NOTE: See the second post in the comments section for my updates to this review.
I don't use the word "revolutionary" casually. Truth is, a product rarely qualifies for that accolade. But knowing as much as I do about noise-cancelling technology, I would not have believed that what Bose has accomplished with the QC20 series was even possible. In fact, I'd say they've created the best all-around earphone or headphone on the market today for everyday use with portable music players. Note that I said "best all-around" which is not to say it's "best" in every category. If audiophile sound quality is your top priority, then look elsewhere, as both my Etymotic 4PT and Shure 530 series earphones sound better than the QC20s. However, those better-sounding 'phones have other drawbacks in actual use (more on that later), and they now sit in a drawer while the QC20s go with me everywhere. Bottom line: if you're looking for the best noise-cancelling on the market today, bar none, combined with very good sound, the ultimate in comfort and convenience, all in a very small, lightweight package, the QC20 is for you. This review will focus on a comparison of the QC20 with the QC15, as well as with the Etymotic 4PT and the Shure ES530, all of which I currently own and have used for some time. And please be sure to check out the "Design Flaw" section at the end of this review before deciding if the QC20 is for you.
Noise-cancelling: The QC20 is signifcantly better than my QC15. Look, I've used Bose QC headphones for years, but the QC20 actually made me gasp the first time I turned on its noise-cancelling circuit. I can only describe the effect as eerily silent, which seems impossible with an earphone that only lies against the opening of your ear, but doesn't go into the canal or encircle your ears like headphones. (By comparision, I never thought the noise cancelling on the QC3 was all that good.) In addition to achieving great noise-cancelling in an "ear bud" type design, Bose has also made real strides is quieting the sounds of speech, which--along with crying babies--have always largely evaded the capabilities of noise-cancelling systems. The QC20 is by no means perfect in silencing speech (or crying babies) but it's a clear step forward. My QC15s are going up for sale today.
Sound Quality: The sound of the QC20 is incrementally better than the QC15, but still lags behind the better in-ear 'phones like my Ety 4PT and Shure ES530. To my ears (Your Ears May Vary), the QC20 sound a bit veiled by comparison, and while the bass is certainly there, its quality and tightness just isn't as good. But let's put this in context: I"m talking about A/A+ sound for the Ety and Shure vs. B/B+ sound for the QC20. Plus, there are the drawbacks to the in-ear canal earphones: they silence outside sounds almost completely, which I find dangerous when walking the streets of NYC... and there's the incovenience of having to remove an earphone from the canal everytime you want to hear what someone is saying to you. The QC20 has an "aware" mode that allows in outside sound at the touch of a button. Also, with the Ety 4PT, I hear the microphonic thumping sound of the cable hitting my body when I walk--not as bad as earlier generations of the Ety cable, but still there. Finally, neither of these in-ear 'phones are comfortable for long-term wear, such as a cross-country flight. Again, Your Ears May Vary, but I have to remove them after a couple of hours.
Comfort: My QC15 headphones are certainly comfortable, but the soft silicone of the QC20 ear tips rest so comfortably against your ear openings that you simply forget you're wearing them at all. Most importantly, the Bose StayHear design of the tips keeps them in place, which is a huge deal for me. I have never been able to wear any ear bud design (and I think I've tried them all) because they fall out too easily. The Bose remain secure, but without force that would cause discomfort. The QC20s come with medium tips installed, but also include small and large sizes in the box.
Size/Weight: This is where the QC20 really trounces the QC15. The earphones store in a soft pouch that measures just 2.75 x 5 inches and they weigh next to nothing. As nice as the storage case is for the QC15, it just looks huge by comparison. I was concerned that the "battery/control bar" at the plug end of the QC20 might have size and weight that would make it clunky in use, but it's small, very thin, and almost as feather-weight as just the cable itself. The bar measures just 1"W x 3.5"L x 1/4"D. Weight is only 3/4 of an ounce, including the end cable and plug. That end cable is just long enough to allow for easy folding of the bar against the back of your phone or music player and easy insertion into your pocket.
