Bose was the first company to release noise cancelling technology in consumer headphones. Today Bose and Sony rank at the top of most lists for the headphones to buy if you want the best noise cancelling around.
Which one is the best? The Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II are our pick for the top Active Noise Cancelling headphones. The Sony WH100xm3 headphones are a close second. Bose has designed a well rounded pair of headphones focused on all the things that count the most. While the Sony pair technically has more customizability and some better specs including the newer usb C port and slightly faster charging; Bose wins due to the following reasons. They are more comfortable and lighter, the sound is more balanced and crisp, the tactile buttons beat the finicky touch sensitive controls and the ability to connect to 2 devices at the same time is a must if you plan to use these wirelessly with anything more than your phone.
Back on my college dorm I used a pair of Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones they were the second generation consumer noise cancelling headphone Bose produced. Today the Bose QuietComfort 35 Series II is more or less the 6th generation of this model over ear noise cancelling headphone from Bose.
Sony has been producing noise cancelling headphone since 1995 and the WH1000xm3 are the third generation of that over ear model.
Testing the top 2 noise cancelling headphones on the market
We have taken a hands on look at the two highest rated active noise cancelling headphones on the market as reviewed by multiple independent agencies including Consumer Reports and the wirecutter. We will review them in the following categories: Sound Quality, Comfort, Controls, Features, Tech Specs, Replaceable Parts, Mobile Apps, Warranty and Customer Support.
History of Active Noise Cancelling
Dr. Amar Bose invented the technology for active noise cancelling. Active noise cancelling in contrast to passive noise cancelling which is simply any physical object covering your ears and preventing sound from passing through. All over ear headphones provide some level of passive noise cancelling. But active noise cancelling works by using a microphone to listen to the noise in the room. Then a speaker is used to produce exactly the same sound but the opposite wave which technically speaking is a sound wave 180 degrees out of phase. This cancels out the incoming sound wave and results in noise cancelling.
The story for Dr. Amar Bose’s inspiration for noise cancelling starts when he was on an airplane trying to listen to the inflight entertainment. In 1978 on a flight from the US to Zurich he was offered complimentary headphones as in flight music was new at the time. He quickly became frustrated as the cabin noise drowned out the music and he was unable to enjoy it. This inspired Dr. Bose to begin studying to see if active noise cancellation was possible. In 1964 he setup a research group at Bose Corporation to study active noise cancellation. The Noise Reduction Technology Group (NRTG) came later and the first active noise cancelling headphones were introduced by Bose in 1989 for commercial use in the aviation industry. The first consumer grade noise cancelling headphones were introduced in 2000 with the first generation of the Bose QuietComfort headphone line.
The Sony corporation started in Japan on May 7th 1946. They started making headphones in 1979 along with the Walkman. Introducing their first pair of noise cancelling headphones in 1995 with a pair of earbuds. The WH1000xm3 is the third generation of this model of noise cancelling headphones. They first started as the MDR1000X, then the WH1000xm2 and now the WH1000xm3.
- These have stronger bass, but in my testing this caused the mids to be more muddled and the highs were not as crisp and clear.
Bose QuietComfort 35
- These have a very balanced sound. The mids and highs are clear and pronounced. Bass is not as impressive as the Sony model, but overall the sound was better and more balanced during my testing.
For more scientific research checkout the RTINGS review page here with a comprehensive breakdown of the sound quality between the 2 models.
Comfort was the number #1 selling point for me on the Bose over the Sony, the second was the sound. The QuietComfort 35 cans were .08 lbs lighter than the WH1000xm3’s. The Bose also had a lighter clamping force which put less pressure on your head.
The Sony pair had an earmuff feel to them. I could feel the interior padding, the thickness of the pads and the clamping force made them feel very smothering on my ears. In contrast the Bose pair feel very open on my head, my ears do not feel any padding and the pads are not as thick so they feel a lot better to me on my head. The Bose will be less fatiguing on long listening sessions.
