"It’s amazing to think that all it takes to meet my whimsy needs is the simple flick of a switch. Both configurations are a welcome addition to my IEM collection, and the fact that they came bundled in one convenient price and product is just the icing on top of the cake."
Ask the most veteran Head-Fi'ers what their first good in-ear monitor was, and the answer you may get back more than any other would be the Etymotic ER-4 (either the ER-4S or the ER-4P). The latest version of the ER-4 from Etymotic Research is the ER-4PT.
With a single balanced armature driver per side, the ER-4 is, in the opinion of many experienced audiophiles, one of the standards (of any type of headphone) for neutral tonal balance. You want booming bass, extra sparkle in your treble, or extra-rich mids? Look somewhere else.
Also, if you like the maximum amount of isolation from ambient noise, the Etymotic ER-4--with the included triple-flange tips--are rated for 35dB to 42dB of isolation. I don't know of any other IEM (universal-fit or custom) that provides more isolation from outside noise.
The ER-4PT is simply a modernized version of the legendary Etymotic ER-4, from the company who started so many audiophiles (including yours truly) down the road of high-end in-ear monitors.
"For an old timer in the rapidly growing IEM market, Etymotic ER4 has stood the trial of time very well. Granted it is not a sound for everyone, it is still has one of the top spot among some of the more expensive new comers. For a price around $180 these days, it is a deal not to be missed by any analytical listener."
Okay, let's get this out of the way first: what the heck is up with this Onkyo's headphone names? Their headphones (over-ear and in-ear) have some of the worst, most difficult to remember names I can recall (or perhaps I should say can't recall). Thankfully, I really like the ES-CTI300, even if there's no way I'll ever be able to verbally recite its name to you.
Like its over-ear sibling, Onkyo's in-ear headphone comes in three different versions, differentiated only by which cables they come with. The IE-FC300 ($99) comes with a more common looking flat elastomer cable. The IE-HF300 ($129) comes with a higher-end 6N oxygen-free copper cable with lower resistance than the IE-FC300's. The IE-CTI300 ($149) has the higher-end cable, but with an Apple-certified inline three-button remote/mic. In all three models, the cables are detachable, using gold-plated MMCX connectors.
The driver in the IE-CTI300 is a 14.3mm (9/16") dynamic driver. Housing that large a driver requires a commensurately large housing, so the IE-CTI300 is big for an in-ear. With its cable's MMCX plug housing acting as an extension of the earpiece's body, the IE-CTI300, when worn, extends down below my earlobe--it's an elegant design to the eye that's somewhat inelegantly big worn. Fortunately, getting a fit (even with its large driver housing) was easy for me, and I think it'll be similarly easy for most.
My favorite thing about the IE-CTI300 is its sound. It sounds somewhat like its over-ear sibling, with its impactful bass, and its midrange and treble clarity. However, compared to the ES-CTI300, the IE-CTI300's bass is more taut, more controlled. The IE-CTI300 images nicely, too, with a tighter soundstage, but good placement of objects within that image.
The IE-CTI300 is a very nice universal-fit in-ear for $149. I haven't heard the versions of this headphone with the less expensive cables, but if they sound as good--and if you don't need the three-button remote--you might find even greater value in those.
Written by Jude Mansilla
Last year, Sony announced seven new headphone models (constituting 11 total new SKUs) using balanced armature (BA) drivers. I haven't heard them all, but, of the ones I did hear, the XBA-3iP was the one that most caught my attention.
Unlike most manufacturers that source balanced armature drivers from other companies, my understanding is that Sony developed their own BA's. Using three of their new BA drivers per side in the XBA-3iP, Sony has achieved a level of refinement and balance with the XBA-3iP that some companies have taken years to realize.
The XBA-3iP also has a very nice form factor, with earpieces that look simple and elegant, and with a nice shape that's very easy to grab between your thumb and forefinger for very quick and easy ear insertion.
With weighty yet detailed bass, neutral'ish (if somewhat subdued) mids, and detailed, well-extended neutral-balanced treble, the XBA-3iP is a very good universal-fit in-ear monitor. While it doesn't quite reach the performance heights (to my ears) of the Westone 4R or Phonak Audéo PFE232, it also doesn't reach their price strata. At its price point, the XBA-3iP has become one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs.
(There is also a version without the three-button remote/mic called the XBA-3, which is priced around $200 to $230.)
"Anyone that is looking for one of the most engaging, lush, fantastically 3D layered detailed and dreamy out of your head sounds around. Try these with absolute no hesitation. I can't express to you guys just how much I enjoy these earphones."
