It’s Monday, and it’s time for the headphone showdown!
Everyone else has already done this one, and now I’m doing it. If you’ve read/seen any of the other comparisons, you probably know which one is going to win: The Sony MDR-1000X…which now has a build quality issue that’s not slowing down or going away. Oh good.
In spite of that, I still think the 1000X is slightly better, tech-wise. But I wish Sony was handling the build issues with more grace. It’s a disaster. I wrote this article before talk of those problems was widespread, and I didn’t personally experience them, but you should know they exist. I’ve updated the build section of the below article, and I now recommend you buy whichever one is cheapest, and if build is a worry…stick with the Bose.
Sony’s MDR-1000X launched at an MSRP in the US of $400, and sometimes goes on sale for less. Right now, as of this writing, it’s $349. UPDATE: It’s back up to a regular price of $399, but it still drops to $349 from time to time on sale. It’s even gone all the way down to $328 at times. It’s the newcomer, the upstart, the feature-packed model that has swooped in to try and win the crown. It’s packed to the gills with more hi-tech features than any other headphone in this price range, and it doesn’t require special drivers or a mobile app to access them.
Bose has been in the noise-cancelling game longer than anyone, but their first wireless entry, the QuietComfort 35, launched about 6 months before the 1000X. It has a US MSRP of $349, and almost never goes on sale. Bose packs in their best noise-cancelling so far with the features and design from their earlier Soundlink II wireless headphones. They’re light and easy to use.
For the longest time, Bose’s patents and proprietary noise-cancelling systems have kept other competitors in the dark. Engineers have struggled for years to produce similar results in a way that didn’t infringe legally. People have come close, but never outdone Bose. My favorite attempt so far was the MSR7NC.
But with the 1000X? Let’s just say Sony’s headphone engineers should be very proud.
High- grade sound is tough to achieve on ANC(active noise-cancelling) headphones, because of the underlying technology. Essentially, little microphones analyze the sound outside your ear cups, and compare that with the sound of your music to generate an “anti-noise” sound wave. This sound wave is then incorporated into the sound playing from your headphones. Without extensive processing and trickery, the resulting audio would seem kind of bizarre.
Sony’s MDR-1000X produces the most natural sound I’ve ever heard in a pair of ANC headphones. It’s warm, musical, and pleasant to listen to, with enough bite and punch to never sound muffled or lacking in detail. It’s very much like the sound that comes out of their MDR-1A lineup, no surprise since these are built on the same driver technology.
They’re not quite as neutral or as analytical as many audiophiles would probably like them to be, but they sound great. Vocals are clear, highs are crisp and non-fatiguing, bass is just a touch soft on impact but present and warm and fun to listen to.
When unpowered and wired, they sound pretty great too…which I wasn’t expecting. I’ve seen measurement graphs that show a dip in performance, but they’re still quite listenable. Unlike the Bose headphones.
In active mode, the QC35 has the finest example of the Bose sound I’ve ever heard. Kind of like the 1000X, they produce a warm, friendly-to-long-sessions sound. However, bass is a bit punchier, more immediate, and more aggressive, and the highs sparkle more…almost too much. Certain mid and high tones have a weird crinkle/crackle to them at times. It’s something I didn’t really notice until Tyll pointed it out, and then I couldn’t stop hearing it. The sound isn’t quite as musical and weighty as the sound of the 1000X, and feels a bit more artificially sculpted.
Bose uses their proprietary Active EQ to adjust different frequency levels at different volume levels, and it’s quite obvious. Basically, when you turn down the volume, bass is cranked up to compensate for the loss in response in the low end that naturally occurs at low volumes. This is effective, but also noticeable, and there’s no way to turn it off.
Sony has some processing going on in their set as well, but it’s not as aggressive-sounding or obvious.
Unpowered and on a wire, the Bose set sounds kind of… bad. The mids become hollow, the bass becomes boomy, and the highs drop away into nothingness. You can test this yourself even on their in-store demo units by flicking the power switch off. I would happily use the Sony’s wired if I had to, but I would never listen to the Bose set without power. Bose is doing a lot more sculpting to make it sound good and they need the power on to do that.
I’m not saying the Bose headphones sound bad. In fact, I once erroneously and aggressively defended their sound against the 1000X. Boy was I wrong to do that. The 1000X has a sound that I find better all around and more pleasing, and I think most people would agree. But you’d be getting 90 percent of the way there with the Bose set… as long as you have them powered and never notice the annoying crinkle in the highs.
Winner: Sony MDR-1000X. They sound more musical and even. The EQ sculpting is less noticeable on tracks I’m familiar with.
This might put me at odds with literally everyone else…but I personally find the MDR-1000X a touch more comfy than the QC35.
Let me qualify/clarify that.
The Bose QC35 is lighter. It’s less clampy. It has softer, slightly cushier ear pads. But the problem is the headband. The headband on the QC35 has the stiffest padding I’ve ever seen on a Bose product, probably to help balance their additional weight compared to earlier models. If you don’t get it perfectly placed around the top of your head, it can cause some very minor discomfort.
