The QuietComfort 20 is the first in-ear headphone from Bose with active noise reducing technology. Can it measure up to the standard set by the much loved over-ear QC15?
Being a geek at heart, I was intrigued by active noise reducing, or ANR, headphones since I first became aware of them in the mid 2000s. I can still remember seeing ads for early versions of the Bose QuietComfort series in magazines and wondering if the technology could possibly work IRL. Since I was dead broke at the time and rarely traveled by air this was an entirely theoretical question, but still, it seemed like such an impossible concept: using sound to cancel out sound—that’s crazy talk, right? (See the video below for a primer on noise reducing technology, as delivered by Captain Slow himself!)
This interest stuck with me through the years, but I could never get over the $299 sticker (it may be hard to grok this now, but until very recently, dropping more than $150 on a pair of headphones was something only audio engineers and people who owned boats did, and I was neither). But about three years ago I started a job that required quite a bit of air travel, and that finally gave me the excuse I needed to pull the trigger—price be damned! I picked up a set of the Bose QuietComfort 15 over-ear headphones and my first real world experience with them blew my mind.
The legendary author, inventor and futurist Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” That quote leapt to mind the first time I used the QC15 on an airplane—it really and truly was like magic. What amplified this effect was the fact that you could turn the active noise reduction on and off with the flip of a switch, enabling you to clearly hear the extent of the system’s effectiveness in nullifying the dreary monotone of the plane’s engines.
If you’ve never experienced ANR headphones before, you should be aware that, while impressive, these systems are not in fact a product of the black arts. As such, while they do a great job eliminating constant, low-frequency sounds—the roar of a jet engine, road noise in a car, a droning air conditioner at the office—they don’t fare as well with irregular, high-pitched sounds—the cackle of a seat-mate watching Brooklyn Nine-Nine, the wailing of a nearby baby, the sarcastic clapping that breaks out on the exceedingly rare occasions when the NY Jets score a touchdown. Most around-ear and in-ear headphones will block-out some of these higher frequencies thanks to the simple fact that they’re covering your ear holes—aka passive noise reduction—but if you’re expecting fortress-of-solitude levels of silence in all environments, you’re going to be disappointed.
In my case, I had done a lot of research before buying and went in knowing the limitations of noise reducing tech. I also tried every pair of noise canceling cans that I could get my hands on—including a few options that cost even more than Bose’s then top-of-the-line QuietComfort 15—so I developed a pretty good sense for the range of performance available in the market at that time. Many high-end ANR models from other brands sounded surprisingly bad to my ears, a few sounded better than the Bose, but none could match the QC15’s balance of sound-quality, comfort and active noise reduction.
In fact, I came away baffled by how cruddy the noise reduction was on many of the ANR headphones I sampled. Bose introduced their first consumer focused ANR model back in 2000 and I assumed that the rest of the industry would have caught up by now. But for most of the competition, active noise reduction amounted to little more than the introduction of an audible background hiss. On investigating this, I learned that Bose owns a number of key patents related to active noise reduction—some awarded as recently as last year. Given the 20 year term of a standard utility patent, it seems likely that Bose will remain a leader in this space for some time.
This is probably a good time to note, however, that even the best sounding ANR headphone won’t be able to match the sound quality of a comparably priced non-ANR headphone. Just one example: My wife already owned a pair of Bose AE2 non-noise reducing headphones that retailed for $150 and, even to my non-audiophile ears, it was obvious that they sounded better—clearer and more vibrant—than my $300 QC15s. But the AE2’s, even with their over-ear design, can’t mask the sound of a plane’s engine and, after sitting through a couple of sleepless trans-Pacific flights, I decided that I was willing to fork over the premium for the sound of silence.
So, I bought myself a set of QC15s and was one of those smug, non-baggy-eyed guys you see on the plane rocking Bose ANRs. Yes, they put a hurt on my wallet, but they also genuinely delivered on the benefits they promised: quieter, more relaxing journeys, not to mention the ability to play audio at lower sound levels, which my 80-year old ear drums will thank me for. I was happier than Team Edward at a blood drive, but then, earlier this year, I started noticing ads for the new Bose QuietComfort 20—the company’s first in-ear headphone with integrated ANR tech. And, like a good consumer, I started imagining how this new product would improve my life…
Perhaps I’m still deluding myself, but I really am traveling more than ever these days, both domestically and internationally. And as someone who hates to check bags, I do my best to pack light. So the prospect of a noise reducing headphone that I could stuff into a shirt pocket was hugely appealing. Thus armed with compelling rationalizations, I went to my local Bose store to trial a pair of QC20s—where, thankfully, the staff offered wipes to clean off the ear tips between trials—and was, once again, blown away.
