We’re always looking for good noise cancelling headphones that cost less than the ridiculous $300-400 asking price for some of the better known products such as the Sony and Bose products. We review the top-of-the-line Sony WH1000XM3 here, and review the Bose QC25/35 headphones here.
The spectacularly overpriced headphones from Bose and Sony (and other manufacturers too) typically have an underlying product cost of about 10% of the retail price, and much of that product cost is in the packaging rather than the actual electronics. So there’s an enormous opportunity to come up with almost-as-good products but at massively lower cost.
For about a decade, the PlaneQuiet and Solitude brands of headphones, marketed by a company in NC, were worthy competitors at bargain prices, but they seem to have disappeared. Their problem wasn’t quality, it was marketing – too many people instinctively believed that expensive brand name headphones “obviously” would be much better than a small little literally mom and pop store and their much lower priced products.
We were very interested to see the relatively new Anker Soundcore Life Q20 headphones (they came out in the third quarter of 2019). With a retail price of only $60, and plenty of glowing reviews on various websites, and a known brand name (albeit best known for their batteries) we hoped they might be a good alternative and at a price around five times lower than the big guys.
Their specs seemed to suggest they were the equal of everything else out there, although their very weak claim of reducing ambient background sounds by up to 90% either meant they were unusually honest or their headphones were poor performers.
A 90% reduction sounds great, but it is only 10dB, and the “up to” qualifier makes any specification that follows totally meaningless.
Interestingly, neither Bose nor Sony these days make a claim for their noise reduction, and in reality, it is a difficult claim to make or justify, because the noise reduction is typically on a curve, with more noise cancelling at some frequencies than others.
So, are the headphones any good? Are they the bargain of the year? This is what we found.
The Headphones – What You Get
The headphones come in an appealing cardboard box that is easy to open. Inside are the headphones themselves, of course. There are two cables provided – a 4′ cable with standard 1/8th stereo jacks at each end, and a 2′ USB to USB-micro connector for charging the built-in Lithium-ion battery. It seems the battery is not replaceable, but by the time you’ve used up the battery, we expect some years will have passed and it is as easy/appropriate to replace the entire headphones rather than worry about a replacement battery which, especially considering the hassle, would probably cost as much as a new set of headphones.
Some minor quibbles. There were no adapters included (ie a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter, or a double-prong airline adapter). The 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter is perhaps not essential, but the double-prong airline adapter is absolutely essential if you’re planning on flying. You can buy one of these airline adapters separately on Amazon for about $5 (actually, you’ll probably find the cheapest purchase gets you three rather than one for $4.95).
It is also of course easy enough to get a 1/8″ to 1/4″ adapter if you need one (you might have one or more already lying around). They are also so inexpensive that Amazon usually will sell you two or more rather than just one, and the price on Amazon seems to be about $6.50 or so.
The other cord/connector quibble is about the USB charging cable. It terminates in a common micro-USB connector. While, yes, the micro-USB is common, it is also increasingly obsolete, and most modern upmarket products use a USB-C connector. It would be a much more “future-proof” product to have a USB-C rather than micro-USB connector.
Also included was an instruction pamphlet and a “we are not responsible for anything” bit of legalese. The “not responsible for” booklet was many more pages than the instruction pamphlet.
The instruction pamphlet is akin to a set of Ikea assembly instructions. They have line drawing pictures and symbols, but no text. We really dislike this approach to instruction manuals, and even our intelligent experienced-with-electronics 15 yr old daughter found herself unable to guess at what some of the symbols meant.
We can only assume that Anker has pitched these headphones to illiterate users, but the chances of illiterate people wishing to buy noise cancelling headphones and understanding the symbols are very low. Do us a favor, Anker, and use words next time. (Needless to say, Anker had no problem filling its “We are not responsible for anything” booklet with words rather than pictures…..).
Also included was a soft rubber drawstring pouch to carry the headphones in. We’re in two minds about this.
On the one hand, the bag does provide some small amount of protection for the headphones, and being amorphous, it takes up less space and can be more readily squeezed into whatever gap you have in your carry-on bag. On the other hand, it doesn’t provide as much protection as a solid sided case, and it also can’t readily be used for carrying accessories and other “stuff” as well, because the top of the bag doesn’t properly close, meaning small items could fall out.
