Review written by @Precogvision
Bose - buy other sound equipment. Yep, such is the reputation that Bose enjoys in the audiophile world in stark contrast to the brand’s mainstream consumer appeal. Likewise, there is a strong distinction between the way I see most TWS (true wireless) reviews written and those written for their wired, IEM (in-ear monitor) counterparts. And to a certain extent, that’s absolutely fine: Features and technology should be a strong focus for TWS IEMs especially given their practical application.
Still, there’s few things I dislike more than reading a review on earphones which, you know, are generally used to listen to music, only to have a brief section dedicated to the actual sound quality. So allow me to flip the TWS reviewing paradigm on its head and stray in the opposite direction. Less feature-set talk (which aforementioned reviewers are honestly much better at covering than myself) and more sound-talk, if you will.
Packaging and included accessories are sparse:
- Earbuds and case themselves
- USB-C charging cable
- 3x pairs of silicon eartips
As always, I think it’s only fair to outline some of the issues that I ran into with the earbuds:
- In order to swap between multiple devices using the earbuds, you need to manually disconnect the previous device. This is in contrast to the Bose Soundsport Wireless Free’s ability to swap between multiple devices at the touch of a button.
- There is a split-second lag to watching videos. It’s more annoying than anything, but this also means that the bud’s aren’t ideal for gaming.
- There is no option to skip backwards on tracks. And if you want to skip forward, you’ll lose the double-tap to hear the battery level voice prompt.
- The case is on the bulkier side to say the least; the earbuds themselves also stick out quite a bit. Luckily, I don’t find them uncomfortable and had no issues with fit.
And on the other hand, here were some of the things I appreciated more:
- The earbuds work unilaterally of each other; you can have either one charging in the case while you use the other.
- Noise cancelling is quite good, and you have the option to select between ten levels. The lowest level will give you a transparency mode of sorts where you can hear your surroundings. Hissing in the backdrop picks up noticeably as you work your way down, though.
- Touch sensor controls are quite responsive, as are the integrated sensors that can tell when you’ve removed the buds or put them back in your ears.
- The buds are IPX4 water-resistant meaning you don’t have to worry about rain or light splashes. I wasn’t going to intentionally test this one, sorry. I did do a few workouts with them though, and didn’t have any issues.
Frequency response taken off of an IEC-711 clone. Measurement is raw and there is a resonance peak at 8kHz. I chose to average the data due to a slight channel imbalance. Learn more about headphone measurements here.
The overall tuning of the QuietComfort Earbuds can be considered something close to neutral-warm with bass boost. It’s a more consumer-friendly signature, and this translates to a strong focus on one, particular aspect - the bass. And oh boy, there is a fat sub-bass shelf on this thing. The graph doesn’t do it justice; you’ll note that there’s clipping from 20-50hZ (the utmost lowest frequencies), and that’s because I wasn’t able to get an airtight seal with the earbuds on the coupler. I suspect that the shelf elevates (at least) a couple more dB than what it graphs like.
As for the quality of said bass, it’s actually not bad at all. For sheer excursion (basically how much it slams) and bass texturing, the QuietComfort Earbuds are a good step ahead of most other TWS sets I’ve heard. Decay (the length with which a note is drawn out) is also to the slower side of things, and this gives the QuietComfort that ‘bloom’ to drops most listeners will enjoy. Really, anything EDM or bass-centric is a banger on the QuietComfort Earbuds. And the best part? The bass shelf doesn’t rise until around 200hZ, meaning the lower-midrange is given some room to breath; it sounds a lot more controlled than what one might expect from a consumer-oriented signature. Of course, it stands that there is an undeniable muddiness to the QuietComfort Earbud’s bass transients, but hey, I’ll take it.
For better or worse, the midrange and treble are more unremarkable. The midrange is fairly linear, peaking appropriately at around 3kHz for the ear compensation before dipping abruptly shortly after. This dip has a few consequences. On one hand, the midrange is extremely inoffensive, never entering sibilance; however, on the other hand, some edge is lost to the upper-midrange. And entering the treble, this is where the QuietComfort Earbuds really struggle. Forgetting upper air extension (which incidentally is non-existent anyways) that aforementioned dip takes far too much edge off of higher-frequency instruments. Cymbals sound blurry and distant, and stick-on-stick impact sounds like there’s a wet rag wedged in-between. Even by TWS standards, I struggle to call this acceptable. The end result is a sound signature which is admittedly easy on the ears and doesn’t offend, but that I would consider lacking a good deal in detail.
