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

Estimated read time 10 min read

Bose’s goal in developing the new Ultra Open Earbuds was to create a pair of earbuds that you can truly wear all day. With a design that attaches to the side of your ears instead of going inside them, they’re anything but conventional. Bose released some impressive new products last year, but in the grand scheme of things, they were all fairly iterative. The Ultra Open Earbuds represent the biggest swing the company has taken in a long time. Will they go down as another short-term experiment like the SoundWear Companion or Bose Frames? Or, as Bose certainly hopes, are these a peek at the future of wearable tech? 

I don’t think there’s a simple answer. These unorthodox earbuds won’t be for everyone, and their premium $299 price immediately puts them out of range for many shoppers. Speaking for myself, someone who is happy to plug up his ear canals with high-quality buds in the name of sublime audio, I’m not the target market. The Ultra Open Earbuds are for people who want to maintain awareness of their surroundings at all times; their design fundamentally means you will always hear external noise — and you’ll hear it naturally, at full volume. Whether you’re riding a bike, out for a run, working in an environment where regular earbuds aren’t practical, or just find the whole in-ear concept to be uncomfortable, these allow you to go about your day, stay fully alert, and jam along to a soundtrack the whole time.

Having covered earbuds for many years now, I’ve learned that many people simply don’t enjoy the feeling of earbuds sealing off their ears. It’s why Apple’s standard hard plastic AirPods remain so popular. It’s why you see companies like Samsung, Sony, and many others selling a one-size-fits-most product alongside their silicone tip-style buds. It’s one of the key reasons that bone conduction headphones exist.

There’s no bone conduction at play here, though. Like the Frames before them, the Ultra Open Earbuds use Bose’s OpenAudio technology to direct sound toward your ears while keeping your canals completely unobstructed and minimizing annoying audio leakage to those around you. This freedom comes with inherent tradeoffs. The Ultra Open Earbuds lack noise cancellation altogether, for one, and their bass response just isn’t going to be on par with traditional in-ear competitors. There’s no overcoming physics and a good seal. 

The case looks very conventional, but the earbuds inside definitely don’t.

These look nothing like previous Bose earbuds. They’re intended to resemble a fashion accessory just as much as they are tech. For this reason, the company purposefully didn’t put its logo on the brushed metallic outer surface. And the fit is unlike anything I’ve ever tried. After removing them from the very normal charging case, your first thought will probably be, “Uh, how do I put these on?” I did a little experiment, handing them to a few friends and leaving them to try to figure it out. Spoiler: they needed some guidance.

Here’s the gist: the battery barrel sits behind your ear, and a flexible silicone band connects that to the “earbud” part, which wraps around your ear cartilage and just sort of rests somewhere on your ear’s antihelix. It’s not always obvious when you’ve got the right fit, which… is not a thing I often say about earbuds. You’ll find yourself checking a mirror (or your phone’s selfie camera) to see if the positioning is right. Bose told me that the sound can change slightly depending on where the Ultra Open Earbuds are positioned, but you want to shoot for the diagonal look seen in these review photos and the company’s press materials. Once they’re on, you control the buds by pressing the clicky round button at the top of each battery barrel, which feels natural in no time — and thankfully never jostles the earbuds loose. The silicone-coated flex arm is durable enough to withstand bending and even some twisting, and the earbuds are rated IPX4 for water resistance, so don’t worry about sweat or rain.

At the top of each battery barrel is a button to control the earbuds.

The design can coexist with most jewelry.

This silicone flex arm keeps the buds on your ears without applying too much pressure.

As with everything, the overall look will be divisive, but Bose’s approach has its benefits. For one, the Ultra Open Earbuds are very comfortable. You shouldn’t think of these as clipping onto your ears since that implies they apply unpleasant pressure. Can you feel them? Sure. But even after wearing them for five or six hours, any discomfort or ear fatigue was negligible. The grip of the flex arm is light enough that I sometimes forget they’re there, yet I can still forcefully shake my head without them falling off. The grip is definitely secure enough for running and other exercise. The lower ear positioning also means you can wear glasses, hats, and (some) jewelry without their getting in the way. That said, it’s important to recognize that all ears are different, and these might not be the best match for everyone. 

