Bose Ultra Open Earbuds review: a completely new kind of earbuds

Bose’s goal in developing the new Ultra Open Earbuds was to create a pair of earbuds that you can truly wear all day long. With a design that matches the side of your ears rather than going into them, they are anything but conventional. Bose released some impressive new products last year, but overall they were all fairly iterative. The Ultra Open Earbuds represent the biggest change the company has made in a long time. Will they go down as another short-term experiment like the SoundWear Companion or Bose Frames? Or are these, as Bose surely hopes, a glimpse into the future of wearable technology?

I don’t think there is a simple answer. These unorthodox earbuds won’t be for everyone, and their premium price of $299 puts them immediately out of reach for many shoppers. Speaking for myself, someone who likes to plug their ear canals with high-end earbuds in the name of sublime audio, I’m not the target audience. The Ultra Open Earbuds are for people who always want to be aware of their surroundings; their design essentially means that you will too always hear external noise — and hear it naturally, at full volume. Whether you’re cycling, running, working in an environment where regular earbuds aren’t practical, or just find the whole in-ear concept uncomfortable, these will let you go all day long and stay fully alert, and jam along with a soundtrack all the time.

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Since I’ve been covering earbuds for years, I’ve learned that a lot of people simply don’t enjoy the feeling of earplugs closing off their ears. That’s why Apple’s standard hard plastic AirPods remain so popular. That’s why you see companies like Samsung, Sony and many others selling a one-size-fits-most product next to their earbuds with silicone tips. It’s one of the main reasons bone conduction headphones exist.

However, there is no bone conduction involved here. Like the previous Frames, the Ultra Open Earbuds use Bose’s OpenAudio technology to direct sound to your ears, while keeping your channels completely clear and minimizing annoying audio leakage to those around you. This freedom comes with inherent tradeoffs. The Ultra Open Earbuds, for example, have no noise cancellation at all, and their bass response simply won’t be on par with traditional in-ear competitors. There is no overcoming physics and a good seal.

These look nothing like previous Bose earbuds. They are meant to look like a fashion accessory as much as they are technical. For this reason, the company purposefully did not place its logo on the brushed metal exterior. And the fit is unlike anything I’ve ever tried. After you take them out of the very normal charging case, your first thought will probably be, “Um, how do I put these on?” I did a little experiment, gave them to some friends and left it up to them to figure it out. Spoiler: They needed some guidance.

Here’s the gist: The battery case sits behind your ear, and a flexible silicone band connects that to the “eartip” portion, which wraps around the cartilage of your ear and simply rests somewhere on the antihelix of your ear. It’s not always clear whether you have the right fit, and I don’t often say that about earbuds. You’ll find yourself looking in a mirror (or your phone’s selfie camera) to see if the positioning is right. Bose told me that the sound may change slightly depending on where the Ultra Open Earbuds are placed, but you’ll want to shoot for the diagonal appearance seen in these review photos and in the company’s press materials. Once they’re turned on, you control the earbuds by pressing the clickable circular button at the top of each battery cylinder, which feels natural in no time – and thankfully never lets go of the earbuds. The silicone-coated flexible arm is durable enough to withstand bending and even some twisting, and the earbuds are IPX4 rated for water resistance, so don’t worry about sweat or rain.

As with anything, the overall look will be divisive, but Bose’s approach has its merits. Firstly, the Ultra Open earbuds are very comfortable. You should not consider this as to cut on your ears, as this implies that they exert an unpleasant pressure. Can you feel them? Certainly. But even after wearing them for five or six hours, ear discomfort or fatigue was negligible. The grip of the flexible arm is so light that I sometimes forget they are there, yet I can shake my head vigorously without them falling off. The grip is certainly secure enough for running and other exercises. The placement of the lower ear also means you can wear glasses, hats and (some) jewelry without them getting in the way. That said, it’s important to recognize that all ears are different, and these may not be the best match for everyone.

The Ultra Open earbuds generally sound as I expected. And that means that they are clear, beautifully detailed and always pleasant to listen to. But you’ll never listen critically with buttons like these. Bose beams sound to your ears with impressive precision, but that’s no replacement for regular earbuds that can deliver music with a fuller frequency range and more depth and power at the low end. Adding spice to your music in a form factor like this is extremely challenging, so bass is easily these earbuds’ biggest weakness. I’m not saying it’s completely MIA, but you have to adjust your expectations and be okay with leaving out most of the thump and rumble in your music. Some people won’t mind the sacrifice, but I noticed it frequently while testing the Ultra Open earbuds.

I’ve learned that the biggest appeal of the Ultra Open Earbuds can also be harmful. It turns out that, given the choice, I don’t particularly like hearing the world at full volume when I wear it each pair of earplugs. New York City can be a truly overwhelming cacophony of construction, deafening screech of subways and general commotion. In those scenarios, I actually prefer the smart transparency modes of many modern earbuds that can detect sudden increases in ambient noise and reduce some of that loudness. Bose does this itself with its other earbuds, while the Ultra Open earbuds leave you fully exposed to the noise no matter how loud it gets – sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse.

An optional, standard Auto Volume feature in the Bose Music app lets the earbuds automatically increase and decrease their volume based on your environment. If you’re in a noisy coffee shop, you’ll notice that the volume increases slightly, only to drop again as soon as you get home or sit in the office. This setting never tries to drown out your surroundings; it’s meant to keep your private soundtrack in tune with whatever else is happening. Call quality was generally good, but again, if you’re caught in a loud place you’ll have a hard time hearing who’s on the other end. This drawback is familiar to anyone who uses AirPods, Sony’s LinkBuds, and other open-style earbuds, but they don’t cost nearly as much.

Bose uses the same Immersive Audio (spatial audio) processing here that first came to its other “Ultra” headphones and earbuds last year. The story is the same: Immersive Audio occasionally sounds decent on a random track. But I usually turned it off as it has a major impact on battery life, dropping the earbuds from 7.5 hours of continuous listening to 4.5 hours. The charging case has an additional 19.5 hours of juice.

I can’t criticize Bose for the lack of noise cancellation in an outdoor product like this, but the absence of something as basic as wireless charging (unless you pay for an extra case) is frustrating. There’s no multipoint either, a feature that’s becoming a standard for flagship earbuds and a feature that would be quite useful for a product you’d have to wear all day. Many people are constantly trying to combine multiple devices, and Bose needs to respond better to that. The company says Multipoint will arrive via a software update later this year, and I’ll update this review when it does. In the meantime, you can assign the shortcut of both earbuds’ buttons to “switch source” to quickly switch between previously paired devices.

Taking a step back, I can appreciate Bose’s ambition and desire to break away from the crowd. It’s a gamble, and the Ultra Open Earbuds are undeniably unique. The fit takes some getting used to, but if you can live without big bass, they fulfill their purpose of blending your music and everyday life. Still, I can’t shake the feeling that there is a serious price mismatch here. $300 is hard to swallow for earbuds that, by virtue of their core design, are several rungs below the traditional in-ear competition if you go purely on audio quality. The bass presence of the Ultra Open Earbuds is just not at that level.

I have no doubt that creating an entirely new form factor for earbuds required extensive research and engineering. In fact, me know that happened, so stay tuned for more information on this in the future. But if Bose wants the Ultra Open Earbuds to avoid the same fate as its other promising but niche gadgets (I still miss that damn neck speaker) it probably needs to rethink the value proposition before it’s too late. I think there’s a real audience for it, but the concept is too unusual to charge so much until it’s proven. Otherwise, this big swing won’t have much impact.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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