Generally, we always travel with various adapters (1/8th inch to 1/4 inch, and 1/8th inch to double pronged for some airline systems) and cables (obviously the USB and audio cables) plus maybe other accessories and gadgets (a music player, an audio splitter, other bits and pieces), and so we want some secure way of keeping them together with the headphones.
The headphones come with a generous 18 month warranty.
You can buy the headphones with a hard sized case for an extra $5-$10 on Amazon (ie $70). If you like hard-sided cases, you should consider this option, because we don’t think it is possible to buy the case separately.
The headphones are available in both black and silver. Amazon sells the black for $60 and the silver for $65.
The headphones are similar to most other over-the-ear headphones, with oval shaped ear cups slightly larger (deeper) and bulkier than Bose. At 9.2 oz they are very slightly heavier (2 oz more) than the Bose QC25 headphones and the same weight as the QC35 headphones. They fold up similarly to Bose and lie flat for carrying.
They seem to be well constructed and with no obvious weak spots or vulnerabilities.
They are comfortable to wear, with ear pads described as being made from “soft protein leather”. What is “protein leather”? Why can’t they simply say “artificial imitation non-leather material” if that is the fair description? Inside the ear cups are a prominent letter “L” or “R” to distinguish left from right.
The left ear-cup has two controls – one for power and the other for noise cancelling. Both are labeled. The right ear-cup has a triple control – volume up, multi-function, and volume down. It is one of those terrible controls which does many different things depending on if you press each part of it briefly, or for longer, or maybe tap it twice, or perhaps if you first turn anti-clockwise three times and then stand on one-leg with your fingers crossed while pressing it. I can never remember all the arcane combinations of tapping and pressing and detest the requirement to try and learn such things.
Also on the right ear-cup are two connectors, one the micro-USB for recharging the battery, and the other for the audio cable if you didn’t wish to use the Bluetooth connection.
The two cables are usefully long – neither too ridiculously long as to get tangled, nor too ridiculously short as to make things inconvenient.
Using the Headphones
The Lithium-ion battery is claimed to be good for 40 hours of listening to audio with Bluetooth turned on, or 60 hours with the BT turned off (and using the audio cable instead). These are great battery lives – Bose promises 20 hours with BT and 30 hours without, and Sony promises 30 hrs with BT.
It takes up to three hours to fully charge the battery in the headphones, and you can’t use them while the battery is being charged. This is disappointing. But you can take advantage of a “quick charge” feature – a five minute charge will give you up to four hours of listening.
When you turn the headphones on, you hear a series of tones, a voice that announces the battery level, then a different series of tones.
You can turn the noise cancelling on or off with its button. A green light comes on, and a voice announces either “Noise Cancelling” (when turned on) or “Off” (when turned off again.
If you then plug the audio cable in you can no longer turn the headphones on or off, but you can turn the noise cancelling on or off. I am guessing this implies that the main on/off button relates to the Bluetooth connection. If the headphones were on, plugging in the headphones turns them off. Unplugging the headphones turns off the noise cancelling, but you can then turn it on again if you just want noise cancelling but no audio.
With the audio cable and no Bluetooth you can probably still listen to phone calls through the headphones, but your voice isn’t sent back through the cable to the phone because it is only a three wire sleeve/ring/tip stereo connector, not a four wire sleeve/ring/ring/tip connector with an audio input line.
Is this confusing you yet? If you’re not yet confused, please keep reading. The Bluetooth section is guaranteed to confuse you.
The Bluetooth Connection
I really don’t like Bluetooth. Even though the headphones use the most up-to-date 5.0 version of Bluetooth, it remains as quirky as any of the previous versions. The first thing to do when you want to pair a new device with your headphones is to turn them off. Yes, not exactly intuitive! Then you turn them back on, but you keep on pressing the On button for some time after that until a different set of tones sounds, and the power light starts flashing blue. At that point you can now connect from your phone or other Bluetooth device, without needing to input any passcode.
If you subsequently connect to a different phone/device, the headphones will no longer automatically connect to the first device and you’ll have to repair it.
If you have the Bluetooth connection active, you can control some aspects of your phone or music player, and it will also allow you to make and receive phone calls, and will use a microphone built in to the right headphone earcup so you can talk as well as listen.
