Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: Bose has a brand-new flagship Credit: Jonathan TakiffIDG
Business Management

Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 review: Bose has a brand-new flagship

With many a rival chomping at its heels, noise-cancelling headphone inventor Bose is pushing the innovation envelope again. Meet the new, flagship wireless Bose Noise Cancelling Headphone 700, boasting improved styling, engineering, and ergonomics.

Most significantly, the 700 jump out of the crowd with two-way noise cancellation—signal processing that clamps down sonic distractions on both the listening and the speaking sides. That’s a combination punch never tried before in a consumer headset, says the maker, and one that aims to greatly reduce miscommunications, whether you’re talking on the line to a real person or to your favorite digital assistant: Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant. Yes, these breakthrough headphones support all three.

These $399 cans look a bit different from the typical wireless headphone, including the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II ($349 on Amazon). Note the thinner, cleaner arc of the 700’s padded headband (honed from springy stainless steel), which subtly connects (with no visible joints or screws) to sliding ear cups fashioned with slimming beveled backs.

bose 700 3 qc35 left Jonathan Takiff / IDG

The case for the Bose Quiet Comfort 35 are on the left; the case for the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700 are on the right.

Between the ergonomic shaping and tight grip of the headband and the pleathery memory foam surrounds of the ear cups, these things do a most excellent job of passive noise reduction, which is helpful even with the active noise suppression circuitry turned off. And yes, these headphones can be enjoyably used for music listening without power, with a (supplied) cable connecting them to your source.

Bose has also cleaned up the earcups’ appearance with a thermal touch panel (like that in arch-rival Sony’s WH-1000XM3) that recognizes finger swipes and taps to raise and lower volume, move back and forward through your song queue, and answer or terminate calls. The three remaining hard buttons handle power or Bluetooth 5.0 activation, summoning your digital assistant, and variable noise-cancellation level presets.

bose 700 4 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

Beam-formation technology selectively “hears” your voice and rejects other sounds around you.

But it’s what’s inside these wireless headphones, which have been redesigned from the ground up, that’s most interesting. The 700, as you might expect, do a fabulous job of rejecting outside noises, so the wearer can listen to well-reproduced music at a lower volume with less fatigue for a much longer time. That’s a promise reinforced by the Bose’s neutral (some would say laid-back) sound staging—neither boomy nor excessively bright—and by an ergonomic design so comfy you might forget you’re wearing them. When removing these things from my head, quitting my private quiet zone, I’m shocked by the woosh of ambient sound coming from the room air cleaner, computer fan, air conditioning, and outside traffic.

And the really big story, as my local TV news guys are always saying? It’s how these newbies work to eliminate the complaints of people at the other end of phone calls, when you’re using the 700 as a headset with your smartphone in an acoustically challenging location. Say, a noisy street or chatter-buzzed coffee shop, in a shared work space, or at home as you run the vacuum cleaner or prep dinner. Those complaints are typically some variation of “You know I can’t hear you when the water’s running.”

People at least tell you when they can’t understand you. If it’s Siri or Alexa or Google doing the listening, your digital assistant is just as likely to jump to the wrong conclusion as respond with “I didn’t get that.” That’s how these digital assistants dial the wrong phone number, play the wrong tune, or relay a (speech-to-text) dictated message with word guesses that make you look rude or idiotic.

bose app 2 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

A touch-sensitive surface lets you control the headphone's various functions.

Our brains are pretty great at tuning out sonic distractions. The conventional microphone residing in a smartphone or headset isn’t nearly as discriminating—or forgiving. It picks up loud distractions almost as readily as it does your voice. That’s how virtual personal assistants muck stuff up.

Digital assistants “start with speech-to text-translators in your phone or tablet. So if the speech is garbled, the outgoing message will be too,” said Bose VP of production and communications design Ken Jacob in a recent briefing session. “[The digital assistant] is not going to do a good job of giving you a good answer. That’s why users need to be heard as clearly during conversations as they need to hear music and conversations.”

