technology

These are the best noise canceling headphones we've used


Cons

  • Limited features

  • No adjustable EQ

This is the best noise canceling we’ve heard in years.

The QC45 aren’t flawless and neither are they without competition in this space. While testing revealed that the QC45 are the best noise-canceling over-ears we’ve tested in their price bracket, that’s paired with a slightly sharp sound signature and a software experience that is almost shockingly simple: minimalistic to some, inadequate to others. If you’d rather maximize sovereignty over your headphones’ sound and operation, you’d likely be better suited for the Sony WH-1000XM4. And there are also plenty of solid options at less kingly prices, like JBL’s impressive Tour One.

But if you want to be King (or Queen) of Quiet, the QC45 are a worthy crown. They command even difficult mid-frequency sounds into silence while offering a user experience that’s simple enough for anyone to easily jump into. And it may take another half-decade of R&D effort before their royal noise canceling is usurped.

About the Bose QC45

Here are the QC45’s vital specs at a glance:

  • Price: $329
  • Style: Over-ear
  • Ambient sound modes: Quiet mode (Acoustic Noise Cancelling), Aware mode
  • Battery life: Up to 24 hours with ANC (depending upon usage)
  • Passive operation: Yes (3.5-to-2.5mm cable included)
  • Voice assistant: Hardware/native locked (Siri, Bixby, etc.)
  • Weight: ~241 grams (8.5 oz.)
  • Bluetooth version: Bluetooth 5.1
  • Colors: Black, Smoke White
  • Additional Features: Bose Music app, USB-C quick charge, Bose SimpleSync, multipoint pairing

Unlike the more complex Bose 700 noise canceling headphones, which are more geared toward power users, the QC45 aim for simplicity.

Case in point: They have but one level of noise canceling, called Quiet, and one level of transparency, called Aware. They don’t integrate voice assistants like Amazon Alexa or Google Assistant. Even the Bose Music app is extremely pared-down, as we’ll discuss later.

The Bose QC45 in their carry case, with USB-C and 3.5mm cable on a couch

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

The QC45 come with a sturdy zip-up carrying case, a USB-C charging cable, and a 2.5-to-3.5mm cable for passive listening.

In the box, you’ll find the stylish, understated headphones paired with a solid zip-up carrying case, a 2.5-to-3.5mm cable for passive listening, and a (very short) USB-C charging cable. Note that there’s no airplane adapter included, though this is increasingly becoming less of a necessity for travelers.

What we like

Quiet comfort, indeed

Imagine: You slip a pair of plush, understated headphones over your ears as you head out the door. The ambient sounds of the outside world are suddenly far away, held at bay by a wall of silence. As the first few notes of your favorite Spotify playlist leap to your ears against a backdrop of perfect stillness, you begin to walk, momentarily distracted by the sensation of being able to feel but not hear your footfalls.

As your jaunt brings you to a busy intersection, you tap a button and a few choice pieces of environmental data enter your previously impenetrable sono-sphere. The sounds of traffic blend into your music.

You make your way safely through a crosswalk, guided by this new information but still fully enveloped by your tunes—in fact, you want to hear that song one more time. A few taps of another button and you start it again without ever taking your phone out of your pocket.

That kind of effortless musical solitude is the reality of good noise-canceling headphones, and the QC45 absolutely nail the experience.

Man relaxing on a couch, wearing the Bose QC45 headphones

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

The QC45 are plenty comfortable, and very light weight, making it easy to wear them all day.

In terms of comfort, they’re quite light (lighter than the famously light Sony XM4 headphones) and cushy enough for hours of comfy use. In fact, even when you’re wearing glasses, the QC45 feel like silky earmuffs, and it’s pretty easy to forget you’re even wearing them. When you take them off, they fold nicely into their compact carrying case.

A well-placed button on the left ear cup makes jumping between Quiet (ANC) and Aware (transparency) modes easy as pie. A vertical grouping of three buttons on the right cup makes it equally easy to adjust volume, play/pause tracks, or skip forward or backward through a playlist. Personally, I slightly prefer the touch controls on the Sony XM4, but finding the QC45’s buttons with your thumbs is almost as easy.

