Bose has been a go-to choice for noise-canceling headphones since the company's original QuietComfort headphones debuted in 2000. The line has been updated over the years with an on-ear model (the
Why would you want to spend that kind of dough on a headphone like this? Well, there are some good reasons, which I'll run through first. Then I'll point out a few downsides to the product, which may or may not be deal breakers for you.
For starters, the QC20s fit securely in your ears and are very comfortable to wear. They weigh a mere 1.5 ounces and come with a zippered cloth carrying case that's a fraction of the size of the case that comes with the over-the-ear QC 15s. That makes them very travel-friendly.
Their design is very similar to Bose's MIE2i headphones, which you don't jam into your ear like many in-ear models. Rather, they rest more loosely in your ears, which is what makes them so comfortable to wear.
The headphones themselves follow the company's TriPort design, carving out some extra space to maximize Bose's proprietary acoustic voodoo, and adding two microphones to monitor external noise. As with all such active noise-canceling 'phones, that external din -- the drone of a jet engine, the crowd at the train station -- is countered by a mirror soundwave, allowing you to enjoy your music in relative peace. The processing chip used in the QC20 is a new model that's exclusive to Bose.
The QC20s come with three sizes of flexible "StayHear+" eartips, each of which has wings to brace itself against the cup of the outer ear. I went with the largest eartip, which offered me a bit of a snugger fit, which helps with the noise isolation, and, in turn, makes the noise cancellation a bit more effective.
The lithium ion battery pack is embedded in a control pod on the cord. It's rechargeable via a standard Micro-USB cable, and Bose pledges 16-hour battery life. Unlike the QC15s, however, the QC20s will continue to produce sound -- sans noise cancellation, of course -- if the battery dies. (That sound is good in passive mode; everything just sounds boosted and a little more dynamic when you turn on the NC.)
At the joint of the Y-cable leading to the left and right earbuds is a smaller second remote for controlling volume. That one also has the microphone for making phone calls and a switch for toggling what Bose calls "Aware mode." Once engaged, it significantly ramps down the noise cancellation, so you can hear the outside world -- to chat with a flight attendant, for instance. That's a nice feature, and I thought the headphones performed very well as a headset.
The noise cancellation is quite impressive. You don't think that a more loose-fitting earbud like this, which lets in as much sound as it does, would work well as an active noise-canceling headphone. But it does. The headphone muffled a lot of the ambient New York street noise, and though it can't completely drown out subway noise, it did a pretty decent job.
As with other Bose headphones, the sound is quite good but not great. The Bose sound signature tends to be safe. By that I mean it's designed to take everything you throw at it -- all types of music, well recorded and not so well recorded -- and make it sound decent. So the sound you get is nice and smooth but not highly detailed. And while you get plenty of bass, it's not necessarily the tightest bass.
Of course, whenever you introduce active noise canceling to a headphone -- and all the digital processing it brings with it -- you tend to lose a little bit of sound quality. Noise-canceling headphones usually don't sound as clean or clear as "passive" headphones, and some introduce a faint hiss (though with the QC20s that hiss is very minimal). In other words, if you value sound quality above anything else, you probably shouldn't get a pair of noise-canceling headphones, and from a sound quality standpoint, the QC20s don't measure up to many in-ear models in the $300 price range. This just isn't a headphone that's so good that you'd want to go back and listen to your whole music collection just to experience how it sounds with all your favorite tunes.