Bose has a reputation for its speaker systems, but in recent years we think this has been supplanted by its good work in noise-cancelling headphones. The On-Ear Headphones are the company's first passive pair of headphones, and come at a significant discount on its siblings. However, this in no way means the set is cheap — as is the Bose way. But are they worth the money?
Build quality is very good indeed — the ear cups are incredibly comfortable and the headband is quite rigid, even if this means it's also hard to adjust easily. The set's closest rival in this arena — the AKG K 414 P — look and feel plasticky in comparison. But appearances aren't everything, as one of our other favourites — the Grado SR60 — could have been used by the original Dam Busters.
Though the headset is only a passive model the degree of natural noise reduction is quite good. This is due to the memory foam and rubber seal combination, but it also means it's a little warm in there.
The Bose phones are designed to be portable and fold up into a tight bundle — if not as compact as the K 414 P. They come with a carry case that will keep them from damage but it does take up a lot of space. Imagine a portable CD case and you're there.
Though these appear to be sealed headphones, they are actually semi-closed with a small bass port. This means there is some sound leakage as a result. The extra capacity for bass delivery means that the ear cups will actually vibrate with bassy music at high volumes.
The cans come with two different detachable cables — one short and one long — which gives them a little flexibility and a possible upgrade path to a better quality cable.
According to the manufacturer, these headphones are "designed to deliver high quality, balanced sound and deep, low notes without the need for any artificial enhancement".
While we criticised the AKG K 414 P headphones for being too bass heavy, we were ill-prepared for the amount of wallop the Bose cans deal out. These are bassy headphones.
We tried the Bose on a number of different portables and a PC, and on all the systems there was a distinct emphasis on bass and reticence in the upper register.
While Creative's soundcards are generally excellent, on-board AC'97 sound is not — it's horrible. But the Bose headphones were able to retrieve a usable amount of information and fill-in the missing bass and treble.
However, given the headphones' lack of sparkle, any music with a larger than life sound — classical, 60's pop, garage rock — comes out sounding a little flat.
Using a Sony Walkman really brought out the bass on The Flaming Lips' Do You Realize?? (wait, there's a bass line?), and also served to making the vocals more intimate. The downside was that there wasn't any real sense of space, just a centre channel, and immediate left and right.
Overall, we found the On-Ear headphones tames a lot of high frequency information which means while they flatter badly encoded MP3s, they can also sap rock music of much of its excitement. Guitars lose their edge, and cymbals lack bite. Bass on the other hand is deep and effortless and as a result, the Bose would suit smooth R&B or soul listening. Rock fans, on the other hand, should stick with AKG or Sennheiser.