Hands on: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Bose flagship ANC headphones go big on spatial audio

What is a hands on review?
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds Ultra
(Image: © What Hi-Fi?)

Early Verdict

Bose's flagship wireless headphones promise a raft of improvements and offer new spatial audio tech, but will their sound quality justify their price?

Pros

  • +

    Folding design

  • +

    Clever Immersive Audio tech

  • +

    aptX Adaptive support

Cons

  • -

    Pricey compared to some rivals

  • -

    Spatial audio tech hits battery life

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It’s been a while since we’ve seen a new flagship pair of noise-cancelling over-ear headphones from Bose.

But at a recent media event in New York, the new QuietComfort Ultra Headphones were unveiled to the world, which replace the now long-in-the-tooth Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. We were lucky enough to be invited along for the launch, and had an opportunity to take Bose’s new flagship cans for a quick test drive. Here are our initial thoughts.

Price

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

It’s fair to say a lot has happened in the world since the Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 launched back in June 2019 for £350 / $399 / AU$649. So, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones sit at a higher price point.

They will cost £449 in the UK, $429 in the US and AU$649 in Australia when they hit stores in October. This positions them above the class-leading Sony WH-1000XM5 £380 / $399 / AU$550 but still leaves a decent gap between themselves and the Apple AirPods Max £549 / $549 / AU$899.

Build and comfort

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The Ultra Headphones look like a premium pair of over-ears and the use of tactile surfaces, metal and pleather make for an attractive combination. The headphones come in either a Black or White Smoke finish.

Like some of their closest rivals, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones fold flat, but they’re also hinged which means they (and the supplied carry case) take up less space and are easier to just throw in a bag if you’re in a hurry. That’s something you can’t say about the Sony WH-1000XM5 or Apple AirPods Max.

During our brief time with them, the grip pressure felt relatively well judged, as did the overall weight of the headphones. The earcups felt like they offered a solid seal and a good amount of isolation. There seemed to be a decent amount of adjustment from the headband using the sliders on either side.

On the right earcup, there’s a button for power/Bluetooth pairing, a capacitive touch strip for volume and accessing shortcuts, and a multifunctional button which can be used for various tasks, including switching listening modes, answering calls and controlling playback.

The capacitive strip (or ridge) is quite short and tucked away, but we found it nice and responsive when sliding our thumbs across to move the volume up and down.

The left earcup has an LED indicator, a 2.5mm jack, and a USB-C charging port. Unfortunately, you can’t listen over a wired USB connection, only over a USB-C to 3.5mm cable. Bose claims battery life is up to 24 hours with Immersive Audio turned off and 18 hours with it turned on.

Features

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

The big news for the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones is the debut of Bose’s Immersive Audio tech, which is basically the brand's take on spatial audio. The general idea is to get the sound out of your head so it feels less like you’re listening to headphones and more like you’re listening to an image served up by a traditional pair of speakers.

You’ve got two modes of Immersive Audio to switch between: Still and Motion. Still is recommended for when you’re stationary and you want your music to be in a fixed position. Motion “allows the audio to move with you, so it’s always out in front of you - great for staying immersed on the go,” according to Bose.

The Ultra headphones also include Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound Technology suite which gives them aptX Adaptive support. There’s also multipoint Bluetooth connectivity so you can be connected to a couple of different sources simultaneously.

Bose also includes its CustomTune calibration and Aware Mode with ActiveSense, which automatically adjusts the amount of ANC you’re hearing automatically, so your music isn’t drowned out by particularly loud noises.

Bose claims to have improved call quality in the over-ears too, with more advanced microphones in a beamform array that reduces the impact of external noise.

Although we weren’t able to test this at the event, there are five microphones in each earpiece now, compared to four in their predecessors.

Our demo included a small live band whose music was being mixed live and beamed straight into the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. At one point, Bose fed external noise into the room to give us a taste of how the ANC performed and the headphones didn’t seem to struggle, which you’d hope for given their pedigree in the field.

Sound

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

A large chunk of Bose’s demo was, understandably, its new Immersive Audio tech. And you could certainly feel a shift in the feel and balance of the music when we switched from the normal listening mode to Still mode. The band gave us a blast of both The Beatles' Dear Prudence and Ed Sheeran’s Shivers, and the music did seem to lift out of our head and give a greater sense of immersion with a fuller sound field. It seemed open and spacious, but also full of detail. Turning Immersive Audio off, the whole presentation instantly sounded more familiar in standard stereo, but perhaps a little flatter and a little less interesting.

Switching to the Motion mode and walking around the demo room, it took a little while to get used to the image staying locked to your head as you move it around. We wouldn’t say it was unenjoyable, but really, we’d need to spend longer with the headphones to decide whether we actually preferred Immersive Audio longer term and whether certain tracks perhaps lend themselves better to the tech than others. In terms of general sound quality the headphones seemed to serve up a decent amount of detail, reasonably weighty bass and good dynamics.

Early verdict

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

But of course, we need to get a proper review pair in our hands for a much longer listening session to give you a definitive verdict. Initial signs are promising, but we would like longer to fully evaluate the Immersive Audio feature and given their new price point, it will be interesting to see how the new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones stand up to scrutiny against the current class leaders.

The fact they’ve been positioned between the five-star Sony XM5 and the premium AirPods Max puts them in an interesting space, for sure.

MORE:

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Andy Madden

Andy is Deputy Editor of What Hi-Fi? and a consumer electronics journalist with nearly 20 years of experience writing news, reviews and features. Over the years he's also contributed to a number of other outlets, including The Sunday Times, the BBC, Stuff, and BA High Life Magazine. Premium wireless earbuds are his passion but he's also keen on car tech and in-car audio systems and can often be found cruising the countryside testing the latest set-ups. In his spare time Andy is a keen golfer and gamer.

What is a hands on review?

'Hands on reviews' are a journalist's first impressions of a piece of kit based on spending some time with it. It may be just a few moments, or a few hours. The important thing is we have been able to play with it ourselves and can give you some sense of what it's like to use, even if it's only an embryonic view.