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First look at the Bose QC-30 Bluetooth noise-cancelling earphones

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Apple hates ports and will kill each and every one of them come hell or high water. The iPhone 7 / 7 Plus pushed the market away from wired headphones into the loving arms of Bluetooth. Audiophiles will explain that Bluetooth has limited bandwidth which means audio fidelity is severely compromised and they are right. Bluetooth can't match the quality of a good set of wired headphones, but let's be honest, most people aren't listening to high quality audio tracks fed through a good headphone amp and $1000 headphones. Most people are streaming their music via Google Play Music, Apple Music, Spotify or Pandora at 128/256 kbps (some are now streaming 320kbps). 

For the geeky reader, a CD ... Yes that plastic disk us old people use to play music from ;-)  So a music CD was 44.1 kHz x 16 bits x 2 channels = 1411.2 kbps, just for comparison.  

Let's dive into the new in-ear Bluetooth noise cancelling champ from Bose. 

This is more of a first look at the QC30 and a more in depth review will come later. The Qc30 seems to beat the QC35 when strictly comparing noise cancellation quality.  The QC35 has a 12 step noise cancellation intensity control. Where is this useful? When you may want "some" noise cancellation but still need situational awareness (e.g. using these while walking on a busy street). 

QC use to mean QuietComfort buy now means QuietControl. A slight branding update undertaken by Bose

So the branding change was done because you now (for the first time) have that variable noise cancellation strength. 

Design

Most users assume wireless and light weight go hand in hand but not when it comes to the QC30. The QC30 has that strange neckband that connects to the earbuds. When passing the device around, people liked the headband, were indifferent about it or absolutely ragefully hated it. Regardless of how you feel about it, itis universally regarded as ugly.

The ugly spaceship around your neck is the lifeline of the product housing the battery. Bose promises 10 hours of use per charge which is good for most situations (except the long haul overseas flights to Asia). 

Remember that the QC20 had that in line battery compartment which itself was ugly and relatively heavy. 

The other noticeable improvement is fit. I have normal medium sized ear canals and rarely have fit problems with in-ear headphones. The QC30 seem to fit better than the QC20 did which means improved sound quality and noise isolation

The audio control module has all of the standard controls you expect plus additional buttons to control the level of noise cancellation. After a couple of days, you can control everything by feel because of the unique shape of the control module. 

Sound Quality

Let's cut to the chase,  the noise cancellation delivered by the QC30 is truly spectacular. The noise cancellation of the QC30 is as good as the full sized (over the ear) QC35. The only difference is the QC35 benefits from much better noise isolation in addition to active noise cancellation.

I cannot stress how useful the variable noise cancellation strength feature is. It means you can use this on the plane, on the train or while walking on the street. 

Like every other noise cancellation headphone I have ever tried, sound reproduction typically suffers. The QC30 offer clean and clear low/mid ranges. The highs are were it suffers. Highs are drowned out by the other ranges and don't sound as clean as I had hoped. 

The Bose QC30 offers better sound reproduction than the QC20/20i and the sound-stage is more open and airy. So when comparing it to good headphones, sound quality suffers but is a step up when compared to its older sibling.

The bad

Sound is more bass heavy which may impact your enjoyment of some types of more balanced music.  The on/off slider is badly designed (difficult to figure out if the device is on or off when you aren't using the earbuds. 

The ugly UGLY neckband. 

I have to add the price here. At $299 its a rather considerable investment. Not surprising as this is typically the price range for Bose noise cancellation headphones but still....

Conclusion

There is no perfect device. The truth is that this type of noise cancelling headphone has always catered to a specific affluent customer base. Unlike previous years, the in-ear earbuds now offer noise cancellation on par with the on-ear big brother. 

Sound reproduction is good for noise cancelling headphones/earphone but not as good as "normal" ones. If your primary use isn't while on noisy transit and sound quality is important to you, you may want to look at a non noise-cancelling product. If you need noise cancellation, the QC30 offers sound quality better than its noise-cancelling competitors.

If you are looking for standard in-ear bluetooth headphones with decent sound quality and good battery life, take a look at the JLAB Epic 2

Best wired in-ear noise cancelling headphones

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

A question I receive regularly is "What in-ear noise cancelling headphone do you recommend for travel?" In 2013 my recommendation was the QC20/20i and that recommendation is still valid. The QC20/20i offers the best wired noise cancellation when comparing it to others in the same price category (and of course being wired).