The Westone 4R is one of my favorite universal-fit IEMs (in-ear monitors), especially when I'm looking for a more tonally flat sound signature. And the 4R's detail retrieval is outstanding from bottom to top.
Across the audioband, the Westone 4R does not provide any specific area of emphasis, and certainly no over-emphasis. Bass extends low, but without any extra weight imparted by the 4R. Though detailed throughout, I find the 4R's midrange detail to be one of its greatest strengths--again, without any emphasis imparted to achieve it. The treble balance is also excellent, with enough to provide some sparkle, but never enough to impart any edginess.
The 4R also is very comfortable to wear, with a surprisingly compact chassis (considering there are four drivers per side). Like Westone's other universal-fit IEMs, it sits very flat in the ear, which results in an IEM that can be worn while laying your head down. Put the Westone 4R at or near the top of your list if you're looking for a more neutral sound signature, but look elsewhere if you prefer tonal emphasis of any kind (like bumped-up bass), as that's not what this IEM is about.
I have both the Westone 4 and the Westone 4R, and they sound the same to me. From what I can tell, the key difference is that the Westone 4's cable is permanently affixed, whereas the 4R's cable is detachable.
"Westone has once again raised the stakes in the driver wars between high-end IEM manufacturers – something they’ve done at least twice in the past. The fit, comfort, build quality, and isolation are all what we’ve come to expect from Westone products but it should come as no surprise that the sound of the W4 is an evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, step up from the company’s previous flagships. The sound signature requires almost no qualifications for those familiar with Westone products – well-rounded, refined, and spacious, the W4 is a very difficult earphone do dislike."
It seems everyone and his subsidiaries want to peddle headphones nowadays, with loudspeaker manufacturers seemingly unable to resist the call. One such entry in the last year that I found particularly interesting: Velodyne. Sure, their subwoofers have been well regarded for years, but I was intrigued to find out how a company that essentially specializes in the spectrum below 200Hz (and often well below 20Hz) would do with their first headphone. As it turns out, they've done very well.
One might think that a subwoofer company would choose a bass-emphasized tonal balance with their first headphone, and, indeed, it did. One might fear that a subwoofer company might overdo that bass, but thankfully it didn't. The vPulse's bass is emphasized, and sounds to me to be centered in the deep bass region, without adulterating the mids. In fact, the vPulse's mids and treble seem to breathe freely, and the overall balance is just what I'd want when I feel like listening to a bass-emphasized in-ear. The vPulse's resolution is good, but don't buy the vPulse if you're a detail freak. Soundstaging is good, but, again, if this is your lead criterion, the vPulse may not win you over.
The vPulse looks very nice and stylish (and youthful) in blue (it's also available in a more conservative black/silver), and has a very nice three-button inline remote/mic. The vPulse is an outstanding value at around $90.
"The sound combines solid bass rumble and depth with slightly subdued – but still clean and detailed – mids and highs. The bass can be a touch overpowering on some tracks but normally remains well-behaved for such a bassy earphone, making the vPulse highly suitable for anyone in search of a reasonably-priced headset with plentiful rumble and power."
I first met the Audiofly team at an event called CES Unveiled last January, and a quick listen to a couple of pieces in their line had me interested in hearing more. I eventually picked up the AF56 and AF78, and am glad I did.
The Audiofly AF78 (around $200) is Audiofly's flagship, and is a hybrid design, with a 9mm dynamic driver and balanced armature driver in each earpiece. The AF78's sound signature is warm and smooth, with bigger-than-neutral bass, velvety mids, and soft, smooth treble. The AF78 is no resolution monster, but yet I find it eminently easy to listen to for long sessions--almost every time I use it, it's for at least a couple of hours. I'm not sure what, if any, crossover network is melding the sound of the two drivers, but the two driver types in the AF78 seem to work well together.
The nozzles on the AF78 are a bit large, though, so those with small ear canals might want to look elsewhere. The unusual shape of the AF78 can also make it a bit fidgety at first, in terms of getting the fit right; but once you figure it out (which doesn't take long), you'll be inserting them as fast as your other IEMs.
The AF78 version I have is the one with the one-button remote/mic, and the sound quality of my outgoing voice in phone calls through the AF78 is very clear. When I ask those on the other side of the call how I sound with it, most are surprised to find I'm on a headset.
