Bose QuietComfort 45 review: comfortably familiar

Bose’s Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, released in 2019, are a perfectly fine pair of premium noise-canceling headphones. They’re Bose’s attempt to leapfrog Sony and other competitors with a revamped, sleek design and more powerful active noise cancellation. But for some of the company’s most loyal fans, they veer off a little too far from what they expect Bose headphones to be. The NCH 700s don’t have the same feather-light comfort as the QuietComfort lineup, they annoyingly can’t be folded for easy carrying, and generally, it seems like Bose needlessly tried to fix something that wasn’t broken.

But with the new $329 QuietComfort 45 noise-canceling headphones, there’s no reinventing the wheel. This time, Bose is sticking much closer to the formula that led to such success for the QuietComfort 35 and 35 II. That model became an essential piece of kit for combatting the din of cities or hushing the train commute, and you see them on every flight. The QC45s aren’t considered Bose’s flagship headphones anymore, but with additions like USB-C, improved ANC, and longer battery life, they’re just what some people have been waiting for.

With the QC45s, Bose is moving away from the flashy, “modern” style of the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 and going back to what worked. The steel headband, which seamlessly continued down into metal rods that made for a much smoother motion when adjusting the fit, is gone. Now, we’re back to the proudly plastic QuietComfort aesthetic that feels surprisingly durable (thanks to metal hinges at the pivot points) and the familiar ratcheting when you extend the ear cups has also returned.

The swipey touchpad controls of the NCH 700s are also history. Bose has essentially just copied and pasted the physical buttons of the QC35 IIs: on the underside of the right earcup are dedicated controls for volume and a multi-function button for track controls and summoning a voice assistant. On the left is a button that switches between ANC and Bose’s “aware” (transparency) mode; the latter is a feature that the QC35s didn’t offer.

The QuietComfort 45 headphones look very similar to their predecessors.

The look and in-hand feel of the QC45s and QC 35 IIs are extremely similar. The only telltale sign that distinguishes the new headphones from older models is the USB-C port at the bottom of the right ear cup. A more subtle clue is that the Bose logo is no longer raised and is now just stamped onto the ear cups. Otherwise, it’s difficult to tell them apart by eyeballing it. The newer headphones weigh slightly more (8.5 ounces compared to 8.3), but that’s not a difference I ever noticed when wearing them.

Sony’s WH-1000XM4 headphones at left, Bose’s QC45 at right.

Staying true to their predecessors, the QC45s are splendidly comfortable. I’ve worn them for stretches of three to five hours without any hint of unpleasant aching or soreness at the top of my head. The clamping force is very gentle, so you won’t feel them squeezing on the sides of your dome — even if you’re like me and have an oversized head. Bose says it has eliminated some “pleats and puckers” and reduced gaps between components, but crucially, none of these minor tweaks have had a negative impact on comfort.

Bose has made minor design tweaks to the ear cushions and headband.

But other aspects of the hardware stick to a familiar formula.

Aside from their physical design contrasts, the QC45s and Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 also approach noise cancellation differently. With the more expensive headphones, Bose gives you precise control over the amount of ANC applied, so you can dial in exactly the level you want. But on the newer pair, you only get two choices: “quiet” is standard ANC mode, and “aware” is a transparency feature that pipes in environmental sound. Bose uses voice prompts to tell you which mode you’re in, and the “quiet” one amusingly sounds like you’re being scolded to shush.

Strangely, at least right now, there’s no way to switch off both noise cancellation and transparency. You’ve got to pick one or the other, so you can’t listen to the QC45s in a more basic mode that would rely only on their natural passive noise isolation. This seems like a very weird thing to leave out, so I’m hoping Bose will add a simple “ANC off” option down the line.

There’s no way to turn ANC off unless you activate aware mode.

That noise cancellation is a step up in its effectiveness from the QC35 IIs, and it’s right about on par with the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, Sony’s WH-1000XM4s, and the Apple AirPods Max. All of these headphones now do a tremendous job of quieting your surroundings and putting you in a private bubble with your music, podcasts, movies, or whatever else you’re using them for.

