Monday, 20 June 2016

Bose QC35 vs. Sony MDR-100ABN In-Depth Comparison

The following review is a transcript of my video review, with some additional comments not included in the video. You can check out more of my videos here!


In every field, there are purists, and there are geeks. One camp believes that true greatness lies in distilling things to their purist, basic elements, real old school, and the other camp believes in trying to get the best by taking all the latest technology and synthesising it together into the new hotness. Slow food versus molecular gastronomy. Cold drip coffee versus Nespresso pods. In the world of headphones, you have companies like Grado hand making headphones in Brooklyn, and then you have headphones like these: the Bose QC35 and the Sony MDR-100ABN. Wireless Bluetooth. NFC. Active noise cancelling. Electronic EQ. More bells. More whistles. All the latest in lifestyle convenience, packed into these two black cans.

As a headphone enthusiast, I appreciate elegance. I know a lot headphone enthusiasts wouldn't give these headphones the time of day, because of suspicion that between the NFC and the ANC and the If You Seek Amy, something pure, something important has been lost.

But I'm also a geek. And I want to see, with everything packed in including the kitchen sink, just how good it gets.

This post is not going to be a full review of either of these headphones. I'm planning to do one of those later, when I've had a chance to compare both of these headphones to a wider field of alternatives.

What this post is going to try and answer a few basic questions about these headphones, given that they are more or less matched feature for feature. Which of the two headphones has a smarter design? Which of these two does wireless better? Which does noise cancelling better? And which one of these, well, sounds better? Both of these headphones retail for $499 here in Australia, and for that much cash, you want the whole package.

Let's start with the designs basics. In black, I think these are both tremendously handsome looking headphones. The QC35 and the MDR-100ABN are around ear headphones, and carry a bit more heft than your average portable headphone. The Sony weighs 290g, the Bose weighs a bit more at 310g.

Despite the additional weight, I found the Bose significantly more comfortable than the Sony. In fact, I found the QC35 has the same easygoing fit around the ears as the QC25, without the subtle weight of the wire dangling off the headset. The Sony is less comfortable, with stiffer ear pads and a less even weight distribution on the head. The Sony isn't uncomfortable - it's about average in my experience - but it never disappears the same way the Bose does.

Both the Sony and the Bose have on headphone music and volume controls. These really are one of my favourite things about wireless headphones, apart from the whole, you know, wireless thing. The Bose combines all the controls onto 3 buttons, which can be a little complicated. The Sony separates the volume and music controls, and the music controller rocker in particular is oddly satisfying to use. Still, not a huge difference here.

I have to say though, that I much much prefer the power switch on the Bose over the Sony. The Bose just has a simple power switch - on and off, which is quick and easy. With the Sony, you've got to hold the power button for a few seconds to turn it on, and you gotta hold it for a few seconds to turn it off. I know: I'm nitpicking, but when you're reviewing these headphones and constantly turning them on and off to test them, it gets annoying quickly.
Winner: Bose

Let's move onto wireless functionality. I have never really seen the appeal of wireless headphones before, but I’m totally sold now. For some reason not having the cable hanging off the headphone just feels oddly... liberating. You aren't tethered to your device. You don't get tangled up in your cables. The trade-off is the cccasional hiccup from the wireless connection on both of these headphones, but by and large found the connection stable.

It's in the implementation of wireless pairing where there's a big difference between the Bose and the Sony.

The Sony can pair up to 8 devices, but like most Bluetooth devices I've used, it will only connect to one device at a time. It will automatically connect to the last paired device, and if you want to switch devices you have to disconnect it from the device, and connect it from the other device.

The Bose can pair up to 8 devices, and it can actually connect to both devices at the same time. So for instance, these days I always carry my iPhone and iPad with me. With the Bose, I can be listening to music off my phone, and a friend will send me a YouTube video, and when I stop music playback on the phone and start the video on the iPad, the Bose will automatically switch over between the two. The Sony can't do that.

If you just have two devices, say a phone and a tablet, or a phone and a laptop, the Bose is a lot more convenient than the Sony.
Winner: Bose

Next, noise cancelling. Bose has generally always been considered the King of the hill in noise cancelling. Is the Sony a contender? Not quite.

The Sony does a pretty good job at actually cancelling out noise. Not quite as good as the Bose at blocking out speech or car noises, but I'm not going to lose sleep over the performance difference. Both dramatically cut down environmental noise and both let you hear more detail in your music as a result.

