Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: which is better?

Bose invented noise cancelling headphones, so a new pair from the US brand is always big news. Especially when they're as well specced as the new flagship QuietComfort Ultra Headphones – they pack Bose's take on spatial audio, as well as upgraded noise cancelling tech.

Impressive. But how do they fare against some of our favourite ANC headphones ever, the Sony WH-1000XM5? Let's run down the differences and see which pair comes out on top.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: price


(Image credit: Future)

Both of these pairs don't come cheap, but that's hardly surprising when you consider all that they offer.

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones cost £450 / $429 / AU$649. That's quite a bit pricier than the Sony WH-1000XM5, which launched at £380 / $399 / AU$550 but have seen some pretty decent discounts.

With Black Friday and Cyber Monday fast approaching, there are bound to be plenty of deals around. But given the newness of the Ultras, we can't see them dropping below the XM5 anytime soon.

** Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5 **

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: design

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: design

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

So, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones might be pricey, but they certainly feel it. Tactile surfaces and high-end materials make them a very attractive package indeed, plus they fold flat and inwards thanks to their hinges. Add the bundled carry case into the equation, and you've got the perfect travel companion.

They're comfortable to wear too, with a grip that's secure but not too tight. And the headband has plenty of room for adjustments.

A capacitive touch strip takes care of the controls like volume, and it's responsive enough to work well without being too sensitive. You can also assign different functions to the button, like switching listening modes and answering calls.

Both the Ultra and Sony XM5 only come in two colours: Bose's finishes are Black or White Smoke, while Sony's are Black or Silver. The XM5 look very different to their predecessors, and the changes are mostly for the good.

The new 'noiseless' design picks up less wind resistance, but it does mean they only fold flat, and not any smaller. They're very comfortable, which is helped by memory foam in the headband and earpads, and the clamping force is judged beautifully.

** Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones **

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: features

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: features

(Image credit: Future)

The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are the first with Bose's Immersive Audio tech, which is the firm's spin on spatial audio or Sony's 360 Reality Audio. It works much the same as those rival technologies, opting for a surround sound feel (including height channels) over mere stereo.

But unique to Bose, it comes in two modes: Still and Motion. Still is for when you're stationary and want the music in a fixed position. Motion keeps you immersed while on the move. (You can read how we got on with this in the Sound section, below.)

Qualcomm's aptX Adaptive is onboard, to improve low-latency performance and to support higher-quality wireless codecs, while multipoint Bluetooth lets you seamlessly switch between multiple wireless sources, so you can go from listening to music on your laptop to taking a call on your phone without having to reconnect. 

Battery life? A decent 24 hours with Immersive Audio turned off and 18 hours with it turned on. That's much less than the 30 hours that the Sony WH-1000XM5 deliver.

While aptX isn't onboard, the Sonys do support higher-quality Bluetooth codecs thanks to Sony's LDAC tech. That's alongside Sony's DSEE Extreme engine (which upscales compressed music to near hi-res quality).

But that's just the tip of the feature-rich iceberg. The XM5 have Quick Attention, which lets you lower the volume and have a conversation by covering the right earcup with your hand. Speak-to-Chat pauses playback and engages ambient sound mode as soon as you start talking, again, letting you have a conversation. Wearing Detection knows when you take the headphones off and pauses playback, then restarts when you put them back on. And the Sonys also support multipoint Bluetooth, just like the Bose.

** Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5 **

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: noise cancelling

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: noise cancelling

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Both pairs of headphones are over-ears, and both have active noise cancellation (ANC) as a major selling point. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones feature the firm's CustomTune calibration and Aware Mode with ActiveSense, which automatically adjusts the amount of ANC you’re hearing based on your surroundings. That means you can go from a quiet cafe to a busy street without your listening being too affected.

Call quality has improved with the Ultra Headphones. That's thanks to more advanced microphones in a beamform array that reduces the impact of external noise. Each earpiece has five microphones, up from four in their predecessors, the NC 700.

But for the XM5's noise cancelling, Sony has gone all out. Sony might not have quite the prestige of Bose in this area, but its recent ANC pairs have consistently ranked among the best headphones we've tested. And the XM5 are no different.

The Integrated Processor V1 is put on noise cancelling duties, and like the Bose, the XM5 automatically optimise the noise cancelling as you move through different environments. It's very effective. They're among the best in class in terms of isolating us from constant train noises, and they're superb at silencing conversations you don't want to be subjected to. They're not quite as excellent at dealing with less consistent noises like traffic, but overall they're still very successful.

However, the Bose have the edge in this area. During testing, we found they dramatically reduced background rumbles while out walking, and the sound of the London Underground during our daily commute. Interestingly, one of the same quirks we experienced with the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds rears its head again with these over-ears. During testing it happened on a train journey when the clunk of the doors closing together was emphasised instead of being subdued.

But when it comes to call quality, we prefer the XM5. Our voices sounded slightly clearer when taking calls, and the Sonys do a better job of cancelling out background noise while having a conversation.

** Winner: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones **

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: sound

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: sound

(Image credit: Sony/John Lewis)

You can't talk about the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones' sound quality without mentioning Bose's Immersive Audio tech. We tried it on the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, and were a little underwhelmed. We're still not wholly convinced.

Like on the Earbuds, it works well for some tracks but not for others. It does sound better through the Headphones than through the Earbuds, and when it works it brings a wonderfully spacious soundfield. But other times, it makes tracks sound overly processed. It still has the same delay and phase issues as the processing tries to track your head movements, too. These occur even with small head movements.

Did we miss spatial audio when switching back to the standard setting? Not really. And when you consider that Immersive Audio also slices six hours off the total battery life of the headphones, we can imagine most people will use it occasionally at most.

Elsewhere, the sound quality is much more positive. They sound a little uptight at first, but once they're run in they're hugely entertaining. Their precise, punchy delivery boasts plenty of texture, with a richness and refinement that's very appealing. Timing is spot on, too.

But they're up against the Sony WH-1000XM5, some of the finest-sounding headphones at this price. Their delivery is effortlessly musical, with greater clarity and a more open presentation than the previous generation. The low-end is precise, with more detail and a greater differentiation between each note. And that clarity holds further up the frequency range.

Both headphones offer quite different sounds. The XM5's character is slightly leaner with a more natural balance, delivering greater transparency but at the expense of richness and body. It’s one of those that will come down to personal preference. But for us, the Sonys just have it.

** Winner: Sony WH-1000XM5 **

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: verdict

So which pair is best for you? It depends on what you want from a pair of over-ears.

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones offer better noise cancelling than the Sony XM5, with a richer sound that has more body. But they're more expensive and have a shorter battery life.

The XM5 have a more natural sonic balance, with greater transparency. They're cheaper, have a longer battery life, and are better all-rounders. Decisions decisions...


Read our full Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: which are better?

Bose’s spatial audio tech is a nice idea for headphones but it’s too hit-and-miss

Prefer earbuds? Here are the differences between the new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds vs Sony WF-1000XM5

Joe Svetlik

Joe has been writing about tech for 17 years, first on staff at T3 magazine, then in a freelance capacity for Stuff, The Sunday Times Travel Magazine, Men's Health, GQ, The Mirror, Trusted Reviews, TechRadar and many more (including What Hi-Fi?). His specialities include all things mobile, headphones and speakers that he can't justifying spending money on.