Take big gulp, shell out the big bucks, enjoy

May 31, 2011 (Updated Jun 3, 2011)
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Rated a Very Helpful Review

Pros:Excellent noice reduction, very soft and comfortable, standard battery

Cons:expensive, cannot use as regular headphones when no battery

The Bottom Line: Clearly the highest level of noise reduction I tested - comfortable too!  Competitors $100 less do decent job, but don't quite match.  Worth it if you have the money.


Background

The Bose QuietComfort 15 headphones are definitely not my first set of noise canceling headphones, but certainly the first time I've spent this much money on a set.  Prior to this purchase, I've had a number of different sets that I've purchased for myself or family members.  I liked my JVC headphones for small, light weight on-the ear use (reviewed here), even though they didn't quite do as good a job with noise canceling as over-the-ear headphones like the Audio Technica set I reviewed here or my Denon headphones, reviewed here
When I saw a display at a major retail store with the Bose headphones, I tried them on and noticed right away that they were very comfortable.  The display had a noise generator that simulates airplane noise.  The headphones did a good job blocking that out.  But were they really better than some of the other models I had at home that I and my family use?  Well, I decided to bring in my Denon headphones to compare.  After swapping out many times, it always did seem like the Bose headphones really did block out more noise, whether checking against the simulated airplane noise or just the general noise around the store.  So with a big "gulp" I plunked down the money and hoped that in real-world use on a real airplane that they really would create a better experience.

Overview

The QuietComfort 15 headphones come with the a hard-shell carry case, audio cable, and airline adapter.  They run on a single AAA battery, easy to find and replace anywhere, any time.  I would not want headphones with a proprietary rechargeable battery.  The headphones can be used without the audio cable and an audio source if you want just noise cancellation.  However, they can not be used for listening to an audio source without turning on the switch for noise cancellation and thus using the battery.  The only time that's a real problem is if the battery is dead and you have no spare.  In that situation you can't use them at all, even just as regular headphones.

Comfort

As mentioned above, the QuietComfort 15 headphones are certainly comfortable compared to others I've used.  For one thing, they are slightly bigger than the others I've used, so it makes it easier to get my entire ear can fit inside the cup, rather than getting pinched or bent.  Not only does a better seal against the head make it more comfortable, but it helps keep more sounds out in a passive manner.  In addition to the general fit, the cushions are simply the softest I've felt.  They just feel luxurious.  I guess they should for $300!  Lastly I noticed with the QuietComfort 15 is that my ears didn't tend to get as hot as with the others.

Noise Cancellation Performance

This is obviously one of the most important aspects of a set of headphones in this category and of this cost.  Keep in mind that no set of headphones will create a completely silent environment for you, but they can block out a large percentage of the noise and relegate the rest to a dull drone.  By adding a music source though, it can really help you drift off to sleep.  So are these expensive Bose headphones better than competitors that are $100 cheaper?  I can report that yes, there definitely IS a difference between the QuietComfort 15 and competitors in the next level down.  On a recent flight I switched back and forth with family members with other models several times and the QuietComfort 15 always came out on top, whether being used alone, or with a music source.  All of the headphones do a fairly good job cancelling the lower frequencies of a jet engine during flight (which are the ones that are said to cause the most stress), but the Bose set canceled them better, and also canceled other in-flight frequencies or the middle and higher ranges that the others barely touched.

In addition to using these headphones in-flight, I've also used them in an auditorium for checking sound mixing levels.  Without leaving the loud auditorium where the band was playing, I was able to listen back to a recording from a few minutes earlier and hear it VERY clearly. I was absolutely amazed that I could do this without the need to leave the room.  I did not have to blast the volume through the headphones in order to overcome the live noise in the room.  Amazing.

I've read that one of the ways Bose has tweaked their performance to rise above the competitors is by having multiple microphones on both the inside and outside of the ear cup for sampling sound to further help eliminate the unwanted sounds.  Having good quality padding and a good fit to the head to boost the passive noise reduction (i.e. insulating too keep it out) is something that I'm sure helps too.  However Bose accomplished it, they did a great job.

Sound Quality

The QuietComfort 15 seems to do a fine job at producing good sound in a full range of frequencies.  The sound is all-around pleasing, although other headphones can be found that produce deeper bass if that's something that's important to you.  Like all the noise cancelling headphones I've used, they make listening to in-flight entertainment pleasant, even when the source is not all that good.  If you've experienced the pain of trying to listen to an in-flight movie by blasting regular old ear-buds or headphones to overcome engine noise, you'll appreciate any set of noise-cancelling headphones even if you don't spend the $300 on the Bose set.

Value vs. Performance

So are they worth it?  That's the big question with expensive headphones like these.  For people who really do want the best noise reduction and best comfort and will use them often enough, they yes, you really do get more from this $300 device than the less expensive competitors.  For many people though, getting a very respectable and good performing set from a competing brand for $75 or $100 less might be the ticket.  My family members who use the Audio-Technica, Panasonic, or Denon headphones like them just fine, and they definitely do the job for letting you enjoy in-flight entertainment withouth killing your ears.  Overall, I'm well pleased with this purchase and would recomment these headphones.

UPDATE 6/3/2011:  I was looking back though my Amazon purchase history and noticed that they still carry the Audio Technica ATH-ANC7B (the newer model) that has a new "add to cart to view" price down at $131! That's a WHOLE lot less than I paid for mine and it would be my 2nd choice of headphones and recommended for those who just can't justify spending the money on the Bose Quietcomfort 15 headphones.


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