The problem is the noise that the Sony itself produces. The noise cancelling circuit on the 100ABN produces a lot more audible electronic noise than the Bose. The Sony's ANC is always fizzing away, with occasional electronic chirps. Again, not a problem in a noisy environment, but when it's a little more quiet or you are listening to music with long silent passages, the Sony's electronic noise is quite obvious.

Another issue is that the Sony noise cancelling mics tend to amplify wind noise when you are outdoors, most probably because the wind is blowing over the microphone openings like the opening of a bottle. It’s very distracting on a windy day.

In comparison the noise cancelling on the Bose is near silent. Remarkably it's even more quiet than the already whisper quiet QC25. This is as good as ANC gets, and it's just fantastic.

Luckily the Sony does have a switch that lets you turn ANC off. This is great in a quiet place where the environmental noise is already less than the electronic noise from the ANC, and it's useful in case you actually do want to hear what's going on around you. For this reason I think the Sony is useful as a office/workplace headphone, because you can choose whether you want to tune out people around you. But even if the ANC is still turned off, the DSP is still active on the Sony and that still produces more hiss than the Bose.
Winner: Bose

So here's the last part of the comparison: sound. This is the hardest round.

Here’s something I should mention about both headphones: both of them come with a wired connection, but even with a wired connection they are both best used with the headset turned on and using battery power. When the headset is on, the EQ from the DSP circuit is turned on and things sound peachy. Without the power on, both of these headphones sound awful - hollow, stuffy and compressed. So all my comments about sound apply to how these sound with the power on, which is basically how you’re always going to be using these unless you run out of charge. In my experience, that isn’t going to be all that often, because they both hold charge pretty well.

The 100ABN carries the new Sony house sound, like the Sony MDR-1A and the MDR-Z7. That means that the Sony is not a natural sounding headphone - it has a thickened up, chesty lower midrange, an emphasised and solid bass punch, a dip in the mids around the lower female vocal range, and then a slight spike spike in the treble  - around where cymbal shimmer lies. It's a distinctive, somewhat uneven signature. But it's a dynamic, fun signature that is V-shaped without being overly harsh or strident. In particular, it has this really nice detailed, wide and diffuse soundstage. The sound isn’t so artificial that it stops the Sony from being an all rounder, but I think it works particularly well with electronic music where the sculpted bass and treble really punch through when the music gets really textured or layered.

The Bose, in comparison, is much harder to evaluate. This is because the Active EQ on the Bose actually changes at different volumes, so the overall balance of the sound changes depending on how loud you go.

At all volumes, the Bose is a much warmer sounding headphone than the Sony, with more a more even, mid-range emphasis. It also sounds slightly better than the QC25, because it doesn't have that strange brassy mid-range the QC25 has.

But at low volumes, the QC35 sounds boring and sleepy because there's too much bass and the treble is rolled off. At higher volumes, the EQ applies more treble, and as a result the QC35 sounds much less compressed. It's balanced and musical and a closer match with the Sony. But it still doesn't get all the way there, because the bass on the QC35 is still less tight and solid than the Sony, and the treble just isn't as detailed. The QC35 sounds nicest with acoustic music, vocals and spoken word, where the richness of the midrange carry through.

At the end of the day, at all volumes, the Sony sounds more special to me. Whether it's electronic or acoustic music, the Sony sounds more atmospheric because of its soundstage and one two punch of bass and treble detail. It's definitely closer to sounding like a $500 headphone than the Bose.

That isn't to say that the Bose sounds bad. It sounds more natural than the Sony, and it's a better all rounder. But to me the Bose plays it too safe, it often sounds too compressed, and thats disappointing for the price.
Winner: Sony

So overall, this is actually sort of a hard comparison for me. I actually like both of these headphones a lot. Hands down, I think the Bose is the safer recommendation. It's more comfortable, it's easier to use, it cancels noise better, and I think most people will think it sounds pretty good. But while I think the Sony doesn't quite match up to the Bose in design and cleverness, I don't think it has any fatal flaws either. I like the way the Sony sounds, and for a portable headphone, I've actually enjoyed using it a lot paired to my computer.

At the end of the day, it's your call. When I started both this review, I actually expected to be really disappointed by both of these headphones. But now that I've actually tried them, I've been impressed. This is expensive technology, but for most portable music listeners, both these headphones represent the future. And the future is sounding pretty good.