Of course, this is done no favor by the QuietComfort Earbud’s intangibles. These encompass pretty much everything devoid of frequency response: The clarity with which notes are articulated, the sense of space around the listener, dynamics, and so on. And while this is generally the weak link of most TWS IEMs, oh man, the QuietComfort Earbuds are pushing it.
Imaging, the extent to which a headphone is able to create a sense of 3D space around the listener, is a good example. The QuietComfort Earbuds struggle with anything more nuanced than left-right instrument panning, and center image diffusal is limited to the head-stage. Staging sounds compressed flat vertically and with rather poor depth accordingly. But in a strange twist, width is above average perhaps owing to the more open design; this disconnect is disconcerting. You might be wondering why I’m making a big deal of imaging; after all, this is something that the good majority of IEMs do poorly, and the QuietComfort Earbud’s imaging isn’t that horrid despite my ire. Indeed, that’s because its predecessor, the Soundsport Wireless Free, imaged noticeably better with greater outward diffusal and better positional cues.
And then we get to resolving capability. For all the reviews I’ve read raving about how “crisp and clear” the QuietComfort Earbuds sound, well, I’m not hearing it. They sound no better than decent to my ears, and that’s within the scope of TWS. Whatever dynamic driver Bose is using isn’t particularly fast. Transient attack is blunted, and detail retrieval is dubious given the omnipresent, slight hissing in the background (particularly when using transparency mode). Instrument timbre likewise has that textureless quality to it not unlike the Apple AirPods Pro, perhaps with just a bit more glossiness due to the warmth and treble roll-off. Honestly, that part isn’t bad at all even if it exacerbates those blunted transients, and it’s quite the forgiving IEM. Something else I will praise is how dynamic the QuietComfort Earbuds are; I’ve heard many lesser TWS in this department.
Right - and before I forget, let’s do a sound comparison with the Apple Airpods Pro. Let me disclaim that my personal preferences lie with the QuiteComfort Earbuds. Indeed, the APP is a ringer for the “lesser” IEMs in the dynamics department. It fails to scale quite-to-loud sections of tracks and just sounds dead flat. But that doesn’t tell the whole story, and quite honestly, the APP is tuned better (in this reviewer's opinion) than the QuietComfort Earbuds:
- A lot of that transient muddiness has been cleaned up in the bass, and the APP goes for a stronger midbass (punch) emphasis. Of course, you lose that juicy sub-bass shelf the QuietComfort Earbuds have.
- The APP has a leaner midrange with less thickness to vocals; this lends itself to greater clarity. The treble has something of a mid-treble suckout (hollowness), but it sounds more defined than the QuietComfort Earbud’s.
The APP also images significantly better than the QuietComfort Earbuds. Diffusal of the center image is actually present, and positional cues are rendered acceptably. On paper, the APP is the better-tuned IEM and the more technically proficient of the two. Yep, I’ll let that sink in. Apple, a company better known for their phones and computers, tunes a better IEM than Bose which is a company dedicated to sound. Go for the APP if you want a more balanced, lean sound; consider the QuietComfort Earbuds if you want something more bassy and laidback.
Are the QuietComfort Earbuds “worth it” on the merit of their sound quality alone? I’m inclined to say no. Not by a long shot, and not even within the scope of TWS. But before you say “Wow, this guy has a real hate-boner” or “Dang, this guy’s cynical,” don’t get me wrong. The QuietComfort Earbuds don’t sound bad at all - they have a decent, inoffensive tuning, and they’ll more than likely appeal to most listeners. Heck, they’re one of the better TWS I’ve heard, and it stands that most of the issues I’ve cited are ones I would expect to be present on a TWS IEM. Therefore, I think the better question is “How much are you willing to shell out for top of the line noise cancelling?”. If that answer is to the tune of roughly $300, then by all means, the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds just might be the earphone for you.