Gizmodo Reader Review: Bose QuietComfort 20i Noise Cancelling Headphones

Warren King works for a national motorsport organisation, travels frequently, and is an avid gym-goer. Safe to say he spends a lot of time with earbuds securely fastened to his lobes, attempting to isolate himself from the outside world. Warren is also one of three winners 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...

Like most guys in their late-twenties, music videos of Bieber, Justin and Miley don’t exactly fill me with desire to lift heavy weights at the gym (and put them back down again, rinse, repeat). So a good quality pair of headphones is a must. And for me, on/over ear headphones are just way too obvious, unsociable and cumbersome to use anywhere other than on an airplane.

Prior to sticking the QC20i buds into my ears, I had been going strong with a pair of Klipsch S4i (Series 1) headphones with Comply foam tips for better isolation (never been a huge fan of silicon tips). These have served me well, but I’ve been searching for a new pair of earbuds for some time.

While I wouldn’t refer to myself as an audiophile, sound quality and fidelity are both important to me, so if a headphone crackles under heavy bass, it’s out. If my ears hurt from too much treble, they’re done. Comfort is also a huge deal, so generally the ability to fit foam tips to a pair of headphones has been at the top of my list (since silicon tips disagree with my ears). By and large my musical tastes consist of hip-hop, dance and rock music (especially in the gym), with some easier listening and podcasts peppered in for good measure.

With all of that in mind, I can gleefully report that I have found the Bose Quiet Comfort 20i noise cancelling headphones to be an absolute pleasure. They have become my absolute go-to headphone of choice, and while they do have shortcomings that I will mention, the positives FAR outweigh the nitpicking negatives.

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

My first impression upon tearing open the packing was one of meeting my expectations. That isn’t to say these aren’t immaculately presented (they are), it’s just that I primarily use Apple products and have bought Bose before — they understand presentation and the QC20i is no different. At no point did these bad boys look like anything less than a premium item.

The accompanying headphone pouch is embossed with a circle pattern and the Bose word mark while the headphones were presented on a plastic tray. I was impressed (and continue to be) by the build quality, especially the heavy-duty cabling — often a niggle of mine with headphones. The cables have an almost pipe-cleaner like sturdiness to them that reminds you that this item is built to last, and also seems to prevent any rustling interference from the cord rubbing on your clothes. Three sizes of stay-hear tips are included in the package, as is a micro-USB charging cable for the Noise-Cancelling module.

Getting Started

From the moment I opened the box, everything was dead simple. I would never expect a pair of headphones to require a Mensa-certified operator, but I was unsure given this is my first proper foray into the world of noise cancelling earbuds. Take out the headphones, choose a size of ear tips (I eventually settled on the large size), switch on the NC module and enjoy the serenity.

The first time I popped these in and switched them on was a revelation. It initially felt like my ears needed to pop (not unlike taking off in an airplane), but that sensation faded after about 5 minutes. The first use was at my desk at work, but we had a worker rendering our building outside my window (with tourettes-level swearing issues) and a truck idling in the parking lot about 20 metres away — this immediately died to a distant hum when I flipped the little silver switch on the noise-cancelling module.

Next, I plugged the ‘phones into my iPhone 5 and gave some music a crack and was greeted by warm tones and a slight emphasis on bass (not Klipsch levels of bass, but definitely decent). Mid tones seem clear and strong to compensate for “less” bass and the treble was neither distant nor harsh - a very pleasant listening experience right off the bat.

In Use

Controlling the music with the inline remote is a cinch and behaves exactly as expected — if you’ve used Apple earbud or EarPods with inline controls, everything works the same here - volume up and down or a middle button that functions as call answer/hang-up, play/pause, plus double and triple taps for skipping tracks. The same buttons worked perfectly on my iPad watching movies via VLC and iTunes on my MacBook Air had no trouble with the inputs either.

The 3.5mm connection at the end of the headphones is also an underrated factor in headphones and can determine whether they end up being frustrating to use. Bose have opted for a 90-degree plug, but unlike plugs from Beats By Dre that sit flush with your phone, Bose have given some clearance from the device, so use with most cases should be largely no issue.

