Unlike seemingly everyone else on every single flight ever taken, I’ve never owned a pair of Bose QC35s.
My mum has told me a million times not to exaggerate, but the QC35s really were ridiculously popular among frequent fliers and anyone who valued the best possible noise cancellation.
Then, Sony came along with the <looks up full name, again> WH-1000XM4s and set a new standard for combining brilliant nose cancellation with epic consumer-level sound.
Apple took its time to enter the over-the-ear headphone game, but did so in typically pretentious fashion last year when the astronomically expensive AirPods Max were introduced.
Now, Bose has finally launched the successor to the QuietComfort 35 IIs – the, erm, QuietComfort 45s.
But how do they compare with Apple’s AirPods Max?
I paid £319 for my Bose QC45s. That’s a lot of money, but it’s about par for the course in over-the-ear noise-cancelling land. A smidgen below, if anything.
At launch, AirPods Max were £550. They’re pretty much the only review unit I’ve thought twice about buying.
Apple’s cans were far too expensive when they first hit the market. Their price tag and the severely competitive field into which they were placed made AirPods Max available only to those with significant amounts of disposable income. And they didn’t even come with a proper case.
Sure, you can now find them for around £400/$400 if you do your research, but that’s still a hefty chunk of anyone’s wage packet.
If there’s one thing going for AirPods Max, its their build quality.
As you might expect from an Apple-designed pair of headphones, it’s pretty epic. They’re satisfyingly weighty, the aluminium on the ear cups is cold to the touch and there’s nothing more satisfying than adjusting the perfectly-resistant telescoping arms.
By comparison, the Bose QC45s feel rather plasticky and on the verge of being flimsy. This is where a lot of that AirPods Max money goes; I can’t think of a pair of headphones I’ve owned or used that are as well designed as the latter.
How the QC45s stand up to the rigours of daily use remains to be seen, but ask any QC35 owner how those cans performed, and you’ll hear tales of replacement ear pads and worn-out padding. Only time will tell if Bose have made any improvements in that area with the QC45s.
Comfort-wise, they’re both on level-pegging; I can wear both sets for extended periods of time without any trouble
AirPods Max feature superb noise cancellation. One of the best examples I’ve heard, in fact.
But they’re not a touch on the QC45s. Having lived with the Bose for over a week now, I can see why so many people chose them for flights. The noise cancelling is near silent (there’s very little background hiss), and all-encompassing without being overbearing.
However, there’s a massive caveat.
AirPods Max feature something called ‘transparency mode’. For the uninitiated, this is a feature which filters in outside noise. It does so via the headphones’ mics, and subsequently delivers a synthesised, high fidelity version of the world around you.
This is great when you want to be aware of what’s going on around you, but it is ridiculously useful for calls. You can actually hear yourself speak, you see – and it’s almost as though your voice has been amplified (which, I guess, it has).
Bose’s version of this is called ‘Aware’. And it’s ok. But it’s not a patch on transparency mode, which renders the QC45’s brilliant noise-cancellation barely a point of comparison.
Winner: Apple (because of transparency mode).
I’ve said this before, and I know that it is about as un-audiophile as you can get, but we need need to remember that these are consumer grade headphones. So, I don’t care.
AirPods Max sound expensive. It’s like going from HD to 4K on a decent TV.
Place them on any consumer’s head, and they’ll be impressed. This is thanks to a generous dose of EQ and what was no doubt thousands of hours in Apple’s audio labs devising the perfect balance of rich bass and crispy highs.
The Bose sound ok. Out of the box, they’re closer to the AirPods Max high fidelity take on headphone sound than they are the Sony XM4’s sheer grunt and determination.
The QC45s just aren’t particularly exciting. Don’t get me wrong – they cater for most frequencies pretty handsomely, but Bose are definitely erring on the side of caution with their EQ profile.
When AirPods Max were first introduced, many reviewers (myself include) lamented the inability to switch the damn things off.
Apple’s weird insistence on not allowing users to power down their headphones appeared to have a dreadful impact on stand-by time, too – yes, even when placed into that stupid case.
Thankfully, a firmware update released earlier this year has fixed most of the stand-by battery issues on AirPods Max. But I still wish you could turn them off for ultimate peace of mind. Alas, this is Apple, and they clearly know best.
Despite this, AirPods Max perform admirably in terms of in-use battery time. As I’ve always said, anything above 20 hours is fine and dandy for headphones, and the Bose QC45’s quoted 24-hour run time appears to be pretty accurate. How they perform in terms of stand-by time remains to be seen, but early indications are rather promising.
Winner: a draw.
I’ve just realised that I haven’t mentioned the cases. Bose have been kind enough to provide a (relatively) hard shell case with the QC45s, and while it doesn’t compete with the stellar case provided with the Sony XM4s, it does provide far more protection than Apple’s effort.
Which provides precise zero protection.
I won’t labour the point here (because, boy, have I done so in earlier reviews), but the AirPods Max case is just about the most stupid thing Apple has ever designed, and comes close to ruining the entire experience.
Which brings me to my conclusion. I don’t love either of these headphones. The QC45s feel like they’re simply resting on the success of their predecessor; you’d be hard-pressed to tell the two apart. And despite the epic noise cancelling, they’re just a bit bland in every other area.
AirPods Max are too expensive. They’re beautifully designed and sound incredible, but the sheer amount of competition in this space leaves Apple’s headphones looking like the overdressed person at a chilled out party. They just don’t fit in and skim far too close to being pretentious.
But if I had to choose one pair, it’d be the Bose. Their price tag is far more digestible and, given the utility of that brilliant noise cancelling, they’re far more likely to provide genuine value on a daily basis. With better materials, a slightly more exciting sound, and a more transparency mode-like Aware feature, they’d be a true competitor for the Sony XM4s.