Review — Bose QC30 headphones “Wearables” become “liveables”

Sometimes a digital device proves transformational to how you live in unexpected ways. My Bose QC30 headphones have been a major positive experience.

Disclosure: I am reviewing these headphones because I feel they deserve to be lauded. That said, they were given to me as a corporate gift; I didn’t pay for them. I can’t tell you who the donor was, so adjust your moral compass accordingly.

I’m wearing my Bose QC30 wireless noise-cancelling headphones right now, and am listening to luscious Lauge and Baba Gnohm. These headphones are — and this is not an exaggeration — life-changing technology. You can think of the difference as similar to the way that a 2G mobile phone was compared to a payphone, or then a touch-screen smartphone versus a feature phone.

This is liveable “pervasive audio-augmented reality”, not just wearable “headphones without a cable”. There is a difference!

My experience prior to these was with:

  • Etymotic ER-4P (deep) in-ear headphones that I would mostly use on longhaul flights, but otherwise they generally got to travel around unused. These are super lightweight, and have a stunning level of audio reproduction quality (when sealed properly). However, they are a bit of a pain to use, and lack a microphone. The Etymotics are too hard to get in and out quickly, and the cable also transmits every clothing rub and body tap into your ears.
  • Bose QC-20 corded noise-cancelling phones. These I used a lot on trains and walking around. I have found that it is important to be able to take headphones off quickly when in stores, being served on a plane, or crossing a busy junction. With the QC-20s I would sometimes accidentally tug on the cable, yanking my phone out of a pocket and onto the floor or pavement.

The QC-30s are something else entirely: the neck band and lack of cable makes this “liveable” rather than “wearable” or “bearable” technology. I estimate that I wear them for 8-12 hours most days. It’s quite common for me to recharge them during the day, having already worn out the 10 hour battery by the evening!

What makes them so “liveable” is how they become invisible yet omnipresent, as all the best technology does. They are definitely not “cordless QC20s”; it’s a different paradigm. Why so?

  • Switches between, and integrates with, both my phone and laptop into a single all-purpose audio experience. There is only one Martin (AFAICT), so it’s a “me-centric” experience, not a “device-centric” one.
  • When worn in the ear, the lack of a cord means I don’t have to worry about yanking it, or having it dangle in the way of me. It is literally invisible, as I can’t see any of the headphone device in my field of vision. Magical sounds just happen!
  • When not worn, I can put my laptop down and walk away from it without having to unplug the headset (and I’ve had my accidents….). When in a store I take them out to pay, and let the earbuds dangle around my neck, without being concerned if the cord clip is securely fastened to some piece of clothing.

You don’t need to think about them at all: when you turn your head; put on jackets, coats and hats; or move around and wave limbs excitedly. That’s “liveable”, like underwear.

In some ways, rather than the headphones being an accessory to my smartphone (and laptop), it’s the other way around. These headphones are my anchor device, and it follows me throughout the day, with its omnipresent content and communications experience. Those other devices play a transient supporting role, depending on task and context. I could go back to a feature phone if needed, but the “pervasive audio AR experience” isn’t something I’d relinquish readily. (When the experience someday goes audiovisual, then the smartphone is obsolete.)

I can also see how much thought has gone into the design. It’s subtle: the choice of material; its shaping, friction and malleability; and how that interacts with different clothing when both at rest and moving. The design reflects the real-world need to frequently take the earbuds in and out (e.g. as a social signal that you are listening to someone), whilst allowing you to just drop them on your chest and do another task with your hands. The single button on the neck band, and the additional audio controls hanging at jaw level, work well together — you soon learn the right presses.

As with any product, there are imperfections and trade-offs. Bluetooth can be a bit “vinyl glitchy”, but that’s outside Bose’s control. The charging via micro USB is a tad fiddly, but that’s a minor issue — in my dreams it would be wireless too. The interaction of multiple devices, music playing, and inbound phone calls sometimes leads to a bit of a farce of audio source switching, but that’s again not Bose’s fault, nor easy to fix. It would also be nice to be able to get an “on demand” audio readout of the battery level, too — but that adds to UI complexity. (You can control them and set them up via a smartphone app.) It works with Siri, but Siri doesn’t work for me…

In terms of the audio quality, Bose’s ethos is “audiofeel” rather than “audiophile”. They are psycho-acousitically optimised for contextual indoors and outdoors use, not perfect audio reproduction in an anechoic chamber! Hi-feel beats Hi-fi any day in the real world. The “direct to digital” of Bluetooth is noticeably better, given it cuts off an extra lossy digital-to-analogue-to-digital conversion loop with the QC20s.

I recharge my Bose headphones every night with my phone, because they are used every day, without exception. That said, I still use the older QC20s for work phone calls when sat at my laptop. Whilst being way better for music, Bluetooth adds another layer of quality loss to already flakey cellular audio and the sonomangulation of conference bridges. The new QC30’s microphone positioning seems less than ideal, so I also keep the old QC20s permanently fully charged. They will work even if the battery goes to zero, becoming just ordinary corded headphones, whereas Bluetooth potentially leaves you dead right in the middle of that evening work call from Europe to the USA.

The noise cancelling takes a lot of the stress out of constant train and plane travel, but without dangerously isolating you from the surroundings on the street and in the airport. I don’t see the point in the giant over-ear phones, given how well these work. From long-term use I’ve noticed a more general sense of wellbeing coming from being very attentive to the present moment. The world is suffused with meditative musical medicine, and it treats the anomie of life. I also often leave them on to create “artificial silence”, so I can concentrate better on work.

A bit pricey for those not in the corporate gift economy — but worth every cent if you decide to buy yourself a set as a little present.


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