Noise Canceling Headphones: Bose QC25 vs QC35

Bose’s QuietComfort (QC) 25 has been the guardian of personal enclave in my home office for over three years now. It was the best noise canceling headsets available to consumers at the time and still is the best buy in its class as according to The Wirecutter (2017). These headphones may not have the best acoustics, but no other brand can match its focus-enabling capabilities (i.e. take most distractions out).

It’s been over a year since my ear canals started to refuse being plugged to anything. Prolonged use of in-ear earphones have irritated the skin just inside those tunnels such that it becomes itchy when in contact with both sealed in-ear and just-outside-ear buds (that includes Apple’s earpods as well). Not wanting to take the QC 25 headphones outside — being a pretty expensive and indispensable set of gear — I’ve tried a number of cheaper alternatives for commuting. Sadly without noise canceling, on-ear and around-ear headphones doesn’t work well in commuter trains (a.k.a metro) unless I crank up the volume really high — remember that these headphones doesn’t create a “seal” like what in-ear units does. There’s simply too much noise inside these underground railways and the tunnels just make it worse by reflecting all the noise energy back into the cars.

Then I began taking the Bose QC25 unit out for commuting. Crossing roads became a bit scary at first — vehicle sounds becomes so muffled, I really needed to make sure visually that there are no cars going my way. But I’ve learned to be more conscious where I’m walking and to not look at my phone while walking. It works great in silencing the noise of commuter trains, but I need to pay more attention on the train station announcements. These announcements doesn’t get canceled by the headphones entirely, but they do get muffled when I turn on music as well. However QC25 being a wired unit and large headphones as well, there were a few instances that the wire got snared by another passenger’s purse or backpack — and almost took my phone away with it.

Thankfully, not too long ago I found a number of Bose QuietComfort 35 units on sale in my local e-commerce site (Qoo 10 Singapore). This is an improvement of the QC 25 and adds Bluetooth connectivity, among other things. The sale brought down the “normal” selling price of the unit from around S$ 600 into slightly above S$ 450 (sadly, Bose headsets tend to retail more expensively in my corner of the world as opposed to Amazon’s U.S. prices). Since there’s a budget for it, I think there was no better time to order a pair.

From my personal experience, broken wires are the primary cause of damage to earphones. Either because of accidentally getting pulled, or simply wear to the metallic inner core of the wire. It may look as if it’s fine, but the usual symptoms of broken earphone wires are missing audio on one side, “clicking” sound, or the audio intermittently goes out when the wires are positioned in a certain way. Bose’s designers were probably aware of this fact and they were kind enough to incorporate a replaceable microphone cable in the QC25’s design. This alleviates the impact of broken wires for a high end headphones — although the replacement cable is by no means cheap. In any case, a Bluetooth unit doesn’t need cables for normal use, so this significantly reduces the “impact area” for damage to occur.

Now I have both the QC25 and QC35 headsets. I’m keeping both units since, well, I’d figure it would be immensely difficult to find buyers for a used ear-ware. Besides, despite being an “older model”, the QC25 does have some advantages over its supposedly “successor” model. In the next few paragraphs, I’ll share some of my experiences in using these two headsets — what’s common about them, where each one excels and what are their respective drawbacks.

Bose QC 35 vs QC 25

Common to Both Models

First and foremost, Bose’s QuietComfort series are the best in the area of noise canceling. They may not be the best sounding set of ear-plugs in their respective price-points, but nobody else have yet to match Bose’s noise-canceling prowess. A good number of reviews have confirmed this — both anecdotal and objective sound tests, including one from The Wirecutter as mentioned earlier. If you’re looking for musical ear-plugs to help you focus during solo work, these are the ones to get. Bose has combinations of over-hear, in-ear, wired, and Bluetooth models in this series. Don’t have enough money? Use the one that came with your phone and save money until you can afford it 😉

Despite all that, there are room for improvements in those headphones. These noise canceling sets works best against “humming” noises — repetitive, seemingly cycling sounds. Among those are mechanical noises (aircraft, metro, cars) and restaurant chatter. However, high-pitch sounds still get through; beeps, shouting, baby crying sounds can still be heard from within the headset — although those are usually pretty muffled and almost unintelligible if you have music on. Sadly, some sounds get amplified from as heard from inside the headset. Door slams are seemingly louder and tend to feel like there’s a drum hit near you. Wind blowing against the headsets creates microphone-blowing sound as heard from within.

