A Traveler's Sanctuary: The Bose Quiet Comfort 20 Noise Canceling Earphone

I don't like noise canceling headphones.
I have a deep dislike for noise canceling headphones. Generally they sound bad, and many don't cancel noise very well. But "Noise Canceling" has become a big buzzword, so much so that many people want it without even knowing what it is (I explain it here), which just drives the market up for crappy noise cancelers. I hate it when stuff like that happens.

Bose can take the blame—and the credit—for that. They marketed the heck out of noise canceling and sold the public on the idea. Bose and noise canceling are pretty close to synonymous for consumers. The problem I have with it all is that most people just don't need noise canceling headphones in the first place. In-ear and traditional around-ear sealed headphone are fine for most people most of the time...but they know the buzzword, so they think they need one. Ergh.

On the other hand, when you do need a noise canceling headphone (mainly on planes and trains, and when you don't want to use in-ear headphones), Bose does seem to do it better than everyone else...well, the noise canceling anyway. And it is the noise canceling bit that's important in these cases. In very loud environments, audiophile-quality reproduction really isn't appreciable with all the background noise, even if you can reduce it significantly. Given the state-of-the-art today, if you can get >20dB isolation and decent mid-fi quality sound from a noise canceler, you're doing well...and in my view, Bose is the only one managing to pull it off at all. The Bose Quiet Comfort 15 faired best in my review of noise canceling headphones last year, and nothing has come through my hands to change that opinion, until...

Bose QuietComfort 20 Noise Canceling Earphones ($299)
Every time I put the QC20 in my ears, I can't help but think a whole heck of a lot of R&D went into these earphones; they do things that I didn't think could be done. Let me start from the beginning.

The Bose QuietComfort 20 is an in-ear, active noise canceling earphone. Calling them an "in-ear" earphone is a bit of a misnomer as they don't actually seal inside the ear canal, but rather rest against the opening---sort of like your finger tips when plugging your ears, but softer and with lighter pressure. If you've spent any time with a normal in-ear headphone you'll know that getting a good seal is critical to getting good bass response. I'll be damned if I know how Bose got the QC20 to have any bass response at all as they simply don't seem to seal well enough, but they did...more on this later.

Earpieces are separately wired and join the main cable at the remote control. Two versions of the QC20 are available: one has an three-button Apple compatible remote (QC20i); the other has a single-button Android/Backberry/Windows smartphone remote (QC20). Both remotes include a button to engage the "Aware Mode", which significantly reduces the noise canceling and opens a microphone to let you hear outside sounds. Between the remote and control module is a 33"long, gray and black, barber-shop-pole-stripped cable, 0.1" (2.6mm) in diameter. I mention the size of this cable as it's a tad larger than similar cables on IEMs, but it's pretty compact considering how many conductors must be inside. I'm speculating a bit here, but I reckon each ear-piece has two microphones (one external and one in the bore of the earpiece) and one driver, and the Apple remote has a mic, three player control buttons, and the Aware mode button. Assuming they all share a common ground, that's a total of 11 signal carrying conductors and at least one ground; so the cable from the remote to the control module is at least 12 conductors. I'd say the cable is pretty svelte and flexible given the duties it's performing.

The control module is a fairly small, light unit measuring 3.5"x1.25"x0.28", which contains all the electronics and lithium-ion battery. The battery is not replaceable; Bose claims it should retain its original capacity for 500 charge cycles and will operate for some time with reduced capacity thereafter. The control module includes: a switch to turn on the noise canceling electronics; LEDs to indicate charging, noise canceling, and Aware Mode operation; a Micro B USB jack for charging; and a 2" pig-tail input cable terminated in a 90 degree angle, 3.5mm, TRRS plug.

Also included with the Bose QuietComfort 20 are: small, medium, and large StayHear+ tips; a shirt clip; a short USB charging cable; and a small (5"x2.75") padded carry pouch.

Comfort and Ergonomics
Bose_QC20_Photo_InEarThe Bose QuietComfort 20 "StayHear+" ear-tips are spectacularly comfortable and were very easy for me to wear for extended periods of time while traveling. They gently rest up against the entrance to your ear canal, and the "wings" slip into the upper part of the bowl of your ear (cymba concha) for a secure fit. These ear-tips have a unique mating with the ear-piece, sliding over a nozzle and clicking into a small barbed detent to secure the tip onto the housing. Comply and other after market tips will not fit on the QC20. The fit and comfort of these tips in my ears gets an A+ from me; Bose engineers did a great job with this critical physical interface.

I reviewed the one-button Android remote version of the QC20 and found the remote well positioned on the cable, and reaching and actuating controls was convenient and comfortable.

