Noise Canceling Immersion Part 2 - Bose QuietComfort 20

January 16, 2016

The Bose QuietComfort 20 (QC 20) marked the company's first effort for noise canceling in-ears. June 2015 saw the addition of new color and dedicated iOS / Samsung Galaxy variants. In this day and age where product lifecycles have been considerably shortened, it's interesting to note that more than two years after its initial launch, the QC20 remains Bose's flagship model for in-ears.

As Part 2 of the Noise Canceling Immersion series of articles, we eagerly check out how the Bose QC 20 (SGD 499) measures up.

Pros (+): Mind-numbingly good noise canceling; Dedicated device controls; Easy-to-access Aware Mode button.
Cons (-): Steep pricing

Out of the black / white color and device SKUs, we received the white Samsung Galaxy compatible unit.

As usual, we dive in to unbox the product.

Taking away the shrink wrap, we slide away the outer cover. We are greeted with a blue sheet with the Bose logo smack in the center. 

There's a black foam beneath the blue sheet, probably to cushion the contents. And right below is the gracefully presented product embedded in a black plastic. 

Taking out this layer gives you access to the QC20 carrying case and all the accompanying accessories stored within. The white piece on the left, you ask? That's the drying agent.

Taking everything out, the packaging contents reveal:
- Bose QC 20 earphones (with a rotatable clip)
- StayHear+ tips (S / M / L)
- USB cable
- Carrying case
- User guide and Safety instructions

The Bose QC 20 tips the scales at 44g, mainly due to the 89 x 32mm battery unit (the module that looks like a chewing gum stick). The 1.32m cable bears a white theme punctuated with distinctive turquoise blue stripes that provided a striking visual appeal. The proprietary earbuds (coined as StayHear+ tips), comprising both buds and fins, isn't swappable with other types of earphone buds. Even within Bose's in-ear lineup, the SoundTrue / SoundSport use the StayHear tips (without the '+') so do take note when buying replacements.

The carrying case (70 x 32mm) does its job in adequately protecting the earphones. The zip goes just halfway around the edge, enough to conveniently slip the QC20s within. There's also a compartment within to helpfully slot in the charging cable and/or additional ear tips.

When you purchase the Bose QuietComfort 20, it's the noise canceling that is unquestionably the coveted feature. Two microphones sense the noise - one measures approaching sound and the other detects the sound inside. This is sent to the digital chip in the control module where it apparently takes a 'fraction of a millisecond' to calculate a opposing sound signal to send to your ears. More on the performance in a bit.

The Y-connector is where the control module lies. Bose upgraded the original 2013 single button Android friendly models with 3 buttons - 2 volume flanking a multi-function button which plays / skips tracks / takes calls. 

What sets this apart from other remotes is the blue Mode button located at the edge that triggers the Aware mode, an easily accessible feature that's useful when crossing roads. When noise canceling is on, this allows you to tune back to the environmental sound and be more consciously aware of your surroundings. Oh, and the 'S' at the back of the remote is a mark of compatibility with Samsung Galaxy devices.
What's that logo in the center? That's the Aware icon. 
Moving down the cable close to the L-shaped 3.5mm jack is the battery unit. Flick the power switch on to activate the noise canceling. As you can see below, there are 2 LEDs and what do they show?
1. Power LED - displays green to indicate there's more than 3h of battery left and blinks if there's less than that. When charging, this flashes an amber color. 
2. Mode LED - displays green when noise canceling is on and blanks out when Aware mode is on.
At the other edge, there's a micro-USB port to connect the charging cable.

The StayHear+ tips are comfortable to the extent that you don't feel any pressure on the ears when used in excess of an hour. Out of the 3 color-coded sizes (S = white, M = grey, L = black), the Medium suited me best. While the silicon buds provide good fit, the fin section helps in lightly lodging in the ear for better stability. 

We tried the noise canceling in three areas:
1. Inside a controlled environment (a car) where Stereolab's Parsec was playing in the vehicle.
2. At the back of a bus where the engine is revving frequently.
3. Tested at a bus stop with helluva lot of traffic (buses coming and going)
In these conditions, we did not play music in order to test the active noise canceling.

The noise canceling is undeniably superb. In the first instance, the muffled vocals are still able to come through. However, the constant bass from Parsec is not just reduced but is almost completely eliminated. In the other 2 cases, the low frequencies of the bus accelerations are delightfully obscured. In an ad-hoc occasion, my kid was bawling uncontrollably in the room and I had the Bose QC 20 on the shelf. The wails still came through but it made the experience a whole lot more tolerable. In case you're wondering, yea, my kid simmered down after another ten minutes when she realized she wouldn't get her way :)

We tested the audio quality when noise canceling was on. Chris Martin's vocals on Everglow actually sound rather muddied in terms of the clarity but the depth of the bass is apparent once the instrumentation kicks in at the minute mark. 

Bose designed the clothing clip, set just below the control unit, to swivel a full 360 degrees. Once you clip this to your shirt, the microphonics caused by the tug of the cable under the left and right earbuds is taken away. Recommended to use? Yes.

What of the battery life? Once flat, a full 2h charge to the Lithium-Ion battery gives a reasonable 16h of active noise canceling (ANC) usage. Even with no charge, you can still use the unit like a normal pair of in-ears (minus the ANC).

Bose are the pioneers of consumer-grade noise canceling headphones and their experience really shows with the QC20. While priced at a premium, the undeniably superb ANC complemented with an upgraded control unit sporting a convenient Mode button elevate the QuietComfort 20 to the top echelon in noise canceling in-ear units. 

Where To Buy

You can buy the product from If you like what you have read, feel free to support me by buying via these Amazon affiliate links:

Pricing is from USD 249. 

Audio Sources
Everglow - Coldplay (Tidal 1411kbps FLAC) on Samsung Galaxy S4
Take Me To Church - Hozier (Tidal 1411kbps FLAC) on Samsung Galaxy S4

Credit to Atlas, Bose for an evaluation unit. 

Noise Canceling Immersion - A 3-Part Series 
Part 1 - Sony h.ear in NC (MDR-EX750NA)
Part 2 - Bose QuietComfort 20 (QC 20)
Part 3 - Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H3 ANC
The Verdict 

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