We've tended to have mixed feelings about the sound quality offered by Bose's headphones. The IE2 are muffled and muggy, the QuietComfort 15 pleasant and smooth, but hardly high-end given the costs involved.
The Bose AE2 take quite a different approach to these pairs, and to a surprising extent. They strive for clarity and a touch of the high-end vibe more than any Bose pair we've heard before, and it's a welcome change. Although less luxurious-sounding than the QuietComfort 15 and QC3 – with less warmth – they compare well on a pure sound quality level. That speaks in the AE2's favour given they cost around £150 less.
Among their Bose brethren , the AE2 give the best impression of sonic balance, with a wide, impressively open sound for a reasonably-priced closed headphone. The top-end is coherent and the low-end punchy and almost perfectly judged. In all honesty, we were surprised by quite how well they perform in some respects.
There is, however, some evidence of Bose's usual psychoacoustic strategy. This is where tuning is based not on actual accuracy and flat frequency response but what the ear will perceive as positive. Turning up the critical listening dial, there appears to be some odd dips in the mid-range, leaving it sounding a little hollow and lacking detail. Cutting back on mids in this fashion is part of what lets the Bose AE2 sound so open and clear, but it robs vocals in particular of some of their detail and presence.
As such, these are certainly not headphones for critical listening, but for pure enjoyment we'd pick them over the more expensive Beats Solo HD in a heartbeat.
Some have complained that the Bose AE2 headphones' cod-analytical approach makes them sound a little harsh, but it's not something we've experienced in our testing. They're actually rather adept at managing sibilant material.
They're not without their problems, but these are probably the best headphones Bose has produced, from a technical perspective at least.
Bose is a brand often criticised for offering poor value, whacking up prices to offset significant marketing costs. However, in these days of so many high-profile headphones, backed by major names in music, the Bose AE2 look like rather good value. Excellent comfort, highly enjoyable sound quality and a design that no longer marks you out as someone who probably has poor musical taste mean these are our new top pick from the Bose range. Just make sure you don't need noise cancellation, as you don't get it here.
Although the Bose AE2 headphones don't offer Bose's signature noise cancellation technology, a much cheaper price point and more balanced sound signature mark them out as an excellent alternative to the QuietComfort 15s. These are very comfortable cans, and while they're not quite the last word in audio quality, they outdo many style sets. For an out and about workhorse pair, these are among our favourites.