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Bose QuietComfort Ultra review: A rightful heir to the ANC throne

The latest release from Bose takes aim at heavy hitters in the high-end headphones market, and it's as true to its QuietComfort name as ever before.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
qcultrahero.jpg

Bose QuietComfort Ultra wireless headphones

4.5 / 5
Very good

pros and cons

Pros
  • Superior ANC
  • Comfortable fit
  • Balanced sound
Cons
  • Battery life could be longer
  • Immersive Audio is a hit or miss
  • Restrictive carrying case

I've spent a lot of time this year testing and reviewing headphones, some that blew me away and some that were just okay. I've particularly spent a lot of time with the Bose QuietComfort 45 headphones, which have been my daily driver the longest. The noise-canceling is top-tier, the sound is great, and the comfort is worth every penny.

When I got word from Bose that a new pair of premium headphones was on the way, I didn't think there was much more Bose could do to take me away from the QuietComfort 45 headphones. So, once I got my hands on the QuietComfort Ultra, which I'll refer to as the QC Ultra from here on out, I had really high hopes. 

Also: Forget AirPods Pro: These Bose noise-cancelling earbuds sound better and feel premium

Read on as I detail my two-week experience with the QC Ultra to help you decide if they're worth the big-ticket price tag.

Specifications

Driver

35mm full-range drivers  

Audio modes

Aware mode, Quiet mode, Immersive Audio

Bluetooth codecs

AAC, SBC, Aptx Adaptive

Battery life

24 hours (18 with ANC and Immersive Audio on)

Connectivity

Bluetooth 5.3, Bluetooth Multipoint

Weight

254 grams (8.96 ounces)

Microphones

10


How do they fit?

The unboxing experience includes a carrying case, the headphones, a mini stereo jack for wired listening, and a USB-A to USB-C charging cable. You can find the QC Ultra in Black or White Smoke. I tried the White Smoke colorway since I was already acquainted with the QuietComfort 45 headphones in Black. 

Also: Shopping for expensive headphones? The best option for you may be much cheaper

The ear cups are covered in a soft matte coating, and the hinges connecting the ear cups to the headband are made of aluminum, offering a more durable build quality and sturdiness. The ear cup and headband padding are made from a plushy, soft protein leather material.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra in White Smoke on a black headphones stand

You can see the plushy headband material conforming to the rigid, plastic headphone stand.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

The aluminum headband extenders slide in and out of the headband, and they are not easily moved. When you put the QC Ultra on your head, you may be tempted to adjust them by gripping the ear cup and sliding it down. Adjusting the headband this way proved difficult, which, believe it or not, is a good thing, as the headphones are almost guaranteed not to become loose while you're wearing them.

Still, these headphones are exceptionally comfortable. In comparison to other flagship headphones, the QC Ultra are more comfortable than any other pair that I've worn -- including those from Apple and Sony.

The ear cups are deep and oval, offering breathing room for your ears and a true over-ear fit. Hours-long wear is certainly possible with the QC Ultra, as they distribute their weight evenly across your ears and head.

Heat buildup inside the QC Ultra's ear cups is minimal, and the clamp force isn't too tight. Any of my spectacled friends out there will find comfort while wearing the QC Ultra, and the thick ear cup padding keeps your glasses from letting too much outside noise into the headphones.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra laid in their case

The QC Ultra carrying case offers portability and protection. But beware -- the White Smoke colorway is susceptible to scuffs and stains.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

The carrying case is very similar to the QuietComfort 45's case, but the QC Ultra case has a molding to lay the ear cups in. I'm not the biggest fan of this design because you must slide the headband adjusters back into the headband for the headphones to fit in the case.

Also: Audio-Technica ATH-M50xBT2: Recommended by audio experts, loved by casual listeners

Finding the sweet spot in the QC Ultra's fit takes a few rounds of taking them off, adjusting, and putting them back on. So, having to fully reset the fit just to use the case is counterintuitive and impractical.

