Sometime last year, someone told me about the Bose QuietComfort 2 Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones, which I'll just call the QC2 from here on out in the interest of saving my fingers! The selling feature of the QC2s is active noise cancellation, which I won't even attempt to explain--I'll let the collected experts at Wikipedia handle that task. I had my doubts, but finally made my way to an Apple store to try a pair out just before Christmas.
The store was quite busy on the day of my visit, with lots of background noise. I put the headset on, but left the active noise cancelling disabled at first. Though things got notably quieter, there was still a very audible level of bacgkround noise in my ears. Then I turned on the noise cancelling. Wow. There's really no way to describe just how quiet it got, but literally all of the lower-level rumbling from the crowd vanished, leaving a near-silent environment. Then I started the iPod, and was further amazed that there was no apparent loss of sound quality when compared to a non-active-cancellation headphone (the Bose Triport). Keep in mind, my ear is far from audiophile quality, but the QC2s sounded great to me.
Now the QC2 is not a cheap set of headphones--at $299, they're the same price as a new 30GB iPod. However, I use my headphones a lot (every day, hints are posted while I'm under the 'phones, as the household is still sleeping), and I value a comfortable, high quality product. So after some discussion with my wife (hope she enjoys her Christmas present!), I purchased a pair of QC2s just after Christmas. Having now used them relatively extensively for a couple weeks, I thought I'd share my impressions, in case anyone else is considering a purchase. Note that Playlist also reviewed the QC2s, and probably in a more thorough and professional manner than what you're about to read :).
I've probably got about 20 to 30 hours of listening to the QC2s now, and so far, I have no regrets at all about the purchase decision. They are the most comfortable headphones I've ever worn, and the noise cancelling feature makes them that much more impressive. Here's my take on a few different aspects of the QC2.
Like Apple, Bose is a company that seems to pay a lot of attention to the packaging of its products. The QC2s come in a semi-hard-sided case, and are very well packaged within the case. Below are a few pictures of the case and its contents (click on any image for a larger version):
As you can see, the headphone's earpieces pivot, to make them somewhat flatter to store--you can get a sense of how thick the case is in the shot with the vertical iPod nano. Those inserts inside the case, on both sides, can be easily removed or repositioned, as they're just velcroed in place. The piece on the left that looks like a business card could be a business card holder. But from the factory, it holds 10 viral marketing cards that have a picture of the QC2, along with this text:
Customers tell us they're often asked about their Bose QuietComfort 2 headphones. For your convenience, this courtesy card is yours to pass along.
On the back, there's a handy reference for Bose URLs and phone numbers in various geographic regions.
Excluding the lameness of viral marketing cards, I found the packaging to be first rate. The case lets you pack the headphones in relatively tight confines, though they're clearly still bulky.
Keep in mind that (a) my ears are aging, and (b) I do not purport to have a true audiophile's ear for sound. With that said, I can say that the QC2s sound just fine to me, and they are certainly not worse sounding than my previous headphones, the Bose Triport. If anything, the bass is a bit deeper and clearer, and the highs are a tad crisper. I also can't hear any hiss or other side effects of the noise cancellation.
I've watched a couple of movies, a few episodes of 24, and listened to tons of music with the QC2s, and they all sounded terrific to my untrained ear. I particularly enjoyed movie soundtracks, as it seemed I could hear nuances of sound that I had missed in the past.
I know that there are some truly excellent headphones available, such as the in-ear models from Etymotic Research as well as traditional styles from the likes of Sennheiser. I'm sure that there are modesl from both these manufacturers that greatly outdo the sound quality of the QC2s. But for me, they sound more than good enough.
I said it once, but I'll say it again. These are the most comfortable headphones I've ever worn. The padded headband is covered in an amazingly soft leather, the ear pieces are similarly softly padded and covered, and they seal well against my ears without applying undue headclamping pressure. (They don't need a ton of pressure, as the noise cancellation takes care of the ambient noises).
This is the part of the review that will be the most subjective, as I really can't describe what it's like to wear these things with the noise cancelling active. Perhaps its best to try to work with a real world example--my flight to San Francisco for Macworld. The short hop from Portland was made in a 737, which have their engines beneath the wings. As seen in the image at right, my seat was just aft of the engines. This is a relatively loud spot to sit; it's a window, and the engines are close by.
With the headset off, sure enough, there was the typical jet constant background-level roar. On long flights, this noise usually gives me a headache--I've actually been wearing earplugs on flights for many years to try to avoid the headaches. Once the QC2s were in place and active, though, I became a passenger on the world's second fastest glider (the Shuttle glides at many times the speed of sound, so it wins). Very nearly every bit of the roar vanished, leaving an amazingly quiet listening environment. Since the QC2's noise cancelling feature targets constant lower-range sounds, human voices were still quite audible (assuming I didn't have music playing).
At home, the QC2 did a great job of removing the G5's fan noise; once I put the QC2s on, I had a truly silent Mac.
Even here in my hotel room, the QC2s have proven valuable. My room is right next to the elevators, and the QC2 quiets the rumble of the elevator cars, and also removes the sound of the air blowing through the room's heater vents. They QC2s have a nifty feature; you can actually remove the audio cord entirely, and just wear the headset in noise cancelling mode without a dangling cord. The design of the plug shows an Apple-like attention to detail, too--notice how it's molded to match the shape of the headphones where it connects (click images for larger versions):
The switch visible in the 'out' shot above controls the volume level of the headphones; Bose recommends low for some devices, and high for others. But I found that high seems to not be too loud with everything I've tried (iPods, G5, PowerBook, and airline headphone plug-in), so I'm not sure I'll ever use low.
As much as I like the Bose, they're not perfect. First, since they are noise cancelling, they require power. In this case, that comes from a single AAA battery in the right earpiece. Even with that, though, these headphones are quite light for "full" headphones, weighing in somewhere around seven ounces. But since they require power, there's always the chance that I may find myself somewhere someday, lacking a spare battery and out of juice in the current battery.
If that just meant that I could use the headphones without the noise cancellation, that wouldn't be such a big deal. But strangely, you cannot use the QC2 headphones without having them powered up! That's right--no battery, no music. I find this an amazingly odd design decision, and other noise cancelling headsets don't seem to work this way, so I'm not sure why the QC2s do. Although not a deal breaker for me, it does mean I need to be much more conscious of carrying spare batteries when I travel.
The battery life is estimated at, I believe, 30+ hours (that's from memory, though). I just used up the end of the bundled battery, and I'd guess I got something over 30 hours of usage out of it. I'm now trying a rechargeable to see how well it holds up.
The QC2 isn't cheap; if you invested wisely, the $299 you'd spend on these headphones could be worth gazillions in 30 years or so. They're not the most portable things in the world. They're a bit on the heavy side. They require a battery to work in any manner at all. They only come in silver and black.
With all that said, though, I love my QC2 headphones. Very good (to me) sound quality, supreme comfort, and amazing noise cancellation. If you're a frequent flier, I'd say go buy them as quick as you can--even if you never listen to anything on them other than the glorious sound of a silent jet! (Note that there are other noise cancelling headphones on the market; I have no idea how they might compare to the QC2). If you're not a frequent flier, but work in noisy environments, you may also want to give them a listen; you'd be amazed at how quiet things can become.