The control module at the end of the cable was a bit troublesome...though I think, given he amount of electronic circuitry and battery it contains, it's a very reasonable solution to the problem—it's got to go somewhere. I simply let it dangle for a while as I first started to use the QC20 and it wasn't too terribly bothersome. Eventually I rummaged through a drawer to find some 3M Command Strips (3M# 17201BLK, available at most stationary and hardware stores) and attached the control module to the back of my Otterbox Defender case wrapped Galaxy S3 phone. This worked reasonable well and I could still easily slip it into my pocket. However, the cable did get in the way of the camera sensors; I ended up positioning the cable between the lens and flash LED, which did create a shadow with flash photos—I never use my phone in that way, but others no doubt will.

With the control module in the palm of my hand, I wrap the cable around my four fingers until reaching the ear-pieces and then slip it into it's case when it's time to tuck it away. I found the included case very convenient and easy to carry in a shirt pocked or briefcase.

Now, let's get on to the important bits, isolation and sound quality...

Bose Corporation
The Mountain
Framingham, MA 01701

Jazz1's picture

I'm tempted by these. Most every coffee shop and sandwich shop I frequent for lunch has music blaring or the flat screen cranked. What good are high end headphones if outside noise overrides your own higher end headphones?  

Jazz Casual's picture

Nice to see a Bose phone receiving bouquets rather than brickbats for a change.

Jazz1's picture

Agreed. Bose usually gets no love from heaphone sites. But, if they are okay with Tyll I figure they are worth a try. So I ordered them. With 30 day return option I guess what do I have to lose, other than background noisesmiley.

The only thing that worries me is the small brick of a power supply that seems so closely tethered to the jack of the iPhone 5s I plan to use. I guess I'll go the velcro route if I decide to keep them.

Argyris's picture

It's nice to see Bose stepping up with the audio quality on their products, especially since that's been the focus of their advertising since forever. Of course they're, oh, about 40 years late on that, but better late than never, I suppose.

I wonder if we can attribute this improvement to pressure from savvy enthusiasts like us (doubtful), or else a general improvement in the sound of headphones across the board against which the company needs to compete (more likely).

I will say this much for Bose. I once tried the QC15 in one of those Best Buy trial kiosk things. The noise cancelling was truly impressive, even if the sound, while not the worst thing I've ever heard, wasn't anything special. If the QC20 improves upon both, then I'd have to say it's potentially a genuinely good product (the more cynical among us perhaps saying that this brings Bose's count for such things up to two devil).

Jazz1's picture

The UPS man just left the Bose on my doorstep about 30 minutes ago. I'd upload a picture (using the selfie mirror trick) of it piggybacked on my iPhone5s. But the power brick wire blocks the camera cheeky.  I'll have to play around with different mounting options. I've got a Lifeproof 5s Nuud case on the way. This might complicate matters. Or I may just use my old Speck case with some 3M tape. I also have a short Shure 9" extension that might help if I want got get really Rube Goldbergish.

Let me say right now that I've got my B&W MM1 desktop speakers blaring lounder than I would normally listen to them. I can't hear a thing coming out of the MM1 speakers. I can feel my desk vibrating, from the speakers, under my hands as I type this This is amazing! I can't hear my typing on the chiclet keyboard.

None of my family is around so I can't test it with real humans speaking. I guess I could get my dog to bark later and see how that goes.

I'm not fond of the sound thump when you put the headphones in the "Aware Mode". Lowering the volume might help, before going into the "Aware Mode", but that two step process pretty much insures you'd miss part of the conversation or announcement. I really have high hopes for these headphones when I fly next.

Comfort is very, very, good!!! Yes it merits three exclaimations. My ears are physically sensitive. Most earbuds are uncomfortable for me. My Ety 4s IEM, sound much better than the Bose, but they are painful for me to use. I also have to lug around a Headroom Headphone Total BitHead with the Etys.

Frankly, the QC20i  is a compromise in sound against my Ets, B&W P5 & P7 headphones. I'm listening to "Congo Square" from Sonny Landreth's Grant Street CD and the drums sound great, as does the guitar. But if I were in a quiet room I'd probably have one of the aforementioned headphones on. But that is the point isn't it? The Bose 20i handily solves the background sound issue. It is, as they say, the right tool for the right job. I'm wondering if I dare hook these up to my desktop rig.

But that compromise in sound seems like it will be extremely worthwhile when flying, or when I'm trying to get a little peace and quiet (so I can listen to my music). The din at my local coffee shops and sandwich shops is horrendous. I love my barristas and sandwich jokeys, but they love to impose their music. Then there is also the wall mounted T.V. blaring along with the speaker music  near my favorite table at Planet Sub (that's the Drake neighborhood for you Bulldogs)

Just think what it going to be like on your next flight when they start allowing people to make mobile phone calls in flightangry. And of course the screaming child in the next row over is going to make the $300.00 for these headphones sound like a bargain.

