Freelance Contributor, TechHiveDec 27, 2022 3:00 am PST
Image: Jonathan Takiff/Foundry
Mirror, mirror on the wall, who makes the fairest noise-cancelling earbuds of all? Is it Apple, with its hot-selling $249 AirPods Pro (2nd generation), or Bose with its $279 QuietComfort Earbuds II?
After writing in-depth reviews of each top-shelf product, and then living with them for several additional months, my quick answer is you can’t go wrong with either. Over time, however, I’ve come to appreciate significant personality differences and use-case scenarios where one performs better than the other. I hope my observations help you decide which buds are for you.
Best for noise reduction: Bose (mostly)
If you’re a frequent flyer, bus rider, or train hauler, you’ll want to tote the Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II. The maker states these are best noise-eradicating phones it has ever made, including its over-ear models. During a recent cross-country air adventure, I found them to be just as helpful at noise blocking and entertaining as Bose’s latest, greatest QuietComfort 45 over-ear headphones. More to the point, the QC Earbuds II are notably superior to the Apple AirPod Pros (2nd generation) when it comes to blocking out the noisy distractions of the world.
Both sets of buds eliminated the bulk of loud jet engine rumbling on my flights, but only the new Bose proved capable of also irradicating a persistent, low-frequency hull rumbling that resonated like a ghost in the machine while Apple’s buds were in my ears. The only way I could mask that noise with Apple’s buds was to crank up the tunes, but that shouldn’t be necessary with noise cancelling. You should be able to listen at lower volume to prevent ear fatigue and possibly avoid hearing damage. And when you’re using noise-cancelling earbuds sans music to catch some Z’s, you shouldn’t find yourself replacing one aural distraction with another.
The Bose QC Earbuds II also proved capable of simultaneously masking different noises during a visit to a crowded Starbucks, cutting back on the room chatter as well as dish clatter. And back home, in my bedroom and home office, only the Bose product thoroughly eliminated the whirring fan noise from my air purifiers.
I finally discovered the QC Earbuds II’s Achilles’ heel while seated on the lower deck of a Megabus traveling the New Jersey Turnpike: Bose’s ANC algorithm demonstrated a terrible habit of amplifying the metallic shaking and sputtering sounds of the bus’s loose suspension system whenever its tires hit a pothole or an expansion strip.
The noise made me think there were loose screws rattling around in the buds, in my skull, or both. I repeated the scenario with a second set of the Bose just to be sure I wasn’t testing a defective pair, but I got the very same result. The Apple AirPods Pros dealt better with these bad vibrations, reducing the sound of the rattling by at least half.
Best audio performance: Bose for bass-a-holics, Apple for spatial audio
As I’ve already said, both sets of earbuds are high-performing headphones for music-listening sessions. Choosing which is best for you depends on how you plan to use them.
Eight times out of 10, the Bose QC Earbuds II offered more satisfaction from deep dives into a variety of music, delivering more forward, in-your-face sound. They dig deeper into bass frequencies yet manage to sound more nuanced at the same time. On my jet-plane encounter with Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers’s newly released, 33-track, covers-heavy Live at the Fillmore, 1997, tunes like Lucille, Louie Louie, and Call Me the Breeze, Bose’s earbuds delivered way more bounce to the rockin’ ounce.
But it’s not just all about that bass. In the quiet of my bedroom, the QC Earbuds II squeezed out more mid-range nuance in the achy breaky vocals of Luciano Souza on the Brazilian artist’s tribute album The Book of Chet; also did better by Taylor Goldsmith’s bemused, bothered, and bewildered observations on the latest Dawes’ album Misadventures of Doomscroller. When that wry observer muses “There’s a Joke in There Somewhere,” the QC Earbuds II are better at emotionally digging it out.
Even a cursory glance at the way these things are designed is revealing. The QC Earbuds II are more eccentrically shaped to stuff and seal better in the ear canal. And their automatic equalization, based on a series of test tones that measure the user’s ears, seems more sophisticated than Apple’s auto-EQ, which is based on an analysis of images of the listener’s ears and facial structure after they’ve snapped pictures with their iPhones.
But that’s not the whole story, either. With less bass getting in the way, the AirPods Pro offer a brighter take on trebly oriented music (think tremulous acoustic guitar plunks, splashy cymbal-riding drummers, and scorching violin soloists.) And the tables definitely turned in the AirPods’ favor with material from the Apple Music streaming service mixed and served in Dolby Atmos. When the AirPods Pro see an Atmos flag in the data stream, they activate Spatial Audio mode, which folds in some interesting phase-shifting and timing effects to put a sharper edge on and more air around voices and instruments.
I also suspect that activating Spatial Audio mode cranks up the AirPods Pro’s volume, relative to the other content I’ve fed them from a variety of sources. Listening to Harry Connick Jr.’s holiday album Make it Merry, the Christmas tunes didn’t seem quite as playful or twinkle-star magical when heard in plain old stereo through the Bose buds. If you’re an iPhone or iPad user as well as an Apple Music subscriber, you’ll gain some aural advantages by marrying your source material with the AirPods Pro.