How do the Bose QuietComfort Ultra sound?

With these headphones, Bose improved the high and low frequencies so that, even at low volumes, the layering of vocals and instrumentals is discernible. While listening to Breathe Deeper by Tame Impala, the synth, guitar notes, piano chords, vocals, and bass, all sounded detailed, smooth, and clear. 

That said, you still shouldn't buy these Bose headphones in hopes of professional-caliber audio. If I had to nitpick, the same audio drivers from the cheaper Bose 700 are in the QC Ultra. Of course, more goes into audio quality than internal drivers, but some updated hardware wouldn't hurt for the Bose's output, especially when the Bose 700 debuted four years ago.  

Bose QuietComfort Ultra in White Smoke

Bose's ten internal microphones aid in detecting extraneous sounds and keeping them out of your ears.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

Fortunately, it's clear that Bose's years of research and development culminated in creating the QC Ultra headphones, as the noise-canceling is undeniably the best I've tried in any pair of headphones. In fact, Bose's aviation headphones are among the most popular for commercial airline pilots who spend hours, if not days, in noisy cockpits. That same technology is embedded in the QC Ultra. The Aware Mode, Bose's name for transparency mode, is also the best that I've tested from Bose so far.

Also: How Qualcomm's new audio tech could transform your wireless earbud experience

Something else that's new with the QC Ultra headphones is Bose's take on spatial audio: Immersive Audio. It's similar to Apple's Spatial Audio and Sony's 360 Reality Audio, except there are no software or hardware limitations.

That means you don't need a compatible device or streaming service to experience Bose's Immersive Audio feature. It's a clever and ambitious move by Bose, and I really enjoy it. Immersive Audio expands the soundstage to get the music away from your head, delivering an airy, multidimensional audio experience.

You can use Immersive Audio in "Still" mode when you're stationary and in "Motion" to keep the feature working well as you move around. Some songs sound great, with noticeable depth in Immersive Audio, and some songs fall flat with the technology. Not to mention, this feature is a certified battery drainer.

Also: Beats outdid themselves with the Studio Pro headphones, but they're not my top pick

Another new feature is wind noise reduction, which decreases the wind's ability to interfere with your audio or calling experience. I didn't have any issues hearing or being heard by the person on the other end of calls, even when outside.

For gamers and entertainment geeks, the QC Ultra headphones are equipped with the AptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec, which promises stable connection, 24-bit audio, and lower latency. AptX is compatible with most Android devices and Apple's Mac computers.

Using the companion app

In the Bose Music companion app, you can tune the QC Ultra's EQ settings on a three-band equalizer. Bose's EQ settings aren't the most detailed, but they're certainly feasible if you're just wanting to squeak out a little more bass or treble.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra in White Smoke and the Bose Music companion app

Bose's companion app is your hub to personalize your QuietComfort Ultra headphones.

Jada Jones/ZDNET

You can also use the app to create a shortcut for the touch strip of the headphones, which, by default, is used to increase or decrease volume. If you create a shortcut, you can touch and hold the capacitive strip to summon your voice assistant, hear the QC Ultra battery level, cycle through Immersive Audio settings, or play music from Spotify.

Also: All aboard the Space One headphones: Quality features for a down-to-earth price

I recommend familiarizing yourself with the app to personalize your device controls. Once you do that, you likely won't ever have to open the app again unless there's new firmware to install.

ZDNET's buying advice

I recommend the Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones to anyone seeking a high-end pair of headphones that they can wear daily. With the QC Ultra, Bose fused together the best features of its premium Bose 700 headphones and iconic QuietComfort line, and the years of maturation paid off. 

One caveat that's worth noting; there's no improvement in battery life from the QuietComfort 45 to the QC Ultra. For an "Ultra" model, I would've expected a greater endurance rating.

Instead, comfort, style, and noise-canceling are the highlights of the QC Ultra headphones, and if the three aspects are as valuable to you as they are to me, then look no further than the latest from Bose.

Alternatives to consider

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