Bose’s “QuietComfort” range has arrived to the world of wireless and cordless “truly free” earphones. Are the QuietComfort Earbuds ideal for your ears?
Whether you shop online or still out in a physical store, if you glance at the amount of earphones the world has to offer, there’s clearly plenty to choose from. Corded, cordless, sporty, audiophile, casual, and for kids, the options are out there, and depending on what you want, you only need to look.
But if what you want is to quell noise, to reduce its impact in your life, you typically need a special breed. You need a noise cancelling earphones, or maybe a noise cancelling headphone. Different in fit, noise cancelling headphones are the big ones that sit on your ears, while in recent years, portable audio device makers have focused on the smaller kind, with an option that goes without the headband and ear-pads, and can just sit in your ears, which these days is typically cordless and singular like the AirPods you see about the place.
For those who don’t know much about noise cancellation and portable audio, Bose was one of the pioneers, and for the longest time, its noise cancelling “QuietComfort” range was considered the benchmark. But times have changed and competitors have become far more competitive, and the company is definitely being kept on its toes.
In its 2020 QuietComfort, however, the earphones may well be back, and after an experiment with poorly named albeit solid technology in last year’s Bose Noise Cancelling 700 Headphones, the noise cancellation pioneer is back with something a little smaller and much more portable. Could the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds not just return the “QuietComfort” name, but also Bose’s position as the benchmark for best noise cancellation?
Design and features
A little bigger than your conventional earphone, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds may not read like your typical AirPod or any other small cordless and wireless earphone. They’re a little bigger, and meant to just hang there, with Bose adopting a design meant to sit in the ear, but not completely inside of it.
The outside is the more obvious part, because the QC Earbuds (as they’re also known) are more like the Sony WF-1000XM3 in design: a larger softened rectangular exterior to house all that noise cancelling and microphone-based goodness, with the earphone on the other side. It’s a larger design that not everyone may be altogether comfortable with, but once you find the way to position them, Bose’s wing tips and earphone-style earbud tips leave them firmly in place, and comfortably, too.
They’re even weather resistant at IPX4, which means you can go for a run with them, or even get caught in a spot of rain.
Controlling them is a matter of touch, though the controls could be a little more involved. Essentially, everything is based on double taps, and by “everything”, we don’t mean a lot. You won’t find changing tracks or volume control on the QC Earbuds controls, or we sure didn’t.
You will find that double tapping the right earbud pauses and plays, while a long tap brings up whichever assistant is the default for you, plus can stop an incoming call, while double tapping the left has you jump between three favourite settings of noise cancellation. The long hold on the left earbud launches a shortcut that you can set up in the Bose app.
That Bose app, by the way, does work, but may take a little bit of effort. We’re in that world where device makers regularly give us yet a new app to use our devices with, and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are no exception, relying on the “Bose Music” app, which not only forces you to sign up to the Bose platform, but if you’ve registered your earphones through your Bluetooth settings like so many do, will have to re-register again through the app. It may be more prudent to just link up the earphones using solely the app.
Perhaps bizarrely, we found the Bose Music app was more reliable on Android than on iOS, and while it worked on the iPhone with iOS 14, it consistently crashed out on the iPad with iPadOS 14. Go figure. If you live in an iOS world, it should work on at least one of the devices you own.
Of course, the performance is what matters most, and that’s why we have the Pickr Sound Test, so we can test music that’s familiar and consistent for our reviews, just like we are for the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds, which we’re putting to the test now.
And that starts with electronic from Tycho and Daft Punk, which offers a really balanced spectrum of sounds, with detailed mids, lows, and highs, and a solid rendition across everything. With excellent instrument recreation and equally balanced but not overpowering bass, something Tycho’s “Glider” offers to start our playlist off with a bass drop, the Bose QC Earbuds start the sound test well, delivering something Bose has become well known for in its QuietComfort range: overall balance.