As much as I enjoy the AF78, it's the AF78's understudy--the Audiofly AF56--that I enjoy the most in the Audiofly line. I find the AF56's presentation more coherent, more detailed, than its big sib. With a big 13mm dynamic driver in each earpiece, the bass from the AF56 can actually be felt, not just heard--literally, there's a physical sensation from the AF56's bass that you can feel in your ears; and while this might suggest that bass on the AF56 is muddy, it's not. Strong, yes. Muddy, no. The mids of the AF56 also have more presence and detail, to my ears, than the AF78 does--and the same goes for the treble. Its soundstage is also impressive and full.
Whereas the AF78 might not be one of the first to come to mind if someone was asking me for $200 IEM recommendations, the AF56 would certainly come to mind quickly for $100, especially for those who prefer a bassier presentation.
Also, I find the AF56 an easier fit for my ears, as its nozzle has a smaller diameter than the AF78. The AF78 is available in marqee black (black), and the AF56 is available in vino (deep red), vintage white, and blue tweed.
"The AF56 are very well built, look very nice, and comfortable. Their kind of V-shaped signature may not be suited for everyone, but they do offer a big, surrounding, enjoyable and exciting sound."
"Big sound. Small footprint." That's thinksound's motto, their mission statement being "to create incredible sounding headphones with the smallest eco-footprint possible." At a time when so many of us are becoming increasingly conscious about how we impact the environment, how could I not include something from thinksound in this guide? This was made even easier by the fact their flagship product, the ms01, sounds quite good for its street price of around $100.
The eco-friendly vibe is strong with this one, with extensive use of natural-color cardboard, and very minimal use of plastic. The carrying case is also a simple unbleached cotton drawstring pouch. Each earpiece consists of a beautiful brown wood housing with gunmetal-colored aluminum baffles. At first glance, the aluminum baffles look like something hammered to shape. The cables are tangle-resistant and PVC-free. Aesthetically, the ms01 is a very simple, elegant design. I'm not sure why, but every time I look at the ms01, I think of little craft art shops in Bridgetown, Barbados, and that makes me smile.
The "ms" in "ms01" stands for "monitor series," and I can see where they're coming from with that label, especially for how it sounds relative to most other in-ears in its price range, which tend to be either bass-heavy or bass-and-treble-heavy. The ms01 takes a rather even-keeled approach to its tonal balance, with impactful, fast bass, good clarity through the midrange, and what sounds to me like a dash of treble emphasis, but thankfully not in the sibilance range. The ms01 also images nicely.
On sound alone, it's a worthy competitor at its price. Throw its eco-cool spirit into the mix, and it becomes more of a standout in an increasingly crowded space.
"Thinksound's formula has always been beautiful in its simplicity – combine one part enhanced bass with one part clarity, add stylish, well-crafted housings made from renewable materials, and package it all with great attention to detail. The MS01 doesn't stray far from its predecessors – it's not a monitoring earphone as the name seems to imply, but it delivers great sound and retains the upmarket look and feel of the other Thinksound models."
The MA750i offers a slightly-elevated, but satisfying low-frequency response as part of it's presentation. That is, after all, a component of RHA's house sound. However, the MA750i does depart from that tradition in a very important way: speed.
A quick run through Trentemøller's Remix of Röyksopp's What Else Is There? told me most of what I needed to know. The MA750i articulated the forward/reverse bass drums distinctly, definitively and without confusion. Turning over to Sarah Jarosz's cover of Bob Dylan's Ring Them Bells, I was rewarded with tight and visceral plucks from a double bass that never once droned nor overstayed it's welcome. My hat is off to RHA here, both for what they have done, and for what they have not done with the MA750i's bass characteristics.
Moving on to the midrange, we discover that Lewis Heath and the rest of the team at RHA have truly taken our collective impressions to heart. In short, the mids are breathtakingly enjoyable in their smooth and cohesive presentation. There is detail--presented with both clarity and separation - and an admirable lack of distortion, grain and harshness.
While the highs are not groundbreaking in any way, they are noteworthy in their own way. They roll-off gradually in an infinitely smooth taper, like a ghost returning to the ether. The result is just hint of sparkle and shimmer. Nothing distracting, certainly nothing exaggerated, just a nice and clean departure, sans that sudden drop-off that I find irritating to no end. Nicely done.
So what we have here is a weighty low-end that packs a potent but tight punch, Goldilocks mids that are neither too forward nor recessed, and graceful highs with good manners.
With respect to detail retrieval, I'd hate to get all cliche on you BUT I'M GONNA. With at least one track (it was Pet Shop Boys's Liberation), I did hear a percussive element that I had never heard before. This is rather shocking to me given how many times I've listened to this track and NOT heard that.
