When I travel, my headphones virtually never leave my head. They’re a protective barrier from chatty seatmates, an escape from the loud noises and endless waiting in airports, and a crucial way to stay sane over a long day—I get off the red-eye, put on Spotify’s “Have a Great Day!” playlist, and everything seems OK again.
Bose QC35 II
Still a killer travel headphone. Light, comfy, sturdy, best-in-class noise cancellation. Battery lasts 20-plus hours, even with noise cancellation on. At-the-ready voice control suits music perfectly.
Google Assistant only works when Google Assistant can hear you, which isn’t often enough. Nothing less fun than having all your notifications read aloud when you’re trying to listen to music. As ever, they sound like crap in passive mode.
The last time I traveled, I wore a new set of headphones: the Bose QC35 II, the latest in Bose’s line of popular noise-canceling cans. These $350 wireless over-ear headphones are mostly unchanged from the last model, at least when it comes to audio. That’s a good thing, by the way: audiophiles like to poo-poo Bose’s sound quality, but the QC35 pours clean, crisp audio into your ears. Sure, it’s a little over-warm and rich, but it still sounds good. Bose’s active noise cancellation has come a seriously long way, too. I used to hate turning the ANC on, since it crunched music to bits and sounded a bit like you’d just been flung into the depths of space. Now I get peace and quiet without wrecking my music. These are the lightest, most comfortable ‘phones of their type. Like my colleague Michael Calore admitted in his review of last year’s model, the QC35 are my go-to travel headphones.
The only difference between the QC35 and the new QC35 II is a long, flat button on the left earcup that lets your headphones communicate with the Google Assistant. Press it, hold, and say almost anything: What’s the weather? Play Michael Jackson. Remind me to change the laundry. Call Anna. Your headphones will enable audio pass-through so you can hear yourself talk (and thus avoid shouting “WHEN’S MY FLIGHT” loudly at passersby), route your request to Assistant through your phone, then answer you or just do what you asked.
Bose is but the first partner in a Google program to optimize headphones for the Assistant. Google’s working with the manufacturer to optimize audio processing and quality, and to make Assistant more of a two-way experience. There are lots of headphones that let you long-press the play button to access Siri or Google Assistant or whatever you want, but these integrated experiences should be better. On the QC35 II you can set the Assistant to read out certain notifications, tell you who’s calling, and more. Voice beats screens for finding music, certainly, and pressing a button and saying “Call Anna” takes a lot less time than getting out my phone, initiating the call, and putting it away since I’m going to talk through my headphones anyway.
There will likely be many more headphones with similar features, because many of these features are truly awesome. It’s just that on the QC35 II they don’t work all that well. In a totally quiet room, the mic picks up my voice just fine, but as soon as there’s any noise around it’s a coin-flip at best. Sometimes it thinks I’m saying nonsense words, other times it doesn’t pick up my voice at all. It’s so beautifully ironic: you won’t hear the noise that’s drowning out your voice input, but the microphone only hears the noise.
Even when it works perfectly, it’s still weird. Google Assistant doesn’t like to read last names of contacts, for instance, so you know you’re getting a text from Mike but not which one. Once, for no reason I can discern, my headphones randomly began reading aloud all of my notifications from the last several hours. Most of the time when you ask a question, your music pauses so you can hear the answer, but more than once I’ve had weather info rocking right over top of my tunes. (Not in a cool remix way, either.) And if you get a lot of notifications, make sure you choose carefully which apps you want the QC35 II to read aloud. Otherwise, the constant din of Assistant’s robotic voice becomes crazy-making.
It’s a slightly messy first pairing, but there’s enough good stuff here to prove that Google and Bose are working on the right thing. It’s the same thing that’s so exciting about AirPods: Why spend all day looking at your phone when you can just tap and chat with your assistant? I like pressing the button and say “Play The Daily from The New York Times” as I walk out my front door, and have it just start rolling. I like being able to set reminders or check on my flight status as I navigate the airport, rather than staring at my iPhone and inevitably tripping over someone’s rolly bag.
Right now, you can probably still buy the old model of QC35 and save a few bucks without missing too much. But if you have $350 to drop on a pair of travel headphones, these are the ones to get—and the addition of Assistant only adds value. Not much, yet. But voice assistants are going to be awesome way before you need new headphones again.
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