My rating: 4/5
[Note: Bose recently announced Sleepbuds. Here’s our write up]
Last year I moved into a charming, but seriously creaky old row house apartment with no soundproofing between floors. The footsteps of the 6’6’’ former college basketball player living above sounded like crackling thunder over my head. Combined with the evening sub woofer beats emanating from the unit below, a loud AC unit and a sometimes snorer next to me, it was the perfect storm for a light sleeper.
I first turned to earplugs. After reading extensive online reviews, I settled on Flents for the combination of comfort and decibel reducing capability. While good at reducing higher frequencies, the low-frequency thundering above and pulsing below seeped through. With a pillow over my head and the plugs in, things were certainly better – but not great.
Desperate for a solution to low frequency noise, I began my quest starting with noise cancelling materials. Not so practical for an apartment, it turns out. While I’d read about noise cancelling headphones, I had my doubts. I’d tried some cheap noise cancelling cans in the past and was not impressed. The Bose headphones seemed like they might be a colossal waste of money. I’d read they will block out constant low frequency sounds like a jet engine – while my problem was more irregular and sudden noises.
After a particularly bad night, a $250 bet on better sleep suddenly became reasonable. I pressed “buy” with same day delivery on the Bose QuietComfort 20 (the 20i is the same but for iPhone users). They arrived in a blue box containing the headphones, two extra earpiece sizes, a USB charger, and an instruction manual with tiny print in about 15 different languages. The headphones themselves have a medium length cord that’s a bit thicker than normal to fit both the sound + sound cancelling technology. At the plugin terminus is a lightweight rectangular unit housing the noise cancelling technology. Closer to the buds is a smaller volume controller and “awareness” button turns the noise cancelling technology off so ambient sounds can be heard.
I flipped the noise cancelling activation switch on. The effect was immediate and frankly uncanny. Nearby speaking was reduced to a very faint murmur. The sound of a nearby fan was completely gone even without any music playing yet. This was far beyond what my ear plugs were capable of, despite similar decibel reduction claims. It turns out, the frequency level of sound reduction is critical.
But now came the moment of truth. Can I sleep in these? And do they block the terrorizing neighbor noise? Setting up some soft, relaxing bionic music via my phone (plenty of it free on YouTube), I fitted the earpieces and settled down on the pillow. While I wish the cord was a little longer as I have no bedside table table, my phone is able to rest on the floor if I’m near the edge of the bed. The earpieces themselves fit snugly (they are supposed to), putting a little more pressure on the upper ear area vs. ear plugs, but much less pressure inside the ear canal itself. The soft rubber material Bose uses is much more comfortable than my $10 Panasonic earbuds. Overall, the comfort is good enough for sleep – especially after months of earplugs.
As a primarily tummy/side sleeper, I was worried about comfort with my head against the pillow. Indeed, the earbuds protrude a bit. On a soft pillow, it IS possible to sleep with them in – but I’d recommend buying a pillow that’s specifically built to reduce ear pressure (see pillows for side sleepers).
And most importantly, the neighbor noises – they almost completely went away! With the soft relaxing soundtrack playing (anything too loud and I can’t sleep even if it’s relaxing), I have not noticed my neighbors in days. Yes, it is possible to hear a few muffled tones now and then but it’s nothing like before. Could this be the perfect solution to my problems? Just about, yes.
Each night, I do wake up about 2 hours into sleep and turn off the music and remove the earbuds. Because the neighbor noise is gone then, it’s more comfortable to sleep without them. The little pressure they do produce can become a tad uncomfortable after 2+ hours if you’re extra sensitive to that like me. But because I’m relaxed at this point, it’s very easy to get back to sleep. With the earplugs, it was difficult to get back to sleep after removing them due to the restless quality of my sleep pattern. As I get used to the experience, perhaps I’ll keep them on through the night. The built-in battery lasts 16 hours and is rechargeable by USB, unlike most other noise cancelling headphones that drain through batteries.
If you’re at your wits end with noise keeping you awake, I strongly recommend making the investment. With a full refund available after up to 30 days, it’s worth a try.
UPDATE: I’ve been using these to sleep for nearly 2 years. The most I use them, the more comfortable they’ve become. I still take them out after about an hour or two, after which I’m able to quickly fall asleep. Unfortunately, one of the buds developed a problem, omitting a light buzz noise. Thankfully, Bose fully replaced them at no charge. The new pair have been working great. However, I’m going to lower my rating to 4 from 4.5 to account for the hassle of dealing with the replacement.