If you’ve been on an airplane in the last few years, you’ve probably seen the Bose QuietComfort noise-cancelling headphones before: they’re a favorite of regular travelers because they’re so good at keeping outside noise out. They’re comfortable, they sound incredible, and the noise cancellation is so impressive that you feel like you’re in your own personal bubble. These headphones are not cheap, but they’re definitely worth the money.
I’ve never enjoyed the audio quality of Bluetooth headphones, but that’s just me. The sound is better than it ever has been, and it’ll get you 90% of the way there—but not everybody is willing to make that tradeoff. Since USB-C headphones have largely ceded their market advantages over Bluetooth, we have to examine the consumer audio technology’s performance in a world where the headphone jack is disappearing.
The Astro Gaming A50 emerged in 2012 as the wireless follow-up to the excellent A40. Seven years later and four generations on, they remain the gold standard for gaming audio. With an ability to faithfully reproduce 7.1 channel surround sound through just two earcups, gamers will get critical 3D audio for all of their favorite console titles whether it’s from an Xbox One or a PlayStation 4. Wireless audio can lead to an unacceptable amount of lag, which often sends gamers in search of wired models, but here too, the A50 manage to beat expectations.
These early headphones used moving iron drivers, with either single-ended or balanced armatures. The common single-ended type used voice coils wound around the poles of a permanent magnet, which were positioned close to a flexible steel diaphragm. The audio current through the coils varied the magnetic field of the magnet, exerting a varying force on the diaphragm, causing it to vibrate, creating sound waves. The requirement for high sensitivity meant that no damping was used, so the frequency response of the diaphragm had large peaks due to resonance, resulting in poor sound quality. These early models lacked padding, and were often uncomfortable to wear for long periods. Their impedance varied; headphones used in telegraph and telephone work had an impedance of 75 ohms. Those used with early wireless radio had more turns of finer wire to increase sensitivity. Impedance of 1000 to 2000 ohms was common, which suited both crystal sets and triode receivers. Some very sensitive headphones, such as those manufactured by Brandes around 1919, were commonly used for early radio work.
Despite big promises from Bluetooth’s only Hi-res codec, the standard doesn’t really deliver at best, and it falls far short with its basic 330kbps setting. Both the 660kbps and 990kbps connections offer decent quality, but the 330kbps setting has a lot of noise—and a comparatively poor frequency response with higher-def content. You probably won’t hear it, but it definitely falls short of the marketing.
However, the Bose 700 earphones have a much slimmer profile when folded up, and they have a few updated elements, including more integration with digital assistants, touch controls, and sensors for Bose’s “augmented reality” apps. Bose has kept some of the best-loved features from its older models as well, such as adjustable levels of noise cancellation, a monitoring mode to let in sound from your environment, and an advertised 20-hour battery life. According to Bose, call quality is improved as well, though CR doesn’t test call quality in headphones.
I’ve had only a few minutes one day with a 598, so I can’t say exactly. But since the HP100 is closed and the 598 is open, I would get the 598, as long as open back is OK for you. I don’t think you can go wrong with the 598 in any case – it’s a very good headphone. Watch carefully for any cracks to develop though, since there were many reports of that.
We’re totally convinced the Sony WH-1000xM3 will be the best pick for most people, but if you’re looking for some alternatives, we have you covered there, too. We identified seven other models that are more than worthy of your consideration, each with their own specific strengths, whether it’s for use during a workout — or merely to keep you from giving your credit card too much of a workout.
Be sure to assess the build quality of your prospective headphones. Some earbuds and portable devices are relatively fragile, for instance. If the headphones fold up for easy storage, are the hinges robust, or will they fall apart in a month or two? Don't forget to consider that the earpads and earbuds will get extensive wear and tear over the life of the headphones.
Open back usually results in more natural sound, but they leak sound in and out. This means you probably can’t use them in a library or a plane flight since the sound of your music will leak out and disturb the people around you. You also can’t use them on loud public places since noise from the outside will disturb your music. Therefore, even though open back would give you more natural reproduction, for these reasons their use is limited to mostly at home or in the office (if you have your own space that is).
Every single Bluetooth codec has significant quality issues—despite many creative solutions employed to make the most of the limited bandwidth the standards employ. For those keeping score at home: not a single codec available can meet wired signal quality. Though Bluetooth audio has come a long way since its noisy beginnings, it’s still not ready to replace the headphone jack. Qualcomm’s aptx HD, and Sony’s LDAC 990kbps codecs come close, but everything else falls far short of the mark.
That depends on what you’re using them for and how much you’re willing to spend. At the high-end, over-ear and in-ear headphones can both perform fantastically. For those of us not willing to spend thousands on headphones, over-ear headphones typically offer better bass response and a bigger soundstage, but in-ear headphones are significantly more portable and convenient — especially wireless earbuds.