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Bose Quiet Comfort 20 (Click the image to open a slideshow)Bose QC 20 ups the noise cancelling ante while downing its size

By Jim Bray
December 5, 2013

If you like Bose's original noise cancelling headphones, you may like the company's new model even more. That's because they not only work better than the already-excellent QC 15 over-the-ear phones, they're also small enough to pack in your pocket.

Noise cancelling  headphones are a wonderful tool when you're travelling, and they can also come in handy in other applications - such as when the kids are asking for money. I've been using the QC 15's for a few years now and absolutely love them, but they are large and heavy, and the airlines I've flown won't let me use them until the plane's off the ground and the seatbelt light is off and they make you take them off again long before you're back on the ground. That limits their usefulness on a plane, though of course it doesn't affect your use of them other places.

My other complaint about the 15's was that you couldn't use them without the noise cancelling circuitry activated (you'd get no sound at all), which may not be a big deal but which rubbed me the wrong way when I wanted to use them in my home theater - whose noise is controlled and usually highly desirable (I like to crank the tunes and flicks!). But overall, the QC 15's are an excellent product, and I'd much rather live with the quibbles than not have the headphones.

Then Bose invited me to New York City when they introduced the brand new QC 20 noise cancelling ear bud-type phones. Their demo - at Grand Central terminal - really blew me away. We were ensconced in a large glass booth and issued a pair of QC 20's. Then they cranked up the outside noise – which at a major transportation terminal such as Grand Central was easy to do and substantial - letting us experience just how much noise these little things could cancel. And it was a real, well, "ear opener."

Bose even added their own noise to prove the point. Heck, they actually had the floor vibrating as if a train were about to burst into our demo room and run us over but, while I could feel the vibrations through my feet, the noise never seeped through to the listening experience. The music sounded great and with my eyes closed it was almost as if I were in my listening room at home except that we didn't have recliners.

Of course, the 20's aren't only about sound quality; they're also about convenience. And now that I've been using the QC 20's for a couple of months of real world experience, I'm so convinced of their quality that I've decided to put my mint condition QC 15's out to pasture and replace them with the 20's.

There are two tiny microphones in each earbud, one of which senses the sound outside while the other does the same for the sounds "inside" (the sounds of your brain rattling around inside your skull!) The info goes through a digital chip in a control module mounted on the cord, which Bose says calculates and emits an equal and opposite noise cancellation signal "within a fraction of a millisecond."

That control module is nice and small and it holds the switch to turn the noise cancelling on and off (and you can hear the tunes with them off now) and it also has a little USB slot for recharging the unit. This charging method is different from the QC15's, which use a AAA battery - so while you don't have to remember to bring along a charged battery, you do have to remember to charge the unit up before you embark on a long journey.

The manufacturer says the QC 20's battery is good for 16 hours, which should be plenty for most uses. I usually charge the things up before leaving the house, whether they need them or not, and I've never had them run out of juice on me. Famous last words, eh?

The sound quality is definitely there. Bose uses something called TriPort technology to increase "the effective acoustic space of the ear bud" and the result is an overall open and airy feel, nice and deep bass and very lifelike and clean vocals and musical instruments.

The QC 20's are quite comfortable, too, and they even come with three different sized "new proprietary StayHear+ ear tips" for ear sizes from youth to Dumbo. They also have little horn-like projections sticking up that actually help fit the buds into your ear better, making a better seal from outside interference. You won't forget you're wearing ear buds, and I noticed a bit of not-uncomfortable pressure when you fire up the noise cancelling, but I can wear them for hours on end without getting fatigued.

As I mentioned during my first impression piece on the QCs' introduction, about the only way they could make the 20's more comfortable and/or convenient would be to make them wireless (perhaps via Bluetooth?). That would be especially convenient because the wires from the microphone/Aware mode control unit to the buds themselves tend to get tangled.

That microphone/Aware mode control unit, is a really nice touch that not only lets you answer your smart phone without having to remove the buds, it also activates the fantastic new "Aware mode" feature.

Aware mode lets you hear just enough of the outside world to listen to your spouse or avoid getting run over by a subway train, yet it doesn't shut off the noise cancelling completely. The result is a very nice compromise that could save your life if you're wandering around outside with the QC 20's on. I've also noted that Aware mode comes in really handy in noisy places where you might have trouble hearing people speaking to you.

I've tried it a few times in saloons, where the QC's remove most of the low frequency rumble from air conditioners and other equipment, but lets me converse with the server (or whomever) while wearing them. It's a great compromise and it works well.

A caveat, and this isn't Bose' fault (I noticed it with another product I reviewed a while back as well), is that, since the people with whom you're interacting see you wearing buds, it can give them the impression that you aren't paying attention to them. So perhaps the feature's best used for quick interactions and if you're going to have a real conversation it may be best to bite the bullet and doff the buds for the duration. It's a shame, really, because I have trouble hearing conversations in noisy places and the QC's are a real help.

I've also discovered that the QC 20's are ideal for when I do phone interviews via Skype. I use a broadcast quality microphone into which I've traditionally plugged some high quality over the ear phones, but once I tried the 1.5 ounce QC 20's I haven't gone back to the big beasties. The QC's are more comfortable and of course the noise cancelling also comes in very handy.

About the only thing I'd change (besides making them truly wireless, which might be difficult) is to put the control unit a bit farther down the cord. As it sits, it's about two inches from the plug and while that works okay, it can be a tad in the way. Perhaps if it were a few inches farther along the cord the product would be even more flexible. That's really a major picking of nits, though; I'd rather have the QC's as they are than not have them!

The QC 20's are available in two models: the QC 20, which works with most Android, Windows and BlackBerry phones, and the QC 20i for Appleholics.

I've used other noise cancelling ear buds, but these new Bose QC 20's are a real breakthrough. Not only do they sound great, they do an excellent job of noise cancellation - and the extra convenience of their diminutive size, smart phone compatibility and "Aware mode," make them an even more compelling product. I have a feeling they're going to sell extremely well. They certainly deserve to.

The Bose Quiet Comfort 20 noise cancelling ear buds retail for $329.95 Canadian, which definitely isn't chicken feed. That said, however, I don't think they're overpriced considering how well they work. In other words, they're typical Bose.

Copyright 2013 Jim Bray

Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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