From a pure noise cancellation perspective, the QC20/20i does a better noise cancellation job than my QC25 but the QC25 does an overall better job because it benefits from over-ear noise isolation. When I originally recommended it, the QC20/20i was priced at $299 but can now be bought for $199. 

Usually the next question I receive is regarding sound quality. Let me be crystal clear. I have never used a good sound cancelling (active) headphone (on or in-ear) that also offered amazing sound quality. The Bose QC20/20i is no exception. It offers amazing noise cancellation and acceptable sound reproduction. 

Size matters

I have taken  both (QC25 & QC20) on flights to test the differences and the most striking difference is overall size. Even with the origami fold of the QC25, it is massive compared to the QC20. 

I don't wear glasses but if you do, the QC20 is even more attractive because it allows you to get a good seal (not so with the QC25 and the headband).

Love at first listen

The real test is how much you use it. Several dozen readers have purchased the QC20/20i (based on emails I received) and everyone of them I contacted as a follow-up said they never leave home without it. One reader is a tech exec that travels over 350K miles a year and said "this is the most used and useful travel tool I have ever bought".

Comparing the QC20/20i to the QC30

I will be testing and reviewing the QC30 soon. Stay tuned but remember the QC30 is bluetooth and therefore it needs batteries.

Review of JLAB Epic 2 bluetooth sport headphones

GeneralEdward KiledjianComment

Introduction

We are a couple of weeks away (probably) from the announcement of the next iPhone and rumors are swirling about the headphone jack being ejected. This means you will have to buy Lightning port headphones or Bluetooth (my vote is Bluetooth for everyday use). Who wants wired headphones that get tangled and caught on things?

What attracted me to the JLAB Epic 2 was the promise of 12 hour battery life and a secure fit. Until this review, the most secure fitting headphones I have ever tried are the Jaybird ones (Sprint and X2).

Sound Signature

The JLab Epic 2 in an in-ear style exercise Bluetooth headphone and the sound signature is clearly aligned with that target market. The sound is tuned to enhance bass (not as much as Monster or Beats headphones) to keep you pumped during your exercise session. If you are looking for a more neutral / balanced sound then this is not for you.

Design

The Epic 2 can be stealth (black version) or very flashy (blue/grey or teal). I opted for the blue/grey. 

You expect sports headphones to be able to handle a much higher level of abuse and the JLAB Epic 2 doesn't disappoint. The product is certified IPX5 which means you can rinse it off after a workout and it can handle sweat and light rain. Just make sure you leave it out to dry otherwise you will shorten the devices useful life.

IPX5 means it can handle water being sprayed on the product from any direction. It does not mean you can wash it with a pressure washer (won't protect from strong jets of water) and you can't dunk it (it is water resistant not water proof). No other major brand can come close to the protection offered by JLAB (not even the venerable Jaybird which labels its products only as sweat resistant).

The material directly around the headphone (aka the part that goes behind your ear) is more rigid which means it will hold a hook shape and stay in place. Couple this with 8 different types of eartips in different shapes & sizes and you are sure to get a very secure fit. 

The JLAB Epic 2 has a small control box that houses the battery, a flap covered USB charging port, a microphone and the usual buttons. Pressing the up/down arrow adjusts the volume. Pressing and holding them skip's or rewinds the song. Pressing and holding the middle multi function button turns the device on/off. Pressing and releasing the middle multi function button pauses the music. 

The antenna

JLAB has spend a lit of marketing space promoting their "RADICAL SKIP-FREE SOUND WITH BEACON™ SIGNAL TECHNOLOGY". I compared reception (or lack thereof) to different Bluetooth headphones from Jaybird, Monoprice, MPOW, Motorola and Beats. I tested it by holding the phone in different places:

  • In my left/right hands
  • In my left/right/back pants pockets
  • In my dress shirt pocket
  • In my shoulder laptop bag

Each test was performed with an iPhones 6s Plus and a Motorola Moto G (Android). I walked outside at least 5 minutes with each pair of headphones in each location. Does the JLAB Beacon signal technology make a difference? Not really. It worked perfectly where the others worked perfectly and it skipped where other products also skipped. 

JLab’s Beacon Signal Technology failed to impress me during my tests.

Performance

I tested the audio quality with on device AAC high powered bass heavy songs and with FitRadio steamed mixes. The first thing I noticed was that the JLAB Epic 2 can get very loud, and that's a good thing. Even with a high bass songs (AAC & streamed) at maximum volume, I didn't notice any distortion. Testing music at more reasonable levels, the bass still stays strong. 