Whether these are keepers or not only time will tell (30 day return window). My only nitpicks are that the manual and safety manual come folded like a crazy paper road map made for Hobbits. The other gripe is that for $300.00 I would expect an in-wall charging wall wart. Yes you can buy one, but I think it should be included. The included case if nice though.

So when my spouse complains about the price I'm going to tell her I'll be motivated to use the vaccum cleaner. As you know normal earbuds and most headphones don't mix with vaccum cleaners.

Thanks Tyll for having the guts to point out that this Bose is worth it for those of us that deal with noisy environments. I'm going into the holidays with a very useful pair of headphones!



Tyll Hertsens's picture

Glad you're enjoying them.  Let us know how well they work in the coffee shop. Sorry about your wallet. :)

andyj34's picture


How do the BOSE earphones in your esteemed opinion compare against Shure earphones? 

I presently own a Shure SE535 earphones and I'm planning to buy myself a Shure SE315 for day-to-day commuting. I find once the Shure earphones are properly inserted the noise isolation is awesome. However, that's the problem ... getting a good seal I find to be problematic/fiddly.

Would I better off getting a BOSE?


Jazz1's picture

I've not had a chance to try these in the air, or in a car (when I'm a passenger). However, I've also have to make a correction in my original comments. The "thump" only happens when powering them off. I should have read the manual, as the "aware" mode is on the remote. There is no "thump" while operating the headphones in and out of the "aware" mode. So I finally got the benefit of the "aware" mode. It works, but I still have to lower the sound level. This is not hard to do with the in-line remote.

These headphones are so good at blocking out sound my co-workers thought I was yanking their chain when I was ignoring them while they were attempting to  talk to me. I had previously warned them that the these noise reduction headphones were going to block them out. Luckily most of the year I have a private officesmiley.

With no music on, I can hear them speaking, but they sound like they are very, very far away. With music on their voices do not intrude into the music. These headphones came in handy as I spent two weeks in a common area with a lot of conversations going on.

I've also been using them in coffee shops, and sandwich shops and I have found the noise isolation they give well worth the price of these headphones. I've also found them handy around the house when my family wants to watch reality t.v. shows and I need to be in the same room. 

I suppose these are headphones best suited for travelers, or "anti-social" peoplecheeky The sound quality is a compromise if your used to high end equipment. But I don't regret buying them. 

Happy Holidays everyone!

CPT KILO's picture

I'm so greatful for your review on these ear buds Tyll. Being on the pricier side for such tiny ear buds, I held off on the purchase of the Bose QC 20 for many months. I speculated that they would meet my traveling needs but I was dissatisfied with other active noise canceling (NC) cans. Due to my previous experiences with active noise canceling cans, I was skeptical that active NC cans would be of good quality in terms of NC, sound quality (SQ) and build quality. However, due to your review, I took the leap of faith and acquired these buds. I appreciate your reviews on other headphones and obtained a few entry level cans such as the Koss KSC 75, Sennheiser PX 100ii and the Monoprice 8323. The entry level cans I mentioned previously are awesome and each set of cans fit a particular situation very well. However, I needed a set of cans for travel that blocked extremely noisy environments, were portable and had adequate SQ. The Bose QC 20 meet this nitch with ease. I second your recommendation for the Bose QC 20 ear buds and have used them extensively for several months. I love using them in situations where a sense of isolation from outside noise is required ie coffee shops, airplane flights, driving in vehicles and other noisy applications. The QC 20 is a true sanctuary. Thank you again Tyll.

funkypiano's picture


No need to again sing praises. We all know these are excellent for noise cancelling on long hauls, sound quality between very good to excellent when NC turned on. Sound quality OK when NC turned off.

The main question, what is the best way you guys have discovered/invented for carrying these with iPad while traveling on subways/underground/tube ?

I have the iPad Mini (retina) which I use for reading and music while commuting to/from work. Modes of transport include walking,underground and overground trains.

The iPad easily goes in and out of my jacket pocket. But with these connected, I can't see them going in and out of jacket/coat pockets without getting damaged.

What do you people recommend ?

Should I velcro them semi-permanent to the back of iPad and hope for a comfortably late onset of damage and expect to get a cheap/free replacement from Bose ?


Tyll Hertsens's picture
"Eventually I rummaged through a drawer to find some 3M Command Strips (3M# 17201BLK, available at most stationary and hardware stores) and attached the control module to the back of my Otterbox Defender case wrapped Galaxy S3 phone."
funkypiano's picture

Hi Tyll,
Thanks for pointing that out :)

Also, would you consider/recommend using something like Sony SBH20 to "loosely couple" the QC20 to iPad ?


funkypiano's picture


I actually tried a Nokia BH-121 Bluetooth unit paired with both Lumia 920 and iPad.

