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

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The Good The Bose QuietComfort 20 and 20i 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.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8
  • Features 9
  • Sound 8
  • Value 7

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.

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.)

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.