Noise-cancelling in-canal earphones have been far less popular and common than the on-ear and over-ear ear noise cancelling full-size headphones, like Bose’s QuietComfort 15. With the QuietComfort 20, Bose aims to change this. The $299.95 (direct) in-ear pair is offered in two varieties—the QuietComfort 20, intended for use with Android, BlackBerry, and Windows phones, and the QuietComfort 20i, intended for iPhone, iPads, and iPods. Bose hasn’t eliminated the inline battery and circuitry compartment that is essential to an in-ear noise cancelling pair, but it is now quite thin and far less cumbersome. The real victory here, though, is the noise cancellation itself—it’s by the far the most advanced, flexible noise cancellation we’ve ever experienced, and that alone would earn it our Editors’ Choice award. The audio performance isn’t for audiophiles seeking flat response, but the QC20 packs a full, rich low-end and crisp highs that work well with pop, rock, and most other genres.
Bose earphones are rarely visually flashy affairs, and the muted, dark gray and light gray tones of the QuietComfort 20 continue this tradition. The silicone eartips seal off the canal comfortably and securely, and have an extra fin-like piece that presses lightly against the ear for added stability.
Along the cable, there’s an inline remote control and microphone—Bose makes both an Android/Windows/Blackberry-friendly one-button version and an iPhone-compatible three-button version, as mentioned above. The compartment also houses a talk-through “Aware Mode” button that quiets your music and uses the noise cancellation microphones to let you hear what’s happening in your environment without pulling out the earphones and pausing your music.
Further along the cable, we have the noise cancellation control and battery compartment. It has green status LEDs to let you know what modes you’re in—when the noise cancellation is activated, for instance, a green indicator appears; if you press the Aware Mode button, the green noise cancellation indicator disappears; and if you’re listening in passive mode, there are no indicators at all.
And yes, you read that correctly: Bose has finally created a noise-cancelling model that outputs audio without using battery power (unlike the QuietComfort 15), so you don’t have to activate the noise cancellation in order to listen to music. Other than a very slight increase in volume, there’s little discernible difference between the audio performance in passive and active modes.
The problem with in-ear noise cancellation earphones has always been the same thing: The cumbersome, annoying inline battery/circuitry compartment. Nobody wants to wear a big, chunky box that dangles from their ears as they walk. Bose attempts to remedy this by making the compartment for the QC 20 very slim and narrow, and locating the box at the very end of the audio cable (Perhaps they think you’ll tuck it in your pocket with your phone? That could get crowded).
On-ear headphones can hide the circuitry and battery compartment behind the ear cups, but there’s no room for that here. Bose did an admirable job streamlining the compartment however, and while it’s still a bit cumbersome, it’s an improvement and a step forward for this necessary evil. The only in-ear pair we’ve tested to ever feature noise cancellation circuitry without the compartment was Sony’s XBA-NC85D, an overpriced underperformer.
We tested the QC 20i version with an iPhone 4S. Call clarity through the inline mic is about what you’d expect—your call partner will understand you just fine, but with cellular fidelity, you’re not exactly going to hear a pin drop.
Bose claims the rechargeable battery lasts about 16 hours on a full charge, and takes about two hours to fully charge via the included USB charging cable. A total of only two ear tip pairs are included—a little stingy on Bose’s part, even if the company is convinced at least one of the two ear tip pairs will fit everyone. A soft, zip-up carrying pouch is also included with the QC 20, along with a removable shirt-clip that comes fastened to the cable.
Before we discuss the audio performance itself, let’s talk about the noise cancellation. Bose’s QuietComfort series has always been at the top of this category, constantly appearing to be one step ahead of the competition. Well, the QC20 feels like it’s about five steps ahead. The silicone ear tips that, on other in-ear noise cancelling pairs, often passively block out much of the sound on their own actually block out very little noise on the QC20. They don’t intentionally let sound in, but they also don’t isolate noise to augment the active noise cancellation; all of the QC20′s work in keeping outside noise out is done through the microphones and audio circuitry. The fact that the ear tips are responsible for almost none of the actual noise reduction makes the QC20′s performance all the more impressive.
Simply put, this is by far the best noise cancellation we’ve ever heard. Like previous Bose models, as well as competing models from a variety of competitors who slowly started to catch up, the QC20 blocks out wide swaths of ambient noise, be it the whirr of an air conditioning unit or the drones and hums of trains and planes. But the QC20 does something no previous pair has managed, and at first, it can be disconcerting: It actually blocks out the human voice.
I tested these in a room with my back to someone whom I didn’t realize was on the phone. Then I heard what sounded like whispers. Frankly, it creeped me out at first—I turned around and watched this person speak into the phone, and it seemed like she was whispering still, which remained creepy. Once I deactivated the noise cancellation, however, it became clear she was actually speaking fairly loudly—and all I could hear was the envelope of her voice, not the actual body or pitch. I’ve never experienced noise cancellation like this.
There was also a car alarm going off that the QC20 nearly completely blocked out. This too, was kind of shocking. Previous models, as I mentioned, were only able to successfully limit stable, constant sounds like the whirrs and hums described above. A sound with varying pitch, rhythm, and intensity, like the human voice or the many voices of a typical car alarm would have made it right past earlier noise cancellation circuitry. The QC20 dampens their presence significantly.
It’s worth noting that the circuitry, at times, seems to produce the slightest high frequency hiss. This is common in cheaper noise cancellation circuitry, and it is usually louder and more obvious. Even then, on those pairs, it’s rarely a deal-breaker. Here, not only is it barely noticeable, but the trade-off—the true elimination of chatty co-worker voices, construction sounds out on the street, car alarms—makes it hardly worth mentioning.
On tracks with deep bass, like the Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the QC20 produces a very healthy low-end thump. The bulk of its bass response actual resides a little higher up the frequency chain, in the lows and low-mids, where we hear lower-register stringed instruments, lower brass instruments, and kick drums. The pulsing, intense sub-bass content of “Silent Shout” is a bit lower than the range the QC20 focuses on, which is only to say that bass lovers have probably heard deeper lows before. Regardless, there is still plenty of low-end, and even at top volumes, it doesn’t distort.
A focus on the lows and low-mids can potentially make things sound muddy, but that is remedied by the QC20′s equal focus on high-mids. On Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” his baritone vocal delivery has both a pleasant richness and a nice treble edge to it. Make no mistake, however—this is a highly sculpted sound. When your audiophile friends thumb their noses at Bose, it’s because of the highly sculpted Bose sound. The QC20 is no different than previous Bose models in this regard. I think the typical listener won’t mind the audio performance and might really enjoy it (it lends itself quite well to pop and rock music, in particular), but it’s not for purists, and like most Bose products, the real feat here is the technology (in this case, superb noise cancellation), and not breath-taking, perfectly neutral audio.
It’s hard to recommend any other in-ear noise cancellation pair after testing the QC20, but both the AKG K391 NC and the Phiaton PS 20 NC are solid options. What they lack in noise cancelling firepower, they make up for in audio performance or lower pricing. There are also plenty of quality on-ear and around-ear noise cancelling headphone options, like the aforementioned QuietComfort 15, as well as the AKG K490 NC which is possibly one of the best-sounding pairs that also offers quality noise reduction. There’s no denying that Bose has hit a grand slam with the QuietComfort 20′s noise cancellation circuitry, however—it easily earns our Editors’ Choice award.
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