Sony has some real competition, as the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II demonstrate, delivering more than just a sequel, but better ANC overall.
Whether you plan on catching a bus, train, or take a flight on something that sounds vaguely like an aeroplane, there’s a pretty solid chance you’re thinking of packing some noise cancelling technology with you.
Headphones and earphones are already a must have, but throw in active noise cancellation technology and the sound instantly becomes better, cutting the background noise out of your life and letting you absorb yourself into your music, your movies, your favourite podcasts and games and such, and tossing the background hum somewhere else.
Of course, there’s no shortage of noise cancelling options, and whether you choose big over the ear headphones or something much, much smaller, deciding on a pair can be a complex exercise. Most of the earphones that land on Pickr’s reviews desk is set up for some degree of noise cancellation these days, so the choices are not small, especially when the technology has been around for quite some time.
But this year, the technology seems to be improving leaps and bounds, and with the latest pair from Bose, we’re seeing not just the size, but also what noise cancelling earphones can do for you, regardless of whether you’re using iPhone, Android, or something else.
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Design and features
Much smaller than the Bose QC Buds before them, the Quiet Comfort Earbuds II are practically night and day from their sibling, and totally redesigned.
While the original weren’t staggeringly large, they did come in a massive box that clearly didn’t belong in a pocket. This time, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Both the earphones and case in the second-gen QuietComfort Buds appear much smaller and more pocket friendly, and while neither the earphones nor the case are as small as say Apple’s AirPods or even the recent AirPods Pro update, they’re much smaller than any noise cancelling effort we’ve seen from Bose prior.
Inside that relatively diminutive design is a combination of microphones and driver, as well as wireless transmitter, battery, and noise cancellation processor built to deal with the world but also match your hearing. Expect four microphones in each earbud with the hardware powered by one of Qualcomm’s chips, while Bluetooth is catered for using Bluetooth 5.3.
Battery life covers up to 6 hours per charge, with up to 18 hours more inside the compact case.
You’ll also find three fits of tips in the case, plus three stability band sizes to hold the QC Buds II in your ears, and the whole thing is IPX4 water resistant, also known as sweat resistant, and can be charged over Type C USB.
Using the Bose QC Earbuds II is a cinch, too, thanks to support for something we’ve seen in another pair of Bose headphones, the NC 700. They may well be a couple of years old, but they’re still good, and they included touch controls on the cans, allowing you to swipe and touch to control.
That’s an evolution on the basic taps and double taps of the first-gen QuietComfort Buds, and there’s also an app, Bose Music. The app will give you access to the default modes — an aware mode, a focus mode, and a total quiet mode which is basically just the noise cancellation turned all the way up, and you’ll also find some minor equaliser settings, plus limited options for a shortcut.
Bose also bundles in some source control to let you switch media device, if you want to jump between phone and tablet, and there’s an ear fit test if you dive into the settings.
We found we didn’t need to try too hard to fit the QC Earbuds II in our ears, as the combination of the in-ear tip and stability ring helped land the earbuds comfortably, almost as if they were great earphones. They are, kinda sorta, and less like the tip-less earbuds you find about the place, which means if you’re used to silicone tips, you should find the QC 2’s easy to insert, while the stability ring holds.
There’s another aspect of Bose’s QC Earbuds II worth exploring, because they will apparently tweak themselves to match your hearing. Bose tells us it happens during the intro sound, a big strumming of strings when you place each in your ear, turning that into a sort of test sequence to measure your hearing. The idea is reminiscent of what Nura does in its NuraTrue earphones, though isn’t based on otoacoustic emissions.
It’s also very difficult to test what the Bose auto sound tweak is actually doing, because unlike Nura’s system, you can’t actually turn it off. Rather, it’s just a sound calibration for your ears that is supposed to give you great performance.
However, that leads you to the performance, which as usual is tested with the Pickr Sound Test, a selection of tracks that you can run through your own headphones and speakers on services.
As usual, that starts with electronic from Tycho and Daft Punk, and we’re treated to a smooth punch of bass among a good balance. The drop in Tycho’s “Glider” (where the song really gets going) throws you in the deep end with a hint of sub-bass, but beyond, there’s a good balance overall.
That feeling is echoed in pop and R&B, with a lovely sense of balance in Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Cut to the Feeling”, the pop candy song shining through and punching well, not a note or sound lost to muddies, while Charlie Puth’s “Done For Me” delivers strong bass that doesn’t drive too hard.
In Maroon 5’s “Animal”, the balance shines as a touch warmer, but there’s for sure a refined sound, and one that’s easy to get into.
Regardless of what we ran through the QC Buds 2, we found a delightfully balanced sound with a touch of warmth, as Bose delivered something not unlike what Sony has, just with a little more oomph. And maybe even better active noise cancellation.
Active noise cancellation on the QC Buds II
Clearly an important part of the picture, the other side of the Bose QC Buds 2 performance is how the noise cancellation fares, and that is an area we can say Bose has really delivered on, which is a great return from the brand.
