Bose, of course, is the company that invented noise-cancelling headphones in the first place – and every pair of consumer-orientated headphones it’s ever created has always delivered where noise-cancellation is concerned. When sound quality and industrial design are considered, though, the company has not always been on the surest of ground.
With the new QuietComfort Earbuds 2, Bose is promising its best-ever active noise-cancellation (ANC), as well as a sleeker, less gawky aesthetic compared to the model it’s replacing. Certainly the QC Earbuds 2 are priced as if they're the best noise-cancelling earbuds around – but are they? And does the new design finally prevent the Bose wearer from looking like an extra in a sci-fi movie? Questions, questions…
Bose QC Earbuds 2: Price and release date
The Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2, or QC Earbuds II as you may also see them listed as, are on sale from September 29 2022, and in the United Kingdom they’ll sell for £279. American customers will have to part with $299, while in Australia the asking price is AU$429.
This, of course, is right in the heart of the action where premium true wireless in-ear headphones are concerned. One hand doesn’t have enough fingers to tick off the obvious competitors from the likes of Apple, Bowers & Wilkins, Sennheiser, Grado, Sony and plenty more besides… so, in short, these new Bose will need to be pretty special if they’re going to stand out.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 review: Features and what’s new?
As far as headline specification is concerned, the Bose are a mildly vexing mixture. For example, they use Bluetooth 5.3 for wireless connectivity (which is currently the state of the art) but are compatible only with SBC and AAC codecs (which is emphatically not).
Given that Bose is increasingly cosy with Qualcomm, the more optimistic might have been hoping for Snapdragon Sound compatibility – but not for the first time, the optimistic are left disappointed. Bose is confident of being able to issue even quite in-depth updates and upgrades over the air, but for now we have to go without any aptX variation, LDAC or any of the other exciting codecs.
Once the digital audio information has been streamed aboard, it’s delivered to the listener via a couple of 9.3mm full-range dynamic drivers. As is its standard practice, Bose is coy about specific frequency response – but ‘full range’ is certain to mean ‘full range’.
Bose is claiming a step-change is active noise-cancellation with the QCE II, and it uses a new package of technologies collectively called ‘CustomTune’ to do so.
What does CustomTune mean? Whenever the earbuds are removed from their case and positioned in the user’s ear, a brief tone is played and a mic inside the earbud measures the ear canal’s response to it. Acting on this information, CustomTune spends less than half a second tailoring both audio response and noise-cancellation to the specific properties of the wearer’s ear. That’s the theory, anyhow.
CustomTune is also designed to offer improvements to its ‘Aware’ transparency mode – as well as giving the outside world a little emphasis, it can respond to sudden loud disruptions by immediately deploying active noise-cancellation for as long as required.
Each earbud has a battery life of a perfectly-acceptable-if-hardly-dramatic six hours, with an additional three full charges stored in the case. An all-in total of 24 hours is competitive in an unremarkable sort of way – and the same can be said for a ‘from flat to full’ time of three hours or a 20 minute blast to secure another couple of hours of playback. There’s no wireless charging facility here, so you’ll need to attach the case to the mains via its USB-C socket.
Bose QC Earbuds II review: Performance
If you’ve heard a pair of Bose headphones manufactured in the last dozen years or so, you’ll have a broad idea of what to expect. The QC Eearbuds 2 are not a carbon-copy, but they don’t stray too far from the approved Bose sonic template.
Low frequencies are full, detailed and punch with proper determination. There’s perhaps a little more light and shade here than is often the case with Bose headphones, and certainly more control where the attack and decay of individual notes is concerned. This makes the second-gen QC Earbuds a little more sprightly than you might be expecting, and ensures decent rhythmic expression along with straightforward momentum.
The midrange, too, enjoys impressive levels of detail – and so voices are delivered with a whole stack of attitude, emotion and character. No vocal nuance is too transitory to elude these earbuds, and there’s more than enough space on the soundstage for a singer to properly stretch out and express themselves. There’s an immediacy to the way the Bose handle midrange information that makes them sound direct and unequivocal.
At the top of the frequency range there’s that tiny lack of extension, or perhaps brilliance, that seasoned Bose-listeners will be familiar with. Treble frequencies are detailed, certainly, and attack with definite purpose even though they give a wide berth to hardness. There’s just not quite the last dash of sparkle that some recordings benefit from.
The whole frequency range is nicely integrated, though, with nothing given undue prominence of left lingering at the back of the stage. Tonally, too, the Bose are well judged – they’re slightly warm rather than entirely neutral, but that isn’t a deal-breaker in and of itself.