In general, I’d argue that the more aggressive, in-your-face nature of the Bose buds make them better companions for both on-the-go use (because of their superior noise cancellation) and for serious, sit-down-and-listen sessions. I have no complaints about the musicality of the more laidback, lighter-toned AirPods Pro, and listening to Dolby Atmos tracks is very enjoyable.
Best for making and taking phone calls: Tie
When it comes to making and taking hands-free phone calls, both sets of earbuds are terrific. They deliver great sound at both ends of the call, whether you’re outdoors or in a quiet zone. This one’s a draw.
Best for comfort: Apple’s are lighter, the Bose hang in tighter
This one’s a toughie, ripe for a Biblical Solomon (or Judge Judy) to adjudicate. Most improved-ergonomics honors go to Bose, as the radically redesigned, smaller, and lighter Quiet Comfort Earbuds II do a much better job of living up to their name than the first-generation product, which start hurting my ears after two hours of use.
Weighing just 0.2 ounces each—compared to 0.3 ounces for the original QC Earbuds and 0.15 ounces for the second-gen AirPods Pro—I can wear Bose’s latest buds comfortably for a full four hours. The engineers at Bose replaced the first-generation’s oversized wing stabilizers with small rubbery hinges that easily lock into the rims of your ears for a very secure fit. In fact, they put up a bit of fight when you pull them out—and that’s a good thing.
The AirPods Pro seem to rely more on gravity and the stickiness of their silicone ear tips to keep them in place. This hasn’t worked for me during serious sweat-producing exercise sessions, or even when I was just pulling a sweater over my head. On the positive side, the lighter weight and semi-bulbous body shape of Apple’s buds make them even more comfortable in my ears—I can listen for up to six hours—which just so happens to be the maximum runtime of the AirPods Pro’s battery. Bose offers the same number of hours, but you can recharge the QC Earbuds II only three times with the backup battery in its case, where you’ll get four charges out of Apple’s case.
If you buy the second-gen AirPods Pro and become dissatisfied with the fit, you’ll find a sizable cottage industry of aftermarket memory-foam ear tips and add-on ear-wings that promise both better clinging and bass response than the factory-provided tips deliver. I bought a set of Lanwow tips on a friend’s recommendation, but have so far resisted the urge to throw my experience with them into this already complicated shoot-out.
Best for customization: AirPods Pro for options, QC Earbuds II for simplicity
Apple’s AirPods Pro offer a lot more customizable equalization profiles than the Bose earbuds, especially if you’ll be using the AirPods Pro with an iPhone, iPad, or iMac. You’ll find a couple dozen EQ settings you can customize according to the style of music you’re listening to, ranging from electronica and hip hop to jazz and classical.
The AirPods Pro also offer tools to help preserve and maintain your hearing. You can monitor the decibel output level, link to your connected iPhone’s microphone and repurpose the buds as hearing aids, or put them into a volume-reduction mode to use them as high-tech ear plugs. You can wirelessly recharge the buds and their carrying case using a Qi charger, an Apple Watch’s Magnetic Fast Charger, or with a USB-to-Lightning cable. If the AirPods Pro or their case go missing, you can use your Apple’s Find My function to help locate them.
If simplicity of operation is more your thing, go for the Bose buds. The three-way (bass, midrange, and treble), user-customizable EQ settings in the Bose Music App are as easy to use as they are fun. I also like how you can allow some ambient noise in for situational awareness without fully defeating active noise cancellation. When you find the right mix, you can store this value as a preset—one of four—that can be recalled from within Bose’s app or with a tap on one of the thermal control panels on each bud.
Those same touch pads can also be used to adjust the volume, play/pause the current track, skip up or down your playlist, and handle phone calls. They’re much easier to access and manipulate while on the move than the controls located on the AirPods Pro’s tiny stems.
Best ANC earbuds overall: It’s Bose by a nose
We don’t hedge our bets at TechHive, so we’re naming the Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds II as the winner of this competition by virtue of their superior active noise cancellation and bolder sound. That said, no one should buy a product based on a single criterion, and Apple’s AirPods Pro deliver a very refined listening experience as well.
The real bottom line here is that you can’t go wrong with either choice, but frequent travelers and long-distance runners might prefer the QC Earbuds II, while marathon listeners and multi-taskers might be happier with the second-gen AirPods Pro.
For those who still can’t decide, we’ve boiled down each product’s pluses and minus here:
Best features of the Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds II
Superior noise cancellation
Fuller bass, warmer overall presence
Cling more securely in your ears
Easier physical controls
Drawbacks of the Bose Quiet Comfort Earbuds II
Slightly bulkier and heavier
They wear out their in-ear welcome sooner
ANC freaks out with loose bus suspension clattering
Best features of the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation)
Very comfortable fit
Clear, detailed sound
Longer collective battery life
Decodes Dolby Atmos
Drawbacks of the Apple AirPods Pro (2nd generation)
Not as versatile at cancelling multiple noises simultaneously
Bass response isn’t as full bodied
Not as good at staying in the ears during robust workouts
Physical controls are more difficult to locate and use
Jonathan Takiff is a veteran tech and entertainment writer based in Philadelphia. A long time staffer for the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, his work has also appeared in numerous publications including Sound & Vision, Playboy, and Popular Science.