QC35: Latest model, now with 100% more Bluetooth

Being wireless, the Bose QC35 has the advantage of being less likely from getting tangled nor snared in commuter trains. It’s also one less thing to take out and unravel from the carrying case, likewise the reverse act of winding up the cable for packaging back in the case. The Bluetooth signal is very good, I haven’t experienced interference so far – unlike some other Bluetooth units that tend to have signal breakages whenever I walk underneath high voltage lines (typically passing below a railway or over an underground power line).

QC35’s Bluetooth implementation allows it to connect to two devices simultaneously. It comes in handy when, for example, connecting to a laptop and a phone. However only one can play music and the second connected device that plays music gets ignored until the first one stops. That is, the headphones don’t mix the music from its two connected devices. At least you don’t have to fiddle with Bluetooth settings of your phone or laptop to change the music source. Moreover, installing the iOS app seems to allow you to pair the headphones to more than two devices. With the Bose Connect app, you can activate/de-activate other paired devices and easily select which is the other device that gets the connection (in addition to connection to the iOS device of course, because the app still needs to have a connection to do this magic).

The headphones as a neat voice feedback feature that are seldom found in other Bluetooth set. On power-on, it announces the battery level as well as the names of devices currently connected to it — or connection status as it makes connection retries. Upon receiving a phone call, the same voice announces who is calling — probably with some help from the Bose Connect app since the latter wants access to the address book. These notable extras are missing from all of my other Bluetooth headsets.

You can turn off the QC35’s noise canceling feature but still have it connected via Bluetooth. This could be useful when you’re out and about thus need to have more awareness of your surroundings. There’s also a light noise canceling mode that seems to be useful on windy situations — it reduces the noise caused by wind blowing on the external microphones at the expense of more outside noise going in.

Not everything is better with the QC35. Its voice capabilities is practically useless in noisy environments. It couldn’t pickup your voice and tell it apart from the background noise. This also makes voice commands — such as Siri — pretty much impossible to do in commuter trains.

The battery lasts about four days under my typical use. Bose quotes 20 hours of battery live given a full charge. It’s a non-removable battery, hence would probably need to be replaced after three years or so. To rub salt to the wound, Bose itself seems clueless on how are they going to support battery replacement. As of this writing, they don’t offer battery replacement service for the headsets. Hopefully this would clear up as the model ages.

Interestingly, the QC35’s firmware is field-upgradable. Indeed, the light noise canceling feature was delivered via a software update to the headsets, installed via either the iOS app or through USB from an app also provided by Bose. Hopefully there would me more improvements coming along.

QC25: The Previous Generation

The microphone and remote control located on the QC25’s wired connection is particularly useful with Siri. I can bring the microphone closer to my mouth and use it to command Siri to start my music playlist. This works perfectly in commuter trains, making the “feature” is the one I miss the most from QC25’s successor.

These headphones runs on a standard AAA battery. Having a user-replaceable battery also potentially increases the headphones’ useful service life — since batteries are probably among the first thing to fail in most electronic devices. Removable batteries also relieve me from needing to recharge it frequently without fear of running out of power. I keep it with a pair of rechargeable triple-A batteries, one inside the unit and the other one tucked in the battery compartment provided inside its carrying case. Whenever the battery inside gets depleted, I just swap it out with a fresh one and recharge the empty one when I have the chance.

There’s no latency on wired headphones. This would probably be useful for playing games that requires you to also monitor your virtual surroundings acoustically. Another use case for me is for playing virtual musical instruments on GarageBand.

But you may say, “iPhone 7 doesn’t have a headphone jack! Going forward iPhones aren’t likely to have headphone jacks, I can’t use these.” Please note that wired headsets still work with the iPhone 7, through the provided lighting-to-3.5mm audio adaptor. There’s plenty of space in the QC25’s carrying case to throw in that adaptor. Frankly, a for a headset this big, you might as well keep a lightning audio adapter connected to the QC25’s audio cable most of the time.

Being an older model also means lower prices. I’ve seen some online stores selling the QC25 at almost half the price of its successor model, the QC35. This makes the unit a great bargain. That said, Amazon usually lists the QC25 at $70 lower than the QC35.

Recommendations

Now I’m using the QC25 back in its original role, as the headphones on my home office desk. It’s wired microphone allows me to use Siri quite well and reliably attend teleconferences. The QC35 has become my daily commute headset — no more tangles and snares caused by the audio cable. Needing to use my phone to select playlists instead of telling Siri is a minor inconvenience, a minor tradeoff for being wireless. I couldn’t differentiate the audio quality nor noise canceling capabilities between the two, although The Wirecutter claims that the QC35 has slightly better noise canceling when measured through instrumentation.

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