My own experience had convinced me that the over-ear QC15 was as good as it got in the field of active noise reduction. So I went into the store assuming that the diminutive QC20 would offer somewhat comprised ANR as a tradeoff for its significantly reduced size. But then I flipped the switch on the oblong control module to activate the QC20’s noise reducing circuitry and my jaw actually dropped: Not only was the QC20’s noise reduction not compromised, it was noticeably superior to that of the far larger QuietComfort 15. In addition, the QC20 was the most comfortable in-ear headphone I’d ever worn. I know some people find in-ear headphones uncomfortable, but the unique design of the QC20’s silicone tips is such that they don’t insert into your ear canal so much as they sit just outside of it. Even if you’ve sworn off in-ears in the past, the QC20 is worth a try—just make sure to ask for some wipes.
I was sold on the spot and have already used the QC20 on five long international flights. Based on those trips, I can report a few findings: The tiny size of the QC20 does indeed make it much easier to pack, the noise reduction truly is stellar (the QC20 seems to do a much better job muffling voices—so much so that I could barely hear inflight announcements while the ANR circuitry was activated) and its in-ear design allows you to sleep with the side of your head on a pillow—something you can’t do while wearing over-ear cans.
A new feature I really appreciated was the QC20’s ability to continue to play audio, even when its built-in rechargeable lithium-ion battery is completely out of juice. This is something other manufacturers have offered for a while, but it’s new to Bose. Of course, active noise reduction stops working when the QC20’s battery dies, but at least now you can continue to listen to music or watch movies for the duration of your journey—it’s just one less thing to have to stress about while traveling.
On the topic of batteries, the QC20’s built-in unit is slated to offer 16 hours per full charge. I’ve yet to time a complete drain, but I used the QC20 from start-to-finish of an 11+ hour flight from Rio de Janeiro to Amsterdam, and the battery indicator remained solid green from take-off to touchdown (a blinking green indicator means that you have less than three hours of juice left). Charging is handled via an included cable that inserts into a micro-USB port on the QC20’s control module and a standard USB port on the other end, which you can plug into a USB wall charger—the type that every smartphone ships with nowadays—or laptop.
This charging mechanism is actually one feature that disappointed me. Since I use an iPhone, I purchased the QC20i, where ‘i’ indicates compatibility with Apple devices. So I was bummed to find that the QC20i relies on micro-USB instead of Apple’s Lightning connector. I’m guessing this was a concession to cost and a desire to keep the variants of the QC20 as similar as possible, but it means I have to carry around an extra cable specifically for my headphones. If you’re of the Android persuasion you’d probably lay the blame on Apple for creating a proprietary interface, but the fact is that the QC20i features a “Made for iPod/iPhone/iPad” label, and it would have been much more thoughtful to have allowed me to use my existing iPod/iPhone/iPad cables. [Note: Please see my update below regarding Apple’s restrictions on third-party use of the Lightning port.]
One other nit: My old QuietComfort 15 came with an airline audio adapter included, as does the just recently introduced Bose QuietComfort 25 (for reference, an airline audio adapter enables you to use your single-pronged headphone with the dual-pronged audio jack that’s still found on most passenger planes—Bose sells one as an accessory on their site). Both retailed for $300—the same price as the QuietComfort 20, and yet the QC20 does not come with an airline adapter. For a premium-priced product whose primary use case is air travel, this is a really disappointing instance of nickel-and-diming by Bose.
Finally, I can’t sign-off without making a comment on audio quality. To my untrained ears, the QC20 sounds a lot like my previous QC15s—that is to say, okay, but not great. I did notice an ever so subtle background hiss while wearing the QC20 in some settings that I never picked up from my QC15s, but it wasn’t intrusive. Overall, I don’t think the QC20’s audio reproduction is going to knock anyone’s socks off, but that isn’t why you buy a set of noise reducing headphones. The main attraction here is active noise reduction and, in my experience, the QuietComfort 20 is the new benchmark. It’s like a magical cone of silence that you can roll up and carry around in your pocket. It also happens to be the most comfortable, best-fitting in-ear headphone I’ve ever worn—ANR or otherwise. Yes, the price is steep, but if you do even a modicum of air travel or are forced to spend a lot of time in a space where noise is a distraction, you will absolutely, positively love the Bose QC20.
Questions? Comments? Hit me up on Twitter @edotkim.
UPDATED November 18, 2014: In my review above, I noted my disappointment in the QC20i’s (where “i” indicates the iPod/iPhone/iPad-specific version of the QC20) reliance on a micro-USB charging port instead of Apple’s Lightning port interface. I’ve since learned that Apple has not yet allowed third-party manufacturers to incorporate the Lightning port into their devices. Third-parties can create Lightning cables or even headphones that incorporate a Lightning connector in place of the standard 3.5mm audio jack, but the Lightning port itself is exclusive to Apple’s own devices for now. This doesn’t affect my overall rating for the QC20i, but I thought it was only fair to highlight the fact that Bose couldn’t have incorporated the Lightning port into their headphones, even if they had wanted to.