Using the song Africa by Toto (don't judge my music selection), you can hearthe bass enhanced tuning of the Epic 2 (compared to the other Bluetooth headphones). The only other pair with more extreme bass was the Beats (which has a sound signature I dislike).

Using opera, you can again hear how much it emphasizes the bass. This gave me an idea. I love listening to talk radio, podcasts and audiobooks. I realized the enhanced bass also enhances male voices, which made listening to these types of content very enjoyable. 

At no point during my testing did the music sound muddy, garbled or sub-par.

The Jaybird Sprint, Jaybird X2, MPow and Monoprice bluetooth headphones deliver a more neutral sound signature. 

Comparing the Jlab Epic to the Jlab Epic 2

If you already own the JLAB Epic, what does v2 bring to the table? It brings improved water resistance (IPX4 to IPX5). The circuit board in the control unit is now coated to protect the headphoneseven if moisture enters from the USB charging port through the flap. 

JLab also says the antenna is greatly improved but in my tests, I didn't notice it. 

The button arrangement is a little different (not good or bad just different).

The cable (connecting both ear buds) is coated in a matte feeling material JLAB says will minimize tangling and less rubbing sounds when you are working out. I can confirm that these statements are accurate. 

Jlab now includes 2 more tips in the original kit which could help if you had issues in the past. My ears are "normal" sized and I have never bought a pair of headphones that didn't fit.

The flaws

All Bluetooth headphones suffer from the fact that they add one more device you have to remember to charge. If you are forgetful, maybe opt for something with wires instead. JLab's EPIC 2 regularly delivered close to 12 hours of use per charge, which means it is much less likely to die during a workout [than most of its competitors] (Beats got less than 6 hours; Jaybird X2 got about 8 hours, MPow got less than 3).   

If you have large outer ears and deep ear canals, getting a tight fit might be difficult with the wrap behind ear design, but for most "normal" people, this isn't an issue. 

And that's it. I really had to think hard in order to find some flaws. This thing is well designed. 

Summary

Pro

  • Light set of Bluetooth headphones that regularly get 11+ hours of play time per charge
  • Water resistant design (aka rinsable to get the funk out) 
  • Good audio volume with enhanced bass response
  • Works with iPhone and Adnroid devices

Con

  • Even for Bluetooth headphones, the sound quality could be improved (particularly clarity and mids/highs).

Conclusion

Jlab has produced something very impressive with the Epic 2. They are priced much more competitively than other high end sport headphones and the waterproofing/battery life is excellent. 

I just can't recommend these headphones enough. I love them and they have become my daily use headphones while commuting.

 

Can I get good sound from cheap headphones?

technologyEdward KiledjianComment
Image by  Anemone Jones  used under Creative Commons License

Image by Anemone Jones used under Creative Commons License

Headphones (or earphones) come in all shapes, sizes and budgets. You can use the cheap ones included with your smartphone or buy $1000 audiophile ones powered with a headphone amp. A question I hear often is "Can I get good sound from cheap headphones?"

Good is very subjective and means different things for different people but the simple answer is YES. A $20 pair of cans won't sound as good as a $1000 pair but more often than not, it will be good enough for most users (especially since the source is often a compressed MP3 played through a weak headphone amp in a smartphone or PC).

I am a semi-audiophile and love high quality headphones but to really appreciate them, you need lossless audio files, played on a device that support the lossless format (usually FLAC on Android and ALAC on Apple) and a high quality headphone amp between the two. Did I mention you need a fairly quiet room?

Assuming you will be listening on a street, train, plane or at the office, you will be served by a good pair of headphones that can be bought at a reasonable price. Nothing is more distressing than travelling with super expensive headphones and having them break because of all the hustle and bustle. 

The cheaper the headphone (or earphone) the more the sound will be compromised. Compromise here is a more restrictive sound-stage, less neutral reproduction, less clarity in the low/mid/high, etc. 

$20 earphones

I wrote about this buds almost a year ago so I recommend you go and read my review (link). You can buy them from Amazon (link) for $13 or from Monoprice for $8 (link). To say these headphones have a fanbase is not an exaggeration. They offer a more bass-heavy clean sound with decent mid-range.

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They achieve better than normal sound for this price-range by using larger driver. These larger drivers make the device slightly larger and heavier than other. Some people love the fit, others complain. some people find them easy to wear for long periods of time, others find them slightly heavy.

Everyone agrees that they offer an incredible value. They perform better than many other headphones in the $50-70 range.

In the same price range, they offer another pair of decent headphones that offer a more balanced sound (less bass heavy) called the 9396. You can buy this on Monoprice for $8 (link) or on Amazon for $10 (link)

$20 headphones

If you prefer headphones, then let me recommend the Monoprice 8323 for this price range (aka the Premium Hi-Fi DJ Style Over-the-Ear Pro Headphone). You can buy them from Monoprice for $23 (link) or from Amazon for $33 (link).

Like the above Monoprice earphones, these headphones offer a fantastic value proposition. They are comfortable and offer decent sound at an unbeatable price. It is plastic and feels like plastic but at the same time it is remarkable durable. the pleather earpads worried me at first but that can easily be modded or is easy to forgive considering the price. 

Like the Sennheiser CX300 MK-II, this headphone provides a small bass boost but nothing overly aggressive. The Mid/High are decent but sometimes come through a little muddy (but are fairly crisp most of the time). 

These headphones work great plugged into your device but the performance is taken up a notch when you pair this with a headphone amplifier. 

Read related articles:

My second headphone pic in this range is the Sennheiser HD 202 II (buy it for $25 on Amazon link). The Sennheiser HD 202 II offers great value with clean sound (not bass heavy - more neutral), decent build quality and good noise isolation. 

My one complaint is that these seem to be weak when used with most smartphones. To really get decent performance, you need to power these with a headphone amp (the amp in most smartphones is too underpowered). 

I found these comfortable for the first 30-45 minutes of wear but then my ears started to get a bit sweaty. My other con is that the cord is too long. Otherwise this is an incredible value.

$30 range

I am a big fan of sennheiser headphones. They make some solid products with excellent performance. for for this price range, the Sennheiser CX 300 MK-II is a natural choice. The CX300 MK-II offers a little more bass (isn't completely neutral) without being too punchy. It offers a nice combination of rich bass and clear mids / highs.

I was really surprised at the larger than expected soundstage (for such a small in-ear device). These are light, well built and provide a decent amount of noise isolation. 

You can currently pick these up on Amazon for around $36 (link).

If you are willing to spend about $10 more, then you can upgrade to its bigger brother (about $45 on Amazon link). The CX 400 offers improved sound in a package the same size.

AudioFly AF78 - a new earphone king

technologyEdward KiledjianComment

What am I looking for?

Before I review the Audiofly 78 with microphone, I wanted to take 2 minutes and explain what I look for in headphones or earphones. 

When testing audio gear (particularly headphones and earphones), I am looking for flat frequency response. Flat doesn't mean boring but rather it means the headphones reproduce the soundtrack exactly as the producer intended it.

When travelling or working, I may have my headphones on hour hours and therefore I am looking for a sound profile that doesn't tire my ears and I look for products that are comfortable to wear. 

I believe that you get what you pay for and I am willing to pay for quality products so I also expect my gear to be durable,

I tend to use my audio gear in noisy environments (on city streets, in a crowded office, on planes, on trains, etc) therefore I prefer devices that offer passive noise isolation ( I find active noise cancellation products tiresome after an hour or two of use.

Finally I pay close attention to the price/value ratio of the products I buy and test. Like most of my readers, I am prepared to pay more for quality and performance but don't have an unlimited budget.

What is the Audiofly 78 with microphone?

I tested the Audiofly AF-33 headphones in June (link) and was disappointed with the product.  When I decided to test the higher end Audiofly Af-78 earphones, I was cautiously pessimistic but I was wrong... These are fantastic and keep reading to find out why.

AF78_3.jpg

Fit, design and build

The kit comes comes with sizes of silicon eartips and 2 pairs of Comply Foam tips. Like every other in-ear earphone that I have tested over the last 5 years, it is critically important (for noise isolation and sound quality) to find the right sized tip. After testing the silicon tips (medium worked for me), I went back to the Comply Foam tips they provided. Almost every earphone that I own is equipped with these tips because they provide an excellent seal, great noise isolation and are comfortable enough to wear for hours. I love the fact that they included Comply Foam tips in the base kit (great decision).

You'll notice that each earpiece has a larger enclosure than most in this class and I was worried this would make the umcomfortable for extended wear but it didn't. The design of the earpice is well thought out and the weight is properly balanced on the base of the ear therefore there is no excessive  weight to carry.

AF78.jpg

Audio fly describes the AF078's cable as:

"twisted core, Kevlar® reinforced conductors and a CORDURA™ fabric outer sheath for outstanding durability."

Marketing speak aside, the cable feels extremely durable (much better than the original cable provided with the UE Triple-Fi 10 or the Etymotic HF3). The cable feels solid, well built and is fairly tangle resistant. 

