Is there such thing as a non-snobby audiophile? If so, I like to think I’m one of those.
Great audio fidelity is important to me. Both as a maker and listener of music, I like to know that the nuances of performance and recording are being accurately represented.
That said, I recognize that reality doesn’t line up. The modern music experience is distracted people listening to compressed tunes through poor earbuds in noisy environments.
Nevertheless, there are times when we make an effort to appreciate music, and when we do, I like to think most of us try to equip ourselves with quality listening devices. In today’s wireless world, that means Bluetooth headphones and earbuds.
Over the past few weeks, I’ve been spending a lot of time listening to things through the Bose SoundSport Wireless courtesy of the fine folks at Amazon.ca.
They aren’t the first wireless earbuds I’ve used — the Beats PowerBeats2 Wireless have that dubious honour — but these are so much better that it’s hardly worth comparing the two. Instead, I want to focus on how Bose tackled the challenges of cutting the cord without compromising the audio standards they’re known for. For the most part, I’m happy to say they’ve succeeded.
Comfort & Build
When I started university, I bought myself a gift. It was a pair of Bose QC15 noise – cancelling headphones—the ones you see on every flight ever these days.
One of the first things I noticed about them was how much more comfortable they were to wear than many of the other headphones on display. This became more obvious over time, as I started to experience multi-hour listening sessions with them on my head. Comfort is a big deal, and I’m glad to find that Bose kept it front of mind when designing the SoundSport Wireless.
Earbuds have a reputation for being fiddly, and some people flat out refuse to wear them. My own earbud experience has been mostly positive, though I’ve found that they get uncomfortable a lot faster than over-the-ear headphones.
While this is true of the SoundSport too, I find that I can keep them in for significantly longer than other earbuds like the Apple Earpods or my RHA MA750i earbuds.
Part of this comes down to the weight, which is less than you think given how they look, but more than you might be used to from non-wireless buds. The weight is offset by the presence of the rubber stabilization fins that not only help situate the buds properly in your ear, but also keep them firmly in place.
Returning for a second to the way they look, I think it’s safe to say that these are supremely ugly earbuds. Compared to the sleek, elegant curves of something like the Jaybird Freedom Wireless Earbuds, the Bose SoundSport Wireless look huge and goofy.
That being said, there’s no free lunch here: the Jaybirds have nicer looking earbuds, but a bulky remote that gets even heavier when you attach the battery piece. Worst of all, that extra remote weight doesn’t even translate into better battery life; the Bose boasts a full two hours of additional play time.
Like most higher-end earbuds, the Bose come with a few different sizes of rubber end cap, one of which is bound to be a snug fit for your ear. The rubber itself is extremely soft, and it covers the entire surface that comes into contact with your ear canal.
This stands in sharp contrast to something like the Beats PowerBeats2 Wireless (the other pair of wireless buds in my house); those have rubber only on the end caps that go into your ear, and it’s quite firm. Everything else is hard plastic, and as a result they get extremely uncomfortable within an hour of wearing.
The other side of the comfort coin is how well these behave in real-world usage. In the case of wireless earbuds like these, there’s the added benefit of being untethered. Being cordless was less evident to me while out walking or jogging. Having earbuds connected to a phone in my pocket with a cable going under my shirt never bothered me, so while I suppose this is better, it wasn’t where the lack of cables stood out.
Where I did immediately notice the difference is at home, listening to podcasts. I often do so while I’m washing dishes or sitting at my desk, and the ability to seamlessly walk away and do something else without having to bring my phone/tablet is liberating.
It’s also worth mentioning that those rubber stabilizing vanes on the SoundSport Wireless do an amazing job of keeping the buds in while you’re exercising. I found the Beats equivalent (a set of round-the-ear hooks) to be less effective. They keep the earbuds attached to your head, but not necessarily in your ears. The SoundSport buds are joined by a cord that can’t be shortened, but they do have a clip that you can fasten to the back of your shirt.
How They Sound
In a nutshell, the SoundSport Wireless sound great…for earbuds. I say this not as a criticism, but as an admission that earbuds are designed for convenience first. With the exception of IEMs costing thousands of dollars, people typically buy earbuds because they’re after portability and compactness, not audio quality. It’s a different set of priorities.
