Bose makes a statement with its new $299 buds
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Bose has built its entire brand and reputation on noise cancellation technology. The company has been in this game for decades, so I probably shouldn’t have been surprised by how soundly the new QuietComfort Earbuds II outperform the competition in the ANC department. But after several days of testing them, that’s exactly where I find myself.
Until now, the original QuietComfort Earbuds, Sony’s WF-1000XM4, and Apple’s AirPods Pro were all within a stone’s throw of each other — and all very good. But Bose’s new $299 earbuds have raised the bar again — substantially. In various everyday situations, these are as good or better than over-ear noise-canceling headphones, and they’re obviously far more compact and portable.
The QuietComfort Earbuds II are still missing some increasingly important amenities like multipoint, and even wireless charging is absent. These oversights can make the high price harder to rationalize. But sound quality is excellent, and in addition to class-leading noise cancellation, Bose has managed to equal the natural, lifelike transparency mode of Apple’s AirPods Pro.
Upon unboxing them, it’s immediately noticeable how much smaller these earbuds are compared to the prior generation. Bose product manager Jason Brisbois told me that they’re 30 percent smaller by volume; they also wear closer to your ears and head than before. The charging case has also been shaved down by 40 percent. It’s more pocketable, but still the sort of size where I don’t understand why Bose didn’t include wireless charging.
Fitting the QuietComfort Earbuds II to your ears is a much different experience than past Bose buds. The company has ditched its signature StayHear winged eartips in favor of a two-piece system. You get three sizes of eartips (S, M, L) and three sets of stability bands that use your ear concha to keep the earbuds securely in place. This means there are nine total combinations when mixing tips and stability bands, and like other earbud makers, Bose notes that your left and right ears might be different enough to warrant different configurations in each. I ended up using large eartips, but a medium-sized stability band in one ear and large in the other.
Bose’s goal with this changeover was to prevent any fatigue or discomfort while also making the new earbuds fit a wider variety of ear shapes and sizes — and there’s even a separate fit kit you can order from customer support with XS and XL attachments if none of the bundled options do the job. I’ve read some initial concern from fans of the one-piece StayHear tips that the new approach won’t work as well for them, but I wouldn’t be worried. It’s admittedly more of a process having to experiment with two pieces in each ear, but it’s a worthwhile use of those extra minutes to find the best fit.
Whenever you begin a listening session by plucking the earbuds from their case and putting them into your ears, you’ll hear a short tone in each ear. It’s the same orchestral thwomp sound effect that Bose has used for years in its headphones and earbuds. But now, it’s got a new very intentional purpose: CustomTune. Bose uses the brief tone to analyze the acoustic properties of your ear canal. And then the QuietComfort Earbuds II adjust the noise cancellation and audio profile based on the data that comes back. This happens once each time you use the earbuds.
Tech companies have been putting much greater emphasis on tailoring the sound of earbuds or headphones just for you. With iOS 16, Apple can now scan your ears for personalized spatial audio. And Sony claims it’s able to optimize 360 Reality Audio with pictures of your ears. Bose is essentially using CustomTune as its own answer for personalized audio.
The drivers and underlying components in the QuietComfort Earbuds II haven’t drastically changed from the original pair. But sound from these buds does seem more nuanced, dynamic, and shaped than before, and Brisbois said that all boils down to CustomTune. Bose research scientist John Rule said the system takes hundreds of measurements and then makes the resulting audio adjustments and applies filters “in less than a second.” The QuietComfort Earbuds II sound better to my ears than the AirPods Pro or Sony’s WF-1000XM4 buds.
They produce dynamic, textured music with plenty of bass kick and a wide soundstage. I’d say Bose is only eked out by something like Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 3 earbuds, but those are proving more buggy and unreliable the more I use them. And there’s no comparison when it comes to ANC: Bose wins. But it’s how the company made such headway this time that’s more interesting.
“When you’re flying on an airplane, you can cancel the airplane pretty well,” Rule said of most noise-canceling headphones and earbuds on the market today. “But you can now hear the people talking three rows behind you, because you’ve canceled the plane more than you’ve canceled the voices. You’ve unmasked things you didn’t want to hear.”
“So in order to really perceive that you’re getting more noise canceling, there’s no real value in making the airplane any more quiet. There’s only value in filling in that hole in the middle.” With its new earbuds, Bose specifically focused on bringing down those middle frequencies — things like nearby voices or crying babies — and the improvements are significant. I can still hear a trace of nearby chatter in the office. But I’ve never worn earbuds that come so close to totally erasing the voices around me. Play music at practically any volume, and you’ll feel as though you’re in a private, blissful cocoon.
