Bose AE2 vs. Tri-Port/AE1, Comparison and Review

The Bose AE2 is the next generation of Bose's famous Triport line, which was later renamed simply Around Ear, now retroactively referred to as AE1 in light of this new model, the AE2, i.e., Around Ear 2. 
 
Now, before I get to the AE2s (which is in the 5th to the last paragraph, if you want to jump ahead), let me put my views into a wider context. First of all, I have been an obsessive consumer and lover of the Triport/AE1s for about 7 years, so I come at this sympathetically and with high hopes. And I assure you, "consumer" is the right word, since every pair has broken in 6-12 months, in the wiring at the point of connection with the cans or the plug. I always returned them to Bose and got a new pair for $40 each time.

Why such loyalty? As everyone here knows, Bose has always taken a lot of flack from the audiophile community for being overpriced and for sounding bad. But I think it's mostly undeserved, and the glib dismissals uninformative. They may be overpriced and the company is certainly undeserving of loyalty, but the Triports are definitely in the top echelon of performance for highly efficient headphones that work well with the low amplification of portable audio players such as the iPod or Walkman (yeah, I said "Walkman": I was porting my audio around town before the iPod even existed).

(Most people know this already, but here's my explanation of efficiency: It's a simple thing to find great sounding pair of headphones. There are dozens of models in the higher- and highest-end range that satisfy that need, ranging from $100 to $1000 and beyond. But if you want a pair of headphones for an iPod, there is a great limitation placed on what you can get. You have to get a pair that are highly efficient, meaning they can produce a loud sound with only a little power. Really cheap headphones (in the $20-40 range) do this just fine, and can sound passably decent as well. But if you want to do better than that, move up to a higher price point to get better quality, you find yourself at a bottleneck, where the higher the price and quality, the less efficient the speakers, so the more power that is needed to drive them. There are only a few models that hit the sweet spot between efficiency and sound quality, and the Bose Triports were always my favorites.)

People often bring up AKG, Sennheiser, and Grado as being better for portable audio and cheaper than Bose. There is definitely something to this. The AKG K519DJ actually may sound a bit better than Bose Triports, based on my brief trial and comparison in a shop, though certainly not so drastically better as to justify the abuse heaped on the Triports, and I reckon it's close enough as to be debatable. (And I don't know how, if your complaint about the Triports is that the bass is boomy and unnatural, you could like the AKGs any better, as their bass response is even louder.) But the K519DJs have one fatal flaw: they don't cup over your ear, they sit right on it, and crush your lobes against your head. I had a $150 pair from Audio-Technica that did this, and after about 40 minutes of listening my ears hurt (the flesh, not the drums).
 
However, if this type of design sits too lightly on your ears, it won't block out outside noise. I walk around Tokyo with my headphones on day in and day out, so isolation from the sounds of passing trucks and incoming subways is essential, not to mention isolating my music from the people sitting next to me on subway so as not to bother them. My Grado SR60s and SR80s have no sound isolation at all. Use Grados on a subway you'll hear all the track and tunnel noise and you'll treat everyone around you to whatever it is you're listening to, as I unwittingly did one day when my Triports were "in the shop", as it were. I'm grateful to the guy who was brave enough to point it out to me.
 
Incidentally, the Grados have another problem: the highs are harsh on loud rock. This is a problem I have with a lot of headphones that the audio elite claim are better than Bose. I always use Smells Like Teen Spirit as my acid test, and a speaker or headphone designed for the subtlest treble response of classical music will often fail with distorted guitar, and prove painful for your ears (the drum, not the flesh).
 
So anyway, on-ear style is always going to naturally be a battle between ear-crushing and ambient-noise-allowing. I haven't had a chance to try most of the Sennheisers, but they seem to be mostly on-ear style and so would be subject to this criticism. I did try the Sennheiser HD 202s in the store, which are around ear, but they sat awkwardly on my head and left a gap at the bottom. Nobody has beat Bose for around-ear sound isolation and comfort in my book.
 
So the Bose Triports are the only pair of headphones I have yet found that satisfy, for the following reasons: 

-Highly efficient, so sufficiently loud with iPod 
-Very good sound quality, big bass with non-harsh treble, even on loud rock like Nirvana 
-Comfortable to wear for hours on end 
-Sound is isolated 

All this to head off any critics from the pious audiophile gallery who might wish to dismiss me as uninformed and dismiss what I have to say about the Bose AE2s as having been the problem all along. So here's what I have to say:
 
The AE2s are not merely a cosmetic redesign of the Triports/AE1s, and to me they are certainly not an improvement. They have much worse sound. This past week I've tried direct comparisons with my current pair of Triport/AE1s on three different pair of AE2s in three different shops through my very own iPod (a 5.5 generation model, but that's a whole 'nuther story), and it isn't even close. It's not a subtle difference (like the difference between the 5.5 gen iPod and the Classic, but still, a whole 'nuther story). The AE2s are an entirely different headphone.
 
The AE2s first of all produce much less sound volume (even pushing them closer to my ears to compensate for the collapsed foam on my old pair). They are not sufficient to the task of being satisfying with the amplification of an iPod. Second, even adjusting for the lower volume, the bass response is much worse (and worse than others in their category, such as the AKGs I mention above). Basically, they finally do sound like the $10 pieces of crap the audiophiles have long accused them of being, but they still cost $150. These deeply unsatisfying headphones are a massive fail for Bose and a poke in the eye to their customers (not that anyone is surprised they would do such a thing).
 
I do wish that AKG or Sennheiser or Grado or someone would come out with a pair of headphones as good as the Triports. I know they are respectable companies that care about their products and customers, and would not try to trick me into buying their newer, much-worse model by claiming it was an improvement over their previous model. I don't respect Bose, I don't like them, they just happened to make the only headphones I have ever loved. Here's hoping the five pair of Triports I've stockpiled (plus the two pair I have that are on their last leg) will last until someone makes a satisfactory pair again, or I figure out how to repair them.
 
Now, I have read some of the comments on this site from people who think the AE2s are finally a step in the right direction because the bass is much less boomy. So on second thought I'm willing to concede that maybe Bose was sincerely trying to move in the right direction with the AE2s. Probably not, but maybe.

I'm open to suggestions for other headphones to try out so I can break my reliance on Bose, or of how to fix the Triports. I'm not sold on noise-canceling, as the ones I've tried seem to sound wrong somehow, and seem too complicated. I've heard people complain about sound pressure from the noise-cancelling waves, so maybe I'm psyching myself out. And last time I checked the noise-canceling apparatus required it's own battery and its own switch, and it hardly seems worth it with heavy 1-3 hours daily of use I put into my headphones. Hard enough keeping track of the charge on my iPod. And in-ear phones are uncomfortable, fall out easily, and kind of gross. I don't want to be reminded of my own ear wax every time I want to listen to music.

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