Working for change

To separate the wheat from the chaff, the 700 deploy an eight-microphone system and a whole lot of digital processing. Six of the eight mics collaborate to cancel external noise—that’s essentially what Bose has been doing for years, though with steady, incremental refinements that have broadened the headphones’ noise detection range significantly. (The first model was tuned mostly to cancel the roar of airplane and train engines.) Two of those same mics also work in partnership with the two remaining mics, which are dedicated to listening to your voice, so your babblings sound as clear as a brook for the person at the other end of a call (or the bot you’ve summoned to do your bidding).

The process works with a sound isolating and rejection technology. Two pickup mics on each earcup focus on and isolate your speech, suppressing everything else that’s audible. A second array tracks and blocks the most disruptive sounds around you, rejecting the noise of a coffee grinder, for instance, or the loud people sitting near you in a restaurant. This defensive system adopts and rejects noise even when that noise moves, you move, or you’re both moving at the same time. When you’re walking down the street, for example, and a bus goes by in the other direction.

bose case comparison 2 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

The Bose Quiet Comfort 35 II in their case on the left; the new Bose Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones are in their case on the right.

The improvements

When I would take a call while wearing the 700, people at the other end have been surprised to learn I was sitting in a Starbucks or strolling around a market. They heard very little of the location din as I talked (loudly, I admit.) But during gaps in the conversation—if I shut up and the other party on the line did likewise—that person would hear some of my environmental background noise. For that I’m blaming the Bose headphones’ automatic gain control, which cranks up the microphone sensitivity and amplification when it detects just a whisper of sound. So the odds aren’t good that these cans will help you hide your partying ways when you’re hanging at a loud club or concert. Here’s a good rule of thumb: If you can’t hear yourself think, these headphones can’t cover your tracks.

They’re also not immune to inflicting sonic pain and suffering, as I discovered while wearing 700 on a Megabus ride from Philly to New York. I was sitting in the back of the coach, and whenever the bus hit a rough patch of road and stuff in the baggage compartment and undercarriage rattled, the earphones sputtered so badly I thought the headphone drivers were blown.

bose app 7 Jonathan Takiff / IDG

You'll need to choose which digital assistant you want to use with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700, you can't switch back and forth.

Bose engineers can fine-tune-out this tendency with a software update, and they probably will.

There are already plans for a firmware update that will include a Google Assistant “wake” enhancement. For now, only Alexa can be summoned hands-free; Siri and Google Assistant users will need to press a button on the right earcup to summon their assistants (the button press is optional for Alexa users, but it obviates the need to utter a wake word with all three).

As with Sonos smart speakers, only one digital assistant can be active on the Bose 700 at a time, so choose your best friend wisely. Also, one music service must be selected as a default. You can use others, but you’ll need to speak a few extra words or make a few taps on your smartphone to access and connect them to the headphones via Bluetooth.

The 700s do let you connect to two wireless sources simultaneously. As I write, I’m listening to music streaming from an iPad. If a call comes in on my smartphone, the headphones will announce the caller, mute the music, and let me answer. After I hang up, the music will resume. Getting this feature working was tedious, requiring several reboots of gear and apps, but it’s running fine now.

The touch controls

I’ve had mixed feelings about thermal touch control pads, and the one on the Bose is no exception. Swiping up and down on the panel to raise/lower volume is a no brainer, and it works precisely every time. But there’s an art—in terms of timing—to correctly double-tap on the touch pad to answer or end a call. It took me a few tries to master this, and I have yet to learn “declining an incoming call,” which is supposedly accomplished by tapping and holding on the pad for 1 second.

I’ve also discovered an issue with the shortcut tap feature, which is useful for either activating and deactivating the wake word or for informing how much battery charge time remains. I’ve repeatedly programmed it for battery tracking, but the single-tap trigger keeps reverting to wake-word duty.

Swiping right and left on the Bose 700’s touch control pad pushes the music forward to the next track or back to the start of the track you’re listening to, and maybe, after a second swipe left, to the track before that. When I first got this review sample, track advancing rarely worked with Amazon Music selections funneled through my iPhone X, and a Bose rep told me that feature wasn’t supported. But after several days and a couple reboots of the phone and the Bose Music app, track swiping is functioning just fine. Go figure.