It’s strange really, because the past few years have largely felt like a bit of an off period for what were basically the pioneers of the technology. Noise cancellation has been more or less Bose’s area, but since Sony appeared on the scene, Bose’s interpretation of the tech has felt lagging by comparison. Each subsequent generation of the over-ear Bose QuietComfort models has failed to impress in quite the way Sony’s WH-1000X models have, and yet this year, we might be seeing an about turn.
In the QuietComfort Earbuds II, Bose has delivered a noise cancellation technology that uses its four microphones and algorithms to tune out much of the world, parts of it we don’t normally expect noise cancelling tech to cover.
Most active noise cancellation covers repeatable sounds, such as aircraft engines, train and bus hums, the choir of human traffic was you walk the busy streets, and so on and so on. It’s essentially a repeatable sound that ANC can be tuned into, but not the hum drum of every day.
With the QC Earbuds, Bose has essentially built something that can handle a little more. We worked away without hearing chattering from the family in the other room, even if they were loud enough to pick up on, and a walk by a road silenced most of the cars driving by. There were times where the the baby’s cries were silenced, though clearly not at close range.
It’s a genuinely impressive take on noise cancellation and one that aims to impress.
And the hits don’t stop there. You’ll find the aware mode delivers a solid sound, as well, with a capable transparency mode to let you hear through the Buds even as some noises as cancelled out.
Throughout use, you should find roughly six hours of non-stop use is possible from the earphones, and each full charge in the case will give you six hours more.
That’s a total of 24 hours of truly wireless ANC goodness, which is about where Sony’s XM4 were matched one year ago, but not as much as the maximum of 28 you can get from this year’s Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 or the 30 from Apple’s second-gen AirPods Pro.
It’s not a bad effort, that said, and should get you through your regular work day, but Bose can do a little better.
Priced at $429.95 in Australia, there’s no disgusting that Bose has set these up as fairly high-end options, out-pricing the likes of Apple, Sennheiser, and Sony. Those are the regular band of four that occupy the top spot for premium active noise cancelling earphones and earbuds, and Bose is sitting more or less at the top in price, though missing value ever so slightly.
A better argument would clearly be the $399 mark, which is where Apple aims its AirPods Pro (even the recent second-gen), which street price could match, but doesn’t. It seems as though if you want the Bose’s ANC Buds 2, the most you’ll save on street price is 95 cents, though depending on when you look, you may save a bit more (Black Friday, anyone?).
At the $430 mark, Bose’s QC Buds 2 are still fairly compelling, given the strength of noise cancellation and overall quality in sound, though if you can find them for lower than $399, they’ll be a total bargain.
What needs work?
As strong a competitor as Bose’s QC Buds 2 are, we’re confused as to why at least one thing is missing.
We get the lack of head-tracked spatial audio. It’s a problem across most earphones because Apple’s approach to head-tracking is something specific to products made by Apple. You can find it in any of the recent AirPods models, and spatial even makes an appearance in the Beats Fit Pro, but they’re technically made by Apple, as well, so we’re not entirely surprised by that.
But no one else has managed to crack this, and while we did ask Bose about head-tracking, it told Pickr that it is looking into it. Given Bose has dabbled in head-tracked audio-based augmented reality for its Frames sunglass headphones in the past, it’s very much a case of “watch this space”.
However, the lack of wireless charging in the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II is more of a surprise.
Wireless charging is a premium feature, but it’s also found on truly wireless earphone cases around the $200 mark, so for it to be missing in action on Bose’s most premium truly wireless option, well that has us a little stunned. We’re not sure why, but it isn’t here, and you’ll have to stick to Type C USB charging like everyone else.
Final thoughts (TLDR)
There’s a lot going for Bose’s second-gen QuietComfort Earbuds, as Bose returns from behind offering a pair that beats Sony beautifully.
Offering a compact size that manages to be more comfortable than what Sony offers in the WF-1000XM4, plus a noise cancelling mode that genuinely feels like it does more, the Bose QC Earbuds II are a step ahead in almost every way.
They’re not completely perfect, mind you; while we get that Bose can’t quite get head-tracking working on its earphones yet, we’re stumped why the company skipped over wireless charging, a feature nearly every other earphone in its class offers. It boggles the mind why this feature is missing in action when it would be totally warranted and welcome here.
But there’s a lot we love about the QC Buds, namely that they deliver excellent sound and top-class active noise cancellation, plus they’re platform agnostic. Yes, while Apple’s AirPods Pro prefer iOS but kind of work on Android (ish), Bose delivers the same app and feature set regardless of the mobile operating system you use. Platform agnosticism is a giant win.
Picking the best ANC earphone this year isn’t going to be easy, but it’s pretty clear to see that the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II are worthy of anyone looking for something genuinely excellent all around. The Bose QC Earbuds II are one of the best pairs you can find today and highly recommended.