Bose was way overdue for a new pair of true wireless earbuds. The company doesn’t typically release a product refresh every year, but the SoundSport Free buds were first introduced in 2017. True wireless tech has improved dramatically in the last year alone. Any product that’s over two years old is going to feel pretty outdated. To remedy this, the company introduced an all-new noise-cancelling model in its coveted QuietComfort line: the QuietComfort Earbuds. At $279.95, this is definitely a premium option, so Bose needs to do a lot just to justify the price.
Gallery: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review | 16 Photos
Gallery: Bose QuietComfort Earbuds review | 16 Photos
There’s no denying Bose’s bread and butter is over-ear noise-cancelling headphones. The company currently offers the tastefully designed Bose 700 and the aging, but still very good, QuietComfort 35 II. It’s not too surprising Bose didn’t dive into true wireless with dozens of models over the last few years. With the QuietComfort Earbuds, Bose leveraged the lineage of its popular QC headphones and brought powerful active noise cancellation (ANC) to a new true wireless option. And despite having to wait well over a year since the initial tease of the QC Earbuds, the company finally delivered.
- Crisp and clear sound
- Powerful noise cancellation
- Comfortable despite the size
- Wireless charging
- Large earbuds and case
- Awkward look due to size
- Limited touch controls and customization
Let’s be honest: like most Bose headphones, the main draw of the QuietComfort Earbuds is the company’s experience with noise cancellation. Bose knows how to block out external sound effectively with over-ear headphones, but doing the same with true wireless earbuds is a completely different challenge. A lot of companies pack ANC into the tiny buds, but some of them don’t do a great job countering the chaos around you. Sometimes the noise cancellation isn’t effective, and others the design of the earbuds and ear tips don’t provide enough seal in your ear. Either of those faults can drastically reduce ANC performance and waste the feature’s potential.
On the QuietComfort Earbuds, Bose uses what it calls StayHear Max tips for a “soft-yet-tight” seal. Indeed, these are more effective than most “standard” tips at creating a secure closure, thanks to their larger size. The StayHear Max tips flare out as they extend away from the driver, so there’s more surface area contact in your ear canal. Even with ANC turned off, the QC Earbuds have better passive noise isolation than a number of models I’ve tested.
With active noise cancellation on, however, the QuietComfort Earbuds can basically block out the world. The only other earbuds I’ve reviewed that even come close to these at keeping the chaos around you at bay are Sony’s WF-1000XM3. Sony is more about adaptive noise cancellation that adjusts based on activity or location, but the company has developed an effective combination of ANC and sound quality. Bose, however, is the best option for straightforward noise cancellation.
Bose offers 11 levels of noise cancellation on the QC Earbuds, just like it does on its headphones. You can set three levels of favorites inside the Bose Music app, and a double tap on the left earbud will cycle through them. Unlike its headphones, the company doesn’t offer voice prompts for those settings, so you have to pay attention to figure out where you are. Of course, full ANC is pretty obvious, so at least you’ll have a clear reference point. Plus, level 0 is basically transparency mode, so that one is easy to pick out as well. The quick access to these settings is great for working from home. With a double tap I can listen in on my first grader’s remote learning or be aware when he needs a snack. And when I need to block out an episode of Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, I can tap right back into my own world.
The QuietComfort Earbuds have internal and external microphones (one of each per bud) to monitor ambient noise. Combined with Bose’s ANC tech, the system can adjust to counter the environmental roar “in a fraction of a millisecond.” I have no way of timing this, but I can tell you the QC Earbuds have powerful and effective noise cancellation that performs better than all other ANC true wireless products I’ve tested. Bose says it brought the ANC chops of its popular headphones to earbuds, but I’m not going to go that far. The noise cancellation here is very good, especially for true wireless, but it doesn’t quite match the silence of over-ear cans.
I’m not going to mince words here: these earbuds are huge. I thought the WF-1000XM3 were large, but the QC Earbuds are noticeably bigger. Like the Sony model, almost all of the earbud sits outside of your ear, with only the tip tucked inside. For this reason, the new Bose model makes you look like you’re wearing two Bluetooth headsets from 2010. And look, I get it, some people don’t mind the aesthetic. But with true wireless earbuds trending smaller by the month, it could be a deal breaker.
Despite the size, the QuietComfort Earbuds don’t feel particularly heavy. The weight is decently balanced so they don’t feel like they’re going to fall out. At least, once you find the best tips for your ears. It can be awkward at first, but they stay put even when you’re active. Bose also added a fin to the removable ear tip to help secure things in place. I expected these to be slightly uncomfortable due to the extra bulk, but those ear tips keep things feeling nice after hours of non-stop wear. The QC Earbuds are also IPX4 rated, so they’ll withstand a modest amount of moisture. However, the Bose Sport Earbuds ($179.95) are actually designed for exercise, but they’re IPX4 as well and lack ANC.