The MA750i's soundstage is always able to address a wildly varying (and sometimes contradictory) set of conditions in just the right way. Tracks that should exhibit a holographic depth do just that. But tracks that should snuggle up to you intimately do that as well.
"So, physically these are amazing. Acoustically, their timbre is outstanding and their acoustic balance very interesting. The detail levels are very nice too with the highs being particularly talented. This is a really impressive stab at a much more audiophile acoustic balance from RHA that manages, despite the spectacular build quality, come in at a price that undercuts its prime competition, that of the GR07. I’m really not sure how they have accomplished it, for it to be built like it as, sound as good and be this cheap. "
“The hearing system, musical chords and these Ear Speakers are reflections of the Golden Ratio.” “EM5813 mirrors the human cochlea and tympanic membrane.” - Cardas Audio
I wish I knew more about the Golden Ratio. All I know is that it's a pattern that naturally occurs in nature. Though a quick Googling would undoubtedly render more intel on the subject, I'd rather not pretend to know what I don't. However, I do have a firm grasp on IEM listening vs. on-ear and over-ear. I've experienced some incredible listening sessions with solidly engineered IEMs. My current references are JH Audio's JH13 Pro Freqphase for long periods (travel, etc.), and Etymotic hf3's and Heir Audio 4Ai's. When I slid the Cardas EM5813 Ear Speakers into my ears for the first time I could tell immediately there was something different about these in-ear monitors.
There was so much air, so much dimensionality (reproduction of spatial relationships between the instruments) that it didn't sound like an IEM to me at all. The first night I heard them was after our first headphone panel at T.H.E Show Newport. When I saw George (Cardas) the next day I told him the best compliment I could pay his IEMs was that I fell asleep with them in my ears! That never happens to me, not even with my custom-fitted JH Audio's. Now, not knowing anything about the Golden Ratio, and without seeing the quote above (on the back of the packaging for the IEMs) I also told George that these IEMs basically sounded, I thought, like “an extension of my outer-ear." Now I know why he smiled from ear to ear. That was his design goal! Needless to say I believe he's achieved that impossible-sounding feat. The in-ears also come with Cardas's high end Clear Light Headphone Cable.
Now, we're still all individuals. I still recommend going out and trying these before you commit, but for 400 bucks, at this performance level, it's easy to recommend. I could wholeheartedly recommend these to anybody and feel confident about it. They're that musical. Or maybe it's better to say they don't necessarily have a sonic signature at all. As long as the music moves you, hearing it through the EM5813 Cardas Ear Speakers should only move you more. They're like amplifiers for your ears. Pump up the music you love through these. I highly doubt you'll regret it. They never leave my bag.
Last month we had a chance to stop by the headphone labs at Sony in Japan, where the head of their headphone engineering--Naotaka Tsunoda--gave us a tour of the place, and then let us play with some of their newest models. Of the many new products were new in-ear monitors of hybrid design, using both dynamic drivers and balanced armature drivers, and I'm really enthusiastic about them, especially the Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3. (I also really like the new "Foamed Silicone" eartips that they come with.)
The Sony XBA-H3 is the flagship of the new Sony hybrid IEMs, and has one 16mm dynamic bass driver, and two balanced armature drivers (one of the BA drivers is full-range, the other is what Sony calls an HD super tweeter).
With a 16mm dynamic driver, the XBA-H3 has very large earpieces for an IEM. Not surprisingly, given its large size, the XBA-H3 is designed to be worn inverted (cable pointing up, with an over-ear loop). When worn, the XBA-H3 juts out further from my ears than any IEM I have here, reminding me a bit of the old Ultimate Ears Triple.Fi 10 Pro in this way. Given the peculiarities of its design, some may find the XBA-H3 a bit more challenging than a standard IEM to put on.
Fortunately, the Sony XBA-H3 sounds fantastic. Sony has done a better job integrating the dynamic driver with the balanced armature drivers than I've heard from this type of headphone before--I do not feel any sense of disjointedness in the melding of the two different types of drivers.
Not surprisingly with a huge 16mm driver, the XBA-H3 has very deep, very solid hitting bass--boosted, but well-controlled and tuneful, too. The XBA-H3's midrange is clear and precise--more neutral than the bass--and transitions beautifully to the the tweeter's soaring, shimmering treble. You know what it sounds like? Like a Sony flagship IEM.