The control layout of the Bose QC45

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

The QC45’s button-based controls make it easy to jump between Quiet/Aware modes or adjust volume.

While there are some issues I’ll raise about the sound further below, as you might expect for what you’re paying, the QC45 generally sound quite good—much better than the average set of over-ears. Music and podcasts are well-balanced, handled by a generous soundstage that gives bass, midrange, and treble equal breathing room.

The basic boxes are all checked off. But this also isn’t new ground for Bose: the QC35 II delivered a similarly posh user experience.

Moreover, Sony’s excellent WH-1000XM4 are stiff competition, offering top-shelf canceling and an extensive feature list. Likewise, the more affordable JBL Tour One offer a similar experience to both headphones for as low as $250 online.

Why would you pay a little more for the QC45? The best noise canceling around.

So why would you pay a little more for the QC45? Simple: you want the best noise canceling around.

The King of Quiet

There are things about the Sony WH-1000XM4 that I prefer over the QC45, from their extra features and customization options to their fantastically flexible sound. There’s more than one reason the XM4 have been our top-rated headphones for months.

But if I had to pick a pair of headphones based solely on my desire to eliminate ambient noise, it would be the QC45.

For example, my cat is very loud. The last time we boarded him, the staff nicknamed him “The Spokesman” because he was loud enough to get himself and all the other cats fed early. His intense meowing literally draws strays to our home from around the neighborhood.

Bose QC45 sitting on a cushion near a brown tabby cat

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

While testing confirmed my experience, the QC45 first showed off their stellar noise canceling by being able to block out my cat’s hearty meows.

Until the QC45, I’d never used a pair of noise cancelers that my cat’s meow couldn’t plow right through—even the excellent Sony XM4 don’t fully block him out. But the QC45 render him totally silent, at least when you’re also listening to music. It’s been truly strange to see him open his mouth and hear nothing.

This was my first hint that Bose might have pushed the QC45 to achieve the next level of noise canceling. But to be sure about it, I tested their canceling back to back against the Sony XM4 using some of our standard noise-canceling audio tests, including airplane white noise and a sample of a large group of people talking.

Against the simpler airplane test, both the Sony XM4 and Bose QC45 quashed most of the audible noise—but while the XM4 permitted a single faint-but-audible hiss throughout their canceling efforts, I almost couldn’t tell the video was still playing while using the QC45.

The Bose QC45 headphones sitting atop a pillow in front of a window

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

If you want the best noise canceling a pair of over-ears can get you right now, the Bose QC45 deliver.

This difference was more pronounced during the background dialogue test. Both of these noise-canceling maestros handled this test well. But while the XM4 allowed a few of the brighter, more boisterous voices through, the QC45 pushed everything down into a low din that was almost entirely blocked out. With music playing, that boisterous room full of people was practically inaudible.

Bose has been 100% successful in its efforts to make the QC45 even better noise cancelers than the QC35 were, and in the same fell swoop, the company has bested the noise canceling on Sony’s lauded XM4 as well. And that’s the primary reason to spring for the QC45: perfect quiet.

Solid (but not class-leading) battery life

The QC45 don’t have the best battery life I’ve ever seen—that award still goes to the Audio-Technica 900BT, a 2019 pair that provide roughly 40-60 hours of playback depending on how much you use their noise canceling feature. Likewise, the oft-mentioned Sony XM4 get you around 30 hours with noise canceling enabled.

Bose’s QC45 clock in closer to 24 hours with noise canceling, which may not be the absolute tippy top of battery life, but is still quite good in the grand scheme of things. As a plus, a smaller battery means the QC45 are some of the lightest weight over-ears around.

What we don’t like

Sound can get too bright (with no way to adjust)

I concede that the QC45 generally sound quite good, with plenty of bass, midrange, and treble emphasis. However, I also personally find their frequency emphasis to be a little too bright and sibilant at times. Cymbal splashes or ringing harmonics tend to hit my ears with too much sharpness, and I find myself turning them down at times.

