Bose today rolled out its first ever noise-cancelling earbuds, the QuietComfort 20s, along with its latest portable Bluetooth speaker, the SoundLink Mini. In typical fashion, the company heralded both products as revolutionary and the result of extensive research and development. "New headphones and Bluetooth speakers are being introduced almost every week it seems now," said Brian Maguire. "But we submit that none of them can do what we're about to show you today," he went on, claiming that QuietComfort 20 and SoundLink Mini each deliver "mobile audio like never before." But does the hyperbole pan out? We had a chance to try out both products, and our impressions are below.
"It's easy to make a smaller speaker," Maguire said, referencing the expanding crop of ultra-portable Bluetooth speakers constantly hitting store shelves. "But it's not easy to make one that sounds great," he said. Bose is insistent that the SoundLink Mini delivers superior audio compared with existing competitors like Beats Pill and the Jawbone Jambox. And based on what we heard, the company's claims may hold some weight — at least when discussing speakers that fit in the palm of your hand. The 1.5-pound aluminum-clad speaker managed to deliver impressively loud output without cracking up or distorting. Bose has always put an emphasis on bass, and the Mini excels here. But it also fares well with mids and highs thanks to custom-designed, proprietary internals. The SoundLink Mini will remember the last six devices you've associated with it, so most people should only need to go through the pairing process once. Bose says its speaker can stand toe to toe with larger alternatives as well, but we're not convinced it'd be able to outperform the Big Jambox or Libratone Zipp. But it'd make a decent enough companion for your smartphone or tablet. Pre-orders start today at $199.95 and the SoundLink Mini will start shipping July 11th.
Bose chose to reveal its first-ever noise-cancelling earbuds at a fitting venue: New York City's Grand Central Terminal. "The world around us is incredibly busy and noisy," Maguire said. Bose has made a business of combatting that noise. Its full-size QuietComfort headphones are lauded for their ability to instantly mute loud environments — even if the quality of music playback doesn't quite compare to regular high-end cans. But for the first time, that proprietary noise cancellation technology is making the leap to earbuds designed "specifically for everyday, on-the-go use." Accomplishing this took "years" of development according to company representatives, who also revealed that Bose holds more patents on the QuietComfort 20s than any other product in its lineup.
Bose's noise cancellation technology remains impressive
Each earbud contains two microphones; one monitors ambient sound outside, with the other detecting how things sound to your ear. A control module attached to the earbuds then creates a noise cancellation signal that effectively (and instantly) quiets everything around you. (Unfortunately, that same control module can prove unwieldy during use, despite a soft-touch finish meant to improve comfort.) The company simulated busy city streets, an airplane taking off, and other ear-shattering examples to get its point across. Sure enough, once we put them on and achieved a comfortable, tight seal, the outside world became inaudible. But how do they sound? Bose promises a listening experience "without artificial boosts or distortion" but the QuietComfort 20s still sounded a bit bass-heavy to our ears. With that said, the meteoric rise of Beats and other headphone brands has effectively proven that consumers aren't looking for a "flat" or reference-quality listening experience.
Sometimes noise cancellation can make you a bit too isolated from your surroundings, and Bose has introduced a new "Aware mode" for these situations. The mode can be quickly activated when you need to hear what's going on, and can be turned off just as fast to get back to distraction-free listening. We can't imagine audiophiles will be tossing away their existing headphones or earbuds in favor of what Bose has delivered here, but the QuietComfort 20s are all but guaranteed to be a hit with frequent flyers, commuters, and anyone that frequently contends with noisy places. You'll get 16 hours of noise cancellation from the earbuds, which are priced at $299.95 and slated to launch "later this summer." They'll be available in two configurations, with one optimized for Android, Windows Phone, and BlackBerry devices, and another tailored for Apple's iOS hardware.