“We measure them internally as better than the QuietComfort 45s, as having more noise canceling than the [over-ear] QC45s or anything else that we’ve measured,” Rule told me. Some minor asterisks remain: over-ear headphones fare better at hushing higher frequencies (clanking plates and silverware, etc.) because of their ear cup cushions. “We will always work on making both of them better, but right now these are the winners,” Rule said of the QC Earbuds II. It’s impressive, especially when Bose is still using silicone ear tips that don’t have the same isolation benefits as the expanding foam on Sony’s WF-1000XM4.
“I would say it’s true that the future looks like personalization,” Rule said. “And we believe that this is, right now, this [CustomTune] is the best way based on our measurement of competitive products to go after that.” CustomTune also benefits transparency mode, which to my ears comes across just as natural as what you’d hear from Apple’s AirPods Pro. That lifelike passthrough has been very difficult for other earbud makers to top, but Bose is right there neck and neck with Apple.
But the QuietComfort Earbuds II aren’t without weaknesses. They don’t include Bluetooth multipoint, a feature that lets you pair with two audio sources simultaneously for easier multitasking. Google just brought multipoint to the Pixel Buds Pro, and Jabra has included it for many years. Bose’s own headphones offer multipoint, but the company claims it was unable to bring the same convenience to these earbuds while also maintaining high performance.
“When we were defining the program and really scoping out what matters most, single point is really where you get the most reliable connection and audio performance,” Bose’s Brisbois told me. “And so that meant we had to call the ball and just say, all right, no multipoint, because we don’t want to give up on that.” Multipoint can occasionally be glitchy, sure, but I’d prefer having it there regardless.
For their premium price, the QC Earbuds II really don’t include many frills. The Bose Music app for Android and iOS lets you set up four different “modes,” with each blending the levels of noise cancellation and transparency to your preference. You can also make basic EQ adjustments to bass, mids, and treble. And the touch-and-hold gesture is customizable on each earbud: it can either toggle between ANC modes or trigger a voice assistant. The earbuds automatically pause when you remove one of them, and they automatically activate transparency mode when this happens. There’s also an “ActiveSense” setting that will quickly reenable noise cancellation if loud noises are detected when the earbuds are in transparency mode.
That’s about where the software tricks end. No fancy head-tracking spatial audio like you get from AirPods or Galaxy Buds. No location-based sound profiles like Sony’s earbuds can provide. Bose supports the bare minimum AAC and SBC codecs. There’s something to be said for focusing on what matters, but don’t expect much in the way of extras.
Battery life for the QC Earbuds II is estimated at six hours with ANC on, with the case holding three additional charges for a total of 24 hours. The buds are rated IPX4 for water resistance. Those are all par for the course numbers in 2022. Mic performance has been satisfactory in my voice calls so far, but I haven’t had much time for head-to-head testing. Be on the lookout for our next Vergecast microphone test for that.
AGREE TO CONTINUE: BOSE QUIETCOMFORT EARBUDS II
Every smart device now requires you to agree to a series of terms and conditions before you can use it — contracts that no one actually reads. It’s impossible for us to read and analyze every single one of these agreements. But we started counting exactly how many times you have to hit “agree” to use devices when we review them since these are agreements most people don’t read and definitely can’t negotiate.
Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II can be used by pairing over Bluetooth without agreeing to any software terms. But the Bose Music app, available on Android and iOS, is required for accessing some settings and updating firmware. By using that, you’re agreeing to:
Bose Music collects diagnostic and usage data, but you can opt out of this in the app’s settings menu. Thankfully, Bose no longer requires you to create an account just to use the mobile app.
Final tally: two mandatory agreements, one optional agreement on data collection.
The QuietComfort Earbuds II are objectively the best noise-canceling earbuds you can buy. Bose has successfully fended off Sony, Apple, Google, and Samsung and made meaningful progress with ANC in this form factor. They certainly don’t come cheap, and I can’t predict how long the QC Earbuds II will remain at the top; Apple is about to release its second-generation AirPods Pro and promises its own noise-canceling advancements. But they sound fantastic, fit comfortably, and do a tremendous job at silencing the outside world — especially voices. Reputation vindicated once again.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge