Hardware review: comparison of Bose QC15 and QC20

As I wrote in On the conference circuit I have been traveling a whole lot in the past couple of years, even though I used to be terrified of the idea. Because of that, I also tried looking for every escape hatch from all the bothersome parts of traveling that I could get to, within my budget — which does mean I don’t usually travel business class, though sometimes I do.

One of the earliest things I wanted to address was the headache caused by a long-haul flight. Part of the reason for the headache is directly the hum of the engines, but even more so than that, the problem was due to me cranking the volume up on audiobooks or podcasts I listened to, just to make sure I could hear them through said hum. The obvious answer was to be found in noise-cancelling headphones, so on my birthday, on a trip to Las Vegas, I bought myself a pair of Bose QC15 (no longer manufactured.)

This was a definite lifesaviour for me, particularly as the number of flights I took afterwards kept increasing steadily, and I found in these headphones the only way to sleep on planes. I really wish I had these when I was still living in Italy, particularly as all repeating noises, including lawnmowers and safety warning alarms can be cancelled very nicely — and these were the primary complaints I had when living back there, particularly during the summer.

Unfortunately, as everything in life, these were not perfect, and in particular they relied on making a good seal around your ears, which is perfectly feasible… unless you wear glasses. Indeed depending on the model of glasses I wore, the seal would be from imperfect to completely missing. This became more of an issue when I started flying Dublin to San Francisco non-stop, as that’s a quite long flight enough.

A second problem became more apparent as I managed to get a few more business class trips (either through bids for upgrades, upgrades with miles, or just random stroke of luck on the fare when booking.) When I sleep I tend to turn my head to the side, even more so in a plane because of lights usually being visible in the aisle. When that happens, if the earphone ends up touching the seat, the noise-cancelling gets completely thrown off by the vibration, and stops working altogether.

So last year I decided it was a good time to get a new pair, this time as in-ear earphones, Bose QC20, and I found the improvement worthwhile (of course, it’s still a matter of budget.)

While the actual noise-cancelling is stronger on the QC15 with a good seal (as in, when I’m not wearing glasses), the QC20 provide a better result in a plane when wearing glasses. This makes them much more suitable for the usage pattern I have, but I guess for those who don’t need to wear glasses, and who don’t travel as much, the QC25 might still be a better option.

Compared to the ‘15, the ‘20 have the drawback of requiring charging the battery, which luckily has a micro-B USB connector, so does not require any special cable. My previous pair is powered by a simple AAA battery, so I just kept one or two spares in the headphones’ case. This was also convenient because that is the same type of batteries that my glucometer uses. On the other hand, the ‘20s work fine even without being powered, though without the noise cancelling, of course.

Because of the nature of the earphones, they are also much more practical to carry: the case is many times smaller and easily fit in my pocket, while the previous one would stay in my backpack until I got to the plane. They also are more discreet (even with the bright aqua-colored stripe mine have), which means I have less refrain on using them on the street here in Dublin (I have heard stories about fancy headphones on the street here, but that’s probably paranoia.)

If you wonder why I use these on the street, while they don’t do much good to get rid of the cars themselves, they do take care of two major problems when trying to listen to Audiobooks while walking around the city: the wind (in the winter it can be quite nasty and noisy), and the wheels on the asphalt. Probably due to differences in amounts of rain, I can listen to audiobooks on normal earphones in California, but not so much over here. And I’d rather not crank up the volume on the earphones on the road, as it would cover important safety noises, such as the car trying to run you over.

An interesting factoid of using noise-cancelling headphones during flights can be added to the list of non-directly-logical actions while traveling. If you read the Wikipedia page I linked earlier on, you can read

In the aviation environment, noise-cancelling headphones increase the signal-to-noise ratio significantly more than passive noise attenuating headphones or no headphones, making hearing important information such as safety announcements easier.

In reality, due to the practical difficulty for the cabin crew to tell what kind of headphones you’re wearing (although you’d expect the QC15 to be a very common sight nowadays), in many flights I’ve been asked to take the headphones away during the security demonstration. In case of Aer Lingus (which is, by virtue of being based in Dublin, my airline of choice at least for “local” European flights), they allow you to keep “earbuds type headphones” on, which is another good reason for me to use the ‘20. Other airlines frown upon those as well.

The unfortunate bit is that Bose now requires you to choose your allegiance upfront. QC15 came with a generic cable without controls, and a cable with controls for Apple devices, while allowing you to buy the microphone and controls version for “Samsung” (really, Android), allowing you to pick the right control based on the device. QC20 and QC25 only have one cable each and you need to choose which ones to get the moment you buy them. I have the Android version, even though I also own an iPod Touch.

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