You won’t get any noise cancellation from the Ultra Open Earbuds, and that’s by design.

The Ultra Open Earbuds generally sound how I expected them to. And that’s to say that they’re clear, nicely detailed, and consistently pleasant to listen to. But you’re never going to be doing critical listening with buds like these. Bose is beaming sound at your ears with impressive precision, but that’s no substitute for ordinary earbuds that can deliver music with a fuller frequency range and greater depth and power at the low end. It’s extremely challenging to bring oomph to your tunes in a form factor like this, so bass is easily the leading weakness of these earbuds. I’m not saying it’s completely MIA, but you need to adjust your expectations and be okay forgoing the majority of the boom and rumble in your music. Some people won’t mind the sacrifice, but I routinely noticed it while testing the Ultra Open Earbuds. 

Since they don’t go in your ears, you can always hear what’s happening around you.

I’ve learned that the biggest appeal of the Ultra Open Earbuds can also turn detrimental. It turns out that when given the choice, I don’t particularly love hearing the world at full volume when I’m wearing any pair of earbuds. New York City can be a truly overwhelming cacophony of construction, ear-piercing subway car screeching, and general commotion. In those scenarios, I actually prefer the smart transparency modes of many modern earbuds that can detect sudden upticks in ambient noise and reduce some of that harshness. Bose itself does this with its other earbuds, whereas the Ultra Open Earbuds leave you fully exposed to the clamor no matter how loud it becomes — sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. 

An optional, off-by-default Auto Volume feature in the Bose Music app will make the earbuds automatically raise and lower their loudness based on your surroundings. If you’re in a noisy coffee shop, you’ll notice the volume go up a bit, and it’ll drop back down once you arrive home or sit down at the office. This setting never tries to drown out your environment; it aims to keep your private soundtrack on an even keel with whatever else might be happening. Call quality was generally good, but again, if you’re caught in a loud spot, it’s going to be difficult to hear whoever’s on the other side. This downside is familiar to anyone who uses AirPods, Sony’s LinkBuds, and other open-style buds, but those don’t cost nearly as much. 

Bose includes 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 sounds neat on a random song every so often. But I mostly left it off since it’s a major drag on battery life, dropping the earbuds from 7.5 hours of continuous listening down to 4.5. The charging case carries another 19.5 hours worth of juice.

Bose aimed to develop earbuds that blend fashion and wearable tech.

I can’t ding Bose for the lack of noise cancellation in an open-air product like this, but the absence of something as basic as wireless charging (unless you pay for an additional case) is frustrating. There’s no multipoint either, a feature that’s becoming table stakes for flagship earbuds and one that would be quite useful on a product you’re supposed to wear all day long. Many people are constantly juggling multiple devices, and Bose needs to do better at accommodating 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 feature of either earbud’s button to “switch source” to quickly hop between previously paired devices.

Stepping back, I can appreciate Bose’s ambition and desire to break away from the pack. 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 thick bass, they deliver on their purpose of blending your music and daily life. Even so, I can’t shake the feeling that a severe price mismatch is at play here. $300 is hard to swallow for earbuds that, by their core design, are several rungs below the traditional in-ear competition if you’re going purely by audio fidelity. The bass presence of the Ultra Open Earbuds just isn’t on that level. 

I don’t doubt that creating a wholly new earbud form factor required comprehensive research and engineering. In fact, I know it did, so stay tuned for more on that 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 should probably rethink the value proposition before it’s too late. I think there’s a real audience for these, but the concept is too out of the ordinary to ask for so much until that’s proven out. Otherwise, this big swing won’t make much of an impact.

Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge

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