That continues into pop and rock, with Maroon 5 and Carly Rae Jensen delivering a solid punch, but bass lines that don’t drive overly hard. There’s not a lot of disconnect between what you hear, and depending on the track, you may pick up on the highs — the vocals and keys, typically — being marginally stronger than the mids, though there’s a little warmth there, too.
It’s not unsurprising, mind you, as overall balance is a style Bose’s QC range has long been famed for, and it’s what you get here, even in the heavier sounds coming from rock. Tested with the Deftones’ “Digital Bath”, the bottom end is punchy but warm, certainly more so than we expected, and Rage Against the Machine’s “Take the Power Back” is angry and fueled up, but clearly strong across every part of the sound, and allowing you to take it all in.
Classic rock was also balanced, nice to hear on The Beatles and Paul Simon and The Who and Bowie, with the latter delivering easily one of the standout test tracks for the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds. Simply put, if you’re looking for a solid recreation for these earphones to try, load up David Bowie’s “Starman”, and just get stuck into the tight snap of the guitars and drums, the strength of the vocals, and warmth of the bass. Really balanced and smooth all around.
It’s much the same with classical and jazz, two areas that don’t seem to rely too heavily on overpowered anything, and just yearn for music to be balanced. In the Bose QC Earbuds, that’s what you get, and you get it with noise cancellation, as well.
Now the noise cancellation appears pretty strong here, and though we’re not flying anywhere near as much as we used to, we found it handled the noise of transport and traffic equally well, though some bleed through could still happen. This might be due to how Bose is handling noise cancellation, with several levels, but nothing really defineable by the user. That’s to say, you can define your favourites to the left earbud using the app, opting to have it shuffle between total noise cancelling isolation, letting some sound in, or an ambient mode that let’s all sound in, but it’s not a cancellation you’re directly tweaking, like how in some brands you can focus on voice or specific parts of the sound.
On an aircraft, in public transport, or an office environment, none of this is likely to concern, and the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds deliver excellent cancellation all the same, but it’s not as forward thinking a noise cancellation technology as we’d like. You’re getting great cancellation, to be sure, but we’re not sure if it’s the best there is.
One thing we noticed is that depending on how you wear the Bose QC Earbuds, the sound can come across a little lacking in the soundstage. For a good week of testing, we thought it was a problem with our earbuds, but the more we tried them, the more we realised it has to do with fit. Specifically, there is an incorrect way to wear the earphones, and if either the tip or wing doesn’t sit comfortably, the QuietComfort Earbuds won’t get the totally correct alignment, and your sound will lose some of that dimensionality. They won’t sound bad, but they won’t sound as good as if you actually manage to fit them in perfectly.
It’s an example of how getting the right fit matters, particularly so with Bose’s QC Earbuds, which not only seem to highlight the importance of spending the time to find your fit, but also making sure when you throw the earbuds in, they’re actually secured in a way to keep your music sounding great, too. You may even pick it up because wearing them incorrectly — even marginally so — will mean yawning drops in a bit of a whistling sound, as the noise cancelling mics have their position moved. It’s yet another sign that maybe you’re not wearing the earphones correctly.
We’ve not experienced this problem with a pair of earphones before, however, so if your QC Earbuds aren’t sounding the best they should, and you think it’s a problem with the hardware, try a different tip and maybe fiddling with the earbud in your ear. That worked for us.
They say “with great power comes great responsibility”, and with Bose, the battery argument is close to that: with great performance comes great battery life, handy because you’ll want to keep listening to what you hear.
As such the earphones are rated for up to six hours per charge, meaning you can leave them in comfortably and keep listening, and we found at least 4 to 5 was easily possible, throwing them in the case when we were done.
Like other truly wireless and cordless earphones, the case is also how you charge the QuiteComfort Earbuds, but unlike others, it is huge. That seems to be an ongoing thing for Bose, which tends to give us massive earphone cases, like it did in the SoundSport Wireless earphones, and here, once again, we have another.
