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September was a big month for wireless earbuds. Apple was on Samsung's heels after the release of the Galaxy Buds 2 Pro, positioning the AirPods Pro 2 as the flagship buds to beat. And now, Bose is here to play... and it's not settling for second.
With the three major brands, among others, contending for a spot in your ears, the heated competition brings a wealth of new technology and enhancements for all consumers to enjoy. With Bose's QuietComfort Earbuds II, the company is banking on active noise cancellation (ANC) supremacy for success.
I've been testing the QuietComfort Earbuds II for the past week, going about my fair share of subway rides in ever-so-lively New York City, working in an energetic newsroom environment, and exercising at a gym that insists on putting Ed Sheeran on loop. On nearly all fronts, these earbuds aren't just frontrunners, they're in a league of their own.
Four in each earbud
Earbuds: 1.2 x 0.68 inches
Charging case: 2.6 x 2.34 inches
Up to 6 hours with a single charge |earbud charger time: 1 hour | charging case time: 3 hours
Up to 30 feet
iPhone, iPad, and Android devices via the Bose Music App. Manual setup available for MacOS and PC devices.
Let's address the obvious: These earbuds sound their part and look their part, too. The QuietComfort Earbuds II don't have the "snipped-off headphones" look that AirPods have, or the trendy pebble-like shape of Google's and Samsung's. Instead, they look rectangular and more like old-school Bluetooth earpieces. That means the earbuds are a tad bulky in the ear but distinguishable and practical. Unlike the AirPods Pro 2 that merely hang on my ear, the Bose buds fit snugly within.
The interior design closely mimics the shape of a typical ear canal, helping to lock in both the earbuds and the sound. Like a puzzle piece, the earbuds perfectly fit in the ear without needing to be constantly adjusted. For enhanced comfort -- hence the namesake -- each bud is equipped with a soft ear tip around the innermost speaker and a soft stability band that tapers the outer earpiece. Both the ear tips and surrounding cushion come in large, medium, and small sizes -- I was particularly excited about that last one. Everyone's ears are different, after all.
With in-ear headphones, there can be a noticeable amount of pressure that builds up in the ears after wearing them for hours on end. Surprisingly, the QuietComfort earbuds felt less intrusive than other wearables I've tested and there were plenty of moments when I'd feel so immersed in the passive noise cancellation that I'd unintentionally ignore my boss' greetings. (Sorry, Jason!)
The earbuds' wide surface area isn't just for looks; it doubles as a touchpad for controls and gestures. I find that feature especially helpful when I'm lugging groceries around town and simply need to tap the earbuds to play, pause, skip, or even answer phone calls.
The actions only require a gentle touch to play and pause, and when I scroll up and down, the volume adjusts with precision -- one notch at a time. The only negatives I've experienced with the touchpad are due to user error more than anything else. I have a habit of resting my hand on the side of my face when I'm concentrating and often found myself accidentally pausing the audio. If you're a natural hand-rester like me, be forewarned of the touchpad's sensitivity.
One design choice that I'm not the fondest of is the charging case. It's a chunky capsule, especially in comparison with nearly every other wireless earbuds case I've used. Sure, I'm able to tuck it into a back pocket or backpack. But if you typically slide your earbuds case in your front pocket, don't expect to have room to fit anything else.
Bulkiness aside, I have found the Bose case easier to find than, say, the AirPods Pro 2 case, especially when I'm fishing around my bottomless backpack or in the depths of my couch cushions. The larger case also lends itself to a higher battery capacity for charging.
Performance and sound quality
Now, the question of the hour: How do these earbuds sound? As someone who is (newly) a sound snob, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II are the best that I've heard. So much so that, after receiving them, I have forced everyone I've interacted with to slip the earbuds in, listen to The Weeknd's "Blinding Lights," and indulge in the clarity and rumble of the opening synthesizers. In fact, ZDNET's Sabrina Ortiz described the sound quality as a "club in my ears."
The bass is noticeable and heavy by default, but you can also use the Bose Music app to adjust the equalization of all frequencies. What I was most impressed with in terms of the Bose's audio performance was how even after turning base levels up, other instruments and vocals were not blown out. The same applied to adjusting the volume. Dialing up didn't necessarily cause the output to sound tinnier, and dialing down didn't worsen the overall clarity.
For the ultimate QuietComfort experience, you'll want to toggle on Quiet Mode, Bose's interpretation of active noise cancellation. Once it's on, your environment switches to silent, and that song, movie, or even audiobook that you're listening to takes center stage. At just half volume, I couldn't even hear the conversations that took place only a few feet away or New York City's constant soundtrack of chaos from outside my window. The audio and my thoughts are at the forefront of my mind and ears.
Bose says it can achieve such a feat through its CustomTune technology. The sound test plays a chime in your ears, which is picked up by the microphones and gives the buds an idea of your ear canal shape. From there, the ANC is tailored to how your ears take in sound.
The Bose Music App allows you to set multiple Modes in which you can hotfix noise cancellation levels to fit your needs. I personally drown out the sound of the treadmill when I run, so I have a Workout Mode that turns noise cancellation to almost full capacity.
There's also a default Aware Mode that's similar to the Ttransparency mode on competing earbuds. While the setting dials down ANC just enough for ambient listening, I found myself turning down the volume a fair amount -- usually two to three notches -- to fully hear someone talking to me or the subway conductor announcing stops.
For myself, my family, and my coworkers, almost all our phone or Zoom calls are filtered through wireless earbuds. That makes good microphone quality a must for me. Unfortunately, this is where Bose's earbuds let me down. Not only did I have to turn my volume almost all the way up to hear my phone calls -- no matter the setting -- every person I called had trouble hearing me due to volume problems or the earbuds picking up too much background noise.
Better than the AirPods Pro 2?
Apple's AirPods Pro 2 made their debut just two days after the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II became available for presale. Naturally, there's going to be some comparison, and I've had the fortune of testing both in recent times.
For me, the AirPods Pro 2 do two things better: Transparency mode and microphone quality. While Awareness Mode on the Bose earbuds is fine, the AirPods' Transparency mode allows you to hear both audio and your surroundings with clarity and without drastically adjusting the volume. While the AirPods' microphone quality isn't perfect, they do a better job of filtering out background noise and capturing a livelier sound.
In all other camps, Bose takes the cake. The sound quality and noise cancellation sound more sophisticated, making every synthesizer tone sizzle and every frequency seamlessly flow in and out of your ears. If you just need to drown out distractions, the QuietComfort II earbuds have the comfort and quality that Apple just hasn't accomplished, yet.
In a hotly contested wireless earbuds market, Boses' latest contribution marries comfort and quality while establishing a new benchmark for active noise cancellation. While the QuietComfort Earbuds II may not have the best microphone quality or a case that doesn't bulge out of your pants, once you slip the earbuds in, you'll be enwrapped in an audio experience that makes the shortcomings a little more forgiving.
Alternatives to consider
Besides the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II, these are the wireless earbuds you should consider: