Reviewing The New Bose QC 20i Noise-Cancelling Headphones: My New Go-To Headphones

The title somewhat gives away my conclusion, but I’m okay with that.  If you only read the first paragraph and and carry away one thing, it’s that these headphones have quickly become my favorite pair of headphones, replacing two separate ones I carried on every trip.  They’re pricey (at $300) but they deliver enough value to justify that price.  Before I get too far ahead of myself, here’s a history of what I’ve owned, sort of a who’s who of the best Bose has had to offer over the years in headphones.

Bose came out with their first set of consumer headphones about 13 years ago.  I’m making a bit of a guess but I think I bought my first pair of Bose headphones a year or two after they came out.  That’s based on what the Bose store manager said when I brought those same headphones into the store about 2 years ago.  He had dated them at about 10 years old and said he hadn’t seen a pair that old in quite some time.  It took about that long and they finally snapped one day.  Bose offered to replace them for a nominal fee of $75.  While this isn’t the exact picture of what I had, this is essentially the same “over-the-ear” style, the new model is the QC15.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

They also offered to let me replace them with the newer QC3 headphones they had come out with.  The QC3 is an “on-the-ear” style.  It’s lighter than the existing QC15s.  They’re also a lot easier to sleep with on a long flight.  The problem with the over-the-ear fit is that it’s very uncomfortable to wear when laying on your side, a typical position in a lie-flat seat.

It’s easier to slide the QC3 to the side, but that obviously reduces the noise canceling capability in one ear to nil.  They’re $50 more than the QC15s at $350 total and to me they were certainly worth the extra cash.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

When I heard that Bose was coming out with an in-ear version of their noise canceling headphones, I was pretty excited.  I’ve been using their regular in-ear headphones for quite a while, both for exercise and when the battery died on my bluetooth headset.  The sound quality was always very good, better than any other earbuds I’d owned.  There are two version of the new noise canceling earbuds.  Since I have an iPhone I chose the QC20i, since it has an inline button to control some basic functions like volume, rewind, fast forward, play and pause without having to pull out your phone.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

Inside the box were the headphones, a USB adapter for charging (these charge with a micro-USB plug so you may already carry this charger around for other electronics) a carrying case and some alternate size earbuds.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

In comparison, the size of the noise-canceling earbuds is almost the same as the regular version of Bose earbuds that I’ve used for years. I couldn’t sense any perceivable difference in weight, either.  The rubber part that sits in your ear is different on these, though.  As you can see from the second picture below, the rubber “folds over” to provide a better seal in your ear as compared to the regular earbuds or even the bluetooth headset.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

 

From a storage standpoint, there’s no question these free up a ton of space in my backpack.  The standard Bose headphone case is big. It’s something I’ve dealt with over the years for superior sound quality, but there’s no doubt it’s a space hog in any bag.  The case for the earbuds is literally less than 1/10th the size.  The Bose website lists the on-the-ear headphones at 5 oz.  With the case I’m guessing that’s 1.5 to 2 when you fold in any adapters as well as a spare battery and charger.

Noise-Cancelling Headphones

 

 

So, how did they perform?  I really loved these headphones.  There were pros and cons, although almost everything was a pro versus a con.  First, how I tested them:

  • Lying on my side in bed
  • On 4 regional jet flights, as small as an ERJ-145
  • On multiple A319, A320 and 737 flights
  • To Europe and back on the 777-300ER, sleeping in a lie-flat seat
  • Walking around airports, downtown in Denver and Oslo

Unequivocally, I found great sound quality in every one of these settings.  I never experienced any pain wearing the headphones even for long periods of time.  I slept the entire flight from JFK to London and my ears felt fine when I was done.  That’s considerably better than I ever felt with the QC15 and reasonably better than the QC3 with the addition of no loss of the noise-canceling quality due to rearranging the headphones to feel comfortable.

I wore these headphones during descent on each of over a dozen flights on the different aircraft listed above.  I did notice slightly more pressure in my eardrums such that I needed to pinch my nose and clear my ears a few times.  There wasn’t pain, but there was a small amount more pressure than there would be if I wore nothing during descent.  I never wore my QC3s upon descent but I did wear my QC15s a number of times and always experienced headaches when doing so.  I’d label this a small con for the QC20i, but only when compared to wearing nothing at all.  It’s still as good or better than any other headphone for ear pressure that I’ve worn.

