Bose QuietComfort Earbuds beat AirPods Pro on sound and noise canceling, but not design
They sound great and have arguably the best noise canceling for true wireless, but they aren't as discrete or comfortable as the AirPods Pro -- or as good for calls.
David CarnoyExecutive 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 reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Nook e-books and audiobooks.
ExpertiseMobile accessories and portable audio, including headphones, earbuds and speakersCredentials
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It took Bose quite a while to get them into stores, but the new $279 (£250, AU$400) noise-canceling QuietComfort Earbuds are finally here. In many ways, they are excellent true wireless earbuds, particularly when it comes to their sound and noise canceling, which is arguably the best out there right now in a set of earbuds.
Performance-wise, they clearly have a leg up on Apple's best-selling AirPods Pro true wireless noise-canceling buds. However, the AirPods Pro's smaller design, somewhat more comfortable fit and superior voice-calling capabilities make it hard to declare the Bose the straight-up champ. Ultimately, it depends on what your priorities are. That said, they've stood the test of time versus other true wireless headphones that have arrived since we originally reviewed them in October, and their noise canceling remains best in class. As such, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds earn a CNET Editors' Choice.
Top-notch noise canceling
Let's start with the noise canceling. Bose was the gold standard for active noise cancellation, but Sony and others have upped their noise-canceling game in recent years. The QuietComfort Earbuds, formerly known as the Bose Noise Canceling 700 Earbuds, don't disappoint in that department. As I said, they're arguably the best true wireless earbuds out there for muffling sound around you.
You can toggle through three customizable noise-canceling settings, including a transparency mode that lets sound in -- it's the number "0" on the settings -- by tapping the left earbud using the touch controls. At their top setting, these did a better job at muffling sound than the AirPods Pro and Sony WF-1000XM3, a noise-canceling leader in the category.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: Larger design has pluses and minuses
I didn't take the Bose earbuds on a plane -- like a lot of other folks, I'm just not traveling on planes these days -- but I have an air-conditioning system in my apartment that's pretty loud and does a decent job simulating airplane cabin noise. The QuietComfort Earbuds almost completely eliminated the fan sound. While the Sony and AirPods Pro did a good job tamping down the sound, the Bose was better.
I also used them in the streets of New York to impressive effect. They don't eliminate all noise, but you feel pretty sealed off from the world and it's worth noting that for safety reasons, a lot of people use the transparency mode when walking around the city to hear traffic. This would also come into play if you were running in trafficked areas.
Watch this: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds: Best noise canceling
On a side note, I do think Bose should label "0" as transparency because some people could read it simply as the noise canceling being off. It would have also been nice if Bose had a negative number that would augment sound from the outside world. That feature was available in its limited-release Hearphones (now discontinued), which were designed to augment sound. "The goal with transparency in our QuietComfort headphones is to faithfully mimic what the world would sound like without the buds in your ears," a Bose spokesperson told me. Apple has the same aim for the AirPods Pro's transparency mode.
The QuietComfort Earbuds also sound better than the AirPods Pro. They're just richer sounding with better detail and more powerful bass that's also well-defined. The Bose are right up there with the best-sounding true wireless earbuds and go toe to toe with the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 2, which retail for $300. They work well for a variety of music genres but fans of hip-hop and EDM will find they have plenty of kick to their bass.
The Sennheiser is a little more laid-back than the Bose. The mids (vocals) are a little more forward with the QuietComfort Earbuds, which is a little more aggressive overall with more energy in the bass. On well-recorded tracks such as The Police's Spirits in the Material World, Peter Gabriel's Solsbury Hill, Marvin Gaye's Inner City Blues and Frank Zappa's Night School, which have a fair number of instruments playing at the same time, you can distinctly hear each instrument so these are pretty articulate headphones. Bob Dylan's Man in the Long Black Coat sounded clean and open.
With contemporary tracks such as Major Lazer's Know No Better and Travis Scott's The Plan (from the Tenet soundtrack), the Bose sounded more dynamic than the Sennheiser and had bolder bass that hit harder. Some people may prefer the tonal balance of the Sennheiser -- everybody's ears and brains are different, after all -- but the point is the Bose delivers high-quality sound. For better or worse, currently there's no equalizer in the Bose Music app for iOS and Android that allows you to tweak the sound.
Call quality evaluation
The QuietComfort Earbuds are also good for making calls and have a sidetone feature (Bose calls it "self voice") that allows you to hear your voice in the earbuds so you can modulate it and not shout. But they're not quite as good as the AirPods Pro for calls, mainly because their noise reduction (the ability to reduce background sound) isn't as strong. Still, they're significantly improved in this area over Bose's earlier SoundSport Free, which only had mono sound in one bud for calls.
The QuietComfort Earbuds effectively reduced a certain amount of ambient sound in the streets of New York during calls and callers said they could hear my voice well, though they did pick up some background noise. My voice was clear and I could hear callers really well (the noise isolation is great during calls). It's possible that Bose could tweak the firmware to improve the background noise reduction, though right now it's merely good not stellar. It isn't on the level of Bose's full-size Noise Canceling 700 Headphones or Samsung's Galaxy Buds Plus and even some sub-$100 earbuds I've reviewed lately.
