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Why I travel with Bose's QuietComfort Ultra headphones instead of the Sony XM5

I've tested the Bose's flagship headphones and their direct competitor, the Sony XM5. Here's why I am sticking with Bose.
Written by Prakhar Khanna, Contributing Writer
Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones with a sleeping Pikachu toy on the left.
Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

The Bose QuietComfort series has been my go-to travel headphones since they released the QuietComfort 35. But in my quest for better noise cancellation, I tried out Sony's WH-1000XM5, which also feature a sturdier build than the QC45 headphones. In my time with the Sony headphones, however, I realized the grass isn't always greener. I missed the folding earcup design of the Bose headphones, and I'm glad the company has stuck with it for the Bose QuietComfort Ultra.

Also: AirPods Pro 2 vs. Bose QuietComfort Buds 2: Which wireless buds will best rock your world?

The folding earcup design makes these headphones some of the most portable I've used, and is one of my main reasons for keeping them in my travel backpack. But there's more to it than just the design. The Bose QuietComfort Ultra are my favorite travel headphones. Here are two big reasons why I went back to Bose (and one additional consideration): 

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Comfortable to wear, compact to pack

Bose QuietComfort Ultra case
Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

The bottom line: the Bose QuietComfort Ultra are the most comfortable headphones I've worn in a while. One of the quirks I experienced with the Sony XM5 headphones was that they made my ears sweaty within 30 minutes of wearing them. By contrast, I've worn the Bose QC Ultras for over two hours straight without feeling uncomfortable at all.

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

I also love the Bose QuietComfort Ultra's folding earcup design because they occupy less space in the bag -- with and without the case. I don't need to carry my case on short commutes, while during longer vacations, the collapsable design means it's compact enough to slide into any bag. By comparison, the Sony headphones have an unusual slant case design, which doesn't fit in bags as well as the Bose case.

At 254 grams, these are five grams heavier than the flagship Sony headphones, but they still feel more comfortable on the head and the neck. Historically, I've found the Sony XM series have a stronger build than the Bose QC lineup, but this time, both pairs of headphones are comparatively sturdy. 

The sound and ANC are top-notch

Bose QuietComfort Ultra buttons on the right earcup
Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

I like the sound of Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones better than the Sony WH-1000XM5. It could be because I like listening to music with string instruments, and they sound better with a more natural sound profile instead of the warmer sound profile of the XM5s. The bass is stronger on the latter, while it's more controlled on the Ultra. 

That's not to say that bass in songs such as Vagabond by Wolfmother sound flat – it's still quite strong, but not as thumpy as the XM5s. Personally, I enjoy this sound profile more, especially when I'm working on the go with my headphones on. 

Also: The best noise-canceling headphones you can buy: Expert tested

I also find the active noise cancellation on Bose QC Ultra perfect for travel. They minimize the airplane buzz and muffle ambient street noise with ease, making the ANC right up there with the Sony XM5, if not better. However, I miss the Speak to Chat feature of the XM5s, where the music stops when you speak -- it makes conversing easier without taking off your headphones. 

Bose has also worked on voice calling functionality, which I previously found way behind on the QuietComfort series compared to the Sony XM5. But the QC Ultra have amazing voice-calling performance, even in windy environments. 

During the Mobile World Congress, for example, the QC Ultra allowed me to coordinate clearly with my workplaces while walking through the halls in the exhibition. People I was chatting with on the other side told me that my voice was clear with minimal background noise.

I like the physical controls too. Bose has moved from the buttons for volume control to a slider on the right earcup. It's intuitive and works well. 

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra have a few considerations

Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones with the Bose app icon on an iPhone in the background.
Prakhar Khanna/ZDNET

And now for some things I didn't love: First, to turn on the Bose QC Ultra, you press and hold the power button for three to five seconds. After that, they switch on and you get a "power on" voice message. The problem is that the process is not consistent: sometimes it immediately turns on after a three-second hold. Other times, you need to keep it pressed for five seconds before it powers on. 

Also: The best noise-canceling earbuds: Expert tested and reviewed

I liked the power switch on previous QuietComfort models, meaning the device just turned on when I pushed the switch. But here, it doesn't come naturally. And in my multiple weeks of use, I still haven't figured out the sweet spot for press and hold.

Secondly, the QC Ultra connectivity with my iPhone was patchy for me. When I first set them up, it took two or three tries to connect successfully. It was only after I unpaired them and repeated the pairing process again that they started working flawlessly. I haven't had the connectivity issue since, however, and overall have loved my experience with the Bose QuietComfort Ultra headphones.

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