Noise cancellers: just quietly, Bose beats Sennheiser

Sennheiser and Bose make top-notch noise cancelling headphones, but which ones should you buy? By Rod Easdown.

When a company with Sennheiser's horsepower advertises its noise-cancelling Momentum Bluetooth headphones as "the world's finest" one sits up and takes notice, because one doubts that a company with this track record would make such a claim lightly. I'm a huge fan of Momentums. I like the fit, the sound quality and the looks of them, and now there's a model with Bluetooth AptX, near field communication (NFC) and noise-cancelling. What more could there be?

With a looming five-hour flight to Perth, taking a pair seemed like a great idea. Just for good measure I took along my own Bose QC25s, as well. These are generally agreed among folk like me to be the best noise cancellers around, and they're sharply priced. I wouldn't get on a plane without them. The Momentums cost twice as much and, while the Bose don't have Bluetooth or NFC, the Sennheisers still look expensive in comparison. One is therefore entitled to assume their performance will be pretty damn impressive.

Bose QC25 noise cancelling headphones win out over the Sennheiser version and are half the price.
Bose QC25 noise cancelling headphones win out over the Sennheiser version and are half the price. 

Lots of frequent flyers use noise cancelling headphones. The guy in front of me was wearing TDKs, the guy behind, PSBs, and a couple of people across the aisle were using Bose. The flight crew was undoubtedly kitted out with green, industrial strength DCs. As for me, I was swapping the Sennheisers around with the Bose every few minutes, and at a much faster rate during take-off and landing.

So I'll cease the persiflage and cut to the conclusion. If you're after Bluetooth headphones, the Momentums are among the best at any price. If you want noise cancelling, the Bose beat them in every respect.

Sound quality. The Momentums sound best when using the supplied cable but are still excellent on Bluetooth. They score only a "good" for noise cancelling because, simply, they let more noise in than the Bose. Both are accurate and pleasing across the full audible range, the Bose have sharper and deeper bass on-or-off noise cancelling mode. In a noisy environment the superior performance of the Bose makes it possible to enjoy very quiet musical interludes.

Comfort. Comfort is utterly essential. On long flights you tend not to take off your noise-cancellers, even to go to the bathroom or to sleep. You'll find out why when you do take them off and the cabin noise hits you like a rapidly accelerating Harley. A removable cord is a great idea in this respect: the headphones cancel noise and nothing else, leaving you in a cone of quiet as you try to nod off. The Momentums are very comfy, but the Bose are just a tad better, with gentler clamp pressure and softer, better formed pads. They're lighter, too; 210 grams with battery against the Momentums' 260.

Noise cancelling. Hit the power switch of the Bose and you're rewarded with sudden quiet. It's a wonderfully cocooning experience. Not so much with the Momentums. You get enough quieting to know they're working, but you're always conscious of jet engines droning and the clatter and chatter of the crew and your fellow sufferers. The acid tests are the silence between music tracks and the very quiet passages in some tracks. With the Bose you're still cocooned; with the Momentums you're being drawn back into the reality of the cabin. On two occasions I put the Momentums on from the Bose and figured they were turned off, only to discover they were still running.

Battery life. The Momentums have an internal lithium-ion that takes three hours to charge and lasts up to 22 hours. The Bose operate with a single AAA battery that gives up to a stated 30 hours of life. I've often got more and once did a four-hour flight with the low battery light flashing. I carry a spare AAA with my Bose, and I can change batteries in under a minute. If I run out of charge with a rechargeable, well that's it. Given that lots of planes now have USB outlets, even in economy class, this is less of issue than it was.

Utility. When you're toting these in hand luggage, size matters. The carry cases have much the same footprint, but the Momentum's is significantly taller and bulkier.

Price. Bose QC25s $399, Sennheiser Momentum Wireless $799.