I had a friend of mine complain about the battery life of his headphones.  The website lists a charge time of up to 16 hours.  I tested mine a number of different ways.  On both flights to and from Europe and the ensuing connecting flights, I did not charge the battery and ran the headphones the entire time in noise canceling mode.  I never even got the battery light to flash that it was running low, both times over 10 hours.  So, I tried harder to kill the battery.  I was successful in killing the battery 3 times.  In all 3 cases I was on a flight of at least 3 hours (once as long as 5 hours) and then wore them through the airport before and after.  I finally had to take the headphones off to have meetings in one situation but left the music playing and noise canceling switched on.  The battery finally died at just shy of 19 hours.

In two other instances where I took the headphones off but left the music playing I got just over 17 hours.  In no situation was I ever able to kill the battery in less than 17 hours, even playing music at full volume in a noisy room.  I left them on beside the speaker in my office all day at full volume to see if forcing the noise-canceling feature to work hard the whole time along with loud music would impact it.  It still took over 17 hours to die.

As a side note, I found choosing the size of the earbuds from the ones supplied in the package I found a better fit that provided enhanced noise-canceling over the first set that I put in.  It seemed less intuitive, since I switched from the medium ones to the small even though the medium ones appeared to feel fine.  My guess is that the folded over rubber needs a bit of space to work correctly and deflect sound.

The only true downside I could find to these headphones was the in-line microphone.  There’s no noise-canceling on this mic, so I had comments from a number of folks that there was a lot of background noise when I was talking to them.  This was in comparison to my Bose bluetooth headset which has some pretty good noise-canceling on both the earpiece and the mic, making it great for phone calls.

The cord on these earbuds is a bit thicker than the standard ones which makes it a bit harder to twist and keep straight.  While I found this a bit annoying in the beginning it ceased being an issue pretty quickly.

In summary, these are a great purchase, absolutely worth the price.  I’m ever so slightly disappointed that I won’t be able to use them exclusively and that I still need to carry around my bluetooth headset.  But, since it fits in the palm of my hand I’m not adding any weight to my bag, and it uses the same charger as the noise-canceling earbuds.

I’m absolutely thrilled that I bought these for all the reasons stated above.  I’m happy to free up the space in my backpack and very pleased with the noise-canceling ability.

For anyone considering the purchase, make sure you use this link to earn an extra 1500 American Airlines AAdvantage miles with your purchase.  The link came out right after I bought mine but I was still able to go back to the store and have them apply the promo code.

ETA: Thanks to jetsetr for pointing out this link that earns 1500 MileagePlus miles from United if AAdvantage miles aren’t your flavor.

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11 Comments

  1. United is also offering 1,500 miles for purchase. I couldn’t find the link on United.com, but I did receive and email. Like you, I also purchased the QC20i. I called Bose and provided info from my receipt – UA miles were in my account in about two weeks.

  2. Thanks for the review. I have been waiting to hear what you thought before I bought one. I picked one up this afternoon. Thanks!

  3. Yesterday, after about 18 months of daily use, my QC20 headphones broke The ear bud split apart at the plastic seam after being yanked from my ear (ouch!). I took them to the Bose store in town and they replaced them (out of warranty) for $129.

    1. Charlie, I’ve written in the past how I think Bose has a great product replacement strategy (http://pizzainmotion.boardingarea.com/2015/04/09/the-difference-between-a-great-product-and-a-great-company/). They’ve replaced products for me that I washed in the washing machine, free of charge during warranty. They make a good product and stand behind it. Sorry to hear yours died in 18 months, but glad to hear you were able to get a new set affordably-ish. Hope your ear is in better shape than the headphones.

      1. It was your post about the headset that gave me the idea of stopping by the store. In all fairness to the headphones, I treat them pretty rough. I use them almost every day and when I am not listening to them, I kept them uncased in my pocket . I’ll probably keep the new pair in their case when I am not using them.

        1. Charlie, I’ve never used their pouch but I have a dedicated place in my backpack for my headphones. I also have a little cord wheel thingie (official term) that I use from time to time. I’ll try to figure out where I got it and post the details.

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