Sam O'Brien works for a software company in a consulting role. Though based in Sydney, he frequently travels around the Asia Pacific region and spends a lot of time participating in phone or Webex sessions -- often in noisy cafes, busy airport terminals and chatty offices. Sam was a worthy and ideal winner in our recent Bose QuietComfort 20i competition. He's had his noise-cancelling Bose earphones for a couple of weeks now and this is his road test experience...
I’ve used most styles of headphones in recent years -- earbuds, in-ear, on-ear and over-ear, and have tried noise isolating and noise cancelling headphones. Each of these has their own pros and cons, but for me the most important factors are sound quality, noise isolation / cancellation, portability, and comfort over extended periods.
Unfortunately, I haven’t found something that strikes a great balance in these areas. The great sounding ones are often too bulky for everyday use and the portable ones often sacrifice sound or isolation.
After a couple of weeks with the Bose QC20i’s though I am happy to report that, for me, they do manage to strike this balance, but not without some considerations. Please read on for my full review...
These are the first in-ear headphones from Bose with full-on noise reduction. The company had to re-engineer its acoustic noise cancelling tech to shrink things down.
The QuietComfort 20i buds fit cosily in your ear, staying put thanks to StayHear+ tips. On the cable, you’ll find an inline microphone (supporting almost any smartphone) and 3 button remote for use with gear like your recent iPhone, iPad and MacBook.
Finally, there's ‘Aware Mode.’ This lets you have music keep playing rather than cut out when you need to talk, a common gripe with some other noise cancelling headphones.
Out Of The Box
The QC20i’s arrived in slick, easy to open packaging. Upon opening the box I was greeted by a note from Bose wishing me a pleasant experience. So far so good. I also found the headphones, a USB charging cable (sans power adapter), a selection of different sized ear plugs, instructions and a convenient travel pouch. Unfortunately there was no flight adapter which would have been a nice inclusion given one of their major selling points is for use during airline travel. Luckily, I had a spare.
As you’d expect, the QC20i’s have a very Bose design – matte grey, brushed steel and the black and grey “barbershop” style cord (Bose’s attempt at “iPod White”). I’ve included a shot below to contrast their size with the standard iPhone headphones. As you can see the drivers are similar, but the StayHear+ fitting makes them considerably bigger. You’ll also see that on the back of the driver is a steel grill – this covers the microphones used for noise cancellation.
I was impressed with the overall presentation and packaging, as well as the look and feel of the headphones. The unit feels really solid with only a few small exceptions -- such as the plastic alligator clip that you can use to fasten the cord to your clothing (I actually took this off).
Having gotten everything out of the box, I was eager to test them out.
Reading through the straight forward instructions, I was briefed on two activities -- picking the right StayHear+ earplug size and getting familiar with the headphones features and controls (more on this later). After sifting through a few packets that looked straight from the set of Breaking Bad I laid out the differently sized sets of StayHear+ earplugs.
I was a little cautious getting the plugs on and off the headphones as the rubber is very, very soft and was concerned they might tear. A quick review of the instructions set me straight and I was able to try all three sizes before settling on the ones that felt most comfortable and most secure. One of the nicer features of the StayHear+ plugs is that they sit mostly on your ear canal than in your ear canal – for me, this was much more comfortable than other in-ear headphone I’ve used in the past. The StayHear+ plugs did a great job at keeping the earphones in my ears and were incredibly comfortable to wear even for extended periods.
I quickly noticed when wearing the QC20i’s that they are slightly bulkier and marginally heavier than other in-ear headphones. Luckily the arms of the StayHear+ fitting system (which you can see below) extends up into your outer ear, like a rock climber getting a foot hold in a crevice, so I never felt like they would fall out. Due to the depth of drivers they also extend out a little from your ear, but not much.
As with most in-ear noise cancelling headphones, the tech-wizardry that makes them work is housed in a separate module away from the headphones themselves. The QC20i module is pretty slick - about the size of an original iPod Nano or in comparison to an iPhone 4S its half as wide, two-thirds as tall and two-thirds as thick. It also sports a rubberised finish that makes it easy to pick up and clings nicely to your phone carrying it in your hand.
