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Bose QuietComfort 20 review: Expensive, best noise-canceling in-ear headphone

Despite some downsides, including a high price, the Bose QuietComfort 20 offers the best noise-canceling in an in-ear headphone and should tempt frequent travelers looking for a more compact alternative to full-size NC headphones.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

Executive Editor / Reviews

Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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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 QC15s) and new over-the-ear models (the QC3s), but the QuietComfort 20 you see here is the company's first in-ear headphone with active noise cancellation. It actually comes in two versions -- the standard QC20 is for non-Apple products, and the QC20i is designed for use with Apple products. Both cost a lofty $299.95.

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Bose QuietComfort 20

The Good

The <b>Bose QuietComfort 20 and 20i</b> are compact in-ear headphones that sound good, are very comfortable to wear, and offer surprisingly impressive noise cancellation. The noise cancellation is powered by an integrated rechargeable lithium battery that delivers up to 16 hours of battery life.

The Bad

Expensive; they don't sound as good as many competing in-ear headphones in this price range; rechargeable battery isn't replaceable.

The Bottom Line

Despite some downsides, including a high price, the Bose QuietComfort 20 offers the best noise-canceling in an in-ear headphone and should tempt frequent travelers looking for a more compact alternative to a full-size NC headphone, such as the Bose QuietComfort 15.

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.

The pros
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 are similar to Bose's MIE2i headphones and come with the same eartips. Sarah Tew/CNET

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.)

Bose QuietComfort 20 in-ear noise-canceling headphones (pictures)

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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.

The control pod and rechargeable battery are integrated into the cord (the battery is not replaceable). Sarah Tew/CNET

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.

The headphones easily slip into the included carrying case. Sarah Tew/CNET

But even though I have other, better-sounding headphones at my disposal, I still found myself gravitating toward using the QC20 as an everyday headphone because of how comfortable it was and how it managed to muffle a lot of the New York street noise.

I also tested it on a plane ride to Seattle, and while I thought the overall noise reduction on the QC15 was slightly better, the QC20 was more comfortable, and its in-ear, earbud-style design is good for sleeping because you can rest your head against a pillow or headrest without having your headphones getting in the way. However, you could argue that going smaller has one potential drawback: you may be more likely to lose the QC20s than a full-size pair. Then again, I have known people who've left plenty of larger items in seat pockets on planes, including iPads and QC15s.

The inline remote with microphone and 'aware mode' button on the side. Sarah Tew/CNET

Some cons
OK, now for the downsides, and they all involve the battery pack and control pod on the cord. First off, it's a little awkward to have the battery pack dangling from your headphone. It's also worth noting that the battery isn't replaceable, so once it peters out -- and someday it will -- you're basically left with an MIE2i headphone with a dongle attached to it. When I asked Bose about that, I got this detailed answer:

Lastly, if you forget to turn off the noise cancellation, which I did a few times, you'll end up with a dead battery overnight. For this price, there would ideally be some sort of automatic shut-off feature when the headphones aren't in use.

Close-up of the earphone and eartip. Sarah Tew/CNET

Conclusion
Despite those drawbacks, I liked the Bose QC20s a lot. Their sound may not measure up to what you get from competing $300 in-ear headphones, but they sound good, are very comfortable to wear, and offer excellent noise cancellation. They also take up very little room in your bag.

A lot of people will think they're overpriced, and they'd be right to think that. But for a certain subset of the headphone-buying population, the QC20s are an excellent product that's strongly worth considering.

For instance, if you're a frequent traveler who doesn't want to carry around a larger over-the-ear model like the QuietComfort 15 or Beats Studio 2013 (which sounds better than the QC15, but the noise-canceling isn't as good), the QC20 is a tempting alternative. It's also a good choice for someone who's looking for a strong noise-canceling headphone but doesn't like wearing full-size headphones.

Just be aware that because of the lifespan of the integrated lithium ion battery, that noise cancellation won't work forever. If you're OK with that and don't mind their hefty price tag, I have no problem recommending the QC20s.

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Bose QuietComfort 20

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 9Sound 8Value 7