On the outside of each earbud, there’s a touch panel for on-board controls. Unfortunately, you only have a few options here -- two per side. The right bud will play/pause with a double tap while the same action on the left side cycles through your selected noise cancellation presets (called Favorites in the app). You can choose to add a press and hold on the left earbuds, but you can only use it to either hear the current battery level or skip to the next track. It’s called Shortcut, and I kept it locked on the track control. The Music app displays the battery info for both buds individually, so I just glanced at my phone as needed. Lastly, a press and hold on the right side will summon your voice assistant of choice.
Bigger earbuds mean a bigger case. The one for the QC Buds isn’t as absurdly huge as the one that comes with the Powerbeats Pro, but it’s twice as big as some other models. The consolation prize is that Bose included wireless charging that works with any Qi-certified device. There are also five status LEDs on the outside, so you get a better idea of levels than you would with the typical trio of lights most companies use. A USB-C jack is around back for wired charging and a Bluetooth pairing button resides inside between the two earbud cradles.
While I prefer Sony’s typical sound profile, Bose has a knack for great audio quality. The QuietComfort Earbuds are no different. They have a crisp clarity that’s excellent with finer details like subtle synth grunge, guitar fret noise, snare drum rattle and more. The audio is big and full, especially at higher volumes. Sometimes true wireless earbuds can l sound compressed and flat, but Bose nailed the dynamics here. You can hear the layers of instruments and vocals, rather than having everything mashed together.
The EQ is also well-tuned for a range of genres. Bose doesn’t offer an adjustable equalizer for the QC Earbuds inside the Music app, and that’s a bit of a bummer. But, these sound pretty damn good out of the box. There’s ample bass, but it’s not overly boomy or exhausting. It provides a backbone to the folky alt-country tunes of Ruston Kelly, but also gives thump to songs on Sylvan Esso’s Free Love and Run The Jewels’ RTJ4. If I was forced to nitpick, there can be a little too much emphasis on vocals at times, but it’s far from a major issue -- and some styles even benefit from it.
A lot of true wireless earbud companies make lofty claims about call performance. Most of the time you still end up sounding like you’re talking on a speakerphone. Any buds will work for calls, but a lot of them are far from an ideal option in noisy environments. There are some exceptions, but mileage varies greatly. Bose built a dedicated voice microphone inside the right earbud for calls. The company says it’s designed to focus on your voice and block out the chaos around you.
Unfortunately, the results are pretty mediocre. The person on the other end of phone calls said they could hear a good amount of background noise and my voice had a tinny, high-pitched quality to it. They also noticed that the clamor around me became more prevalent when I stopped talking, which wasn’t the case with the Sennheiser CX 400BT. Bose does give you the ability to adjust how much of your voice you hear through the buds during calls, with options for low, medium, high and none at all.
Bose promises six hours of use on the buds themselves with another two full charges in the case. During my tests, I got almost seven hours. And I typically had the ANC level all the way up so I could focus on work. If you find yourself in a pinch, the company offers a quick charge feature that will give you two hours of listening time in 15 minutes. And as I mentioned, you can charge the whole package wirelessly or with a USB-C cable.
While some companies offer true wireless earbuds with 10 or more hours of play time on the buds, most of those don’t have ANC. When you look at the best noise-cancelling options, Bose is in the same ballpark. Sony’s WF-1000XM3 also lasts six hours and Jabra claims its upcoming Elite 85t will run for five and a half. Honestly, 5-6 hours is plenty for earbuds. More often than not, you’ll dock these in the case after an hour or two, so they’ll be topped up regularly. Sure, you might need to push the limits at some point, but six straight hours of music, podcasts or phone calls is far from “normal” use for most people.
As I’ve mentioned a few times, the primary competition here is Sony’s WF-1000XM3. In my opinion the noise-cancelling performance is a toss up, but the overall sound quality advantage goes to Sony. The 1000XM3 earbuds also offer way more customization than the QC Earbuds, which could be a deal breaker for some. Plus, Sony’s flagship model is $230 at full price, and you can regularly find them on sale for under $180. They’re well over a year old at this point, but the company has added new features along the way, so they’re aging well.
If sound quality is your primary concern, and price doesn’t really matter, Sennheiser’s Momentum True Wireless 2 is a solid option. The audio is incredible, but the noise cancellation isn’t as robust as what Bose and Sony offer. Sennhieser gives you a good amount of customization options though, and the design is slightly more compact than either of those other two models.
Bose has come a long way since the SoundSport Free. The company had years to perfect its next set(s) of true wireless earbuds, and it’s created a tempting package. The QuietComfort Earbuds have powerful ANC and great overall sound quality, plus premium features like wireless charging. The limited customization and touch controls could be a headache for some, and the large-sized buds create a look some may not want. And when you factor in price, Sony’s WF-1000XM3 is an attractive alternative despite its age. Bose and Sony have done battle over noise-cancelling headphones during the last few years, now they’re doing the same for true wireless earbuds. And Bose finally has a product that can give Sony a run for its money.