My second order of business was making a hands-free call (to my wife, naturally). She reported I could be heard loud and clear, and I had no issues in a noisy environment understanding every word thanks to the noise cancellation. I always feel like I may be yelling when talking handsfree and my own voice sounds muffled, but apparently I was at a respectable volume throughout the conversation.

After packing the headphones away at the office, I was excited to give them a test-run at the gym that evening. My workouts at the gym consist of weight training, 95% of the time using barbells and dumbells. They also get some use on a stationary bike in the AM three days a week. This means the headphones need to be a number of things: sweat resistant (to a point), durable in case of accidental knocks, lightweight to prevent being annoying in the middle of a lift, and stable. The Bose QC20i are all of these things.

My enthusiasm is high, without even mentioning that they all but eliminated my exposure to the classic vocal stylings of One Direction and the bevy of creative lyrics in Britney’s “Work B**ch.”

Whilst I haven’t tested the noise cancelling module or an earbud by dropping a weight on it, any incidental bumps had no effect and nothing felt fragile. The StayHear tips are phenomenal, and I never feared they would pop out of my ear under minor cord tension (though running with them may not be ideal). As I mentioned earlier, I settled on the large tips, but experimented with medium (these were fine, and I could easily use them as well) and small (too small to form a secure fit).

This Is Cool...

With a successful office road test and being put through their paces at the gym, I was VERY eager to try these things out at the racetrack. As I mentioned, I’m in motorsport, and my company runs a national Sprintcar championship. The first round was on Boxing Day in Adelaide, and I was keen to see how the earphones coped with the scream of twenty 900hp, 410ci V8 open wheel race cars hitting the clay.

Cars hit the track, the flag went green and I popped in the QC20i’s... I could still hear the cars pretty clearly. Warren haz disappoint. I sighed and removed the earbuds... holy crap did I make a mistake — the ferocity of the roar when I remove the buds almost deafened me, revealing just how much of the noise these things had eliminated and how much I was taking for granted. I would not hesitate to recommend these headphones for any motorsport enthusiast that values his or her hearing - you still hear the cars but don’t go deaf. Massive win.

A small grey button on the side of the inline remote/mic toggles the “Aware Mode” on the headphones, and the mode works very well. Once toggled off, the sounds of the world come rushing in and it sounds just like if you were wearing regular earbuds. Here’s the thing though — the StayHear tips are so easy to fit and remove that you might just be better off taking the earbuds out to chat, but the button at least gives you options.

While I’m on the subject, you CAN listen to music through these headphones without the noise cancelling module turned on (or out of battery). You CAN do it, but you shouldn’t. Do you have a pair of $30 Skullcandy earbuds? Use them instead. Using these without noise cancelling on is like using candles during a power failure — you put up with them, but you spend the whole time wishing the damn lights would come back on.

A Few Observations...

As I mentioned earlier, I have had some niggles as I use them more and more, but the following is strictly nitpicking given the high standard of the product.

As I have continued to use the headphones, I’ve become accustomed to the noise cancellation, and I’d say on balance I can hear outside noise a little more than the first few uses, so this is something to consider. Also, while the noise cancelling module is such that it is easy to sit alongside a phone in your pocket, it IS pretty noticeable. And to account for the module, the cable could stand to be about 10cm longer — the current length is fine, but some extra give wouldn’t go astray unless you’re comfortable with the module hanging out of your pocket in the open (I’m not).

The aforementioned sound quality sans-noise cancelling is an issue if you forget to charge them (they get a good amount of life though, and the light will flash when the battery gets low), and if I’m extra critical, a hard case instead of a pouch would have been a great inclusion for something that costs $400 Australian.

Should You Buy?

But overall, as you can no doubt tell, I love these headphones. If you’re considering QC20i earbuds and just need someone to reaffirm that you’re making the right choice — buy them (you’re welcome).

"If you’re considering QC20i earbuds and just need someone to reaffirm that you’re making the right choice — buy them (you’re welcome)"

I’m looking forward to continuing to put these to great use, and I can’t envisage a scenario where I would choose another pair of earphones over these unless the noise-cancelling battery went flat on me.

If you’re in the market for headphones and the price tag doesn’t phase you, I say pull the trigger — you won’t be disappointed.

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