The design decisions do mean that you won't be able to wear the headphones "behind the ear style" but I don't wear my headphones like that anyway so this really doesn't impact me. 

There are 2 versions of this product:

  • without microphone & remove
  • with microphone & remote

I tested the later and call quality was excellent on both ends. I tested the call quality on a busy street, in the car while driving highway speed and in a quiet room. In all 3 cases the other party (to the call) didn't know I was using a headset and when asked said the quality of the call was excellent.

It's all about the sound

The headphones are rate for 18 Hz - 22 Khz which is a fantastic range. These specs should provide an incredibly wide soundstage and clear separation. Do the earphones deliver? In a word Yes.

Before testing the headphones, I ran them through 50 hours of burn-in as such

  • 10 hours of white noise
  • 10 hours of pink noise
  • 10 hours of brown noise
  • 10 hours of sweeping audio which pushes the drivers though different frequency responses (low medium and high)
  • 10 hours of various types of music

Once these were completed, I then performed a series of objective audio tests (most reviews just play music they like to evaluate headgear, I wanted something more).

Frequency Response tests

First I tested the bass extension using frequencies from 10 hz to 200 hz. This test is meant to confirm the low range frequency response of the headphones. The AF78 passed this test

Then I moved to the treble extension test which tests the high end frequencies from 22Khz to 8 Khz. Again the Af-78 performed very well and passed this test with flying colours.

Dynamic range of the AF-78

The purpose of this exercise is to compare how the earphone reproduces sound between the highest signal and the quietest. This is a great way to test the isolation capabilities of the headphone as you compare the loudest and quietest sounds together. 

In my tests (un the quiet room), I was able to hear 66 db below full scale which is an excellent result. This shows that the earphones isolation is great and will allow for the reproduction of delicately nuanced music.

This test was performed in a quiet room, on a busy city street and in the middle of a busy retail store full of shoppers. Performance was excellent in every one of the scenarios.  

Testing for internal build quality

I have a special soundtrack that plays sweeping bass frequencies (used at high volumes) and I am looking for rattling sounds, buzz or other audio artifacts which would indicate bad build quality. 

The Audiofly AF-78 passed this test with flying colours. No artifacts were introduced.

3D audio test

I have various high quality 3d (holographic) soundtracks which allow me to test how well the earphones reproduce 3D sound. 3D sound is a reproduction of hour the human ear works and reproduces sound where you can clearly make our the origin of the sound in a 360 degree soundstage (even estimating distance).

The Audiofly AF-78 passed this test with flying colours.

Wiring test

I have an spoken word audio track that has cleanly separated left and right channel audio (each clearly identified as left fed or right fed audio). This is a simple test to ensure the right channel is wired into the right earphone and that there is no crosstalk.

On to the music

The AF78 is a balanced and dynamic armature setup which means everything you listen to sounds spacious, clean and crisp. It reproduces sound with a nice balanced tone and has the ability to churn out clean, crisp bass when called for. 

I tested the Audiofly AF78 with many different styles of music and it performed properly for all types (which is what I was expecting with a properly balanced sound profile): rock, hip hop, R&B, jazz, metal, bluegrass, country, acoustic, opera and classical.

Comparing this to other earphones in its price range, it performed fantastically well. The only negative comparison I could make was with comparing the vocal quaity (opera) of this versus my Triple-fi 10 pro. The triple-fi seemed to offer better vocal output. Its important to remember that the triple-fi 10 is a considerably more expensive earphone and has "3 individual speakers and an integrated passive crossover circuit board directs low-end frequencies to a dedicated speaker for bass".

When listening to an orchestral recording, I could easily make out each instrument. Everything sounded natural as if I was listening to it live. It didn't feel like the music was being pushed through a small device but that it was surrounding me with well spaced airy reproduction. 

Quality of music

Most earphones I test are not this high quality so I don't notice a difference between an MP3 recording or a lossless format. The AF78 is different. Because of its great sound reproduction capabilities, I could hear the quality difference between lossless and lossy formats.

This means the earphones are truly well designed and high quality. It is also important for me to note that the quality of your recordings is important. If your entire collection is based on 96kbit/s MP3s then you won't be getting the best performance from these little earphones. 

If you use iTunes Match, even your crappy recordings will be made available in 256-Kbps AAC which will greatly increase audio quality.

Verdict

Audiofly has done something fantastic with these sub $200 headphones. The balanced armature and dynamic driver combination are not unique to Audiofly but still very rare. I enjoyed testing these earphones and highly recommend them. 

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