Bose has reportedly tweaked its thermal pad to work in cold weather (a sometime problem with Sony’s WH-1000XM3), but we’ll have to wait until winter to test that.

For sure, the hard button on the left ear cup works every time to adjust the noise-cancelling level—or, when held longer—to fully shut noise cancelling off, for situational awareness.

bose 700 2a Jonathan Takiff / IDG

A slim, stainless steel headband offers lots of flex and zero clutter, with all connection joints and screws hidden out of view.

Sonic Sweetness

In the early days of noise cancelling, there were a lot of complaints—some justified—that the circuitry had bad side effects, that it screwed with our listening enjoyment by dulling the clarity and depth of the music and introducing hiss.

But even with the double dose of noise cancellation circuitry imposed on the new Bose 700s, I’ve been enjoying music on these things with a high degree of satisfaction and zero sense of noxious filtration. That’s true listening to the florid Mediterranean-flavored jazz of Chick Corea’s latest musical suite Antidote; Ed Sheeran’s punched-up genre-hopping session with hip hop and pop notables (No. 6 Collaborations Project); and with the fresh 2019 cast recording of the Broadway musical Oklahoma!, which rejiggers the Rodgers and Hammerstein score with acoustic string-band arrangements to bring out its barn-dance heart. And that’s not to be confused with Keb’ Mo’s sparkly folk soul set Oklahoma, also new and quite fine.

Typical for Bose, the 700 round off both the top and bottom ends of the sonic spectrum just a tad, so performances never seem hyper-metallic bright or all-about-that-bass. In a short-term A/B listening comparison with a competitive headphone model, you might think that’s a deficit. (Yeah, the Sony are more in your face, man). But for all day wearability and comfort, which is what these things are all about, moderation is key to survival. And for those who do insist on cranking it, the 700’s automatic volume-related active equalization does sharpen the bass kick and high-end sizzle at louder listening levels more effectively than it does on the QC35 IIs.

So far, I’ve listened to the 700 for as long as seven hours straight without feeling fatigued.  And these entertainers can keep at it for 20 hours between battery charges, making them ripe for an international sojourn. That number holds even with the Alexa voice-detection feature left on. A full charge with the supplied USB-C cable takes 2.5 hours; a quick charge of 15 minutes supplies 3.5 hours of playtime. Sorry, it’s not possible to charge and listen at the same time.

Comfort contributions are also made by the surprising flex of the headphones’ metal band and its extended rim of padding, the four-way wiggle in the ear cups, and a reasonable weight of 8.96 ounces.

Augmented reality

Bose AR (augmented reality) is another nifty technological advancement happening here. The idea is to serve up useful and entertaining audio applications that respond to your movement and physical place in the world, with motion sensors in the headphones working with the GPS chip in your smartphone. You’ll find this same tech in the Bose QC35 II headphones and the Bose Frames (sunglasses with integrated Bluetooth speakers).

With the free Otocast app, I took a narrated walking tour of Lower Manhattan, based on the theme “Art and Security,” which suggested that big sculptural pieces in public spaces might make a visitor feel safer. With the Bose Radar AR app cued up, I’ve enjoyed some tasty, interactive tunes—ambient, neo-classical and hip hop—that change focus as you physically spin around (voices and instruments are positioned in different quadrants and custom blend-able at in-between spots.)

Other Bose AR apps to try include Pear, a personal fitness coach, and Head Games by Earplay, an interactive sci-fi thriller controlled by your nodding, head shaking, ducking, turning, and voice.

There’s more stuff coming down the pike with these software-updatable headphones. By year’s end, the 700 will add white noise soundtracks as found in the Bose Sleepbuds, though the selection for the headphones will include ambient nature sounds “that help wearers concentrate as well as lull you to sleep,” I’m told.

Also on tap, an upgrade that will finally add user-adjustable equalization settings (accessible through the Bose Music app). Perhaps that will silence (though not with noise reduction) the grousing that Bose headphones don’t rock that hard or burn bright enough.

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