And in every other department, the QuietComfort Earbuds II give a deeply enjoyable account of themselves. They’re not the most out-and-out dynamic earbud you ever heard, but they’re in no way inhibited – when a full-scale orchestra launches into ‘attack’ mode you’ll know all about it. They’re adept where less attention-grabbing dynamics are concerned too, more than willing to explain the differences between one press of a piano key and the next.
It’s with their active noise-cancellation, though, that the QC Earbuds 2 make the strongest case for themselves. If banishing all but the loudest and/or the most nearby ambient sounds is what concerns you most, these Bose will make your day. Without leaving any hint of how hard they’re working – no counter-signal, no circuitry hiss, no sensation of in-ear pressure, nothing – the QCE 2 simply take external sound out of the equation.
I’m wearing the review pair of Bose earbuds as I type this sentence, and the keyboard of my 2020 MacBook Pro is virtually inaudible. And I type quite hard. No other in-ear headphone I’ve tested (and I’ve tested quite a few) does as complete a job.
Bose QC Earbuds 2 review: Design and usability
Broadly speaking, the QuietComfort Earbuds 2 are a variation on the ‘stem-drip’ design pioneered by Apple and since extensively copied by all and sundry. Bose, though, has managed to put its own spin on the basic design by keeping the stem to a minimum (while still allowing plenty of space for a capacitive touch surface) and making the in-ear section of the earbud a twist/lock design.
The result is a coherent look and, at 17 x 31 x 22mm, an earbud that is usefully smaller and more discreet than the model it replaces. At 6.2g each they’re not the lightest earbuds around but, again, they’re a worthwhile improvement on the outgoing model.
The earbuds themselves are a mixture of shiny black and matte black plastics (Bose calls this finish ‘triple black’ – a ‘soapstone’ finish, which as far as I can tell means ‘white’, will follow soon). An IPX4 rating indicates the standard of their build quality as well as their resistance to moisture. Meanwhile, the charging case (a helpfully compact 59 x 66 x 27mm) is of quite hard and not especially tactile plastic.
As far as ‘usability’ is concerned, Bose has outdone itself here. To help ensure the best possible fit, the QCE 2 are supplied with ‘S’, ’M’ and ‘L’ sizes of silicone eartips and the same number of differently sized ‘stability bands’. These are silicone too, and fit around the earbuds – they feature a protruding ‘fin’ to help keep to earbud secure in the ear – and given the number of options these accessories provide, anyone who can’t achieve a snug, comfortable and utterly stable fit from the Bose earbuds must have very unusual ears indeed.
Control is available either via your source player’s native voice assistant (the QC Earbuds 2 have four mics in each earbud to take care of this, telephony and active noise-cancellation), the touch-surface of each earbud or the Bose ‘Music’ control app.
The mic array proves just as capable of making your instructions heard as it is facilitating phone-calls. Touch-controls are reliable too, and cover ‘play/pause’, ‘skip forwards/backwards’, ‘answer/end/reject call’ and ‘volume up/down’. A ‘touch and hold’ action on either earbud gives access to ‘shortcut’ – a binary choice between ‘access voice assistant’ and ‘cycle through noise-cancelling modes’. The app will allow you to assign a different shortcut to each earbud.
Elsewhere, it’s tidy, logical and stable Bose control app business as usual. There are two preset modes of noise-cancellation – ‘quiet’, which is all the way on; and ‘aware’, which is all the way off with a little boost given to external sounds – to which you can specify another couple of modes. There are 10 stages of noise-cancellation from which to choose too. And there’s a three-band equaliser if you want to customise your sound beyond the four EQ presets featured in the app. There’s even a quick eartip fit test, just to make sure you’ve fitted your earbuds correctly.
Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II review: Verdict
Smaller and better-sounding than the model they replace, and with noise-cancellation that puts them in a league of their own, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds 2 are, frankly, the most complete active noise-cancelling earbuds you can buy in 2022. Seriously impressive.
As really should be apparent, you can’t beat the QuietComfort Earbuds II when it comes to noise-cancellation. If you make sound quality your out-and-out priority, though, you need to cast a glance (and an ear) at both the Grado GT220 and the Bowers & Wilkins PI7 – they each have the edge on the Bose when it comes to detail resolution and outright fidelity. And it would be a brave consumer who discounts the Sony WF-1000XM4 – as all-rounders with a stack of peripheral functionality they’re nigh-on impossible to argue with.
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