Bose has been at the top of the noise-cancellation game for years with its QuietComfort line of full-size headphones, but the QC20i is the company's first stab at powered earbuds. At $299, they're not for the budget-minded, and as with most active noise cancelers, the audio quality isn't what you'd get from similarly priced passive headphones. But what you do get is the best noise cancellation available, and when you're surrounded by chatty people, crying babies, engine whine, highway din or a neighbor's TV, that's priceless. Plus, you can always listen in on the important stuff with the push of a button -- without taking out the earbuds.
The QC20i earbuds themselves are not particularly compact, but they are lightweight and well constructed. The gray-and-silver color scheme is understated, and the two-tone swirl cabling is similar to that found on Bose's passive-earbud offerings. Each of the soft, silicone eartips has a single flange with an oval-shaped sound hole and a soft fin that fits in the ridges of your outer ear for stability. They are easy enough to remove and swap out (three sizes are included), but they stay securely on the earbuds so they won't fall off in your pocket.
The cables enter each earbud with a flexible but firm nondetachable connector that feels sturdy, and they meet at chest height in an inline mic/controller that is compatible with iOS devices. Three buttons on the front control playback: volume, Siri and calls.
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A separate Aware Mode button on the side dampens the noise cancellation and activates the mic on the back of the controller so you can hear what's going on around you as your music continues to play. (Press it again to re-engage the full noise cancellation.)
Below the controller, near the end of the cable, there's a slim inline battery pack housing a nonremovable lithium-ion power cell rated for about 16 hours per charge; charging takes 2 hours via the micro-USB port. The inline battery is a necessary evil for noise-canceling earbuds, but this one is very well designed, measuring just 3.5 x 1.5 x 0.5 inches, so it fits unobtrusively against your phone in your pocket, and its rubberized matte finish feels great. The power switch on the side activates noise cancellation, and a pair of indicator lights tells you the battery and noise-cancellation status. The cable terminates with a gold-plated plug angled at 90 degrees.
In addition to a complement of eartips, you get a zippered carrying pouch that's slim enough to slip into a pocket. The package also includes a USB cable, but there's no wall plug, so you'll have to either purchase one separately, use your iOS device's wall plug or use a USB port on your computer. Bose supplies a small plastic clip so you can secure the cabling to your clothing to avoid having the inline components bouncing around too much.
The StayHear tips on the QC20i are so soft that we found ourselves wearing the headphones for nearly an entire day without even a hint of discomfort. They don't go very far into your ears, resting just at the edge of your ear canals and stabilized by the fins. We even found that when we applied significant pressure to the earbuds by lying on our side against a pillow, the earbuds were still comfortable -- something we haven't experienced with any other earbuds.
We were genuinely impressed with the 20i's noise cancellation. The closest thing to this noise-cancellation quality we've come across is from Bose's own QuietComfort 15, which are full-size cans. A very slight hiss is introduced, but you notice it less than on other noise cancelers of any size (except the QC15), and the level of cancellation is stunning. As we walked down a busy street, the din of cars and passersby was almost completely washed away, and with music on at even a low level, disappeared entirely. In short, the noise cancellation is better than on any earbud or full-size headphones we've heard, with the exception of the QC15, and even compared to those, the 20i earbuds actually do a better job of blocking a wider range of sounds.
We're also happy to report that the 20i will still play music after the power runs out, which has been a major complaint about Bose's noise-canceling devices since the company's very first model debuted. The 16-hour battery life isn't very impressive, especially when compared to competitors' claims -- such as the AKG K391 NC (40 hours), Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 (60 hours) and Phiaton PS20 (50 hours) -- but given the high-level noise cancellation, we can understand the quicker power drain.
Bose's sound signature, with its boosted upper bass and heavily tailored midrange, is so far from accuracy-focused brands such as Etymotic and Denon that purists often thumb their noses. It's also very different from the bass-heavy Beats by Dre line. The 20i earbuds offer pleasing sound for many types of music, especially in loud environments where most headphones' sound might get mangled, but don't expect them to perform like similarly priced regular earbuds.
On hip-hop tracks, such as Jay Z's "Holy Grail" and Snoop Dogg's "10 Lil' Crips," the deep bass and throbbing kick drum are clearly audible but lack impact, especially in comparison to earbuds like the B&W C5. Rock tunes, like Paul McCartney's "Only Mama Knows," sound full and rich, though the vocals lack a little bit of sparkle on the high end. With big-band music like Maynard Ferguson's "MacArthur Park," and orchestral tracks like Wynton Marsalis' recording of the Brandenburg Concerto #2, the 20i headphones manage to sound very good, but they don't provide as much detail and sense of space as regular earbuds in the $175 to $300 range. Small acoustic groups (modern jazz, folk, string/brass ensembles) work well with the 20i, though high mids and above could be stronger, making the cymbals on John Coltrane's "Blue Train" sound less crisp than they should.
Thankfully, the 20i earbuds still operate in passive mode without battery power, though you lose a little volume and a tiny bit of midrange detail. Cellphone audio quality is also slightly above average in both directions.
Frequent long-distance travelers should unequivocally get the Bose QuietComfort 20i for the noise cancellation alone. These earbuds are much more portable than over-the-ear noise-canceling headphones, and they're infinitely more comfortable for long periods than in-ear models. Among noise-canceling in-ear headphones, this is definitely the pair to beat. Most people will really like the sound, but bass addicts and purists might be better off with the Beats Studio or a set of unpowered in-ears like the B&W C5.
For non-iOS device users, the identically priced Bose QuietComfort 20 (note the missing "I") has a mic/controller that works with Android, BlackBerry and Windows devices. But even if they don't offer audiophile-grade sound, the supreme comfort and stellar noise cancellation of the QC20i make these the noise-canceling buds to beat.