Who this is for
If you want compact headphones that are easy to tote around when you travel and are designed to offer great noise reduction for use on airplanes, trains, and so on, an in-ear noise-cancelling pair is for you. If you want even more overall noise reduction, you don't mind carrying something that's a bit bigger than a paperback book when folded, you don't wear glasses, and you don't plan to sleep on a plane, over-ear noise-cancelling headphones are the better bet.
How we tested
Both subjective and objective testing show the Bose QC20 to be a cut above the competition.
To evaluate noise cancellation, headphone-measurement guru and Wirecutter contributor Brent Butterworth set up speakers and a subwoofer to output pink noise at 75 decibels. He then measured how much passive and active noise cancelling each pair of headphones provides using TrueRTA, an M-Audio MobilePre USB interface, and a G.R.A.S 43AG ear-and-cheek simulator. For the full explanation, check out his article How to Measure Noise Cancelling in Headphones.
While extremely useful, these measurements tell only part of the story; a pair of noise-cancelling headphones can perform well on an objective test but still not sound very good. So we conducted a round of subjective testing to find the best model in each price category. I also took our top picks on several plane and train trips for real-world testing. The QC20 was the clear winner in every test.
The Bose QuietComfort 20 offers better noise reduction than any other in-ear headphone model.
We chose the Bose QuietComfort 20 as the best pair of in-ear noise-cancelling headphones primarily because at certain frequencies we found that it drops the ambient sound by 45 dB. That's an incredible amount—to put that in perspective, an airplane cabin and a library are roughly 45 dB apart. Although the QC20 doesn't make an airplane sound as quiet as a library (no noise-cancelling headphones can), that's the magnitude of the maximum difference. Overall these headphones make a loud plane cabin sound more like a loud office, which is a huge improvement and a far better result than what we got from other in-ear noise-cancelling headphones.
In our tests the battery lasted through a long-haul Los AngelesHeathrowStockholm series of flights. Bose claims 16 hours per charge, which seems about right. Because of their somewhat flat design, the QC20 headphones are far more comfortable to sleep in than most others (no pair of headphones is truly comfortable to sleep in, but the QC20 comes the closest). The cord is difficult to tangle, so you can just stuff them back into their carrying case without worry. And they don't take up much space, something we certainly can't say about their over-ear counterparts.
Aside from the noise reduction, the sound quality on music and movies isn't bad. These headphones produce a slightly subdued bass and treble that no one would find offensive but no one would be impressed by either. Acceptable would be the best word to describe the quality.
Among the lower-priced in-ear headphones we've tested, we couldn't find better noise-cancelling performance than that of the Monoprice 10799.
The $300 price tag for the QC20 is pretty steep. If you can't justify spending that much, getting a pair of Monoprice 10799 Enhanced Active Noise Cancelling Earphones is a great option. Subjectively, this model offers about half the noise cancellation of the Bose, but at the moment it costs only a little more than 25 percent of the Bose model's price. The sound quality is acceptable: not great, but not terrible, which is common for noise-cancelling headphones. We really couldn't find anything cheaper worth spending money on, nor anything more expensive other than the Bose.
The Bose QuietComfort 20 cancels far more noise than the competition. In addition, this pair of headphones is well built and, for most people, exceptionally comfortable. Its sound quality is only average, but its superb noise-cancelling ability more than makes up for that. If you travel only occasionally, we recommend the Monoprice 10799 Enhanced Active Noise Cancelling Earphones, which don't reduce as much noise as the Bose headphones but come at a much lower price.
This guide may have been updated by The Wirecutter. To see the current recommendation, please go here.