Whether you’ll notice this or not comes down to things like personal preference, average playback volume, and which genres of music you frequent, but it’s also one of those situations that could be easily remedied if Bose allowed for any equalizer (EQ) adjustments at all.

Hand holding the Bose QC45

Credit: Reviewed / Lee Neikirk

The QC45 may be comfortable to wear all day, but their sound quality occasionally hurts my ears.

In contrast, not only do the Sony XM4 allow you to customize your sound across multiple custom user settings, but there are also a bunch of great presets that boost treble or bass, or make music generally mellower or punchier.

In fact, this is a pretty standard feature you’ll find on the vast majority of headphones at this price including the JBL Tour One I keep mentioning, Audio Technica’s BT900, and multiple other models at lower price points as well, such as Sony’s CH-H710N, which can often be found for $100 or less. It would be great to have this feature on the QC45, especially for $330.

Keep It Simple, Bose?

To make another comparison to Sony’s flagship WH-1000XM4: When you open up that pair’s companion app, you’re met with an almost dizzying array of options. The “Status” tab shows what’s currently playing and what mode your Adaptive Sound Control is in. The “Sound” tab allows you to fine-tune Ambient Sound Control, toggle the Speak-to-Chat feature that pauses sound with your voice, automatically optimize noise canceling or detect your barometric pressure, adjust EQ, and so on. I don’t even want to get into everything you can do in the “System” tab, but it’s a lot.

By comparison, when you open up the Bose Music app, you’re not going to have as much to tinker with. You’ll see battery level and device volume at a glance. Using the “Modes” button, you can switch between Quiet and Aware (there’s no “off” mode), while the “Source” button will let you easily jump between Bluetooth source devices. (Like the Sony XM4, the Bose QC45 have multipoint pairing, allowing you to connect to multiple Bluetooth devices simultaneously, though you can still only take calls/listen on one device at a time.)

Bose Music software

Credit: Bose

Compared to much of their competition (and even some much cheaper cans), the QC45 delivery a limited range of features.

There are a few other features like adjusting Auto-Off, renaming the headphones, and easy syncing with Bose speakers and soundbars (great if you’re deep in the Bose ecosystem).

But at this price, we expect a bit more control over how the QC45 sound and operate. That said, if you’re of the opinion, a la Apple, that you shouldn’t have to tinker with designing your own experience when you’re paying this much money, you might be perfectly content with this feature set.

Should you buy it?

Yes—if noise canceling is your top priority

If Bose was hoping these headphones would deftly recreate everyone’s favorite aspects of the older QC35 while also canceling even more noise than before, then the QC45 are a major success. These cans are mighty comfortable, they sound quite good, they’re super easy to use, they offer solid battery life, and they crush more ambient noise than any ANC headphones we’ve tested. They also offer the same minimalist style that has made the QC line a staple for business travelers everywhere.

However, that doesn’t make them the perfect choice for every set of ears—especially if you’re not sure you’ll love Bose’s one-size-fits-all sound signature. If you’d prefer more functional, flexible companion software that allows you to deftly tweak and customize your headphones, more features and battery life, and (to my ears) better sound, you should check out the Sony WH-1000XM4 first.

If you want a luxurious pair of ANC over-ears for a fair bit less money, you should also look into the JBL Tour One, which offer comfort, great sound, and solid ANC for around $250 on sale, and $300 at full price.

If a minimalistic, pre-tailored experience—and the mightiest noise canceling this side of the Solar System—sound more like what you’re after, the QC45 may be a perfect choice for you. For at-home workers, frequent flyers, or anyone who wants to truly tame the ambient noise around them, the QC45’s noise canceling is second to none.

Meet the tester

Lee Neikirk

Lee Neikirk

Editor, Home Theater


@Koanshark

Lee has been Reviewed’s point person for most television and home theater products since 2012. Lee received Level II certification in TV calibration from the Imaging Science Foundation in 2013. As Editor of the Home Theater vertical, Lee oversees reviews of TVs, monitors, soundbars, and Bluetooth speakers. He also reviews headphones, and has a background in music performance.


See all of Lee Neikirk’s reviews

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