a review by: Andy Hilal
Bose Quiet Comfort 20i Noise Canceling Earbuds
$299 at Amazon
Pros: Impressive noise canceling, comfort and sound
Cons: A rather high price tag
I was dubious about these earphones until I tried them, and then they blew me away. About 5 or 6 years ago I picked up some “noise canceling” headphones at MacWorld, and they were just okay. Sure, the $25 audio-technicas I bought could drown out some of the background hum of the convention floor. But I could still hear the people around me talking. If anything, I could hear them more clearly with the background hum removed.
The Bose QC-20s go further than this. When I’m wearing them, and listening to music, I can’t hear someone right in front of me talking to me. Their lips move but nothing gets through to me. The hum of my daily commuter train is muted, but so is the clacking of the train’s wheels on the tracks. These headphones combine world-class active noise canceling with the physical isolation of some very high-quality silicone in-ear tips. The result is much more than I expected. If my friend hadn’t dragged me into the Bose store to try these out, I wouldn’t have given them a second glance. Now they’re one of my most prized possessions.
Noise canceling is an interesting technology that works on an ingenious principle. Think back to the playground. You’ve got a long jumprope – your friend is holding one end and you’ve got the other. If you jerk your end up, a wave will travel down the rope toward your friend. However, if your friend jerks her end down at the same time, and inverted hump will travel toward you. When the two waves meet, they both disappear. The waves cancel each other out.
All noise-canceling headphones incorporate a microphone that listens to the ambient environment. It senses what noise waves are around you, and sends inverse waves toward your ears to cancel the noise out. When the noise zigs, your headphones zag. The result is a big fat zero. The noise never actually reaches you.
However, it takes some pretty fancy (and fast) electronic magic to sense and cancel out ambient noise in real time. In the past, noise canceling earbuds could only drown out constant, steady sounds like the hum of a jet engine. Steady sounds are consistent from one moment to the next, and can be steadily canceled out by a nice, long, even inverse wave. But sudden noises like a handclap are harder to predict and respond to quickly. So some noises still get through.
But the QC-20s let through a whole lot less than my Audi-Technicas from 5 years ago. Believe this: I was standing right next to the electric kettle in my kitchen, and I couldn’t even hear it boiling. You know that popping, hissing sound an electric kettle makes as it does its job? Not exactly the even hum of a jet engine. Actually quite poppy and noisy. But I couldn’t hear it at all.
Don’t get me wrong – the QC-20s are not perfect. You will still be able to hear some of what’s around you. Just a lot less of it. A lot less. You may be amazed at just how much noise is actually around you most of the time, and how peaceful it is to have it cut by 75%. I sure was. Layer a little music on and you’ve got a personal sanctuary wherever you go. Wait… isn’t that the phrase they use in their ads? Well, I have to admit: it’s accurate.
The effect is profound. I can actually watch a movie on my phone during my train commute. In the past it was too noisy, even with my earphones turned all the way up. Now, the noise is gone to a degree, so I can actually hear the dialogue. What a difference.
This also means I don’t have to crank up my headphones as loud as before. How nice! The train is noisy enough without adding level-10 earbud volume as well. We all need to safeguard our hearing in this noisy world, and the QC-20s give you a new tool to do that.
Noise canceling requires power. The unit can’t emit inverse waves without a power source of its own, so be aware that the QC-20s come with an integrated batter. It’s a small box about the size of a cigarette lighter, located just near the end of the cable. Here’s a picture with my old iPhone 1 for scale.
Most of the time I just place this right against the back of my iPhone and slip them both into my pocket. It’s just as easy to fold them together and hold them in one hand. Just don’t be surprised to find that there’s more to these headphones than a simple cable. The electronics that drive the active canceling need to live somewhere, and they need juice. You recharge this batter pack with micro-USB. A micro-to-USB cable is included, but you’ll need a USB port somewhere to charge from. No wall adapter is included.
The earbuds are extremely comfortable. So well designed that you barely even know they are there, even after long periods. Bass, midrange, and treble are all clear as a bell with volume to spare. The cable is the right length and doesn’t make a lot of friction noise against your shirt when you’re wearing it. And the controller stays nicely out of the way until you need it – whereupon it works well.
These headphones come in an iPhone/iPad version and an Android/Everything Else version. I have the iPhone version, which allows me to skip songs, change volume, answer calls, and invoke Siri all with the buttons on the cable remote. Works great. Call quality sounds about as good as it gets.
There is one more feature to note, which is the “aware mode” option. When this is enabled (by a simple button push on the remote) the noise-canceling microphone that’s listening to ambient noise will actually play that noise through the headphones to you. This is for times when you need to hear what’s happening around you (say, for example that you’re crossing the street) but don’t necessarily want to take your earphones all the way out. I haven’t used this much but it’s there if you want it. I don’t think it will pull in ambient noise directionally, meaning if there’s a bus coming from your right-hand side I don’t think the unit will play the bus noise to you in the right-earbud only. I’m actually not sure, but I think the microphone is mono.
I was lucky enough to receive these as a gift so I avoided the worst part: the $300 price tag. It’s a steep sum to pay for headphones. But I think in this case it does buy you the state of the art. Noise-canceling technology isn’t perfect yet, it can still be improved. This room-for-improvement and the high price tag knock off half a star here for me. Otherwise these earbuds are one of the more exciting products I’ve encountered in a long time.