If you spend a lot of time at 35,000 feet, chances are good that you either own a set of noise-canceling headsets or have thought about getting a pair.

For years, I have been a fan of Bose and specifically their QC15 model, the one that completely covers your ears.   They are remarkable and work as advertised drowning out about 70-80% of background noise and virtually eliminating the roar of jet engines.

But they have met their match —- and lost……

Prior to my trip to Dubai, I had contemplated swapping out the QC15 set for Bose’s latest invention, the QC20, which is an in-ear bud model that has built in noise-canceling technology through an attached amplifier.  The QC20 model was released in June and since I had no long-haul travel planned until late September, it slipped off my radar soon after it’s release and I had forgotten about them until strolling through the Duty Free Shopping area in Dubai’s airport last week.

After seeing them initially, I still wasn’t sure if dropping another $300 for another set of  headphones/buds was really necessary, but the box kept calling me back and finally convinced me to bring it to the cashier.   Having 600 Dirhams (about $163) to burn before leaving Dubai had made the decision easier, it felt like I was getting them at a 50% discount.   Call it advanced rationalization.

Anyway, after leaving the Duty Free Shop, I headed over to the Lufthansa Senator Lounge where I was able to set them up and begin the comparison.

Aside from the obvious difference (headset vs. ear buds), the QC-20 has a couple of unique features that are lacking in the QC15 model.   First, the QC20 has a small in-line amplifier (about 1 inch wide/3 inches long/ and thinner than an iPhone) that contains an internal rechargeable (via USB cable) battery that provides up to 16 hours of life on a single charge.   Thats enough to last from Chicago to Hong Kong with an hour or 2 to spare.  The second unique feature is the presence of a button on the amplifier that lets you suspend the noise cancelation so that you can hear someone talking to you or listen to cabin announcements.  With the QC15, you had to carry ‘AAA’ batteries in reserve and you had to either unplug or pull your headset off to hear anything around you.  Big Advantage to the QC20.

Once I had charged the ear bud’s battery and started to use them in the lounge, I noticed an amazing difference when the noise canceling was turned on.    The impact was incredible and nearly drowned out every sound around me.  The only sound that I heard was a low volume white noise that indicates that the noise canceling is functioning.    The lounge was not very busy and noise was at a minimum so the buds had yet to win me over at that point.  The big test would be during the flight and having my QC15s with me, it would be a perfect laboratory in which to compare the 2 models.

During the flight, I took both models out and for about 30 minutes kept switching between headset and buds every 5-10 minutes to get a sense of the differences.   This is where I was completely surprised.   I thought for sure that the QC15 set would outperform the QC20. After all they were bigger, covered the entire ear and had already proven themselves as a great headset.   However, I have to admit that the QC20 won the competition by a large margin.   The QC20 noise canceling was actually far superior to the QC15, and the sound quality was much better with the QC20 as well.

After thinking about it for a minute, it dawned on me that an ear bud actually inserts into your ear helping drown out more noise than a headphone, and buds in an ear generally seem to give better sound quality as well.    Combine that with noise canceling technology and it would not be difficult for the ear bud to outperform.

Once the QC20 proved itself, I packed away the QC15 into its case and put it away in my carry-on and I would use the QC20 for balance of my flight from Dubai to Washington which amounted to approximately 12 hours.   Short of going to the Lav a couple of times, the buds were in my ears the entire time and were very comfortable to wear.  I was even able to sleep on my side with the ear buds not creating any discomfort.  Try that with a headset!

 

The QC20:  Superior noise canceling in a tiny package.

The QC20: Superior noise canceling in a tiny package.

 

To wrap this up, I couldn’t be happier with the QC20 ear buds.  As much as I loved the QC15 and hesitated to change, I’m glad that I decided to give them a chance.  Not only do I gain superior sound quality and better noise cancelation, I no longer have to pack the large headsets and their LARGE case when I travel.  Actually the QC20s fit into a nice padded case about the size of  a cellphone and can easily be carried in a pocket.  The QC20 is also available in 2 models, one dedicated for iPhones/iPads and one dedicated for Blackberry Phones.

If you currently have a headset style noise canceling model, I strongly recommend you compare them to the QC20, I think you’ll wind up putting your old pair on e-Bay and have someone pay you $175 for them, which then makes the QC20 only $125! 🙂     That’s exactly what I did tonight – the QC20 ear buds are that good.

 

NOTE:  Bose in no way/shape/form provided any consideration for this review.