Convenience: Minimal size/weight make the QC20 a "take everywhere" earphone. Includes a super lightweight lithium battery that runs for 16 hours on just a 2-hour charge from USB. (Bose includes the required USB to micro-USB charging cable.) The earphones will continue to function with a dead battery, but without noise-cancelling and with somewhat degraded sound quality... still, better than nothing. The integrated microphone makes it a perfect headset for use with iPhone and other cellular phones. (Note that you must order the QC20i for use with Apple products.) The microphone also includes an "Aware Mode" switch that allows in some outside noise, like traffic sounds--convenient AND an essential safety feature if wearing these in a city environment.
Design Flaw: The silicone eartips do not simply slide on and off the earphones. There are two slots cut into the silicone that fit over two small plastic tabs on the earphones and hold the eartips firmly in place. When trying to change the medium eartips to the small ones, I broke one of those tabs, and this was after reading the instructions, and following them as closely as I could. Bose provided an immediate exchange for me, so no problem there, but if you buy the QC20 and need to change the eartip size, I'd recommend getting on the phone with Bose customer service, which is superb, and let them guide you.
One final tip: if you buy directly from Bose, either online or at one of their stores. you get a 30-day, no questions asked, money-back guarantee they don't offer if you buy elsewhere. Use the 'phones all you want and, if you're not satisfied after a month, just return them for a full refund. Since new models of Bose products are never discounted anywhere, that risk-free trial is a big advantage to buying direct. Just be prepared for the fact that you will NOT be sending these earphones back! ;-)
Bottom line: overall, the QC20s are five star earphones with an asterisk due to the plastic tab design. Thanks for taking the time to read my review and I hope you find it helpful in making a buying decision. Again, if you look at the second post in the comments section, you will find my updates to this original review.
on August 1, 2013
These headphones are pricey, so you expect them to be amazing. And they are. The effect of cancelling out the drone of an airplane engine or central air unit is, to me, well worth the price.
As for sound quality, there are two caveats. I'm not an audiophile in the strict sense, but the reproduction of the highs and lows is superb while the mids may be just the tiniest bit overshadowed. I love the sound... when they noise cancellation is ON, or when it is in AWARE mode (more on that later). However, when the noise cancellation is OFF, or the unit is unpowered, the lows tend to be muddy and exaggerated. Quality definitely suffers when they noise cancellation is turned off. They're still fairly good, just not the crisp sound you get when they're on.
The other caveat is that, when noise cancellation is on, there is an audible hiss. That's the white noise that blocks out the ambient sound of the world. You'll love going from a noisy plane or train to just this quiet hiss, but sometimes the hiss the actually louder than my environment. In that case, I'd choose to turn noise cancellation off but that leaves the muddy, overpowered lows. So that's the dilemma: when it's quiet you have to choose between a white hiss and muddy lows. When it's loud, these are amazing headphones. When it's quiet... they're just really good.
As for "Aware" mode, it's kind of odd. I found that the full noise cancellation was actually more capable at drowning out voices than I was expecting (namely my two-year-old daughter whose voice is fairly sing-song and high-pitched). Aware mode allowed me to hear her, but her voice was mechanical and artificial sounding. The noise that "aware" mode allows through is sufficient to keep you aware of your surroundings, but the sound it does allow through is strange and unfamiliar. Still, "aware" mode is a better choice than turning noise cancellation off because the muddy lows are not present.
For what it's worth, I'm quite happy so far with these headphones. I've only had them for three days (Best Buy stocked them early by mistake), so if my opinion changes I will be back to edit this post.
on August 6, 2013
Taking the Bose MIE2i, the most comfortable and best sounding earbuds for extended use (8+ hours daily in my experience), and adapting noise cancellation to them has left me so impressed with the QC20i earbuds that the high price tag actually seems pretty fair IF having noise cancellation built into an earbud is an absolute necessity for you. However, there are some drawbacks to the QC20i earbuds, which, after several months of ownership, have left me reaching for my MIE2i earbuds more often than the QC20i set, with the rare exception being when the environment absolutely REQUIRES noise cancellation (skip to the end and read my 09/06/2013 edit for a summary of the QC20i vs MIE2i earbuds, or skip ahead to paragraph 7 for details regarding sound isolation and comfort of the newly redesigned tips on the QC20 earbuds).
