Does Bose make the best noise-canceling headphones?
If you’ve been looking for a new set of noise-canceling headphones, you’ve probably at least considered a pair from Bose; the company essentially invented the category more than a decade ago. But with more brands entering this specialized category, you may be wondering if its newest model—the $300 Bose QuietComfort 15—is still the top dog among noise-canceling models.
An even more interesting question is whether there’s a less expensive alternative to the pricier models from Bose and other brands that typically top our headphone Ratings. The answer, fortunately, is yes, if you’re willing to accept a few compromises.
We recently tested not only the QuietComfort 15, but also the beats by dre Beats Executive ($300), SMS Audio Street by 50 ANC ($280), Sony MDR-NC500D ($400), and PSB Speakers M4U 2 ($400) among the home/studio-style models. We also still have the Monster beats by dr. dre studio model ($250), which was launched before the Monster/beats partnership dissolved, in our Ratings.
So which headphone was the best? That depends on what’s most important to you. The beats by dre Beats Executive topped our Ratings, primarily because of its excellent sound quality; it was the only noise-canceling model to earn that designation, and it has very good noise reduction to boot.
But if ultimate noise reduction is your top priority, the Bose, Sony, and Street by 50 models were better choices. All had excellent noise reduction and very good sound. The Monster beats model was right behind them with very good sound and very good noise reduction.
All of these models turned in satisfying performance, but all are relatively pricey, ranging in cost from $250 to $400. What if your budget isn’t quite that high?
My suggestion is to consider the Monoprice Noise-Canceling Headphone, a $120 over-ear model from a company we frequently recommend as a source for lower-priced cables. During the last 18 months, the company has branched out into several new categories, including headphones. (I’ve been using its 8323 Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style over-ear headphones, which I got on sale for less than $20, as my favorite cheaper go-to set of cans for almost a year now.)
Find the best model for your needs and budget: Check our headphone buying guide and Ratings.
As you can see from the photos at the top of the page, Monoprice’s noise-canceling model (at right) bears more than just a passing resemblance to the Bose QuietComfort headphones. But more important, the Monoprice over-ear headphones bring you a good way toward the performance of the higher-ticket models for a considerably lower price.
Although it fell just short of earning a Recommended tag, the Monoprice Noise Canceling Headphones model provides very good overall sound—it had a bit more plastic resonance than the Bose model—and excellent noise reduction. The Monoprice model seems solidly constructed, folds flat for travel and storage, and comes with a nice carrying case. It also comes with two detachable cords, including one with an inline control and mic for use with phones.
The only concern would be that it has only medium sensitivity with the active noise-canceling circuitry turned on; sensitivity falls to low if you’re using the headphones without the noise cancellation turned on. So make sure you can get sufficient volume if you use these headphone with a lower-powered portable device.
Of course, some people find that over-ear headphones can feel hot or create a sense of pressure on the ears when they’re worn for an extended period of time. If you prefer an in-ear design, you’d do well to consider the Bose QC20 model. Yes, they’re pricey ($300), but they easily topped our Ratings of more-portable noise-canceling models.
—James K. Willcox
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