Portable Peace and Quiet: A Review of the Bose QuietComfort 20

4976399329_d1fd6b27b1_bOne of the things that we love here at ProfHacker is our music. We’ve had posts about using music to inspire student thinking; a discussion about the music you teach with; coverage of how can help you create a playlist to run with; a review of Your Playlist Can Change Your Life; and, of course, Jason’s love of all things Hold Steady. My own passion for music—both listening and playing—led to my completing a music major in college and seriously considering graduate school in musicology. (I wanted to plumb the depths of Steve Reich’s compositions.)

As much as I love music, however, there are times when I want things to be quiet. Silence is not golden when one is trying to lead a discussion, but when I’m trying to write or read I want as little noise as possible. Indeed, I’ve been known to wear earplugs when working in an office by myself because the computer fan was too loud. So when my office environment changed recently with the addition of 15 people to the space that I’d previously shared with just one or two coworkers, I was a bit worried about how I’d be able to concentrate and get things done.

Fortunately, my supervisors were aware of how I like to work and had some extra money in the budget as the space was simultaneously being redesigned. The result? They asked me to research noise canceling headphones and let them know what pair would suit my needs. After reading quite a bit and testing some headphones in stores, I ended up getting the Bose QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling Headphones.

The Bose QC20i headphone

The very first thing that should be said about these headphones (and all Bose products) is that they are not cheap. In fact, at $300, they’re nowhere close to reasonable. I very much doubt that I would have ever justified their purchase to myself. But if someone was willing to buy them for me, then I was willing to get the best noise canceling headphones I could find.

So the second thing that should be said about these headphones is that they are in fact amazing at eliminating sounds around me. When I have them turned on, conversations taking place less than 10 feet away from me turn into nothing but the smallest blips of background noise. And that’s without even turning on any music. Once I have something playing (My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, as I write), I can’t hear anything but the music even with the volume set at only 15% of maximum.

The QC20′s are perhaps even more miraculous when traveling. I’ve had the chance to test them on flights (hooray for traveling with the new FAA regulations!), New York subways, and the Philly regional train system. They don’t make the noise of any of these completely disappear, but they do eliminate almost all of the background rumble. I’ve found myself considerably more relaxed feeling at the end of a flight when I haven’t had to endure the constant drone of engines at 70+ decibels.

Of course, you might on occasion want to hear those people around you or, if you’re traveling, you might need to hear the announcement of which subway station you’re approaching. Fortunately, the QC20’s have an “aware” mode which lets you hear some of the ambient sounds around you while still hearing music. “Aware” mode still uses noise canceling, so it can actually help you hear airline attendants better than if you weren’t using the headphones. I find that it works well for walking through a city like New York, where you really do need to be conscious of the traffic and people around you. You trigger the “aware” mode from a remote which is about halfway down the headphones. The remote has a microphone, so you can use the headphones for phone calls (which works great). And if you’re an Apple user, the QC20i model has volume buttons on the remote. The remote on the non-Apple QC20 model QC20 model still has a microphone, but only has a single play/stop/answer button.

The headphones can be also used without any noise canceling. In fact, you’ll save your battery by not using either of the powered modes. But since the lithium battery lasts about 16 hours per charge, you probably don’t need to worry about it. The downside of listening without any noise canceling is that the sound is really thin and weak. When in noise canceling and “aware” modes, I think the sound is generally well rounded, but I’m also not an audiophile. I can say that it doesn’t sound as full as what I get from my other headphones, the amazing Koss KSC75, which are a steal at $20 or less. But you’ve got to understand what you’re paying for with the QC20′s is the noise cancellation (and at $300, you are certainly paying for it).

Along with the sound, one of the reasons I really like the Koss KSC75 is because it sits on top of my ear, and I generally don’t like in-ear headphones. That was something that I was concerned with when contemplating the QC20. But I found that the headphones don’t actually go that far into the ear canal; instead they are held in place by little wings that sit in the curve of the ear and which you can see in my photo above. They’re far more comfortable than I thought they would be. The QC20′s comes with three different sizes of ear pieces, and I spent a few days moving back and forth between the small and medium until I figured out which works best for me (medium). It took another week for my ears to get used to the tips, but I can now wear them for a whole day without any trouble. They still aren’t as comfortable as the Koss cans, but they serve a different function.

The final thing to say about noise canceling headphones is that they can create a sensation of pressure in one’s ears, almost as if you’re underwater. I certainly experienced that when testing the Bose QuietComfort 3 or QC 15, especially when not listening to music. I found it uncomfortable and wouldn’t be able to use them as everyday headphones. The QC20’s, on the other hand, don’t create this sensation for me at all.

It goes without saying (again) that the Bose QC20 is a very expensive headphone. But if money isn’t an object or if you really need the noise cancelation, I don’t know that you’ll find a better way to have portable peace and quiet wherever you go.

Do you have noise canceling headphones? What strategies do you use to get the quiet you need to work? Let us know in the comments!

Lead image: Quiet /

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