So this is not a pocketable case, though it’s one that carries a pretty sizeable battery, scoring the ability to charge the earphones an extra two times, meaning as much as 12 hours of life extra, plus it can be wirelessly charged, a feature we’re seeing more and more on truly wireless noise cancelling earphones, including on Apple’s AirPods Pro and the less pricey Oppo Enco W51.
The price however might stop you a bit in your tracks, because at $399.95 in Australia, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds are not cheap. However, also in Australia, that $400 mark is also a fairly standard price to pay for noise cancelling earphones that the QC Earbuds compete with.
So while they may not appear to hit a value argument, Bose’s QC Earbuds are definitely playing against the competition in much the same way they do with Bose.
Essentially, $400 is what you can typically expect to pay for great noise cancelling earbuds and earphones in Australia, and the Bose QC Earbuds are no different, sitting in the near-$500 category, possibly because that’s how Bose keeps its earphones as highly valued as the rest of the competition.
For the near-$400 price, you’ll find a great sound and a long-lasting battery life, as well as a charging case that can be wirelessly charged, something not everyone offers in noise cancelling earphones as it is.
What needs work?
Bose’s first truly wireless take on noise cancelling earphones is a stunner, and takes the fight to Sony well and truly.
Granted, a competitor to Sony’s excellent WF-1000XM3 is a year late, and we suspect we’ll see a new in-ear model from Sony next year, but better late than never, and it’s lovely to see all the same. But as good as they are, the Bose QC Earbuds are not perfect, and there are things we’d like to see improved upon.
Starting with the controls. Maybe it’s because we have a smartwatch that we’re not fussed with not being able to skip tracks or music, but we figure most people don’t, and so taking this out of a pair of earphones is a little strange to us.
If you rely on a pair of earphones to control volume or change tracks quickly — because you’re not going to like every song that’s played — you’ll miss out on those sorts of controls here, controls that practically every earphone offers. It’s surprising to say the least, and seems to pivot the Bose QC Earbuds towards people who either don’t think they need it (totally valid), don’t mind taking their phone out (not great for every situation), or already have a wearable that can handle that side of things.
And as good as the noise cancellation is, it’s hardly an adaptive technology, at least not that we could see. A minor note, the cancellation favourites you map to the left earbud are based on how much noise you’d like to let in, and don’t necessarily cancel out based on fit or position in the world. It’s more of an ambient controller. Compare that with what we’ve seen from Sony in its headphones this year, and you begin to see why we wonder if the cancellation could be just a bit improved.
Bose’s noise cancellation game is very strong here, that being said, but after having seen some top notch performance from a pair of over-ears, we wonder if maybe Bose’s could use a bit of refinement.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
In 2020, flights aren’t as heavily populated as they once were, and while we’re still all moving about, we’re not moving about as often. That’ll change as the pandemic eventually gets crushed, but the year Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds are being released in is certainly a weird year for noise cancellation in general. Typically a technology focused on flying, the QC Earbuds have had to shift their focus slightly, and like all noise cancelling audio devices, now focus on life as an everyday thing.
Don’t want to listen to the hum of public transport as you whir by on the train or sit on a bus that chugs its idle engine while waiting for traffic to move? Noise cancelling earphones to the rescue. And how about the outside noise as you venture up the road for a walk, or even for a light run? Noise cancelling earphones to the rescue. And when we’re all back in the air again, noise cancelling earphones can return to use there, too.
The point is that while noise cancelling tech is largely focused on flight, it doesn’t have to be, and that’s what we’re seeing lately. Focused on noise in general, noise cancellation quells the consistent sounds and hums by reversing it, using the noise against itself to let you go beyond it.
And in the Bose QC Earbuds, that’s basically what you get: the ability to go beyond the noise in a smaller form-factor. Granted, they’re not a smaller form-factor against the competition, but they’re smaller for Bose, and that’s a win for us.
Bose, which normally produces large noise cancelling headphones has produced something that will be a win for many: a noise cancelling pair that won’t mess you hair.
If you’re a fan of the Bose balanced approach to sound and are looking for noise cancellation that does just that, there’s a good case to be made for the QuietComfort Earbuds. Recommended.