Class leading noise canceling
Comfy, secure fit
Tight, present audio
Case has mediocre battery
Editor's note December 14, 2020: Bose has updated the QuietComfort Earbuds following their initial release, adding much-needed volume controls accessed by sliding your finger up or down on the right earbud. We've updated this review accordingly, and will also adjust our test scores for placement in best-of lists such as our Best Wireless Earbuds post.
These aren’t Bose’s first “true wireless” earbuds (that is, earbuds with no wires whatsoever). But they are the first to bear the brand’s signature Active Noise Cancellation (ANC), a serious feather in their cap. To get here, Bose has made some concessions, including designing an overall package that, while premium in build quality, is larger than most competitors in this nimble space.
What’s more, as established rivals from Sony, Apple, Panasonic, and others have been around long enough to drop in price, the QC’s high cost could be a tough pitch to budget-conscious buyers. For others, though, class-leading noise cancellation may well be worth the investment.
About the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds
Bose’s new QuietComfort Earbuds arrive in a sleek package—one that’s about twice as big as most true wireless earbuds we see, but sleek nonetheless. Packed in an all-black box are the QC earbuds nestled in their large charging case along with three sizes of ear fins/tips, a USB-C charging port, and an incredibly brief manual that directs you immediately to the Bose Music app for further instructions.
Here are the QuietComfort Earbuds’ basic specs:
- Price: $279.95
- Battery life: up to 6 hours with noise-canceling, up to 18 hours with charging case
- Rapid charging: 15 minutes for up to two hours of playback
- Wireless charging: yes, Qi compatible case
- Colors: Black, White
- Connectivity: Bluetooth 5.1
- Sensors: In-ear detection/auto-pause
- Audio codecs: SBC, AAC
- Water/dust resistance: IPX4
- Fit: 3 ear tip sizes with built-in ear fins
- Weight: 8.5 grams per earbud, approx. 76-gram charging case
What we like
Brilliant, class-leading noise canceling
I remember vividly the first time I put in the QC20, Bose’s first noise-canceling buds which had (stay with me on this) wires that plugged directly into your phone. Upon activating the system, I immediately felt transported to a realm of tranquility. The Police’s Walking on the Moon came up on a playlist, which felt strikingly apt as I strolled along the newly silent streets.
A lot has changed since then, but that feeling remains. During my first stroll with the QuietComfort buds, the melange of traffic, wind, and the low roar of basic human existence was all but sucked away; local noises like footsteps seemed to disappear; most unnervingly, cars and even trucks passed by me on the street with barely a whisper. I spent the initial few minutes music-free, simply enjoying the sonic solitude. Over the next few days, the running joke became my wife constantly trying (and failing) not to sneak up on me in my home office.
The QC Earbuds can’t kill it all—vacuums gonna vacuum, and other such high-frequency pitches pop through similarly here as with rivals like the AirPods Pro and Sony's WF-1000XM3. But when it comes to drone and ambient sounds, the QuietComfort rule.
A comfy, well-balanced fit
As noted above (and something I’ll return to often) the Bose buds are big. For 2020, I might even say huge. They stretch over 1.5 inches long and their weight of 8.5 grams per bud seems massive compared to the 5.4-gram AirPods Pro. That said, Bose has done a fine job engineering around their size for a comfy, secure ride.
The secret is the StayHear (get it?) Max tips, which are a pain to swap over the earbuds’ honking sound tubes, but helped create a soft and secure fit for me once properly sized. Bose even recommends you try different tip sizes per ear if need be, but the smaller pair worked well for me. While I wish the drivers rested a bit closer to my eardrums, I never worried about the buds falling out and was able to wear them for hours at a time without discomfort.
Clear, detailed sound
Bose has been around the block, and if you’ve been a fan of their earbuds or headphones previously you probably know what you’re getting for sound. If you're new to Bose, the QuietComfort Earbuds offer clear and detailed sound with a relatively expansive and well-balanced stereo image. You’ll hear all the important stuff, and even some things you’ve missed, and you’ll get presence and clarity at the attack that bests the AirPods Pro, though the sound doesn’t out joust Sony’s WF-1000XM3.
What’s more, I’d argue that both rivals, along with Panasonic’s lovely sounding RZ-500WS offer sound that's more accessible than what Bose has cooked up. Like other Bose products, the QC Earbuds' sound signature is heavily sculpted, with a boost in the upper midrange that adds zing to vocals and some extra nickel to the resonance of guitar strings. While this stylized sound works well for electronic instruments, acoustic instruments tend to sound less natural. The buds can also push brighter recordings, such as Ella Fitzgerald’s "Ella Hums the Blues" toward sibilant sharpness.
Generally, though, this is a pleasant sound with good balance, enough bass to keep you grooving, and clarity that helps you get the most out of complex and well-produced recordings.