I do have some insight in regard to the characteristics of the QC20i earbuds that hasn't been mentioned in other reviews yet, but first I'll touch on what everybody keeps bringing up. When comparing the sound output with the battery (i.e., noise cancelling) on and off, there is initially a difference in the color/tone that your ears will pick up. In short, these QC20i earbuds sound brighter (more high-end frequencies) with noise cancelling enabled and perhaps less bright, or for lack of a better term, "muddier" (more low/mid frequencies) with noise cancelling completely disabled (not talking about AWARE mode here at all). HOWEVER, it should be noted that your ears adapt extraordinarily fast to noise cancelling being enabled/disabled, and the intricate nuances of any genre of music are highlighted by the outstanding technology built into these Bose earbuds. What I'm saying is that the soundscape from low to high range is represented in a very clean and pleasurable way whether noise cancelling is on or off, but the initial difference in tonality when turning noise cancelling on or off could come across as off-putting or strange for a few seconds until your ears adjust and get lost in the music.
If compensating for the characteristics of these earbuds is something you might be interested in, I've found that the app for iPhone called "EQu" is quite effective and easy to use if you're nitpicky and prefer to balance out a hint of too much "brightness/muddiness" with a little EQ. With this app, you have much finer control than the built-in EQ settings for your iPod/iPhone, and you can access your iPhone music library directly from the app. I've been playing with EQu for a couple of days and find that you can subtly add a little brightness to an EQ and then save that as a preset, which you can then use when the sound cancelling on your QC20 earbuds is totally off. Or, I also have another preset that minutely decreases the higher frequencies (roughly 1kHz to 16kHz) to compensate for when sound cancelling is enabled. To sum up this whole EQ business, I find that while it's fun and interesting to adjust the EQ to enhance these earbuds, it's really not all that necessary. Your ears will adapt to the slight difference in tonality with sound cancelling on/off and you'll just appreciate the full frequency spectrum of the music playing within a minute of listening. For the bass junkies out there, these earbuds offer a very clear and full sense of low end/bass without being pushy. The built-in lows and highs of these earbuds are just very pleasant overall and can adapt to any style of music you choose to listen to. I found that to also be true of the MIE2i earbuds that I have owned for years (that do not have noise cancelling at all). So, these do have "bass," but it's not overpowering. It's just.. there where you need it.
When I first tried the QC20 earbuds on in the store with a LOT of background noise, my jaw hit the floor. I've been using the QC2 and QC15 totally-over-the-ear headphones for a long time and thought I was accustomed to the degree of noise cancelling that Bose was able to achieve, but something about this technology being in an EARBUD completely took me by surprise.
Now, what I've been building up to here and the point I want drive home is that these excel in the cancellation of low-roar type sounds like you'd find in an airplane, riding in a car, or even ambient city background noises. The level of cancellation of "low-roar" type sounds such as these is quite astounding. Furthermore, an impressive amount of other high-pitched sounds like the human voice are also filtered out to an extent, although I wouldn't by any means consider this their forte. So, with all of this in mind, the fact that these work wonders on cancelling most types of annoying sounds around you does not translate into an EVEN QUIETER silence. What I mean is that these are not "silence enhancing" earbuds that make quiet places even quieter, as I naively thought might be the case. Nope. These do a great job cancelling outside noises and quieting outside noises for you to focus on music/spoken word in your earbuds, but they DO NOT make quiet rooms even quieter or make music sound better in quiet rooms. I've found that in these situations, I typically just leave noise cancelling off and enjoy music that way, which has the added benefit of prolonging the battery life anyway.
