When you think of noise-cancelling headphones you probably picture bulky over-ear cans like the s or the , but three years ago Bose turned its noise-cancelling chops to in-ear headphones, and the result was the excellent .
Now Bose is back with its new in-ear noise-cancellers, the Bose QuietControl 30s, and they feature a host of improvements over the 20i headphones.
The most obvious is the transition from wired to wireless, but the keen-eyed among you will have noticed that the name has subtly changed too, from QuiteComfort (in line with its over-ear cans) to QuietControl.
This reflects the fact that with these new headphones Bose is for the first time offering you the ability to control the exact amount of noise-cancellation that you require.
It’s a neat addition to the headphones, but if we’re honest we’d argue that it’s overshadowed by their excellent wireless performance, and a form-factor that’s seen significant improvements from the QC 20s.
Although the QC 30s are wireless, we’d struggle to call them lightweight.
The reason for this is the relatively large neckband that’s connected to both the left and right earbud, and which sits around your neck as you use the headphones.
The neckband was controversial amongst the editors in the TechRadar offices. Some weren't bothered by it at all, while others thought it was unacceptably ugly.
Regardless of your thoughts on how it looks, having this much space in which to house the headphone’s batteries means the QC 30s have a fantastic battery life. Bose promises 10 hours per charge, and we’ve been able to use them for days at a time between charges.
It might not be ideal, but it’s a massive step up from the bulky in-line battery pack that was included with the QC 20s, and is light enough that you can occasionally forget you’re wearing it.
The earbuds themselves feature Bose’s StayHear+ tips, which hold them nicely in your ears. Three industry-standard sizes of earbud are included – and unlike most of its competitors, Bose chooses to actually label which are small, medium and large, which is a nice little touch.
In terms of control, there’s a button located on the neckband itself, and an in-line remote that sits in-between it and the right earbud on the cable.
The in-line remote is a little more complicated than your standard control, due to the addition of a couple of extra buttons for controlling the level of noise-cancellation.
That means that in total there are five buttons on the remote: volume up and down, play/pause/skip, and a pair of buttons to control the noise cancellation level.
It’s a little difficult at first to know which button does what without being able to see the remote, but thanks to its distinctive shape you’ll soon learn to feel your way around.
The on/off button on the underside of the neckband is less well designed, especially in comparison to the slider found on the over-ear QC 35s.
While on the 35s you’ve got a slider that makes it easy to see at a glance whether the headphones are on or off, the QC 30s have a little button which you press to turn the headphones on and off, or hold to put them into Bluetooth pairing mode.
It’s fine when you’ve got them in your ears, because of the helpful messages that the headphones play, but if you’ve already taken the headphones off there’s seemingly no way of knowing whether pressing the button is turning them on or off, since the two LED lights that indicate battery life and Bluetooth connectivity turn off when you’re using the headphones, to save power.
It’s a small point, but it’s one that we found cropped up more than once in our time with the headphones.
As mentioned, but the audio cues given by Bose headphones are really useful, and we wish more headphone manufacturers would follow its lead.
Instead of playing a random series of sounds like the headphones, the Bose QC 30s keep it simple. When you turn them on you're told the battery level, and what device they’re connected to, and when you’ve put them in pairing mode this is confirmed in words, not with random sounds that you have to decipher.
Right off the bat, the level of noise-cancelling offered by the QC 30s is seriously impressive.
It’s probably on a par with what’s offered by the QC 35s, but you have to remember that those are over-ear headphones, with the benefit of cushions covering your ears to muffle at least some of the sound.
The fact that it’s variable is a welcome inclusion, and the ability to change the level on the fly via the in-line remote is handy too.
It meant we were much less nervous about using the QC 30s while walking around London, as we were able to tune the noise cancelling to eliminate the worst of the traffic noise without making us unaware of it entirely.
In the end though, having control over the exact level of noise cancelling wasn’t something we worried about a great deal; we found a level that worked for us, and kept it there.
Unfortunately, while the noise-cancelling is impressive, the overall sound quality of the headphones leaves a little to be desired.
Detail in the bass and mids is solid. When played through the QC 30s, the bass and drums in Cabin by Brontide come through loud and clear, with a detailed, punchy sound.
Less impressive are the high notes, which don’t quite sparkle as we’d like them to. Switching to Dream Machines by Big Deal confirms this; the song starts with a treble-y guitar introduction, which is immediately drowned out as soon as the rest of the band comes in.
This effect was evident across a number of other songs we tried. The bassy sound signature was again apparent when we listened to Get Away by Yuck, although if we’re honest it almost ended up benefitting such a grungy-sounding song.
This wasn’t the case with every genre though, and a more laid-back song, like Left Handed Kisses by Andrew Bird, definitely could have done with more presence in the high end.
We should applaud the breadth of the QC 30s' soundstage however, which offers a great stereo sound experience with well-mastered music.
It’s just a shame that overall the sound quality is a little on the muddy side.
The Bose QuietControl 30s have the best noise cancellation of any in-ears we’ve tried – it honestly feels a little bit magic how well these headphones eliminate noise from the outside world.
Beyond that the battery life is solid, the headphones are easy to control through the in-line remote, and the voice notifications are simple and intuitive.
Being able to adjust the exact level of noise cancellation is a neat feature, although we’d be lying if we said we used it a great deal.
These are not the best-sounding headphones in the world. They’re just a little on the bassy side, and can prevent music from shining like it really should.
We’re also bemused as to why the simple on/off slider wasn’t brought over from the larger over-ear QC 35s. The button that replaces it on the QC 30s offers no indication of whether the headphones are on or off, forcing you to put an earbud in your ear just to check that you’re not accidentally turning the headphones on when you mean to turn them off.
The neckband is a love it or hate it affair; for what it is it’s light and not too bulky, but it’s not exactly stylish.
Life is full of trade-offs, and it's the same with the Bose QuietControl 30s. On the plus side you get a level of noise cancellation that’s on a par with the brand's over-ear headphones, and that’s impressive considering their size.
But the compromise here is on sound quality, which is simply not as good as that of other in-ear or over-ear headphones we’ve tried.
So while we’ve certainly come a long way from the QC 20s' bulky wired battery pack, we’re not quite at the point of no-compromises wireless in-ear noise-cancellation yet.