- Has the finest noise-cancellation technology available in a comfortable and well-fitting form
- It has decently deep bass and clear treble and can operate passively
- The audio is heavily processed and may not satisfy perfectionists
- Few accessory extras.
In-ear models which work to dampen noise are not as popular as larger on-ear (supra-aural) and over-the-ear (circumaural) models such as Bose’s full-size versions, but this new model bids to transform the market and comes in dual versions. The QuietComfort 20 (QC-20) is designed for Android, Windows, and BlackBerry-based mobiles, while the QuietComfort 20i (QC-20i) works best with iPhones and iPads. The in-line battery and circuit module housing the processing components is still there, although Bose’s designers have made it slimmer and much less awkward to use. The big takeaway is that the noise-cancelling function is quite simply the most adaptable and effective available in the market, for which it readily earns the merit of being our top pick. While its sound quality may not suit the preferences of an audiophile searching for the flattest responses, the QC-20 offers deep and rich sound at the low end along with clear and brisk trebles which sound great with pop-rock styles of music.
Form and Function
Bose’s headphones seldom exhibit showy styles, and the QC-20 persists in this design aesthetic with its low-key shades of gray. It comes with a comfortable pair of tips which seat securely in-ear. These feature silicone-rubber shapes similar to miniature fins which gently depress the outer ear for more stable usage.
An in-line control module contains the usual remote controls and microphones. The QC-20 version for Windows, Android, and Blackberry mobiles features single-button operation, while the QC-20i for iPhones and iPads features an iOS-compatible set of three buttons. The control module also has a talk-through or Aware-Mode function which dampens music volume while using the noise-cancelling microphone to better process sounds all around you, so that there’s no need to pause tracks and remove the earphones.
Following the control module is the aforementioned in-line battery and circuit module, which has green-lit LED to inform you as to which mode is running. For example, when noise-cancelling is active an LED lights up in green. With a push of the Aware-Mode button, the green LED indicating noise-cancellation operation turns off. When in passive mode all lights stay off.
Bose’s engineers have at last designed an earphone model with noise-reduction features which can still output audio quite nicely without having to remain powered. So unlike with their full-size QC-15 headphones, there’s no need to power up the noise-cancelling mode just to enjoy your musical tracks. Except for a negligible rise in volume, its active-mode aural performance does not differ noticeably from that of passive-mode operation.
In-ears with noise-cancelling assists have long been subject to the need to include an unwieldy battery and component module that’s integrated into the cord. Hardly anyone likes to have a large bump on a cable hanging from their ears as they listen to their favorite tunes. Bose’s solution to this was to produce an even smaller and thinner module and to position it in-line near the cable’s end. It may be that owners are expected to keep it pocketed along with their mobiles, although these are likely to bunch up together.
Circumaural and the larger supra-aural headphones have the internal space for such modules in their ear pads and cups, but they are also far larger devices. Bose’s engineers managed to miniaturize their unit into the smallest form yet. Although it can still be ungainly to use at times it is certainly a big advantage, so to speak. Sony’s XBA-NC85 is the only in-ear model with noise-cancellation we’ve come across which did away with such modules, but it is pricier and lacking in performance when compared to Bose’s latest.
The QC-20i, when tested with an iPhone, enabled clear calls even though the in-line microphones’ audio definition was not particularly excellent. Those whom you call will still clearly hear you, but given the limitations, these microphones aren’t going to convey every last aural detail.
Battery endurance is claimed to be at least 15 hours after a complete charge, which is reached in two hours using packaged USB charge cable. Only two sets of ear pieces are included, though. This isn’t exactly a generous allotment even with Bose’s claim that anyone should be able to find a good fit with one of the two earpieces. The usual soft pouch with zipping fastener is part of the accessory package, which also includes a detachable clip for securing the cord to your shirt.
The performance of the noise-cancelling components more than outshines these earphones’ basic sound quality. Bose has always managed to stay a generation or two ahead of their rivals in terms of technology. In this case, it seems Bose has widened the gap even more. The silicone earpieces are much like that of rival earphones which often pull double-duty in passively blocking ambient noise aren’t, but they aren’t particularly superior at this task. These may not let environmental sounds bleed in any more than is necessary, but neither do these provide much isolation to assist with active noise-reduction. Almost the entirety of the signal-shaping functions and their advantages are provided by the microphone and sound-processing operations. That the ear pieces do not actually factor much in reducing unwanted noises is a testament to the system’s impressive characteristics.
