Review: Bose QuietComfort 20 noise-cancelling headphones

By David Flynn, December 31 2013
Review: Bose QuietComfort 20 noise-cancelling headphones

The BOSE QuietComfort 20s are the latest members of the popular QuietComfort family, which for various reasons seem to have become almost standard field kit among business travellers and frequent flyers.

But unlike the BOSE QC3 and QC15 headphones which fully encase the ear, the QC20s are compact travel-friendly earbuds.

They still boast the same astounding noise-cancelling capabilities as their larger siblings so they can push down the chatter, clatter and constant mind-numbing drone of aircraft engines. Yet they’re just as practical for your daily commute on the train or bus, or even at home.

The overall effect is eerily silent and the noise-cancellation circuitry seems even more effective for reducing general cabin conversation, although their magic remains ineffective on crying babies.

In addition to smacking down ambient noise, the BOSE QC20s are solid performers with a bright top-end response and broad mid-range, although the flatter bass response makes them less ideal for doof-doof.

I’ve been using a pair of QC20s for the past month, which means enough international trips that the headphones themselves could qualify for Gold frequent flyer status.

So why would you buy these instead of, say, the QC15s or 30s?

One reason is size: the QuietComfort 20s demand much less space in your hand luggage.

This might not be a deal-breaker on international flights but for short domestic trips, especially when you’re travelling in ‘carry-on only’ mode, it’s a relief not to be weighted down by larger headphones.

And they’re exceptionally comfortable, with soft snug-fitting silicone ear tips which also assist in blocking out noise and can be worn while you sleep, if you’re the sort who likes to drift off to music.

But the QC20s are also far more versatile than conventional headphones because a tiny microphone in the inline control unit lets them double as a hands-free setup for your smartphone.

Using them with your smartphone takes some getting used to, but only because the person you’re talking to sounds extra clear for cutting through the noise while your own voice sounds muffled to you, because you’re hearing it internally, through your head rather than your ears.

A quick fix for this is to remove one earbud during a phone conversation.

(BOSE sells two versions of the QC20, so be sure to get the one designed for your smartphone. The base model QC20 works with most Android, Windows and BlackBerry devices, while the QC20i is designed specifically for iPhones.) 

A switch on the inline control unit located partway down from the earphones temporarily allows the outside noise in so that you can hear the cabin crew when it’s time to order your meals or drinks.

While I usually don’t like earbuds which need to be inserted into my ear canal, the clever design of the QC20s means they don’t need to be jammed in.

The tiny speakers rest against the opening of the ear canal while the triangular wing of the silicone eartip fits into the contour of your ear to hold it in place.

As a result the earbuds rest in the bowl of your ear rather than being stuffed deep into your ear canal. Just as important, they stay in place unlike some earbuds which they too easily and too often tumble out.

One of my only criticisms of the QC20s is that this control unit is located too close to the earpieces themselves. It sits up around your neck rather than further down near your breast pocket, where it could be clipped for easy access (if the unit had a small alligator clip, which is also something I’d like to see in any future revision of the QC20s).

A more basic oversight, and a surprising one for BOSE, is that a double-pin airline adaptor plug isn’t included on the handy QC20 carry-bag, despite being standard kit on the QC15 and QC30 models.

The QC20s can still be plugged into a single audio socket of your aircraft’s inflight entertainment system but of course you’ll get sound only through one channel and thus one ear.

The QC20s rely on a rechargeable battery, which is tucked away in a flat section towards the end of the cable.

This charges up over any USB port, including those now found on many aircraft, but it takes only four hours of being jacked in to supply the QC20s with a full 16 hours of juice.

And unlike other BOSE QuietComfort headsets, if the battery runs flat the QC20s still continue to work just like regular headphones. You won’t get noise cancellation of course, but it’s a big step forward from models like the QC15 where a dead battery means the cans don’t work at all.

In summary: I rate the QuietComfort 20s so highly that I bought a pair myself. 

BOSE QuietComfort 20: $399 through Bose stores and dealers, and

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David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

02 Dec 2011

Total posts 47

It was perfect until the $399 part. Ouch!


19 Sep 2013

Total posts 197

The similar Sony product, around for a few years is cheaper,  clips to your shirt and has double-pin adaptor.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

17 Aug 2012

Total posts 2207

What's the exact Sony product?


19 Sep 2013

Total posts 197

Sony MDR-NC22, but it looks like they are not available now. At around $80, they were great value.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

10 Nov 2011

Total posts 133

D'oh! Just bought a pair of QC3's the other day. I saw the QC20's but the in ear design didn't appeal to me. The QC3's a great although I was suprised by the level of noise leakage when the volume is at a higher level.

VA Platinum

28 Apr 2013

Total posts 10

this is where the QC15 excels, music is locked in so not much noise will get out! :)

I tried these out last week.. Brilliant!

I like the size & performance, though not as wholesome in bass as the QC15s.

Although a premium product, the price is quite steep.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

23 Mar 2012

Total posts 212

US price US$300 - Aus price A$399 does this mean the Australia tax alive and well??


11 Jul 2013

Total posts 3

David - did you manage to sleep with them on? Was your head lying on the headphone?

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

24 Apr 2013

Total posts 57

I prefer these to the on-ear headphones, so that I can sleep on my side. My Audio-Technica ATH-ANC23 comes with an airline adapator to plug into the socket for stereo sound. It's cheaper than Bose and as good quality. 

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

03 Aug 2013

Total posts 8

you said QF15... Isnt it QC15?

23 Sep 2013

Total posts 1

AU$400 hey?  Brave to think Bose can still get away with that, given so many comparable n/c earbuds on the market today.

21 May 2013

Total posts 7

"The QC20s can still be plugged into a single audio socket of your aircraft’s inflight entertainment system but of course you’ll get sound only through one channel and thus one ear"

I find that if you unplug the jack only slightly, leaving a milimeter or so of it out you wil get the sound of that one channel in both ears (still only the sound meant for one ear). Quite helpful when I forget to bring my adapter onboard. Not sure if anyone else has tried this, just thought I'd share.

Thank you David for the review :)

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

25 Sep 2013

Total posts 1247

Confirmed when my brother recently flew in Y on SQ's A333.

24 Oct 2010

Total posts 2551

Hi Jalmulla - yeah, a bit of fiddling with the plug hits that sweet spot in the socket so it's a good trick for 'emergency' situations without an adaptor, I've used it myself, but I prefer an adaptor all the same.

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