And then you’ll have to shift them around.
I’ve lived with this for a long time, and it’s not that big of a deal. I didn’t mention this in as much detail in my original review because I thought it might just be down to my head shape, and it’s solved with a quick adjustment. But it can be frustrating sometimes. And it intrudes into otherwise extraordinary comfort. The headphones truly disappear from your head when properly seated.
The MDR-1000X never disappears on the head. It’s heavier and clampier than the the QC35…but still very comfy. The memory foam padding on the ear pads and headband is dense and supple. Furthermore, the weight is perfectly balanced. You just put them on and go.
You’ll always notice that you’re wearing them, but they won’t cause any pain.
Also, The QC35’s have more space inside the ear cups, meaning your ears probably won’t touch anything. The 1000X’s have shallow cups, but they’re filled with really soft foam that gently cradles the ear. I don’t have a problem with this, but if you don’t like stuff touching your ears, you might find it unsettling at first.
For most people, the QC35 will probably be more immediately cushy, but I like the fit of the Sony’s.
Winner: Bose QC35 for most people, if we’re talking about general attributes. I prefer the fit of the Sony pair.
Bose builds the QC35 with stainless steel headband reinforcement, a glass-filled nylon plastic that’s stronger than other plastics, and soft “alcantera” automotive fabric on the headband pad. They feel good in the hand. My pair has some noticeable creaking in the ear cup joints when I’m wearing them, but from what I’ve read this might be a bigger problem with the first batch. I bought mine on release, so your mileage may vary with that particular problem.
Although the glass-filled nylon definitely seems strong…it also feels like plastic. There’s nothing all that premium about it, and I don’t do stress or drop tests on my headphones. If you didn’t go read online about how they used better plastic, you’d just think they were regular plastic.
Ear pads are nice and easily replaceable.
Sony’s MDR-1000X immediately feels more “premium” than the QC35. Metal is evident and exposed everywhere, and finished with a soft mildly glossy coating. The only obvious plastic is on the outside of the adjustment arms, and on the edges of the ear cups. And it’s finished with nice textures in both cases, unlike the plain plastic feel of the QC35. The outsides of the cups are covered in leatherette that seems really fancy.
And they smell like new shoes.
The ear pads are replaceable on the 1000X, though they’re attached with little clips, making them tougher to remove than the Bose pads.
Sony also has the advantage of evolving the design of the MDR100, which was a great-looking headphone. Bose hasn’t really changed their headphone design in a number of years. They look good and subtle, but there’s nothing obviously stylish about the QC35. Also, Bose had to add a little break in the right ear cup and a piece of plastic so that the wireless signal could get in to the receiver. The MDR-1000X has no such obvious antenna seam.
My 1000X has a small creak in the left side that very occasionally makes itself heard when I move my jaw while wearing them, but this is reasonable compared to other units I’ve used. They creak much less than my QC35s.
EDIT 6/30/17: Some Sony pairs might have weak plastic along the inside of the headband. This is a huge bummer, and something I hope they quickly resolve. I have no idea how widespread the problem is. I didn’t experience this issue myself, but I’ve heard from a few who have. So be aware! I’m awarding this category to Bose for build quality until this issue is resolved.
Winner: Bose QC35 for build, because they don’t have reports of breaking plastic.
For years and years now, if you wanted ANC headphones, you wanted Bose. First designed to block out plane noise, Bose has been refining their technology for years to be the leader in consumer noise-cancelling.
They just got stomped.
The MDR-1000X marks the debut of Sony’s Sense Engine ANC engine, a fully dynamic noise-cancelling system that adapts to your environment, and your individual head. With a long press of the ANC button, the headphones play test tones, checking for the shape of your ear, whether the seal of the pads is broken by glasses or hair, and other environmental factors. Then it adjusts the ANC accordingly for the best performance. It’s wonderful.
Now, Bose’s system is no slouch, and it has years of research behind it. But it has no user-controllable options. You just turn it on and go. You can’t turn it off without shutting down the headphones. It does a very good job, and for years served as an unreachable benchmark. But Sony’s system is clearly better, and the new one to beat.
Low frequencies are still the easiest to block, but Sony’s headphones do a surprisingly good job with other sounds too, thanks to their Sense Engine and their stiffer clamping force/ear pads. This impressed me in the same way my first pair of QuietComfort 15’s did years ago.
I’ll be very curious to see if anyone can match Sony’s performance here, but my hunch is that they’re going to be the front-runner for quite some time now.
Winner: Sony MDR-1000X. Bose gets about 90 percent of the way there. If you need the best ANC on the market, you need the Sony headphones. Their web page isn’t lying.
Bose has a couple of notable features in their headphones that Sony lacks. The QC35 has built-in active EQ, mentioned above, which adjusts sound levels so that you get the same signature regardless of listening volume. You’re going to either hate or love this. If you’re a purist, you’ll probably hate it and notice it all the time, but I think it’s cool. Bose does a good job of maintaining a listenable and dynamic sound even at lower volumes.
