, composition and frequency response are not forthcoming.

The way they deliver sound involves a new feature, though. Immersive Audio is Bose’s take on spatial audio and is similar in intention to Dolby’s Atmos or Sony’s 360 Reality Audio. It’s designed to ensure you’re always in the acoustic sweet spot of an immersive presentation, rather than being given right and left channels of traditional stereo. There are three options available: Motion (where the sound adjusts in response to your head movements), Still (where it’s fixed in position) and Off (which is vanilla stereo).

There are a total of 10 mics across the earcups. Four of the five on the perimeter of each earcup are external – three are feed-forward and deal with voice capture – while there’s an internal feedback mic in each earcup too. Between them, this array takes care of voice-assistant interaction, telephony and adaptive noise cancellation.

ANC has modes for Quiet (meaning on), Aware (which is transparency) and Immersion (as discussed above). There’s also the very welcome facility to create user-defined modes in the Bose Music control app, using a slider to dictate the degree of noise cancellation and an on/off control for ‘Wind Block’.

Bose is claiming a maximum single-charge battery life of 24 hours for the Ultra Headphones – although that figure drops to an even more ordinary 18 hours if you have Immersive Audio switched on. From flat to full takes around three hours using the USB-C socket on the left earcup (there’s no facility for wireless charging here), while 15 minutes on the power should be good for around two hours of playback.  

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: Controls and connections

The most comprehensive method of controlling the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones is the Bose Music control app that’s free for iOS and Android. It’s a clean, logical and easy-to-navigate interface, and is chock-full of options.

As well as all the usual playback and volume controls, it allows you to set up a custom setting for noise cancellation, investigate some EQ presets, use a three-band equaliser to make your own adjustments and adjust the amount of your own voice you hear during telephone calls. 

It lets you decide if you’d like music to pause or not when you remove the headphones, and it lets you cycle through your Immersive Audio options too. Check for firmware upgrades, check on remaining battery life, you name it – this is a useful and usable control app, which puts it ahead of quite a few alternatives I could mention.

The app also lets you dictate the function of one of the few physical controls arranged on the right earcup. On the inner edge of the earcup there’s a capacitive touch strip – drag upwards to increase volume, drag downwards to decrease volume, or touch-and-hold to activate your chosen shortcut function. The shortcut can be be used to hear your battery level, cycle through Immersive Audio settings, access your voice assistant or resume playing something on Spotify.

On the outer edge, meanwhile, there’s a button for powering the headphones on and off and initiating Bluetooth pairing, while another takes care of audio playback along with cycling through your Immersive Audio options.

These three controls are uncomfortably close together, to the point you’ll find yourself inadvertently adjusting volume levels when, for instance, attempting to skip to the next track. Why Bose felt the need to take a capacitive volume control off the main surface of the earcup and instead put it so close to the other physical controls is anyone’s guess.

Wireless connectivity is via Bluetooth 5.3, and there’s compatibility with SBC, AAC and aptX Adaptive codecs. The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones also have multipoint connectivity, meaning two source devices can be connected at once. They can be hard-wired for usage, too – there’s a 2.5mm socket on the left earcup and a 2.5mm to 3.5mm cable in the carrying case. The USB-C socket is purely for charging and cannot transfer data.

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Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: Sound quality

There are two distinct ways of appraising the sound quality of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. The first is in stereo, the second with Immersive Audio engaged.

In stereo, the Bose are an uncomplicatedly insightful and informative listen. Playing a 16bit/44.1kHz file of Neutral Milk Hotel’s In the Aeroplane Over the Sea via an Apple MacBook Pro, the tonality from the bottom of the frequency range to the top is consistent and naturalistic. Despite the acoustic guitar being strummed with what sounds like real aggression, the Bose manage to reveal the light and shade in the playing and load the instrument with lots of detail and variation.

Some headphones present this song as a fight for midrange supremacy between guitar and voice, but the QC Ultra manage to give every element of the recording the space in which to express itself without being impacted by the rest of the information.

The voice itself is served up with an absolute stack of character revealed and the singer’s motivation and emotional state are made plain. It’s a strident and unaffected vocal line, and all of the urgency in the delivery is translated in full.

Low frequencies are deep and politely punchy, nicely shaped and controlled well – so the recording’s martial rhythm is expressed convincingly. At the top of the frequency range, there’s plenty of bite to treble sounds, but again they’re controlled to the point that they don’t splash, overhang, or sound in any other way unnatural.

Dynamic potency is considerable, so there’s plenty of headroom for the song to transition between quite quiet and very loud. And where the more minor, but no less significant, dynamics of harmonic and tonal variation are concerned, the QC Ultra are no slouch either.

Switching to an iPhone 14 Pro loaded with the Bose Music control app and engaging Immersive Audio doesn’t impact on the QC Ultra’s ability to extract and contextualise plenty of fine detail in recording – but it also illustrates just how dependent on content the success of the system is. 

A compliant recording like Edge of the Edge by Panda Bear & Sonic Boom sounds, yes, more open and spacious – it’s presented as a quite convincing dome of sound rather than the overt left and right of the stereo sound that’s available with Immersive Audio switched off. Despite the quite startling scope of the sound, though, the recording remains focussed and coherent – it’s just served up on a grander, and more immersive scale than it is in stereo.

Not every recording suits this processing, though – a move to Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower makes the point in unequivocal fashion. In stereo, the drums are panned hard to the right of the soundstage – but switching to an Immersive Audio presentation, they wander towards the centre of the mix where they a) lose a whole stack of definition, and b) get in the way of the vocal more than somewhat.

The vocal itself, which is dry and forward in stereo, becomes hazy and vague around the edges – it’s almost as if Dylan’s voice was recorded through a PA system. So the lesson is: as far as Immersive Audio is concerned, you need to choose your moments carefully.

One area where Bose seems to have nothing whatsoever to learn is noise cancellation, and sure enough, the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are just as quiet as they are comfortable. Without introducing the merest hint of processing or effort, the Bose negate almost every external distraction at more-or-less every frequency.

Switching to Quiet in the control app results in a huge reduction in ambient sound, even if it’s quite loud and close by. Basically, there’s no revelation here – if the QuietComfort Ultra had turned out to be rotten noise-cancellers, then we’d have a story.   

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: Verdict

Before we confront the elephant in the room, let’s just remind ourselves of a few things. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are exemplary noise-cancellers, they sound impressively detailed and coherent in stereo and are capable of the same thing when their Immersive Audio algorithm is deployed (as long as you pick your moment). They have a great control app, so-so battery life and a slightly weird onboard control layout. They’re light and comfortable.

There’s no getting away from the fact that £449 is too much money to ask for headphones that don’t look or feel remotely that expensive, though. Yes, you buy wireless headphones in order to listen to them – but when you’re shopping at the premium end of the market, there needs to be more to it than that. And it’s regarding the more that the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones come up rather short.  

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