So overall, in many respects these QC20i earbuds are an excellent upgrade to an already high-end earbud (the MIE2i). However, after owning them for a month, I find myself frequently grabbing my MIE2i earbuds unless I really NEED noise cancellation. Some notable drawbacks of the QC20i earbuds such as the battery/controller unit getting in the way, the thicker/bulkier cord, the redesigned and slightly less comfortable earbud tip, and the different placement of the mic/button controls aren't TERRIBLY bothersome and are worth putting up with for the outstanding noise cancellation they provide, but when it comes down it, the MIE2i earbuds win out as a more effective practical earbud for daily use. If you're new to Bose earbuds and aren't sure whether the MIE2 or QC20 is for you, I would recommend spending the extra cash on the QC20 earbuds ONLY if noise cancelling is of extreme importance to you. The classic MIE2i earbuds are simply easier to wear and provide great sound quality for use in any environment. I've owned the MIE2i earbuds for years and have now owned the QC20i earbuds for a number of months. As irreplaceable as the QC20i earbuds are when it comes to blocking out unwanted sound, I find myself using my classic MIE2i earbuds for most all situations because of the reasons listed above. They're just fundamentally EASIER to deal with in every way.
With regard to the rubber earbud tip, the rubber tips of the QC20 are slightly updated and different than the MIE2 and SIE2, although they still follow the general rule of thumb with all Bose earbuds in that they rest in the bowl of your ear for the most part and don't get stuffed deep into your ear canal like other earbuds. I find myself liking the QC20 earbud tip overall because it's *fairly* comfortable and has a very good seal between your eardrum and the outside world, but I also really like the old fashioned style Bose earbud tip that doesn't have a little winglet (you can still find these online or order them from Bose). This old style (and this also applies to the newer StayHear tips with the little winglet for the IE2/MIE2/SIE2) applies noticeably less pressure on the inside of the ear. This results in some more ambient noise from the outside world, but it's also MUCH easier to forget they're in your ears after several hours because this design/shape creates less of a tight seal from the outside world than the QC20 tips. They're also better for using the built-in mic on the headset because the QC20 tips block out so much sound that it sounds funny to hear the person on the other end of the phone perfectly clear and then your own voice in your head REALLY muffled (put the palm of each hand over both ears simultaneously and begin talking aloud to simulate this). I wasn't expecting this to be an issue until I made my first phone call and it turned out to be very distracting to me (taking one earbud out remedies this somewhat). However, call quality using the QC20 earbuds is very clear and the person on the other end seemed to hear me without a problem. This muffled sound in your head during phone calls isn't an issue at all with the older style MIE2i/SIE2 tips because they don't create the same tight seal that the QC20 earbud tips do. I actually still use this old version of earbud tip on my MIE2i earbuds when I don't need sound cancelling and prefer a relaxed, comfortable fit for many hours without a break. The QC20 tip provides more isolation from outside noises, but a side effect of this is a feeling of minimal discomfort/pressure over extended use of 1+ hours. With my old fashioned (non-StayHear) tips without the winglet (and probably even the newer StayHear tips w/ the winglet that come on the IE2/MIE2/SIE2 earbuds), I can and have worn these for 8-12 hours a day on most days of the week without any ear canal fatigue or pressure whatsoever. I wouldn't recommend attempting this with the QC20 tips. You probably won't make it that long without taking them out every once in a while for a short break, which has been working for me. I let my ears rest with the QC20 tips out of my ears for about 5-10 minutes, and then I can put them back in and make it another hour or so without feeling discomfort/pressure in the ears. Luckily, all earbud tips made for Bose earbuds can be interchanged with any and all different Bose earbuds, so you have some options when it comes to size and style, although like I said, all of them do, more or less, rest in the bowl of your ear as opposed to relying on getting shoved deep in there to stay put. Even the less comfortable QC20 earbuds can be pulled out of your ear a tad bit if you want to relieve some pressure, and then pushed in a little farther when you want to focus on music. So to wrap this up, for less noise isolation and vastly more comfort, go with the IE2/MIE2/SIE2 earbud tip (and I prefer the really old style w/o the winglet personally). For less comfort over extended use but considerable more noise isolation, go with the QC20 style earbud tip. I'm tempted to knock off a star because a set of earbuds should honestly be comfortable for any duration, be it 1 hour or 12 hours, but because the tips are interchangeable and this issue can be remedied cheaply and easily with a purchase of the older style tips, not to mention the QC20 earbuds are really intended to be noise cancelling earbuds that keep outside sounds to a minimum, I feel it apt to let this gripe slide and keep this rated as a 5-star product.
