My Second Bose

It’s hard to believe but I now live in a two Bose household. My first Bose was a car stereo that came as part of a package deal in the Mazda 3 that I bought nearly two years ago. I had to take it to get the whole shebang. It wasn’t really a bad deal. Dissing Bose may be a spectator sport among heavy-duty audiophiles, but apart from a little bass heaviness (not exactly rare in car stereos), it’s a more than respectable piece of work. It I had wanted to buy a car for the stereo, I would have gone with an Acura TL.

My second Bose came this fall while I was anticipating two long trips overseas, one to Japan and a second to Denmark. I’ve been promising myself a set of noise canceling headphones for years, and finally decided to take the plunge. I got a lot of recommendations, after which I finally went with the Bose QuietComfort 3 ($350).

The route I followed to get to that choice was a bit convoluted. After trying out both the older QuietComfort 2 and the newer 3s at a local Bose store, I decided to go with the 2s. They were not only $50 cheaper but sounded a bit more detailed on the store’s demo kiosk. They also fit over my ears rather than on them, and while that made them a little larger, it also made them, for me, more comfortable.

But the store was out of 2s. “No problem,” said the cheerful clerk, “Take them on your [first] trip and exchange them when you come back! We should have the 3s in stock by then.”

That’s what I did. After the trip and an exchange however, I discovered, on my own gear at home, that the QuietComfort 2 sounded just a little too bright for my taste, which I reasoned might become irritating over the course of a long trip. So I brought them back to exchange them again, for another set of 3s. They swapped them without a question. They even passed on my offer to exchange them for my original 3s, if they were still in the stockroom, and instead gave me a brand new set. Whatever your opinions about Bose products, chalk up a big one here for the company’s customer service.

The QuietComfort 3 turned out to be more comfortable than I expected. They sit snug over my outer ear, forming a good but comfortable seal that didn’t become annoying even after hours of use. Your mileage may vary, as everyone’s ears are different.

You should be aware of two important characteristics of noise canceling headphones. First, they are effective primarily on continuous noise, such as the sound of jet engines, and relative ineffective on sharp noise, like gunshots. I would strongly recommend against their use on a firing range in place of good, tight-fitting earplugs or muffs (preferably both if you value your hearing—and if you don’t you’re reading the wrong website!).

Second, noise canceling earphones act primarily on sounds from the lower midrange on down, and are less effective with higher frequency noise. If you work outside around jet engines, for example, I don’t recommend that you rely on them for ear protection. But inside an airplane cabin, where the noise is dominated by midrange and low frequency rumbling, they work just fine. None of them cancel the noise completely, but with a good set the effect is not subtle.

(A side note: If you use noise canceling earphones that fit in the ear canal, as some do, or earplugs that do the same, you should remove them when your plane begins its descent. Otherwise you may miss the early signs of your ears plugging up from the pressure change and may have trouble clearing them by the time you do. This is especially important if you have a cold. It’s more difficult to clear your ears in a descent than while climbing, and the last 5000 feet are the worst.)

So how do the Bose headphones work? As noise canceling devices alone, they are effective, within the limitations noted above. I did note a little pressure in my ears when I turned them on, but it was minimal. And if you want to use them without listening to music or a movie soundtrack, the cord is detachable to keep you from getting tangled up in it—a nice touch that is rare in headphones of any sort.

How do they sound? Sweet. A little soft on top but not dull, and a little ripe on the bottom, but powerful. Male voices are a little rich and music a little warm, but you get used to this quickly. If headphones must deviate from perfection, and they all do, this is a good compromise for use on a long flight. The quality you hear will ultimately depend, of course, on the source. Airline sound systems are what they are, so don’t expect miracles there. You’ll get vastly better results from a music player, portable DVD player, or laptop.

As a final note, the QuietComfort 3 uses a special rechargeable battery (the 2 uses an ordinary penlight battery), and the phones must be turned on whenever they are in use (you can’t use them, sans noise reduction, just to listen to music or movies). So do remember to recharge the battery before each flight. Don’t worry, it’s rated for 20 hours. If your flight lasts longer than that, you’ve just joined the cast of Lost.

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