Bose has the sort of ubiquity some competing brands might kill for. Some of it has cost money, of course – if you like to watch the NFL, or you listen to podcasts, or you ever pick up a newspaper or magazine, you can’t help but be familiar with Bose. Some of it, though, has been won in the unforgiving environment of product reviews and sales.
Bose has enjoyed particular success with its noise-cancelling headphones. The various products in its QuietComfort range have been there or thereabouts, where class-leading design and performance are concerned, for years.
The market moves forward relentlessly, though, and Bose faces competition from all sides. Established leviathans such as Microsoft and Sony, as well as upstarts like Beats and Bowers & Wilkins, are all ready to horn in on the £300-ish on-ear wireless noise-cancelling action. But Bose has its response ready: the snappy-looking and unsnappily named Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.
It’s not often words like ‘thoughtful’ or ‘elegant’ are deployed when discussing on-ear headphones, but the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 (which we’re calling ‘700’ from now on, for the sake of both brevity and sanity) are both of these things. This is a sophisticated piece of industrial design, beautifully proportioned and flawlessly finished.
The earcups seem to almost float on the stainless steel arms of the headband, and they have a lot of articulation – so a good fit is pretty much guaranteed. They also slide on the arms, so adjusting the size of the headband cleverly doesn’t expose any hinges or other inner workings.
Comfort is as easily achievable as fit: the soft memory foam-filled earcups are slow to warm, and the inside of the headband is similarly luxurious. A total weight of a touch under 250g helps the comfort quotient, too.
Bose has been to the same supplier of Pantone ‘Dismal Grey’ as Microsoft did for its Surface noise-cancelling headphones, but has wisely deployed some areas of tactile silver to stop them looking too drab. The black alternative is, naturally enough, easier to describe. Both finishes are quite easy to mark, mind you – so be sure to use the slender carry-case.
There’s a new noise-cancelling system making its debut here, using the information picked up by six mics positioned at the lower front of the earcups (there are a further two mics at the top rear of the ‘cups for voice-control and telephony). There are a total of eleven increments of noise-cancelling intensity (‘0’ = ‘negligible, with external noise apparent’; ‘10’ = ‘remarkably complete isolation, to the point a 32-ton lorry moving off from the traffic lights is basically inaudible’).
Bose has taken equally thorough measures to deliver high call quality. Mics are arranged in ‘beamform’ and ‘rejection’ arrays, intended to adapt to the wearer’s external environment and focus on the voice.
It’s being a fair bit more coy when it comes to details of the drivers, though. Bose doesn’t wish to be drawn on the size, or composition, of the speaker technology behind the grey cloth inside the earcups.
The 700s use Bluetooth 5.0 for wireless connection – not bad, but a rung or two down from the aptX HD Sony’s market-leading WH-1000MX3 noise-cancellers are packing. Should you exhaust the 700s’ 20 hours-or-so of battery life (also down on the Sony’s 30 hours – blame the complicated and effective microphone systems), there’s a 2.5mm – 3.5mm cable in the 700s’ carry-case, along with a USB-C cable for charging.
In a Bose first, the 700s feature touch control on the right earcup – and it works beautifully. Volume up/down, play/pause, skip forwards/backwards are all easily achieved and work in the most logical and reliable manner. A tap on the Bose logo summons an estimate of remaining battery life.
Physical controls are, as a consequence, mercifully few. There’s a power/pairing button on the right earcup, along with a button to summon voice-assistance. On the left, there’s a single control to either toggle through your favourite levels of noise-cancellation or to initiate ‘Conversation Mode’. Press and hold to turn off noise-cancelling and pause music.
You can choose your three favourite noise-cancelling settings, and select between Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa voice control, using the Bose Music app (iOS and Android). It also helps with initial set-up and telephony niceties. It’s not a complicated or involved app, and, aside from claiming to have lost connection with a source player despite the fact the 700s are playing, it’s stable and reliable.
It’s safe to say Bose’s hard work with mic arrangement has resulted in headphones that are far easier to use for making and receiving calls than most. Voices are distinct, background noise in minimised, and the Bose Music app even allows you to trim the level of your own voice that’s audible during calls.
Noise-cancelling, too, is a step on from that in the Bose QuietComfort 35 IIs that these 700s replace. At the highest level, there’s virtually complete isolation from the outside world – and without that ‘blocked sinuses’ sensation of ear-drum pressure that’s all too prevalent in noise-cancelling designs.
As far as sound is concerned, though, the 700s are a rather more qualified success. Oh, they absolutely nail the broad strokes – just once through Joan As Police Woman’s Anyone on Spotify tells you the 700s have deep, textured and detailed bass response, a prodigiously communicative midrange and very assertive treble reproduction. The same song demonstrates these headphones’ wide-open nature, with every element enjoyably separated and securely positioned.
The frequency information is generally well integrated, too, and the outright clarity of the 700s’ sound will win plenty of admirers. There’s no fuzziness or vagueness to the 700s’ sound – they observe the attack and decay of individual notes like hawks. It’s a trait that contributes to an impression of rapidity, and this zippiness helps the impression of accomplished and effortless timing. Win/win, then.
Decent dynamism help the 700s’ cause, too. And not only the high-level, ‘quiet/loud/quiet’ dynamics of Nirvana or Shostakovich, but the low-level dynamics of harmonic variance in Joan’s electric piano, or the small horn section that joins in towards the end of the tune.
There are some downsides, though, no doubt about it. Speed and clarity are all very well, but the 700s’ excitability at the top of the frequency range can get wearing – and the toppier the recording, the more the 700s attack it. It follows that a trebly mess like Guided By Voices’ Picture Me Big Time is uncomfortably sharp at times, to the point that backing off the volume seems the wearer’s most sensible option.
They’re also lacking the last scintilla of insight, especially when compared to the Sony WH-1000MX3s – our current choice for the best headphones (and noise-canceling headphones) on the market. The aforementioned horn section in the Joan As Police Woman tune sounds too much like a single entity, rather than three individual instruments playing in unison. It’s not as pronounced a trait as the 700s’ treble travails, but it’s enough to make you think long and hard about your options.
And that, ultimately, is the biggest cross Bose has to bear. The 700s are great-looking, beautifully made, feel good, cancel noise with aplomb and offer great call quality – but they’re not the complete audio solution. There are some rivals that may not quite have the looks or the finish, but are more satisfying to listen to.
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