And when you activate Bose’s aware mode, it’s designed not to overwhelm you with a sudden cacophony of outside noise. The company says it aimed for a balanced volume that lets you hear your environment without taking anything away from your tunes. I appreciate the intention — and the mix does work well — but this is another area where letting people dial in the level of ambient sound would’ve been nice. And again, that’s something the Noise Canceling Headphones 700 will give you, but not these. Wind noise is very noticeable and can get aggravating when you’re in aware mode, but it’s handled much better when ANC is enabled.

The QC45s can fold down for efficient storage in a bag.

Bose also decided to forgo other nice-to-have features like automatic pausing when you remove the headphones. And the company doesn’t seem interested in matching Sony’s “speak to chat” trick where the headphones will temporarily pause audio whenever they detect that you’re speaking.

I can do without those, but I’m more annoyed by other omissions. You still can’t use the QC45s while they’re plugged in and charging. And charging is all that happens when you attach a USB-C cable; Bose doesn’t support audio over that connection, which is disappointing for headphones that cost over $300. There’s still the Bose-standard 2.5mm audio jack for wired listening with the included 2.5-to-3.5mm cable. So long as the battery isn’t dead, ANC also works in wired mode. You can even continue to listen plugged in when the battery is depleted — albeit with no noise cancellation and much worse sound quality since Bose’s Active EQ doesn’t work without power.

It would’ve been nice to see some EQ options in the Bose Music app.

Speaking of EQ, Bose doesn’t currently let you customize it on the QuietComfort 45s, but you can on the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Considering the price of the QC45s, there’s no excuse not to add EQ adjustments to these headphones. It’s too important of a feature to be positioned as some differentiator when both of these cans are so expensive. The adjustable noise cancellation is enough to set the NCH 700s apart. Bose tells me there are no immediate plans for firmware updates or pending new features for the QC45s.

You’ll have a hard time finding a more comfortable pair of headphones.

And then there’s the sound, which from what the company tells me, hasn’t changed one iota from the QuietComfort 35 IIs — at least not on purpose. There are some early technical measurements that show Bose has cleaned up the tuning a bit, but to my ears and those I’ve let demo both headphones, they’re very, very close. And to me, that’s a good outcome. If there’s one consistency among Bose headphones, it’s that they’re remarkably listenable. The bass is subdued compared to Sony’s 1000XM4s, and the high end is similarly laid back and never too sharp.

Bose has made the switch to USB-C.

The headphones come in black or “smoke white.”

This button toggles between ANC and transparency modes.

The volume and multi-function buttons are very similar to the controls from the QC35 IIs.

These aren’t headphones that are going to fill your ears with captivating detail or a sophisticated soundstage, but unless you need a ton of boom from the bass, there’s really nothing I’d label underwhelming about the audio. Bose continues to support multipoint for two simultaneous connections, and the QC45s now have Bluetooth 5.1 for expanded range and more robust performance. As for codecs, they stick to the very status quo SBC and AAC, leaving out more advanced options like aptX Adaptive or LDAC.

Sound quality might be largely unchanged, but Bose has made refinements to microphone performance. There’s now a fourth external mic that aids with voice pickup, and Bose says a noise-rejecting algorithm filters out background sounds for clearer calls than were possible on the QC35 IIs. Everyone said I came through clearly and that nothing sounded muffled when making phone calls or chatting over Zoom with the QC45s. Battery life has also very modestly improved from 20 hours to 24 on the new headphones. They can be fully charged up in 2.5 hours, and in a low-battery pinch, a 15-minute top-off should get you three hours of listening time.

Other supported features include multipoint and synced audio with Bose’s soundbars.

The QuietComfort 45s are Bose at its best. They’re not some grand departure, and they adhere so closely to what’s come before that it’s easy to perceive them as less ambitious than the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. But with their enhancements to noise cancellation, a useful new aware mode, and other tweaks, Bose has added ample appeal to what was already a solid foundation. And you’re not simply going to find a more comfortable pair of noise-canceling headphones. I just hope the company unlocks their fullest potential with some firmware updates in the coming months.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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