As for call quality, while other reviewers have noted calls with impressive clarity, I noticed some occasional distortion on my end, though others could hear me clearly. Most true wireless earbuds have their issues with calls, but these weren't among my favorite for the calls I made.
A well-designed app
Note: My first experience with the app was one of frustration as it failed to connect to my LG G8. However, the issue hasn't been reported elsewhere, and toggling location services solved it. A second try with a Galaxy S20 connected almost instantly so it seems like a fluke, but it’s worth noting in case you experience it.
With a category as minimalist as true wireless earbuds, a good app (or direct features in your mobile OS) is integral to a well-rounded feature set. While we’ll render a few complaints in the next section, Bose’s Music app offers easy pairing and good adjustment for their features.
Once you’ve connected, you’ll be able to fine-tune multiple parameters, including in-ear sensor detection (on/off), noise cancellation level, automatic transparency mode when taking a call, and even how much you can hear yourself on calls. You can also customize the noise-cancellation and Transparency Mode levels of each of three “Favorite” modes from “0” (full transparency mode) to 10 (full noise cancellation), which are then selectable via the earbuds’ on-board touch sensors.
There are two sizeable omissions here, though. The app offers no form of EQ or a “Find My Earbuds” feature, both of which are unfortunate misses for flagship earbuds—especially at this price.
Volume control: better slightly late than never
I didn’t outline attributes like the QuietComfort’s premium feel or impressively stable Bluetooth connection above because, while I appreciate them, I'd expect that as a given for a pair of wireless earbuds pushing $300.
Intuitive and versatile onboard controls should be too, and in my first publish, I took issue with the austere control system that both limited usability and took strikingly poor advantage of all that earbud real estate. I noted that it would be easy to add volume control with "a swipe up or down on either earbud." Thankfully, Bose thought so too, updating the firmware through the app so that the right QC bud now allows for swipeable volume control. I'm not sure why the buds didn't ship with it, but I'll take it!
Other controls include a double-tap on the right earbud for both play/pause and calling and a long-hold for your phone’s voice assistant. On the left earbud, those double taps scroll through your three “Favorite” cancellation modes, while a long hold skips forward (one of the oddest ways to do this I’ve seen) or, if you choose, checks battery.
What we don’t like
No onboard song-skip
While volume control is a very welcome update, the QC buds still don't offer song back-skip, meaning you simply can’t replay a song or restart a track with the earbuds alone.
They also don't offer any fancier controls, such as Sony’s hold-to-talk, which temporarily puts its buds into Transparency Mode when you cup them. That said, the earbuds do switch to Transparency Mode (i.e. “0” under noise canceling) when you take out an earbud—just make sure you only use the right piece for single-bud calls, as it’s the only one that works.
Chunky, awkward case
I got used to the large size of the QuietComfort Earbuds, and while you certainly can’t hide them, I think they look good in your ears. But that case, which is 3.5 inches long and 2 inches wide (or tall?) gave me flashbacks of the Powerbeats Pro. It looks fine on the desk, but feels enormous in your pocket. While I’m griping, the mechanical button on the front is hard to press and just feels unnecessary (are these things flying open?).
Where’s my extra battery?
Not to jump all over the case here, but the fact that there are only two recharges in that big old box seems like another waste of space. Sure, you’ll get an OK 18 hours of total battery between the buds and case, but if Apple’s tiny case can provide four recharges, can’t Bose’s oversized job give us three?
Should you buy it?
If you must have the best noise canceling, yes
While bulky and not overly stuffed with features, Bose’s new QuietComfort buds offer a good fit, a premium-looking design, clear sound, and powerful noise cancellation that's easily adjustable. I have no doubt these will be a popular choice for travelers and those who work from home alike. If you want the best noise canceling in the true wireless biz, these are your buds.
If you just want good noise canceling, though, there are some other great choices at lower prices, starting with Apple’s incessantly present AirPods Pro. They’re still the best buds for iPhone users and their noise canceling is relatively impressive. As you’ve guessed, the Sony WF-1000XM3 are another favorite. While they’re bulkier than Apple’s pair and don’t have water resistance, they’re also around $175 on sale.
Since this review was initially published, Jabra's Elite 85t won my heart, offering the best all-around experience (including great noise canceling) for Android or iOS users. And don’t forget our sleeper pick for value, Panasonic’s RZ-S500W, which tend to jostle a bit in my ears, but sound great and pack good noise canceling, comprehensive controls, and water resistance, all for well below $200.
The market is flush with impressive true wireless earbuds these days, and the pairs above are all great picks at more budget-friendly pricing. But if you have to have the best noise cancellation around, Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds are for you.
Meet the tester
Managing Editor - Electronics@ryanwaniata
Hailing originally from Montana, Ryan parlayed his time working as a musician and audio engineer into a career in digital media in 2013. Since then he's had extensive experience as a writer and editor, including everything from op-eds and features to reviews on TVs, audio gear, smart home devices, and more.
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