When it comes to noise-cancelling headphones – you know, the sort that actively cut outside noise like aircraft engines – Bose headphones are widely considered the gold standard. They’re practically ubiquitous on long-haul flights, which not only underscores their popularity among frequent travelers but also serves as an excellent advertisement for folks considering their next set of travel headphones.
With the QuietComfort 35, Bose raised the bar yet again for active noise cancelling headphones, this time minus the wires. The QC35 looked set to dominate the category, but with the launch of the MDR-1000X and the PXC 550, Sony and Sennheiser have shown they’re up to the challenge of producing a pair of headphones that can occupy pride of place in your limited carry-on luggage.
Great timing too, as phones like the Moto Z and the iPhone 7 start losing their headphone jacks! The big question is – which is the one to drop nearly thirty big ones on, if you had to pick just one? We pit the Bose, Sony and the Sennheiser against each other on key buying parameters to answer this for you.
Coming from stalwarts in the industry, I expected none of these to be slouches in the design department. Bose sticks to the tried-and-tested design language from the QC25, with big ear cups wrapped in Alcantara fabric, metal ear casings and an understated but undeniably premium look.
The PXC 550, on the other hand, is a classic mix of stainless steel, matte black plastic and leatherette material, with hinges on either end of the headband to collapse the cans down for transport. These serve as the only power-on/off mechanism. Unlike the Bose, which inspired supreme confidence, the rotating joints on the PXC 550 make me question how well they will take to rough handling over the long term.
Sony’s headphones look the least designed of the lot, veering towards a style that could be considered a tad blocky by some. All three headphones fold down for comfort, and come with adequate carrying cases.
Comfort is a vital aspect to purchasing headphones for long-haul flights. The PXC 550 are a shade lighter than the Bose, but have a tighter fit and are better for people with smallish heads.
Trouble is, they’re so snug that they can lead to ear fatigue over long durations. The Sony pair are slightly heavier but compare well to the Bose on comfort, but the combination of weight and a well-padded pair of ear cups means the Bose edges ahead of the Sony on this count.
If it’s been Bose leading the charts so far, this is where Sony and Sennheiser start to show their chops. Bose is pretty much a one-trick pony, with noise cancellation being its only real feature. In comparison, Sennheiser has a fancy-if-somewhat-fidgety touch panel to play/pause/skip tracks, a button to toggle between different audio modes and a small LED battery status indicator.
There’s even a button to scroll through EQ presets – club, movie, speech – which have a marginal effect on the audio… and then there’s the TalkThrough feature which allows you to double tap the touch panel to pause the audio and listen in to the outside world via the microphones. Try the CapTune app for iOS/Android to tweak the EQ settings or adjust the level of noise cancellation.
But it’s the Sony that pulls ahead with useful features that work consistently – you get a touch panel like the Sennheiser, and merely cupping the right earcup cuts out the audio so you can quickly listen to what the stewardess is asking you on the flight, without having to take them off.
The ‘Ambient Sound’ feature, activated via a button, lets you listen to your music while keeping an ear out for important announcements, say at the airport.
If you’re on an Android device, both the Sennheiser and the Sony are compatible with the higher-quality aptX codec, and the MDR-1000X additionally supports LDAC, a Sony-proprietary codec that claims to transmit up to 3x data than Bluetooth for higher quality sound, but it only works with Sony’s Xperia smartphones and some of their Walkman digital players.
Remember the bit about Bose being the gold standard in noise cancellation? Well, they still are, but holy crap, look how good the competition has gotten!
In the month I spent testing these headsets, the noise cancellation on either of the contenders rivals the Bose, but the Bose manages to block out those extra few decibels each time and barely edges ahead.
Bear in mind, the Sony and the Sennheiser offer modes to actually reduce the level of noise cancellation for use at airports and while walking down a busy neighbourhood, a feature that Bose lacks.
Move from the QC 35 to the Sony MDR-1000X and the difference in sound quality is palpable, almost as if the highs and lows were somewhat subdued on the Bose. They’re a whole lot of fun to listen to, full of detail and plentiful bass and that gorgeous wide soundstage, and it’s only when you compare it to the arguably superior Sennheiser that you notice a mildly muddier bass level.
The PXC 550 excel with crisp and bright highs and a tight bass, and mids that are clear without being over the top. That’s not to say the Sony under performs but the Sennheiser is just little bit better.
Any of these three will last you a trans-Atlantic flight, with Bose and Sony consistently delivering 18 and 20 hours of cable-free noise-cancelled audio, and the Sennheiser doing one better by going up to 25 hours of audio on some charges.
Either which way you see it, these are strong figures, and all three can be recharged from your power-bank or an airline USB port with a regular micro-USB cable.
Let’s be clear - these are not cheap headphones, and all three retail around the thirty-grand price point, which places them firmly in the premium category.
And for the money, all three are very good headphones and you can’t wrong if you pick any one, a sure sign that this market is maturing and the consumer has his pick of options, as long as the wallet is willing. All things considered, if we had to pick a winner, we’d lean towards the Sony MDR-1000X for being the most well-rounded and full-featured pair of wireless noise cancelling cans on the market right now.
(Tushar Kanwar is a technology columnist and commentator and has been contributing for the past 15 years to India’s leading newspapers and magazines. He can be reached on Twitter: @2shar.)