The sound quality of your speech is not brilliant for the person at the other end. This is unsurprising, because your mouth is projecting your voice away from rather than towards the microphone on an earcup above and behind your mouth.
As we’ve often observed before, when you buy noise cancelling headphones the main feature you’re seeking is excellent noise cancellation. Sound quality is a secondary feature. If you plan to also listen to music in a quieter environment, buy yourself a second pair of regular headphones with good sound quality, don’t plan on using your noise cancelling headphones for that too.
The sound quality with these headphones, and using a wired connection, varied enormously between with noise cancelling on and off. With the noise cancelling on, the higher frequencies are much more accented, and with it off, they are muffled. We preferred the sound with noise cancelling on, but didn’t much like it with either setting.
One of the many different things you can get the multi-purpose triple control on the right ear-cup to do is to switch on a bass boost feature. If you like artificial bass, then by all means, turn it on, and the effect isn’t too terribly pronounced. But if you prefer to hear music the way it is played, perhaps leave it alone. Although we generally prefer to leave all tone controls flat, we felt the sound might be slightly better with the bass boost on – perhaps it compensates for speaker frequency response inadequacies.
The bass boost feature only works with noise cancelling on.
Anker claim the headphones have a frequency response from 16 Hz up to 40 kHz. But they don’t indicate within what dB limits this frequency response occurs, which makes the claim meaningless. We did not get a sense of extended frequency response, although with our ever-older and more frequency-limited ears, we doubt we would notice anyway.
Most of all, though, we didn’t feel the sound was clear, or warm, or engaging. Sometimes, when we’re auditioning a new pair of headphones, we end up spending an extra hour or two just enjoying music that is so vivid and appealing as to demand further listening, well beyond that required to test/evaluate the headphones. In this case, we again found ourselves enjoying more music than we needed to – but not with the Anker headphones. We were listening longer to the comparison headphones and having to force ourselves back to the Ankers.
We compared them alongside a set of Bose QC25s and preferred the QC25s, although the difference in sound quality wasn’t enormous, and probably the Anker set is perfectly good by noise cancelling headphone standards. We then compared with a pair of Sony MDR-7506 headphones – a venerable model of headphones so good that it has been on sale continually since 1991 and is generally considered the “cleanest” and “clearest” headphones you can buy for around $100 – and the difference between them and the Anker Soundcore Q20 was much more pronounced. As we said before, use noise cancelling headphones in a noisy environment, but use regular headphones in a quiet environment.
There are also volume control buttons. They don’t seem to do anything when listening through a wired connection. This is actually good, you should always have headphones with no attenuation (ie max volume) and control the volume from the player.
Now for the main “raison d’etre” of the headphones. Noise cancelling.
These days, companies have gone completely crazy when it comes to noise cancelling, offering such nonsense concepts as “different sound profiles” and “digital settings” for noise cancelling. As we’ve always said, there is only one setting you’d ever want for noise cancelling, and that is maximum. We can never countenance any situation where you’d want to have some of the background noise interfere with the audio you’re trying to listen to. All these other options are nothing more than marketing nonsense, trying to justify the ridiculously inflated price of the headphones.
Happily, the Anker headphones have a simple on/off switch for noise cancelling, without any of the nonsense artificial options.
Even more happily, and to our delight, they performed excellently at noise cancelling, and almost as good as the Bose QC25 and QC35 headphones. Not to be unkind, but this was a surprise, and of the nicest type. They did an excellent job of getting rid of a broad band of background noise, both lower and higher frequency, and probably are the best non-high-end noise cancelling headphones we’ve ever tested.
There is a bit of background hiss, but not really any worse than on any other headphones, and of course, you only hear the background noise if you’re in a very quiet space, where you’d not want the noise cancelling anyway.
These are good headphones at a great price. If you use them as wired headphones, they are easy to use, and as Bluetooth headphones, they are not nearly as complicated as some of the other models available.
They don’t come with a companion app for your phone, but that is a very good thing – they are not overly complicated and there’s no need for the added nonsense and complication of a separate app. Their noise cancelling is a simple on/off switch, and works excellently, almost as well as Bose and Sony headsets costing in the high $200s and all the way up to $400.
For most people and most applications, the Anker Soundcore Life Q20 headphones are an excellent choice, and at about $60 on Amazon, a brilliant price and value. Recommended.