Bose QuietComfort 3 Noise-Canceling Headphones

Noise-canceling headphones - once a luxury reserved for hard-core business travelers living on jets - have gone mainstream. Though fancy models still cost north of $200, today you'll find name-brand phones for as little as $50. That's clearly within reach of iPod-toting everyday Joes.

So what makes Bose think its latest entry, the QuietComfort 3 noise-canceling headphones, can carry a ticket of $349? To be sure, some of the answer lies in marketing. The folks at Bose are masterful promoters who understand it's better to put the focus on product benefits and the company's proprietary technology instead of price. Anyone who's seen a Bose direct-response advertisement or stumbled into a "backroom" demo at one of their mall stores knows what I mean. These are the kind of demos where, for example, you listen to big, room-filling sound in a darkened home theater with spotlights shining on some giant tower speakers, only to have it revealed that it was really tiny Bose cubes playing all along.

After those kinds of theatrics, the question naturally shifts from "How much is it?" to "How much is it worth to you?" With the QC 3, I'll admit my answer is "a lot." I won't tell you that there aren't some great high-performance headphones to consider at this price - including fantastic in-ear buds from companies like Ultimate Ears, Etymotic Research, and Shure that will do an excellent (if not better) job of isolating background noise without any active noise-canceling circuitry. But as someone who spends up to 4 hours a day commuting between my rural New Jersey digs and my office in New York, as well as logging enough air miles each year to warrant elite flyer status, I spend an awful lot of time wearing headphones. And lately the QC 3s have become my best friends.

ONE MORE QC FOR THE ROAD Bose probably did more to popularize noise-canceling phones than anyone with the release of the original QuietComfort headphones in 1989 and, more recently, the QuietComfort 2. The QC 2 remains in the line for $299, and the QC 3 takes after it a good bit, starting with a pair of sleek silver earcups that pivot flat so the phones can be stored away in a slim, vinyl-covered hard-case Bose supplies. But there are key differences. The QC 3 weighs less (5.6 vs. 6.9 ounces) and has a smaller, thinner earcup that rests on top of the ear rather than around it.

By their nature, on-ear phones don't keep out background noise as well as those that fully seal around the ears, but both Bose models are said to provide about the same amount of noise attenuation. Bose compensated in the QC 3 by tweaking the noise-canceling circuitry but also by switching to soft, memory-foam ear pads that provide a tight, form-fitting seal while remaining comfortable to wear. To achieve its more compact size, the QC 3 also uses a rechargeable lithium-ion battery rather than the disposable AA cell used in the QC 2. The tradeoff is battery life: about 20 hours before a recharge with the QC 3 as opposed to the 35 hours you're said to get from the QC 2 on a single battery.

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