Despite how much I love the XBA-H3's sound, it's the Sony XBA-H1 that I find to be the biggest gem of Sony's hybrid IEM line, for its combination of sound quality, design, and affordable price.
Because the XBA-H1's driver compliment--one 9mm dynamic driver and one full-range BA driver--is so much smaller than the XBA-H3's, it can use a far more compact housing, and a more traditional form factor. The XBA-H1 is worn cable down, and has a relatively straight body design, so putting its earpiece in your ears couldn't be easier.
In terms of sound, the XBA-H1 has a more neutral tonal balance than the XBA-H3, and the integration of the two drivers sounds seamless to me. Though the bass doesn't hit as hard as the XBA-H3's, it still has good punch, and, again, is more neutral. I find the XBA-H1's midrange to be almost as revealing as the XBA-H3's, and very competitive with other good IEMs in this price range. Its treble is also well extended, but not as much as the XBA-H3's, and is less shimmery. Still, though, I love the even-handed presentation of the XBA-H1, and find it a fantastic value at the price, even if its not as revealing overall as its much larger sibling.
The Sony XBA-H1 and XBA-H3 are two fantastic IEMs. Kudos to Sony for being able to integrate two completely different types of drivers (dynamic and balanced armature) so seamlessly in these two new models.
With their first two headphones--one in-ear (this one) and one over-ear (the M500)--KEF has come out batting .1000, both headphones being wonderful. Perhaps given all they've accomplished in loudspeaker design I shouldn't be so surprised.
This KEF M200 is an unusually designed IEM, consisting of two dynamic drivers per side, one directly behind the other. The one in the back is a 10mm low-frequency driver, the one in the front a 5.5mm mid/high driver. The low-frequency driver's output is ported through a cast aluminum chamber at the center of which is mounted the mid/high driver, so that the low-frequency driver's output is effectively being ported forward around that mid/high driver, with the output of the two combined at the nozzle.
The sound of the KEF M200 is outstanding, with emphasized, but very well controlled, bass. The low-frequency driver's integration into the mid/high driver's output is, to my ears, seamless--had I not known ahead of time that the M200 was a dual-driver design, I wouldn't have guessed. While KEF M200 is not quite at the performance level of Shure's SE846, the KEF M200's midband breathes very freely, reminding me (in that specific regard) of the flagship Shure IEM--as with the Shure, the KEF's lower mids are clean, untouched by the M200's bass bump. Also, the M200's treble is extended and smooth. Sonically, thanks in part to the solidity of its bass--and its free-breathing mids--I think the KEF M200 sounds big.
In terms of its industrial design, the KEF M200 is gorgeous, with the same chunky, sharp-edged matte aluminum look and feel of the KEF M500. The M200 is a cable-down design, with ear hooks that go over yours ears for fit and stability. Unfortunately, the M200 is also chunky in a way that's not good: to accommodate the unique configuration of its drivers, the KEF M200 uses very thick nozzles, so some with smaller ear canals may have difficulty getting a good fit. (My ear canals are of average size, and the M200 fits my ears very comfortably.)
As with its M500 over-ear headphone, KEF has a very well executed IEM with the KEF M200.
When I list the following attributes--in-ear monitor, advanced ceramic housing, oval eartips--diehard Head-Fi'ers might assume I'm talking about the $1000 Sennheiser IE 800. But then I add “under $200,” and it's obvious I'm heading somewhere else--Indiana perhaps?
I'm talking about Indianapolis-based Klipsch, and the Image X7i. Why this little ceramic-bodied wonder isn't one of the most talked about affordable universal-fit IEMs on Head-Fi is an absolute mystery to me. And shopping around shows it readily available for less than the $199.99 price I've listed.
The Image X7i joins its Klipsch stablemate Image X10 as being one of the most comfortable universal-fit in-ear monitors I've ever worn--there's something about the ultra-pliable silicone, and the narrow oval cross section of the eartips that makes them almost disappear from mind once inserted. The Klipsch Image X7i's ceramic body feels sturdy, and its contoured shape sits perfectly, comfortably in my ear. As comfortable as it is, though, I'd still have to give a slight edge in comfort to the X10, which is a bit smaller and even less intrusive.
More impressive than even the Image X7i's comfort is its sound. This is an audiophile piece all the way, and is neutral enough sounding for me to consider this one of my universal-fit neutral references. While it isn't possessing of the outright speed and resolution of my best (and far more expensive) in-ear monitors, the Klipsch Image X7i resolves above its price, and--most uncommonly in this price range and form factor--presents with enough extension at both ends, and with flat, detailed mids, to sound less like a consumer market headphone, and more like a pro channel monitoring headphone. The only thing that consistently reminds me that the Image X7i is indeed a consumer market piece is the microphone and three-button remote that make it a joy to use with my iPhone, iPods and iPads.
