The Sony WH-1000XM3 and Bose QC35ii are widely considered the two best noise-cancelling headphones today.
Both options also sport Bluetooth connectivity for wireless listening, and are priced at around Rs 30,000 or less.
Bose has been a traditional favorite in the space, but Sony is quickly gaining ground with the WH-1000X series.
For frequent travelers and anyone functioning in a noisy environment, active noise-cancellation headphones are a boon. With the ability to block out certain kinds of specific sound by generating a reverse frequency, it helps block out droning, low sounds such as airplane engines, machinery and even some kinds of office chatter. However, the quality of noise-cancellation is an entirely different matter. Apart from offering you quiet, active noise-cancellation also helps improve the overall listening experience.
While Bose has typically been the champion of the active noise-cancellation in headphones, the last couple of years have seen Sony mount a serious challenge to the dominance of the American company. With the Sony WH-1000X (the first edition), Sony showed off the advances it had made in the space, and came close to Bose in terms of quality. And while both brands have updated their offerings since, the competition remains as fierce as ever.
The most recent product from Sony is the new WH-1000XM3, which has just launched at Rs 29,990 in India. The new headset takes on the Bose QC35ii, which is priced at around the same point and has been in the market for some months now. We’ve had a chance to compare these two headphones in a head-to-head test, to find out which of these two will gain the crown as the best active noise-cancellation headset available today.
Design and Specifications
Both headphones in this shootout are wireless and come with active noise-cancellation technology, putting them directly against each other in terms of approach and positioning. With similar core features, you’d think that very little will separate these two, and you’d be right to a large extent. However, the differences in functionality are slightly different, with the Sony WH-1000XM3 sporting a slightly better feature set with sound optimization and adaptive sound control.
In comparison, the Bose QC35ii takes a more simplified approach to the feature set. Noise cancellation can be controlled in terms of the strength of the actual effect, with three levels of controls (high, low and off). Some of the controls on the Sony may come across as gimmicky at first, but do truly serve a purpose if you use the noise cancellation and adaptive sound control features regularly. One big advantage for the Sony WH-1000XM3 is its USB Type-C port and faster charging, along with its battery which tends to run for a few hours longer than the Bose QC35ii.
In terms of design, the padding on the Sony headset makes it a bit more comfortable to use than the Bose option. It’s also larger, making passive isolation a bit better as well. However, the Bose QC35ii does have one advantage over the Sony in terms of controls. The gesture controls on the Sony WH-1000XM3 may seem futuristic, but don’t always work as expected. Solid buttons on the Bose headset make adjusting volume, answering calls and skipping tracks a bit easier. Furthermore, the power switch is a bit more intuitive and user-friendly than the button for both pairing and switching the headset on and off.
Winner: Tie. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is slightly more comfortable and functional, but better controls on the Bose QC35ii make this an even contest.
Both headsets work best when used with their companion apps. Both Sony (Sony Headphones Connect) and Bose (Bose Connect) have apps available for iOS and Android, which help to not only pair the headset with your smartphone the first time, but also monitoring connections and battery life and controlling certain functions. Both apps also allow you to set the purpose of the multi-function button on each headphone; you can have it control the noise-cancellation function, or have it work as the Google Assistant / Siri trigger. If used with the latter, both can be used with the voice assistant on either Android or iOS.
The core functionality available on both headsets means that the Bose app is naturally a bit simpler than the Sony app. The latter offers a bit more control over the headphones, and comes with a slightly more sophisticated interface as well. The Sony app is just a hint faster to connect to your headphones as well when you power it up. Both apps also allow you to control music directly through the app, but I found it easier to use the native apps (Apple Music in my case) to control audio playback.
Winner: Tie. Faster connectivity, more control over the headset and a more sophisticated interface are advantages for the Sony headset, but the Bose wins back points for simplicity and ease of use.
Bose has traditionally been the champion of active noise cancellation technology, and other brands have lagged behind significantly. While a whole lot of brands do manufacture headphones with the tech built in, Bose hasn’t seen any serious competition – until now. The Sony WH-1000XM3 proves that Sony has cracked the formula, and the active noise cancellation tech on the new headset is just a hint better than that on the Bose headset.
The vacuum-like quiet feels a bit more stark on the Sony WH-1000XM3, aided a bit by the larger and more isolating design that aids in passive noise-cancellation. I tried the active noise cancellation in various conditions, including on a flight, in Mumbai traffic, in the noisy environment of the news-centric office of BGR India, and more. While no active noise cancellation headset can offer absolute quiet, the Sony does an admirable job of toning down the drone. It helps you concentrate better, enjoy your music and video while on the go, or just get some sleep.
The Bose QC35ii, while not quiet as adaptable and quiet as the Sony headset, remains one of the better options around. You get an admirable level of noise cancellation here as well, and the Bose headset practically matches the Sony’s noise cancellation performance in typically noisy environments. However, it falls just a bit short on the sheer level of silence that can be achieved, as well the technological aspects that make it adaptable to various types of noise.
Winner: Sony WH-1000XM3. Better adaptability and the sheer level of quiet means that Bose has finally been dethroned from its crown.
As is the case with any headphones, the most important thing is sound. And when it comes to the Sony and Bose flagship wireless headphones, sound isn’t something to worry about. Both headphones pack in excellent hardware, from quality drivers to good DACs and Bluetooth chipsets, ensuring that sound is up to the mark. The sonic signatures tend to be typical of Sony and Bose, with the Sony WH-1000XM3 offering a bit more punch, while the Bose headset provides for a sound that is a bit more neutral and better serving the mid-range.
Tonally, the Sony WH-1000XM3 has the upper hand. This is thanks to better isolation and noise cancellation on the whole, along with a DAC that is clearly providing a cleaner, richer sound. The Bose QC35ii also provides for a quality wireless sound, but tends to fall a bit short when it comes to raw excitement and drive. Sony’s classic focus on punch and attack will suit most genres, and the tonal quality will also help if you like to listen to each individual element of the sound.
The Bose QC35ii had the upper hand over last year’s Sony WH-1000XM2, but this year, the boost in tonal quality brings Sony on par, making this an even contest for most parts. Listeners who prefer softer genres will prefer the more balanced nature of the Bose headset, while faster tracks will be better suited by the Sony headphones.
On calls, both headphones tend to do an equally good job, but the voice-capturing capability and mid-range focus of the Bose QC35ii makes it a slightly better option as a hands-free headset. Voices are cleaner, while also giving you a fair idea of ambient sound to ensure you don’t speak unpleasantly loud for your surroundings. This focus on voice quality also means the Bose does a slightly better job with videos, such as TV shows and movies.
Winner: Tie. The Sony WH-1000XM3 is better when it comes to music, but the Bose QC35ii isn’t far behind. Similarly, the Bose headphones are better at videos and voice calls, with the Sony trailing only marginally.
Verdict: Which is better?
On balance, I’d say the Sony WH-1000XM3 comes out as the winner in this comparison. The headset sees improvements in audio performance, noise cancellation and overall functionality to offer the Bose QC35ii a strong match in all departments. It clearly comes out on top when it comes to active noise cancellation and audio performance with music, while also being better in certain departments of design and ease of use. And while the Bose QC35ii does have a one-up in certain segments, the Sony is the better device on the whole.
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However, a lot of this will come down to buying preferences and budgets. The Sony is a newer option, while the Bose has been around for a few months now. This means that the Bose headset is a hint more affordable, and the classic brand value will have people more willing to invest close to Rs 30,000 in a Bose audio product over a Sony. Nonetheless, I’d go with the Sony WH-1000XM3 as my pick for the best noise cancelling wireless headphone today.