The Bose has 1 physical on/off buttons and 4 physical control buttons. The on/off buttons is a slider switch. Slide left to turn off the headphones. Turn to the right to turn on, and push further right past on to put them in bluetooth pairing mode.
There is one button on the left earpiece. This button has 2 optional functions. You can either have this button choose between the 3 noise cancelling options of high/low or off. Or this button can be used to summon the digital assistant you choose in the app. These headphones work with both Alexa and Google assistant.
On the Right earpiece are 3 buttons. A volume up, Volume down and multifunction button. The multifunction button is used for both media playback control and phone call control. When playing back music you can play/pause, skip tracks and fast forward or rewind. When in call mode it can be used to answer calls, end calls, switch between calls, or create a conference call.
The Sony model has 2 physical buttons on the left ear piece. The on/off button and the NC/Ambient button. The NC/Ambient button cycles through, using the microphones to play ambient noise through the headphones, turning on noise cancelling or ambient and noise cancelling both off.
There is also a cool feature where you can put your palm over the back of the earpiece and it will turn off noise cancelling, turn down the music, and play the ambient sounds inside the headphones so you can quickly carry a conversation with someone and be able to hear them.
The media controls and call controls on the Sony are done through swiping motions on the back of the Earpiece, swipe up and down for volume, swipe left and right for track controls, and tap the middle for play and pause and pickup calls. While cool in theory I found these difficult to find the correct spot to press to get them to register. There was also a small delay so tapping through a lot of tracks or moving up several notches of volume would be difficult. Possible with time you would get used to these controls, but I prefer physical buttons to a touch sensitive pad.
Ports and connectivity
When it comes to ports the Sony wins by a mile. The Sony pair came out more recently and they included the latest technology. The charging port is the new USB-C port which is quickly becoming the standard USB connection. This port also allows for fast charging. The headphone connector is a standard 3.5mm jack. The Bose on the other hand use the older Micro USB connector for charging and does not charge as fast. The headphone connector is a less common 2.5 inch connector. The Bose come with a 2.5 inch to 3.5 inch connector.
Bluetooth connectivity on the Sony is version 4.2 and the Bose is version 4.1 The Bose allow you to be connected to 2 devices at the same time while the Sony only allow one. The Sony allow for some newer Bluetooth sound codecs which theoretically would allow for higher quality sound but few devices support such sounds codecs currently.
Neither headphones support replacement batteries. Both companies provide a 1 year warranty but aside from that there is no supported way to replace the battery.
Do they play music through the cord without battery?
Yes both support playing music through a cord connection when they are turned off, but they do not allow listening to music while they are charging.
Sony does not offer any replacement parts for the WH1000xm3 but Bose provides replacement ear cushions.
The Bose mobile app is pretty simple, all it offers are updates, controlling device bluetooth connectivity, Status, noise cancellation level and music controls.
The Sony app has a lot more features. It offers an equalizer, noise cancellation levels, ambient sound control, room effects, button mapping, music controls, updates, and bluetooth connectivity control.
Warranty on both models?
Both companies provide a 1 year warranty.
In my own personal experience I had great experience with Bose customer support in college with my QC 2 pair of headphones. They started cracking and finally broke at the hinge during the warranty period and Bose quickly send me a new pair without many questions asked. I don’t have any personal experience with Sony support but anecdotal stories on the internet lead me to believe that Sony is a more difficult company to deal with just because they are so big and support so many different types of products. Finding the correct support person on the correct department is a challenge some have complained about online.
Issues/Bugs with these headphones?
The Sony pair has issues with the touch sensitive control pad registering phantom touches when outside, this is believed to be wind related. There are also multiple first hand reports of the touch controls not working in cold temperatures. It has been reported to stop functioning in weather in the 30 to mid 40 degrees Fahrenheit
Bose QC 35 Series II
Sound Codec Support
AAC, SBC, aptX, aptX HD, LDAC
Multi Device Pairing?
Equalizer in app?
Passive playback without battery
Mic for Calls?