You can use a single bud -- either left or right -- for calls or listening to music and when you pull one bud out the other one automatically goes into transparency mode so you don't have any weirdness of listening to one bud with noise canceling on.
You get up to six hours of battery life on a single charge, which is about an hour more than the AirPods Pro. The buds are sweat- and weather-resistant, with a splash-resistant IPX4 rating -- the same as the AirPods Pro.
Possibly thanks to the fact that the Bose incorporates the latest Bluetooth 5.1 standard, my wireless connection was rock-solid and the buds paired easily with both my iPhone 11 Pro and a Samsung Galaxy Note 10. But there's no multipoint Bluetooth pairing that makes switching between a couple devices, including a Windows or Apple PC, a seamless affair. You have to manually switch between devices and it doesn't always go according to plan with Windows PCs in particular.
As I hinted in the intro, the QuietComfort Earbuds do have some downsides. The AirPods Pro and popular Android-oriented buds like Samsung's Galaxy Buds Plus and Galaxy Buds Live are significantly smaller and lighter and have really compact charging cases. You gotta love that. In that sense, these buds are more like the Sony WF-1000XM3, and perhaps the moral of the story is that to get really good sound and noise canceling you simply need to go with a larger earbud. Jamming the electronics, high-quality driver and a battery big enough to power the bud for a minimum of five hours is an engineering challenge.
I did find the QuietComfort Earbuds comfortable to wear. They use Bose's new StayHear Max tips that have an integrated wing. With the largest tip I got a tight seal and really secure fit. And while they're smaller than Bose's earlier SoundSport Free, the QuietComfort Buds do stick out of your ears a fair amount. And if you tuck the case into the front pocket of a tight pair of jeans, let's just say it leaves a noticeable bulge.
That said, the case is smaller than the case for the Beats Powerbeats Pro, so it's not gigantic. It has wireless charging capabilities (as well as USB-C charging) and gives you an extra two charges. There's also a quick charge feature that banks two hours of battery life with a 15-minute charge.
The value question
I can't compare the Bose to everything that's out there, and some people will get on my case for talking so much about the AirPods Pro, but they are (so far as we know) the best-selling true wireless noise-canceling earbuds, and Apple just added a new -- and downright impressive -- spatial audio virtual sound feature to them. And despite a list price of $249, the AirPods Pro have more or less settled to a street price of $219, and they've recently been on sale at major retailers for as low as $199. In other words, they're an attractive alternative to the QuietComfort Earbuds for anywhere from $30 to $80 less.
I think it comes down to whether you can live with the Bose's larger size and overall design. For a lot of people, the answer will be no. The AirPods Pro's smaller and lighter design (yes, they are a little more comfortable than the Bose) will outweigh the Bose's performance advantages. As I said, the QuietComfort Earbuds clearly sound better and have better noise canceling. It's no contest. That said, the AirPods Pro don't sound bad at all (they sound good but not great). Nor do they lack effective noise canceling (it's also good).
After talking to a few folks who have both the AirPods Pro and Bose QuietComfort buds (with the long delay for Bose's next-generation buds to arrive, some Bose fans couldn't wait and went out and bought the AirPods Pro), it seems like they could both have a place in one's headphone arsenal. "Will go with the AirPods Pro for everyday use and calls and the Bose for movies, more critical listening and planes," one dual owner told me who finds the AirPods Pro more comfortable.
Personally, I lean toward better sound, so I've been gravitating toward the Bose for everyday listening, even with the AirPods Pro sitting on my desk.
Bose's Sport alternative
The other Bose alternative is the cheaper Sport Earbuds ($180, £180, AU$300), which have the same IPX4 water-resistance rating but no noise canceling and an hour less of battery life. They don't sound quite as dynamic and their bass doesn't go quite as deep as the bass on the QuietComfort Earbuds, but they're well-balanced with nice detail and punchy bass. Overall, they sound excellent and also are good -- though not great -- for making calls. While they do stick out from your ears, they're smaller and lighter than the QuietComfort Earbuds and their case is about 30-40% smaller.
I found them slightly more comfortable and while you can use the QuietComfort Earbuds for sporting activities, the Sport Earbuds will be better for runners. For biking, both the Sport Earbuds and QuietComfort Earbuds stick out from your ears and create wind noise -- the Galaxy Buds Live are better for cycling. If you don't need active noise canceling or don't like its sensation, the Sport Earbuds will certainly fit more people's budgets. They compete well against other earbuds in their price class and do sound slightly better than less expensive models like the Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus. The Buds Plus are more discrete, however.
As for whether it's worth spending the extra $100 on the QuietComfort Earbuds, I think that if great noise canceling is what you're after, you shouldn't hesitate. They are pricey at $279 and will hopefully come down in a bit in time. It'd also be helpful if Bose managed to improve the noise reduction for calls through a firmware upgrade. Other companies, like Jabra with its Elite 75t, have done just that. Often advanced earbuds like these and the AirPods Pro do improve over time.