In Search of the Perfect Headphones

I typically keep two pairs of headphones – Plantronics BackBeat Fit wireless headphones for workouts and trusty wired Bose QC20s for travel and conference calls. About four months before iPhone 7 was announced, the left earphone in my beloved Bose QC20i headphones quit working. I was quite sad – my Bose QuietComforts were amazing. We had done so much together including traveling literally hundreds of thousands of miles across multiple countries. I mourned the loss of great sound, superior comfort, and very good noise canceling technology. With the Bose out of commission I needed to replace my travel headphones, and stat!  This is an account of the journey to find the perfect headphones.

At the same time the left earphone stopped working, the “no headphone jack” rumors really picked up. I was torn – to buy new headphones or to not buy new headphones. I decided “not” for the short term. As an interim solution I pulled out the stock Apple white earbuds and made friends with them again for the first time in many years. They served me well, infact we even did the relocation to Seattle together.

At this fall’s Apple announcement iPhone 7 made its’ debut and indeed lacked a traditional headphone jack. The rumors were right – no traditional headphone jack. Accompanying iPhone 7 was also the announcement of new AirPods and Beats headphones with a “magic” Q1 chip. This chip gave headphones three features which grabbed my attention: 1.) wireless connection, 2.) incredibly long battery life, and 3.) the ability, via the magic of iCloud, to switch between devices automatically. I was glad I waited.

JBL Reflect Aware

As soon as the Apple event confirmed that the Lightning port was indeed the new way of life I sought out noise cancelling headphones with a Lightning port. Despite the new wireless headphones with the Q1 chip, I really wanted a version of my Bose QC20s with a Lightning connection. The best I could find was the JBL Reflect Awares, and they seemed perfect because, unlike the Bose, they had no battery pack. They used the iPhone’s battery as their source of power. So I ordered them. And they sucked. All around. I found the sound inferior to Apple’s Lightning Earbuds and the noise-cancellation was a joke. The only thing going for this pair of headphones was their mostly comfortable design and the fun colors. Mine were an awesome color of blue. But they didn’t make the cut. Amazon

Apple Lightning Earbuds

I decided to stick with the Apple earbuds with Lighting port until the new Beats headphones and Apple AirPods came out. The out-of-the-box earbuds were fine, except I couldn’t plug them into my Mac. Sound was the same as all Apple earbuds – acceptable. I also did find it annoying not to be able to charge and listen at the same time. I really wanted to try wireless. Apple

Beats Solo 3

I ordered a shiny new pair of black Beats Solo 3. I picked these to try first because of the incredible 40 hour battery life, and the reputation the Solo line of Beats carries for awesome audio quality. I kept them for about 5 days and used them on a day trip to San Francisco. Overall, the sound quality was great, and the battery life was awesome, but they weren’t comfortable for extended use. The ear cups squished my ears and after a couple hours, the pain was too much. I would try adjusting them, but the pain would come back pretty quickly. On a positive note I did find that the range was great compared to your typical bluetooth headphones. I could go 300ish feet and through a wall before I started having any problems with audio dropouts. Overall due to the ear pain, these didn’t make the cut. Amazon

Beats Powerbeats 3

Next on the list to try were the Beats Powerbeats 3 headphones. They’re also wireless with a Q1 chip and 12 hours of battery life. I loved the size and form actor (over-the-ear) but also had comfort issues, and the audio quality wasn’t good. Ears hurt after 3-4 hours of use and all audio was very tinny – the low frequencies were non-existent unfortunately. These also weren’t the headphones for me either. Amazon

Apple AirPods

I didn’t try the AirPods because of their delayed launch and my fear of losing those little bitty headphones. I’ll pass. Apple

Bose QC 20 for Apple Devices

Ultimately I’ve ended up back where I started – with a new pair of the Bose QC20s. They feel great, and I’ll deal with the wire and battery pack, just as I always have. The only new downside to these is having to also carry the Lightning to 3.5mm adaptor, but I’ll live. I’ll probably also put an extra adaptor in my electronics pounce that travels in my checked back incase I need a spare. There was also a pleasant surprise when I ordered a new pair – they come in white!

Something to note is that my original Bose headphones were model “QC20i” while the new headphones are “QC20” made for Apple Devices. I’m not sure what the difference is, as the original difference was that the “i” model was made for iDevices. As for differences I notice – the audio seems louder, the wires seem slightly thinner, and the the control module that sits about chest level is slightly larger.

The Wirecutter has also named the QC20s the best in ear noise cancelling headphone.


Bose QC30

These seem like a great pair of headphones, but I can’t deal with the weird neck wrap, and most of the reviews I’ve read say the nose canceling quality is very poor. Also, you can’t use the noise cancellation without playing audio like you can with the QC20s. I decided to skip testing this pair of headphones. Amazon

Closing Thoughts

Overall, there is no perfect pair of headphones. In the perfect world we’ll see Apple license the Q1 chip and Bose will make me a great pair of wireless QC20s, but I don’t see that happening anytime soon. In the meantime I’ll keep rocking the Bose QC20 with Lightning to 3.5mm dongle and Plantronics BackBeat Fit headphones. I’ll use the Bose headphones when traveling, and if I need to charge my iPhone, I’ll either go to the Plantronics or just switch to using iPad to listen to content. May not be a solution for everyone, but it’s how I’m dealing.

Recovering Texan proudly in the PNW. Cyclist. Avid traveler and aviation geek. Apple fanboy. Lover of cold brew. Maker of SassTags. Learning Python. he/him. ⚣

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