Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: the differences between two flagship cans

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Sony WH-1000XM5: which ANC headphones are best?
(Image credit: Future)

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

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 will cost £450 / $429 / AU$649 when they go on sale in October. 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.

Bose is confirmed to take part in Amazon's Prime Big Deal Days sale coming in October, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday also 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.

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

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

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones feel every bit as premium as their price tag suggests. Tactile surface 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. 

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.

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

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

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

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 should be able to go from a quiet cafe to a busy street without your listening being too affected.

Bose says that call quality is better 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.

We've had a hands-on demo with the Ultra Headphones, and their noise cancelling was impressive. We found the ANC increased in direct proportion to the amount of external noise, so the music always remained undiminished. But we'll have to use them much more extensively – and in environments outside a demo room – before we can deliver an authoritative verdict.

No such trouble with the XM5. 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.

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

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

(Image credit: Sony/John Lewis)

We haven't fully tested the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, so can't comment definitively on their sound quality. But our first impressions were promising.

Bose was keen to show off its new Immersive Audio tech, which took up the bulk of the demo time. This gave a greater sense of immersion with a fuller soundfield, a more open presentation and more spaciousness. Turning Immersive Audio off, stereo seemed to sound a little flatter by contrast.

In general, the cans seemed to deliver a decent amount of detail, weighty bass and good dynamics. 

The Sony XM5 come from good stock, and it shows in the sound department. The 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.

The Ultra Headphones will have their work cut out to sound better than the XM5...

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

Until we've tested the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, we can't say definitively how they perform nor which pair is better. But with new spatial audio-style sound, more advanced noise cancelling and great comfort and build quality, we're certainly excited at what verdicts a full review will yield.

The XM5 are some of the best over-ear headphones at their price. They're comfortable, sound superb and deliver excellent noise cancelling. Rivals do surpass them in certain areas, but they usually cost more and can't match the XM5 as all-rounders. Looks like we have a fight on our hands...

We'll update this page once we've fully reviewed the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones.


Read our first impressions of the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones vs Apple AirPods Max: what are the differences between these premium cans?

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.