Bose has delivered in this model quite possibly the most effective noise-cancelling that’s available to consumers. As in prior models from both Bose and their rivals, the earphones work to impede wide ranges of undesirable ambient sounds, from noisy sources such as the constant hum of air conditioners or the low-pitched thrum of airliners and train cars. However the QC-20i delivers a new (if at first unsettling) feature which no other competitor has yet accomplished, a capability to essentially mask speech by humans.
These earphones were first tried in a room, with another staffer behind me who was speaking on his mobile without my knowledge. It first seemed he was whispering behind my back, which was rather weird. Once I realized he was conversing, it dawned on me that it was his speech which was being rendered into a whispery stream by the QC-20i’s real-time sound processing. With the noise-cancelling mode switched off, I could hear him talking rather loudly. With it switched back on, again only the barest shapes of his voice was being passed with its full tonality and pitch suppressed to literally a whisper. This was an altogether new and remarkable experience.
I was surprised to discover that the QC-20i also reduces disruptive sounds like that of auto alarms to a great extent. Older QuietComforts, as well as those of Bose’s competitors, have only been capable of effectively muting ambient noises which are fairly unvarying and unpredictable, such as the appliance and transit noises mentioned. Noise sources with changing rhythms and intensities and which vary in pitch like human speech or in tones like regular alarms would not have been muted much by earlier generations of the technology. The new Bose earphones tellingly suppress such disruptive sounds.
With all that said, when activated a minute-long amount of high-frequency hiss is introduced. This can be noticeable in quiet passages found in music rife with extended dynamic ranges such as classical recordings. Such artifacts are usually associated with inexpensive noise-cancelling models, where it can be more pronounced and therefore somewhat more noticeable. But with Bose’s technology, although it still just barely detectable, as an issue it pales before the benefit one enjoys from the wholesale reduction of bothersome things like the talk gossip of associates, street and traffic noises, sudden alarms, and so on.
Musical selections rich in the bass are pleasingly rendered by the QC-20i in active mode. The curve of its bass response is actually shifted slightly up its chain of frequencies and into the low- and low-to-mid ranges where low-register strings, brass instruments, and kick drums reign. Pulsating and deep sub-bass like that found in modern synth tracks may not surface well in the bands at which the QC-20i is most competent, as this model is not meant to please the most hardcore bass fanatics. Then again, at the highest volume, there is little noticeable distortion, even when many bass-heavy voices are present.
With its emphasis on low- and low-to-mid ranges, there is the possibility of dull-sounding audio. Bose’s engineers compensated by balancing the profile with a fine reproduction of the high-mid ranges. Crooners with a good baritone will not hear their recordings muddied, as the QC20i imparts a pleasantly rich sound with a nice edginess to highs. But do remember that in active mode these can still convey that highly-processed and at times slightly inaccurate “Bose sound” which many audiophiles tend to dismiss. The QC-20i continues this tradition to a T. Just the same, most users will find its audio quality more than good enough. Those whose tastes tend to pop and rock will likely find it particularly enjoyable to listen with. And in any case, the real story here is not the presence of a balanced soundstage and neutral sound, but Bose’s latest ground-breaking technology which has brought a new level of noise-cancelling sophistication to consumer gear.
Given our trial conclusions, you can rightly assume it would be hard to recommend any other option. Still, for those who put accurate yet neutrally-balanced sound above all, AKG’s K391NC and Phiaton’s PS20 NC in-ears are still viable alternatives for less challenging settings. Bose’s competitors may not be as advanced in signals processing technologies, but they can more than hold their own in delivering quality audio performances, and their comparable models are generally less expensive.
Good on-ear and over-the-ear models with older noise-cancelling technologies such as Bose’s QC-15 and AKG’s K490NC can still be quite satisfying to use and are often more comfortable for some users. These larger units tend to offer more slightly more accurate and richer sound along with a still decent level of noise reduction. However, we must say that Bose has a home run in their new QuietComfort 20i. Its good sound quality coupled with its unprecedented noise-cancelling capabilities have unquestionably made it our top pick.
The QuietComfort 20i delivers great advances in consumer noise-reduction technology and sounds better than any other noise-cancelling earphone we’ve tried to date.