My ears hurt.

This is annoying. I’m only an hour and ten minutes into my flight, moving to this second travel-based entry on the second of my new tech item reviews. In this case, it’s a set of the Bose Quietcomfort 20. Comfort. Ha.

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To be fair I’m probably being harsh. There are three routes to take with headphones, over, on, and in-ear. Both have advantages and disadvantages. I first used a pair of on-ear wire Sony noise cancellers which were light comfortable and had that irritating dangling appendage (or ‘wire’) that did an ok job of noise cancelling, a pretty rubbish job of voice cancelling and a good job of music playing.

I replaced these with some on-ear Parrot Zik (the first extortionately expensive version) that did a good job of noise and voice cancelling, a better job of playing music but a crap job or being comfortable for anything longer than an hour. Yes, they were wireless but the stictches for the headband were on the inside and the leather was soft but oh so hot. After about an hour (most any flight) your ears were sweating and there was mild discomfort on the point of your head where the headband was. After four hours or so that was a blinding point of agony. Not good.

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So now I’ve moved to some noise-cancelling in-ears, by Bose, the Quietcomfort 20. Not the ‘i’ version, those for the idiots who’ve bought iPhones. I had the difficult decision though of purchasing these wired ones or the new neckband and Bluetooth version, the Bose Quietcontrol 30. I went for the wires (despite my very first world problem distaste for them) because the Quietcontrol 30’s have shorter battery, and if their battery does die, they’re useless as anything other earplugs. At least on a long flight (and it would have to be with a battery  life of around 12 hours) I can still use my Quietcomfort 20’s as headphones, albeit expensive ones or plug them into the in-flight entertainment. So I made my bed and now I’m sleeping in it, and having a damned difficult time of it.

You see I’ve gotten lazy. These earphones are just a little too tight, which makes them uncomfortable to wear long term. I mean, they never hurt like the Parrots did, but they do become noticeable a lot earlier and that’s distracting. Linked to the (in my opinion) excessively loud ‘hiss’ of active noise cancelling without music playing I’m finding the whole proposition irritating.

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The sound quality is good, although not stand-out. They get crashy when the music is racked up, unable it seems to cope with heavy bass. But I guess they’re smallish in-ear headphones so they were always going to struggle compared to the bigger on-ear or over-ear headphones. But I’m not audiophile, and so I’m not so bothered as some may be.

The case, battery life, and build quality is excellent as you’d expect from Bose, and they’re certainly the most convenient to carry active noise cancelling headphones I’ve come across. So that’s a set of major plus points! A large black mark is the battery; being active noise cancellers the headphones need a power source to power the technology. Bose have done this by building the battery into a slim pack at the bottom of the power cord just above the 3.5mm jack. It’s small and innocuous but still very annoying, and for a phone with a top mounted jack the battery sags  down the back of the phone looking sad and feeling awkward. Same goes for putting the thing in your pocket. Bad design, but for the life of me I can’t figure out where else they’d put it that wouldn’t be even more annoying…

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Although what I will say on the battery pack terms is that he person who decided to make it out of rubbery plastic needs burning with fire. It is EVEN MORE difficult to pull from a pocket than if it was just smooth. The single greatest point of irritation.

The noise cancelling is excellent, angry snake sounding hiss aside. It does a superb job of levelling off the external noises and even those sounds that active-cancelling tech usually struggles with, such as rapid pitch changes are levelled off or eliminated. By all accounts the new Sony over-ear headphones or the Bose QuietComfort 35 are even better but I would struggle to criticise the performance of these headphones in this area.

All in all I’m a little frustrated. I can’t decide if I want to keep them or not; but equally I like the concept, execution and results. The in ear comfort and that damn battery pack built into the already annoying appendage that is the wire are two glaring issues that are stopping me from feeling like these things are something I can commit to. I think that on balance for active systems like this you need the space bigger over-ear headphones can give you to pack in the battery and such. Trying to get it into the earphones just makes them just big enough to be more uncomfortable. I can only advise that if you DO want good active noise cancelling headphones, don’t get something that is in-ear. Go for an over-ear system like the Bose QuietComfort 35…. Just make sure it has a properly padded headband.

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