The sound quality is no worse then QC20 plugged in directly to the device.

The convenience is that I no longer worry about damaging the QC20 due to the free floating battery unit on them. They just stay in one of my pockets. I either have convenient access to the Phone, iPad OR the Blutooth Unit controls itself.

Just my £0.60 in case it helps :)


mark's picture


Thanks a lot for the great review.

I easily get pain and inflammation in my ear canals and as a result can't use in-ear monitors normally. So I use either on/around ear phones or earbuds. The problem is when traveling I prefer to not have large on/around phones, but earbuds let way too much noise in. So, I am considering either custom in-ear monitors, or the QC20.

Does anyone have an opinion/guess on which would be less irritating for the ear canal between the QC20 or custom fitted in-ear monitors?


Tyll Hertsens's picture
I'd say the QC20 would be the thing to try. The tips really don't go in your ears, but rather rest up against them. Quite comfortable actually. CIEMs will be somewhat like regular IEMs.
q's picture


Have you had a chance to try the Harmon Kardon noise cancellers? I hear they aren't too bad.



adasam's picture

Hi, what size command strips did you get? I cannot see the dimensions anywhere on 3M website and they sell 3 different sizes...

Thanks a lot !

ahaywood's picture

How is the sound quality compared to the Parrot Zik?

For that matter, sound quality is by far the most important quality, with ability to cancel sound when on the train, or in the office being a distant second, anything else other than one of these two that would do that well?


CHPrice's picture

I live in NYC and ride the subway every day. I currently have a pair of Shure SE215. They are great but everyone has been raving about the QC15 and QC20 so much I thought I would give them a try. I thought they were both terrible. Neither of them provided the isolation that I had hoped. In fact, they were nowhere close to as good as the memory foam ear tips I use on my Shure. When you first turn on the noise cancelation, it seems like this sudden amazing hush. It did a great job of quieting the sound of the air conditioning on the train. But I had to crank the volume all the way to the top to be able to hear over the general talking on the subway, including the announcer at every station. On the platform, there was nothing I could do. I simply had to stop my recording and wait to get on the train. I could not hear anything over the noise of the trains pulling in and out of the station. Or babies crying. I am primarily listening to podcasts of people talking. I found with both the earbud and over ear versions, the environmental noise made it hard to understand the dialogue. I am now considering CIEM versions in the hope that I can finally get some true isolation.

benjdbs's picture

Like Jimmy01, I'd also like to match the qc20 w/ the 391s. I currently use this pair (the 391s) since nov. 2013. Most reviews over the 'net were pretty much accurate including occasional sibilance (not all the time, source dependence...). Its strongest point is in the percussion, very fast, agile and if there's bass, it'll play. Concerning the NC from the 391s, they're weak compared to the '20s, so they say. My priority has always been sound quality, then the noise canceling comes next. I will be upgrading very soon. I do hope Bose can match up, SQ wise. We hope you could give us your feedback. Thanks, [Source: HTC 1x+, Asus JV550 16gb, File types, FLAC,WAV,CD, SACD, Bluray, HD tracks]

PierPaoloG's picture

Hi Tyll, most reviewers say that the Noise Canceling properties of the QC25 is better than the Qc20i ones. I have tested them in a bose store and I think that the QC20i is WAY more effective. Maybe that reviewers have not perfectly chose the ear tips....May you please clarify your opinion?
Thank You

JamesFreedman's picture

I was all set to buy one of these until I found out you can not replace the battery! You kind of glossed over this in your article, but I think it is a big deal we should all pay attention to.

Anybody who has worked with computers for awhile (laptops, UPS, etc) knows that "expected" battery life is far from actual. Sometime batteries wear out very quickly, other times they far exceed expectations.

Sorry, but hanging a $300 set of headphones on a $20 battery...nope! Bose shouldn't have cheaped out on this point.

Rawan's picture

Thanks for the review! I'm wondering; would these work on continuous power, i.e., when plugged in to a battery pack for example? The comment submitted by JamesFreedman mirrors my exact concern; these are $300 earphones, and sooner or later, batteries do get to a point where they no longer hold a charge. Yes, these can be still be used without NC, but it beats the point of having them, especially that (in passive mode) there are much better sounding earphones for much less than $300.

So I'm thinking, when that happens, would they work if plugged into a battery pack? It's not ideal to have a battery pack dangling, but hey, it might be reassuring that when the lithium batteries do die, we could still use the NC as long as it's plugged into a power source. Doable you think?

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