I'd like to point out quickly that the QC15 over-the-entire-ear headphones are great in general but have the tendency to make your ears/head really hot after any kind of extended use. They're pretty dang comfy, but after a while you still want to "get these dang headphones off of me!" With the MIE2i earbuds, I think I've made it clear that I could wear these for a year straight and still be in complete ear comfort bliss. So if the debate is between choosing one of two Bose *noise cancelling* products, the QC15 headphones or QC20 earbuds, as much as I LOVE the compactness of earbuds, I would have to lean toward recommending the QC15 headphones in lieu of the QC20 earbuds for anyone who needs really extended-use noise cancellation. If, however, you buy a set of old style Bose earbud tips to put on your QC20 earbuds when you don't need sound isolation and strong noise cancelling, then I reassign the winner of this competition to the QC20 earbuds because I highly prefer earbuds to headphones 99% of the time due to the fact that earbuds are just much easier to be mobile with and look much less conspicuous when walking around with them in, but for ALL DAY use, the QC20 earbud tips just aren't going to be as comfortable as the QC15 headphones.
When it comes to the Bose SIE2/SIE2i sport earbuds, as much of a Bose enthusiast as I am, I have to say that I didn't really care for them and returned them. The cord is very short and intended to be used only with the included armband. Sure, there's an included extension cord, but using that all the time is annoying. I would advise everyone to steer clear of those and just get the IE2/MIE2i earbuds if you're in the market for a non noise cancelling earbud with or without phone controls, whether you're going to be active or not. The MIE2i earbuds with the mic still hold up pretty well to some moisture and have a better location for the mic/button controls than the SIE2, along with the normal length cord. The QC20 earbuds, however, I wouldn't use for any kind of prolonged exercise that is more vigorous than mowing the lawn because there's just too much tech in them, which I assume wouldn't hold up well to excessive moisture. The IE2, with no mic or button controls, would be the ideal workout earbud in my opinion because there isn't a place for moisture to leak in and cause problems, you still get excellent comfort/sound quality, they'll stay put in your ear during activity, and the cord is a normal length - not to mention they're the cheapest Bose earbud on the market.
Another thing worth mentioning is the outstanding warranty offered on all Bose products. I have worn out my MIE2i earbuds several times because I had used them literally all-day, every day, in addition to working out and exposing them to sweat/moisture frequently. As a result of this, one of the control buttons stopped working. This happened more than one time to me a little before the 1-year warranty expired, so I was given the option of replacing them for free through the mail and just paying $8 shipping or going down to a Bose store and swapping them out for a new pair for free. This was a very easy process every time. I'm glad they wore out within the year (if they were going to at all)! If your earbuds/headphones happen to wear out or break AFTER the 1-year warranty, you can still bring those in or send them to Bose and pay half-price for a new replacement pair, which is better than nothing. I can hear all the naysayers out there thinking a set of earbuds should last forever under any circumstance (I mean, especially for this high price, right??!), but with heavy use every single day and with frequent exposure of the mic/control buttons to sweat/moisture/tension, it's unrealistic to think the buttons won't eventually malfunction, or for the cord to show some wear at its connecting points to the 3.5 mm jack and the earbuds themselves. The MIE2i earbuds can take A LOT of abuse and will serve you well for a lifetime if used for regular mild activities that do not include working out, but keep in mind they aren't completely "indestructible." If really used to the max for working out on a regular basis, there's a fair chance that they will eventually defect at some point and not last forever. However, I find the level of durability of the MIE2i earbuds more than acceptable for everyday use and they are officially my favorite multipurpose earbuds of all time (I've owned them for about 4-5 years). The QC20i earbuds are great too and overall do seem highly durable with their somewhat thicker gauge cord that feels very sturdy, although they have been handled with relative care since the day I brought them home, and I obviously will never work out in them. I expect the QC20i earbuds to last a very long time because the build quality really feels quite solid.