Bose has only left 2 inches of cable between the module and the headphone jack. I personally would have preferred the lead to be a little longer -- at 2 inches long and with no way to attach it to your phone can get in the way when typing. On the flip side, the shorter cable helps it sit nice and close to your phone when in your pocket.
Speaking of the cable, this is something that proved a little troublesome during my road test. The cord is about 30% thicker than standard headphone cords -- this is to accommodate the audio coming from the microphones to the noise cancelling module. It’s not so much the size that’s the issue, it’s the material - it’s subtly rubberised causing it to grip your clothes a little when you move. This creates friction, friction that can be heard in the headphones. This is not an issue when you’re sitting still but whenever you’re walking, exercising, etc, you’re likely going to hear a dragging sound... annoying. Hopefully this gets resolved in a future version.
Whilst the headphones are a little bigger, sit a little further out of your ear and the module is a little awkwardly placed, any concerns I had quickly faded away when I pressed play... and I hadn’t even turned on the noise cancellation yet.
In The Air
Ladies and Gentlemen -- at this time we’d like to ask you to make sure your seat backs and tray tables are in their full upright position. Also make sure your seat belt is correctly fastened. Finally, we ask you to turn off any electronic equipment.
The Bose QC20i Accoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones are essentially a compact, in-ear version of the company's omnipresent QC15 / QC3 headphones. With an advertised battery life of 16 hours I thought what better way to road test them then by taking a roughly 16 hour flight from Sydney to Dallas (okay: it was closer to 15 hours...)
After a quick taxi, take off and ascent, we hit 10,000 feet.
Staring down the barrel of a 15 hour flight I’m now allowed to use electronics. I flick a switch. The drone of the engines mostly disappeared although the subtle hiss of the air conditioning is still audible.
I could also hear conversations around me and the odd baby cry, but the performance was greatly improved when listening to music.
After a few tracks or 10 minutes of a movie everything in the background faded out to a point where I didn’t notice it. I quickly turned the cancellation off and on a few times during the flight and it was startling just how loud things suddenly got when they weren’t on. Not perfect, but immersive enough for your ears to forget they're on a plane and for me, and that’s all I need.
The QC20i sound module has a built in, non-swappable, battery that is recharched over USB (same size plug as a Kindle).nI’m happy to report that when I landed in Dallas 15 hours after taking off, the little green light was still on -- although it had started flashing a few hours before landing. I ran it for a further 60 minutes on my next flight and it continued to work. I let it run a further 60 minutes and it gave up. Even if the battery had died during the flight, I could have just used the headphones in passive mode which would be fine to listen to a few more tracks or finish a movie... but not if you were relying on silence to sleep. You could also recharge via USB (for flights that offer a USB port) or with a USB battery pack.
I mentioned earlier that comfort was one of my big factors in buying headphones. Having worn the QC20i’s for so many hours on my way to Dallas I found them quite comfortable. With previous in-ear headphones I’ve owned I tended to get an earache or some slight discomfort after a few hours use. However, the QC20i’s didn’t lead to this, thanks largely to the StayHear+ fitting system. I also found them OK to use during sleep but I had to sleep with my head facing as close to forward as possible - with my head to one side they became uncomfortable as the driver put pressure on your ear.
I’m guessing that people buy noise cancelling headphones not just for the quality of the sound, but also for the quality of the silence. The QC20i’s performed excellently in both of these areas.
When it came to sound I was extremely impressed. The sound reproduction was amongst the best I’ve heard in a set of portable headphones and while they don’t beat over-ear, they aren’t far off. I listened to a variety of music during my road test (hip-hop, dance, acoustic, rock) and was never disappointed. The bass was deep and powerful, the mids were accurate, although the highs seemed a little washed out at high volume, but this was only just noticeable and probably not recommended for those trying to preserve their hearing.
What was most impressive is that the QC20i’s will work, pretty damn well, even when turned off. This is essentially “passive mode”. This a big advantage over some other noise cancelling headphones, Bose included, as you can keep listening without draining power or once the battery is flat. Very nice. The isolation itself is also quite good (better than other noise isolating phones I’ve used), blocking out a good chunk of ambient and conversational noise (sorry, wife) thanks to the snugness of the StayHear+ fitting system.