The Klipsch X7i is my new favorite from Klipsch, and one of my favorite sub-$200 headphones, period.
One of last year's most popular in-ear monitors within the Head-Fi community is Tralucent Audio's 1plus2, a universal hybrid IEM from Hong Kong.
The 1plus2 packs a three-way crossover, one 10mm dynamic driver, and two Knowles TWFK balanced armature drivers into a specially tuned and vented housing that resembles a custom in-ear more than it does a universal.
Devotees of the 1plus2's sound signature praise it for coming disturbingly close to full-sized over-ears in several respects. The large dynamic drivers deliver an impressively punchy and visceral bass response - while twin BA drivers in each ear serve up superior coherency for improved imaging and separation. The specially tuned and vented housing tops it all off by creating an expansive soundstage that is, for many, sufficiently out-of-head so as to betray its in-ear form factor.
Overall, the 1plus2 carries a subtle U-shaped signature that is reminiscent of a classic audiophile presentation... albeit at the expense of a forward vocal presence in the mid-range.
Housings are available in your choice of three shell colors (black carbon fiber, red acrylic and blue acrylic), with three different faceplace varieties (carbon fiber, silver and gold). Customers wishing to mix-and-match housing options for easier channel identification can do so at the time of order.
Additionally, the 1plus2 is offered with one of three cables: silver ($1,295 total), gold ($1,495 total), and uBer (approximately $2,195 total). Each of these cables present their own interpretation of the 1plus2's basic signature, with the uBer cable widely considered to be noticeably and understandably superior.
If you've always wanted a top of the line in-ear, but have always been skittish about jumping into customs due to their inherently low resale value, the Tralucent 1plus2 may be just the ticket for you.
The Bose QuietComfort 20 isn't a Summit-Fi product. It's not the most resolving in-ear I've ever heard--not by a long shot. The QuietComfort 20 (also called the QC20) is not about transparency, speed, timbral accuracy, spatial presentation, and all that other stuff we're usually looking for. No, the Bose QC20 is about peace. It's about creating a cocoon of relative tranquility for you on even the loudest buses, trains and airplanes you're likely to board (unless you're a biplane pilot). Sometimes a product comes along that is so good at what it does--so obviously the product of a tremendous amount of experience and R&D--that you can't help but marvel at the result. The Bose QC20 is one of those products.
In terms of sound quality, it's not difficult (especially for a seasoned Head-Fi'er) to find another headphone that has higher fidelity; but if that headphone is not stamping out the noise around you when listening in noisy environments, all that fidelity's not going to mean much then. So the louder the environment you're in, the more the QC20 shines. On planes and trains, it has become my favorite headphone, by far, making listening to music in the clamor of your commute at reasonable volumes doable; and making dialog in movies easier to understand.
In quiet environments, the QC20 still sounds good, with a safe tuning that doesn't strike me as overemphasized anywhere; but, again, it won't win any awards for its resolving power. In other words, when it's quiet, the Bose QC20 is merely...good. When it's loud out there, though, the Bose QC20 pretty much trumps all current challengers I've tried.
The Bose QC20 also has another important distinction with me: it's the most comfortable in-ear headphone I've got, as it doesn't really go in the ear, as much as it covers the canal with its super soft silicone bowl eartips. I can wear them all the way to Tokyo with little to no discomfort.
The noise canceling and comfort make you want to keep the Bose QC20 in your ears, and a very cool feature called "Aware Mode" makes that easier. When Aware Mode is activated (with the press of a button), you will hear select sounds from your surrounding environment (fed to you by microphones in the QC20) while still reducing some of the background noise. When I hear an announcement, or when someone is talking to me, I press the button, and the world around me pierces the cone of silence.
The Bose QC20 has a built-in rechargeable battery providing around 16 hours of listening time on a full charge. It has gotten me through 13-hour flights without quitting, including airport time at either end. When the battery does die, the QC20 can be used in passive mode, so the music doesn't have to stop when the battery does. It comes with a few different sets of eartips for a more tailored fit, and a nice, compact carrying case.
When it comes to a headphone for frequent travelers, there's simply no other headphone I recommend right now more than the Bose QC20.
NOTE: There is a version called the Bose QC20i, which includes a three-button iOS-compatible inline remote/mic, which is the version I use.