To conclude: as much as I like the QC20i earbuds, they aren't quite as "multipurpose" as I would like with the battery control unit always being ever so slightly in the way, the thicker gauge cord giving them a hard to describe "heavier" or "bulkier" feel, and the earbud tips not being entirely comfortable for all-day use. The MIE2i earbuds will remain as my "go-to" earbud for most purposes, but the QC20i is an absolute godsend for blocking outside noises. I've spent some time wearing the QC20i earbuds with noise cancelling enabled while riding in the car and I was in absolute relaxation HEAVEN. You have to try it firsthand to know what I mean. Also, even simple things like listening to a podcast while you flush the toilet and wash your hands proves no match for the sound isolation and noise cancellation of the QC20i earbuds, which allow me to hear spoken word through all of that nonsense going on, whereas spoken word is totally lost in my MIE2i earbuds when I give the toilet a flush and then wash my hands. This may seem like a strange example, but when you spend a great deal of time listening to spoken word through earbuds and find yourself visiting the loo often, it's wonderful to have spoken word entertainment like a podcast or audiobook be uninterrupted by these day-to-day background noises.
EDIT (08/20/2013): I'm impressed with the QC20i battery life. After two weeks of ownership, I'm still riding the initial 2-hour full charge that is recommended upon first opening the package. Noise cancelling has been getting enabled roughly 30 minutes to an hour each day. The light on the control unit hasn't even started blinking to indicate it needs to be recharged soon. Nice.
EDIT (08/21/2013): The light finally started blinking tonight, indicating 3 hours or less of battery life left. Time to recharge.
EDIT (09/06/2013): My summarized thoughts on the QC20i vs MIE2i earbuds after one month of use (copied from paragraph 6): In many respects, these QC20i earbuds are an excellent upgrade to an already high-end earbud (the MIE2i). However, after owning them for a month, I find myself frequently grabbing my MIE2i earbuds unless I really NEED noise cancellation. Some notable drawbacks of the QC20i earbuds such as the battery/controller unit getting in the way, the thicker/bulkier cord, the redesigned and slightly less comfortable earbud tip, and the different placement of the mic/button controls aren't TERRIBLY bothersome and are worth putting up with for the outstanding noise cancellation they provide, but when it comes down it, the MIE2i earbuds win out as a more effective practical earbud for daily use. If you're new to Bose earbuds and aren't sure whether the MIE2 or QC20 is for you, I would recommend spending the extra cash on the QC20 earbuds ONLY if noise cancelling is of extreme importance to you. The classic MIE2i earbuds are simply easier to wear and provide great sound quality for use in any environment. I've owned the MIE2i earbuds for years and have now owned the QC20i earbuds for over a month. As irreplaceable as the QC20i earbuds are when it comes to blocking out unwanted sound, I find myself using my classic MIE2i earbuds for most all situations because of the reasons listed above. They're just fundamentally EASIER to deal with in every way.
on June 24, 2015
A student's best friend!
I have trouble focusing occasionally, and in noisy environments, my productivity stops. These headphone help me remain emerged into my own thoughts and allow me to remain concentrated in literally, obnoxious and noisy, social environments. If you have not experienced Bose headphones before, you will like how they sound; the sound profile is not ridiculous, it is very conservative and it just works. Its like a nice German sports sedan. They just sound good. I mean, good enough to not need a different pair of headphones, however, they *could* sound better (but I am just being picky and I still love them). I even like to wear them without listening to music but I just keep them plugged into my phone or laptop because otherwise I might look weird.
The auditory sensation I experience when I first turn them on is, WOW! Each and every time, its like a surge that runs through me. Seriously, stand in a noisy room and put these things on; be amazed. I am continuously blown away by the noise cancelation and I feel snobbish wearing them because I know what an awesome experience I am having that the people around me are not :D. If you have not experienced Bose noise cancellation before, nothing compares to the sensation these earbuds provide. Earplugs are no match for these either.
One thing is certain, they are a little large for earbuds and they tend to poke out a bit. But, they are ridiculously comfortable. I am talking like hours of use with no discomfort. And the seal they create in the ear canal is spot on.
Lastly, the price. Yes, they are expensive and yes, I am a broke student. But, the way I look at it, they do benefit my life by boosting my productivity in certain environments that would not be attainable for me in any other way. Remember, you are paying a premium for the best noise cancellation technology in the business!