Once turned on though, wow. The noise cancellation takes just short of a second to kick in, takes out a good deal more of the background noise helping boost the quality of the sound.
Please note that they aren’t a silver bullet that annihilates all sounds, but they are pretty damn good. During the road test, I also used the QC20i’s a variety of other scenarios and have included my feedback:
• On a train (with and without music): Some background noise was still audible, such as the click-clack of the train crossing expansion gaps and the hiss of electrical wires. Most conversational noise was drowned out (although I was in a quiet carriage), but I could still hear announcements. Music made everything else less audible but didn’t completely take it away. I even noticed a Bose add as I was taking some notes for the road test.
• At home (no music): I used the QC20i’s to block out the sound of the TV so my wife could watch TV while I read. The TV wasn’t completely drowned out but it was enough so I wouldn’t get distracted by the TV and could focus on the book.
• In the office (no music): The QC20i’s removed all the keyboard tapping around me except my own. I could only hear calls and conversations from those that had adjoining desks. Other calls around me were drowned out.
• Walking and Exercising (with and without music): I would generally not choose to use noise cancellation when doing this, but tested it anyway. Unfortunately, this is an area where the QC20i’s didn’t perform too well. Any sort of breeze was very audible (almost amplified) whether I was running, walking or standing still. My guess is that wind and acoustic noise cancellation just aren’t good friends as the noise cancellation tends to overcompensate for the rush of the breeze. The other issue that let the QC20i’s down was the dragging noise I mentioned earlier (caused by the rubberised cord rubbing on clothing). This was audible even when walking and quite annoying.
Aware Mode, Inline Control And More
The headphones also include an inline remote that is compatible with recent iOS devices. I tested out Spotify and iTunes on an iPhone and iPad and it worked as expected. This includes all standard shortcuts, such as double-click to skip and hold-down for Siri / voice activation.
Bose also offers an “Aware mode” with the QC20i’s which you can activate through the inline remote. When active it will let a little bit of outside noise in while still playing your music and running a little noise cancellation. At first I didn’t really get this feature -- if they work when noise cancelling is turned off, then why bother? After using them for a few weeks I found this feature handy, but only in certain situations. For example, on the flight it was great to be able to activate “aware mode” to talk to the crew without having to remove an ear.
I don’t think many people buy noise-cancelling headphones with call quality as a leading feature but I’m glad it’s been included in the QC20i’s. I used the QC20i’s for quite a few calls during the road test -- they weren’t great... they weren’t bad... they just were. When wearing both ear pieces your own voice tends to sound very nasal or muffled making it difficult to concentrate on what you’re saying. After a few calls I tended to remove an ear whenever I made a call so that I could still hear my voice naturally. It would be great to see some kind of active feedback down the track like you get with gaming headsets, but for now I’ll stick with the one-ear method.
Bose also included a zip-pouch to stash the headphones when you are using them. Once you’ve wrapped the chord and bundled the drivers and the module into the pouch it is reasonably small although (about the size of an iPhone) though I preferred to carry the pouch in my bag rather than in my pocket as I normally would with iPhone headphones.
Should You Buy?
Having landed in Dallas after a 15 hour flight without an ear ache, without a headache, and with a little bit of battery life left I was really happy with the way the QC20i’s performed. The sound quality is great, the noise cancellation is impressive, they’re comfortable and they’re very portable.
Before using the QC20i’s the only place I would have thought to use noise cancelling headphones, due to their typical size, was on a flight. Given the QC20i’s are so compact I find myself using them everywhere. As someone that travels frequently and listens to a lot of music I’ve been really happy with the QC20i’s over the course of the road trip. They fit my lifestyle really well and I will continue using them as my day-to-day headphones.
At $399 Australian they aren’t cheap, but are in line with other entries in the noise cancelling category. If you’re looking for a day-to-day headphone to take to the gym or walk around the street then these probably aren’t for you. If you travel, commute or just like to get a bit of shoosh from time-to-time then these might be the headphones for you. I would recommend the QC20i’s to frequent travellers looking for something compact and to commuters looking at taking the plunge into noise cancellation.
Finally, thanks to the Gizmodo team for the opportunity to road test these headphones.