Bose’s QC35 II Headphones: Pretty Much Perfect

Still worth it in the shadow of the future?

hen the Bose QC 35’s first launched in 2016, I loved them. Then I went back and forth about whether or not they were better than Sony’s 1000X model, before drifting away from Sony in the wake of their headband cracking problem…something which they finally put some effort into resolving on the XM3 model with a new design and different plastic.

Sony might have a bespoke processor running their tiny-bit-better noise cancelling system, but Bose has a console-like easy user experience, a flatter sound profile, and multiple device support. Being connected to both my phone and my laptop while on the go and seamlessly switching between them is a killer feature that, for many, is worth giving up a little cancellation.

Now, Bose is about to launch the new Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, at a higher price tier of $400. They add better voice quality for calls and a new stainless steel headband design. And…some touch controls? Demo units are rolling out across the country, and yesterday I spent some time with one. They seem…fine.

I’m sure I’ll buy them and review them sometime down the road, but right now, I can’t in any way tell you to spend the extra money and pre-order them.

Why? Because the current QC35 II’s are simply too good. They probably have all the features you’ll want in an ANC model, and they have a lower price.

I didn't review the “II” model when it first launched in 2018, because I still owned my original pair and didn’t think it was worth the upgrade. It rolled out alongside a software update which tweaked the ANC algorithm a bit, and added an adjustable setting for noise cancellation strength. The main physical change that warranted a “II” in the name was a new button you can use to either summon your digital phone assistant, or change the ANC level.

As of this very moment, the QC35 II is on sale for $300, and at that price, it’s even harder to recommend you wait for the 700’s to launch and pay $100 more for them. Last year I gave my original QC35’s to my girlfriend, so the start of the discount over the weekend made me run out and buy the 35 II’s.

I’m glad that I did.

The QC35 II still offers a very flat, natural, even sound profile, with just a hint of additional warmth over what I’d consider “accurate,” and some very tiny inconsistencies in the treble response. But man, as consumer headphones go, it has one of the nicest sound signatures out there. It maintains this profile at all volume levels thanks to aggressive active EQ. Its noise cancellation is still within a decibel or two or Sony’s tech-focused 1000X juggernaut, and its heavily angled drivers give your ears room to breathe in a way almost no other closed back can touch.

I’m a little bummed that Bose chose to reboot/enhance their product line with the new 700’s instead of refining the QC35’s even further. It was their first wireless ANC over ear headphone, and it deserved a second chance that wasn’t just a new button.

I would have loved to see a more traditional upgrade that included more colorways, a bigger battery (Bose’s 20 hour life with ANC and wireless on is now outclassed by a few of the other big headphones), a USB C charging port, and enhanced Bluetooth codec support.

The featureset and design of the 700’s both seem like a weird sidestep. They’re clearly making a play for the Beats user base and not focused on a “true” upgrade over the raw performance of the QC35’s. They’re very careful to talk about how much better it will be, and that’s because on first listen the 700’s are barely any different from the 35's.

And the drawbacks of the new design compared to the 35 II’s are obvious even on paper.

They don’t fold down to as small of a size, so although their case is a bit thinner, it’s also much wider. Their plastic ear cups feel weird against the heft of the stainless steel headband, and the headband adds 20g of weight. They didn’t improve the battery life at all. And the squishy rubber piece that serves as a headband pad, while supple, is nowhere near as premium-feeling as the soft Alcantara(TM) headband pads that Bose has used for years.

Maybe my 30 minute demo session with the 700’s in a Best Buy on a quiet Wednesday afternoon won’t be representative of the final listening experience. That would be great! Maybe they’ll measure even flatter, and their new ANC microphones will make them one decibel ahead of Sony instead of one decibel behind. Maybe people care more about further improved call quality than I personally do, and are willing to spend extra for it.

Different isn’t always better. And it’s hard to improve too much on an ANC headphone when you’re already blocking a ton of noise and pumping out nice flat audio. So I get the temptation to throw it into a new chassis just for the novelty factor.

Sony approached this problem by leaning into a slightly more aggressive, consumer-friendly sound profile and filling their headphone with fancy frills and user customizations, and that’s done well for them. They were also the first big company to produce an ANC system that could compete with Bose’s level of cancellation. All of that together was a viable new way to approach the market by adding new features and improving on old ones, even if the headband materials sucked.

I have no doubt Sony will release another smart refresh this year. They’ve launched a new 1000X every fall, and each one gets a little better. They’re also going to launch an XtraBass headphone with the 1000X ANC tech inside soon, and that’ll probably be a big hit. EDIT: I was wrong. Sony apparently felt comfy enough with the performance of the 1000XM3 to not refresh it this year. Can’t say I blame them.

But Sony also tried the $400 price point before to mixed results. When the first 1000X launched years ago, it had a $399 price tag. It got great reviews, but the broad consumer base was a little soft on paying 50 dollars more for a slightly better headphone. So Sony eventually corrected down to the standard $350 price and never looked back.

I feel like Bose is about to make this same mistake, but with a headphone that doesn’t bring as much new stuff to the table. When you’re competing with an icon like the QC35, that you yourself made, your new model really needs to knock it out of the park if you want users to pay more. Some stainless steel and better voice quality probably isn’t enough. At least for me. In fact, that’s the sort of upgrade I might have expected out of a standard yearly refresh at the same price.

Right now, Bose is claiming the QC35 family will live on, but we all know they’ll kill it as soon as possible if the 700’s do well. If that happens, I’m happy I snagged this final revision. It’s still a classy, well-executed design with brilliant comfort, sound, and portability.

I’m going to miss that Alcantara, just like I miss the weird shoe leather from the sides of first 1000X.

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