On most musical material, the SoundSport Wireless have a flattering sound profile with surprisingly well-defined bass and highs that aren’t hyped into oblivion. They don’t have the gigantic frequency range that you’d get in expensive listening gear, but they also don’t suffer from it. Bose know their psychoacoustics.
They also handle volume well. I don’t typically listen to things at loud volumes, but every now and then it’s fun to crank it, and the SoundSport Wireless’ audio output didn’t fall apart within the limits of my comfort zone. This is likely due to Bose’s volume-optimized software EQ, which ensures the processing changes to account for how we perceive certain frequencies at certain loudness levels.
Despite not having the same active noise cancelling technology as their newer cousins (the QuietComfort 20s), the SoundSport Wireless do a fine job of isolating basic environmental noise. They won’t block a noisy subway or busy traffic, but if you do your walking/running in relatively quiet neighbourhoods you’ll be fine.
The sound stage (this is a geeky thing that refers to the width of the stereo image and how convincingly distance is represented in 3D space) is good but not great. The width part of the equation is handled well, but the SoundSport don’t do an especially good job at replicating depth in recordings. Earbuds typically don’t though (it’s really difficult, if not impossible), so I’m not holding this against Bose.
In other words, the sonic profile is pleasing but not immersive. The buds sound great but don’t provide the cool impression that you can reach out and pat the drummer on his long greasy hair, or wave frantically at the trombones as if you were the conductor.
Technology & Reliability
It used to be that you plugged headphones into your listening device of choice and that was that. Nothing to charge, nothing to pair, no range to worry about except the one imposed by the physical cord.
Nowadays, we have to worry about battery life for these Bluetooth buds, along with Bluetooth range, interference, and other such bugbears.
Bose promise about six hours of constant play time, which I was able to reproduce and exceed without much effort in my own listening tests. Considering how little room there is for batteries in earbuds, that seems more than reasonable to me, especially since they charge quickly via standard MicroUSB (bring an external power supply for long flights).
Bose has also helpfully provided an auto-off functionality to keep the battery from draining itself in your bag if you accidentally forget to turn them off. This can be set anywhere from 5 minutes to never, with 4 intervals in between. This is different from the approach taken by the Jaybird Freedoms, which have a standby mode that puts the device into a lower power state that can last up to 110 hours.
The Beats do not shut down automatically unless they’re out of Bluetooth range. I discovered this the hard way by forgetting to turn them off. They remained connected to the iPad in my bag and stayed on until the battery ran out.
The auto-off setting is accessible via the well-designed Bose Connect app. You can use the app to manage Bluetooth connections, re-name the earbuds to help differentiate them from others if you have multiple pairs in a household, and turn the voice prompts on or off. There’s no manual control over EQ or any other settings like that, so tweakers will be disappointed.
The inline remote on the Bose houses the microphone for voice calls, which sounds pretty good for this sort of thing. It also hides a nifty NFC chip for easy pairing with supported devices. Unfortunately, the buttons on the remote are a let-down, with huge travel and squishy, uncertain tactile feedback for presses. The pairing itself is quick and painless, and thanks to Bluetooth 4.1’s Multi-Point technology you can stay connected to two devices simultaneously, switching between them automatically or via a press of the right earbud’s button. This worked perfectly in my testing, and it’s handy to have the Bose recite what it’s connected to on startup.
Bose has a complicated reputation.
Among audiophiles, they get slapped with a lot of the same kinds of criticism thrown at Apple: overpriced, better marketing than products, etc. Among consumers however, I find that Bose is seen as a sort of everyman’s luxury brand. When normal folks around me want to buy “good” headphones or earbuds, more often than not they end up with Bose — and are tremendously happy.
I can see both sides of this equation, but again: priorities. People buying the SoundSport Wireless are probably after comfortable, good audio quality on the go.
And they’ll get it.
The Bose SoundSport Wireless combine excellent sound with reliable connectivity, great battery life, and a comfortable fit. If you’re after sound over style, you’d be hard pressed to find a better pair of Bluetooth earbuds in this price range.
They’re a big step up from Apple’s Earpods, and they also leave the Beats PowerBeats2 Wireless in the dust. The Beats are uncomfortable and sound tinny, lopsided, and crude, which is just insult added to the injury of costing the same amount of money. I got mine for free in a promotion from Apple and I still feel ripped off.
If you’re spending $200 on earbuds, quality obviously matters to you, so make sure you pick the blue pill over the red.
You’ll be thankful you did.