The QC35 can connect to two devices simultaneously, and smartly switch between them based on which one is playing audio. I really wish the 1000X had this feature. Bose also offers a smartphone app that allows for quick switching between paired devices. On the 1000X, you have to manually connect and disconnect your preferred listening device on your own.
Both headphones feature a jack for listening with a cable instead of Bluetooth. Bose uses a proprietary 2.5 mm jack that’s hard to find other cables for. Boo! Sony’s jack is totally standard, and you should be able to replace the included cable without too much issue. Yay!
The QC35 features basic buttons for controlling volume and playback. They feel nice and stiff and responsive. The 1000X uses touchpad controls, with gestures for play/pause, track skipping, and volume. They work great!
As far as built-in DACs/Amps go, the one inside the 1000X is better. Sony uses their S-Master HX digital amplifier, also seen on high-end audio products like the MDR-1ADAC, featuring their DSEE upscaling tech for low-res music. It gets much louder than the amp inside the QC35, if that’s your thing, and I have noticed fewer compression artifacts in some of my crappier music files, but that’s not something everyone will pick up on. S-Master HX is one of the only all-digital amplification chains in the market. At least, until that weird new Audio-Technica DSR7BT headphone comes out. (That one somehow keeps the signal digital even when playing it through the speaker drivers. I’m not sure how that would even work, but hey!)
On the 1000X, you can use buttons on the left ear cup to turn off ANC, activate the optimizer, and activate the Sense Engine ambient sound modes. There’s a voice mode, which lets voices into your headphones, and a normal mode, which lets all outside sound in just a bit. These really work! If you hold your hand over the right ear cup, your music volume lowers and a mic pumps in ambient sound so you can talk to someone quickly or listen to something nearby. This also works really well! Bose has nothing like this, and doesn’t let you turn off the ANC.
Both headphones offer just over 20 hours of battery life. The Sony’s will go up to 30 if you don’t use any of the ANC features…but why would you do that all the time? They both recharge over Micro USB. Both headphones have comparable Bluetooth range. I can walk about 15 feet away from my phone before it starts to have minor issues, depending on walls and other obstructions. With my computer and its stronger receiver, I can get to the other end of my apartment three rooms away without connection issues. The 1000X has a special low quality mode you can access with a button combo if you want to extend the Bluetooth range. Bose offers no such option. The Sony pair seems to extend slightly further overall, but neither device has a problem.
Both headphones support a number of codecs for Bluetooth audio. The QC35 has SBC and AAC support. AAC sounds better, but they’re both just fine. Sony offers SBC, AAC, AptX and LDAC on the 1000X. LDAC is proprietary to Sony devices. My MacBook uses AptX, and it sounds really good…but you’ll get on just fine even with basic SBC, unless you’re a very discerning listener.
That was a long paragraph to say that both sound good in wireless mode. If you are concerned about bitrates/codec quality, the Sony is the better buy.
When calling someone on the QC35, sidetone is automatically activated. On the 1000X, you have to turn on the ambient sound mode if you want to hear your own voice. I’ve had no major issues with call quality on either pair.
Each headphone includes a hard shell case. They’re hilariously similar to each other. Both headphones collapse and fold flat, and both fit one specific way into their cases. Bose’s case offers an additional pouch for cable storage. Sony’s case has a nicer material on the front of it. They’re so identical it’s impossible to pick a better one.
Sony has the features category in the bag. Their ANC engine is more fully-featured. Their touch controls are fun and effective. Their ambient sound modes really work.
I will say, the QC35's are a little easier to use. You just put them on, turn them on, and you’re done. You can quickly connect to two devices, and the app makes it easy to switch between them. But this slightly better usability is probably outweighed by all the extras on the Sony pair.
UPDATE: Bose has added adjustable ANC to the QC35. This brings them one notch closer to the 1000X feature set, but the Sony model is still slightly ahead in that category with its fancy touch panel and ambient noise modes.
Winner: Sony MDR-1000X. Unless you need the extra ease-of-use features of the Bose, they seem lacking in comparison.
These are both great wireless ANC headphones. But the 1000X is better. If yours doesn’t crack on the headband.
The Sony set has better sound for most people, better ANC, better fit, better features…and sometimes when it’s on sale, an equal price. At its launch price of $400, the decision is a little harder…but I think the extra features are still worth that slight bump if you think you’d get some use out of them. When you’re looking at a premium ANC headphone, why not go all the way? Both are expensive pairs, and both are trying to be feature-complete, “only pair you need” headphones. The Sony MDR-1000X is a little better at that.
I look for Bose to try and respond to these sometime soon. That should be interesting! The QC35 is no slouch, and provides astounding comfort and a laid back sound that’s exceptional for long listening sessions.
The last time I was expecting a cool iteration from a big audio company…we got the Solo 3 Wireless. I hope Bose has a better trick up their sleeve than more battery and bluetooth range!
I think you should ultimately buy whichever one is cheaper at the time of purchase. They’re so close…and with the newly added adjustable ANC on the Bose, and the potential build issues of the 1000X, the Sony’s are brought down a couple of pegs.