Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Are Innovative, But Flawed

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Are Innovative, But Flawed
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I can (and have) written love letters to open-ear headphones. They’re the latest trend in exercise headphones for runners and cyclists, and provide a reasonable alternative to bone conduction headphones for people who don’t want to feel mildly concussed while they workout. So, when Bose announced the new Ultra Open Earbuds ($449), I was intrigued. Exercise headphones have followed certain design rules for years, they either have an ear hook or fins to stay on. But the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds throw those rules out the window.

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds fit more like a pair of clip-on earrings, and I was quite sceptical about whether they’d stay on at high speeds, in the wind, while I rode my bike. But, the more time I spent with them, the more pleasantly surprised I became, until it turned out they were completely useless in one important area.

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Specs

DimensionsEarbuds:1.9 cm H x 1.7 cm W x 2.7 cm D 
Charging case:4.2 cm H x 6.5 cm W x 2.6 cm D
USB cable:30.5 cm
MaterialsEarbuds: Flexible silicone, plastic, metallic finish, gold plating, sweat and water resistant (IPX4)
Case: Plastic (Hard)
BatteryBattery life: Up to 7.5 hours
Earbud charge time: Up to 1 hour
Charging case charge time: Up to 3 hours
Quick-charge time: 10 minutes for up to 2 hours
Battery charge method: USB-C
Battery type: Lithium-ion
MicrophoneFour mics (two on each bud)
BluetoothUp to 9 metres
Bluetooth version: 5.3

The 7.5 hours of listening (without Immersive Audio) turned on is pretty good, but I did not find that I got the total 27 hours out of them (including charges from the case) on a single charge. I’ve used them for maybe 15 hours total over a couple of weeks since I first charged them, and the case is already out of battery (though, the buds still have full charge). That’s going to be more than fine for most people who remember to charge their headphones at least once a fortnight. There’s always a difference between the quoted time and reality, and that difference is often +/- an hour or two, so it’s not wholly disconcerting, but it is displeasing. That 15 hours was a mixture of regular and immersive audio, and going off the numbers above, I would expect closer to 19 hours for pure immersive audio, and a bit longer for the mixture.

Having immersive audio in a pair of open ear headphones is an interesting feature to include, and the Bose approach sounds better than I would expect. Not as good as on a regular pair of headphones, but someone has done some serious witchcraft to get this level of quality.

The IPX4 protects from splashes, so you wouldn’t wear them for a triathlon (they would absolutely fall off, anyway), but they handle light rain fine (I have tested this). I probably wouldn’t wear them in a proper rainstorm in the way I would wear my H2O Audio Tri Pro Multi-Sport bone conduction headphones, because they’re not designed for that. But for casual runners and riders, this level of waterproofing should be fine (unless you’re unusually sweaty).

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Comfort And Fit

Bose buds outside of case
Image: Alice Clarke

I have seen some odd headphone form factors in my time. I have a Dyson Zone, I am comfortable with weird. But I have never seen anything like the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds, and I find that really exciting. It’s been too long since people got usefully weird with headphone design.

If you’re staring at them thinking “how the hell does that work?” Don’t worry. I had the same thought when I first got them. Basically, you put the little speaker foot (the politest term I can use for it) into the little dip of your ear next to the antitragus, and put the little cylindrical part behind the shell of your ear. The cylindrical part is solid and acts as a good counterweight, it’s attached to the speaker bit with some flexible rubber which keeps it attached.

It is shockingly comfortable, once you get used to it and find the right position for the architecture of your ear. They don’t feel too secure when you first put them on, and I had zero faith in them staying on for a bike ride, but I was pleasantly surprised. I mostly wear my open ear headphones for cycling, and while I’m not the fastest cyclist around, there are still some segments on the beach road where I maintain 45kmph, and it can get pretty windy. I was certain that they were going to fall off at speed, or when I got hit by that beach wind. Yet, shockingly, they stayed on for the entire 60km test ride.

However, with a helmet on they weren’t as comfortable as the Shokz OpenFit I usually wear. The straps of my helmet kept interacting with where the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds clung, and so I was more aware of them than I wanted to be.

Running with them, they felt more stable than anticipated.

I do have some concerns about how the little rubbery bit will last with years of use, it seems like the obvious failure point for the device, but I’ll have to get back to you on that in a year or two. For now, I’ve had no issues with it.

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Audio Quality

Comparing the Ultra Open Earbuds to regular headphones does everyone a disservice. These are not the headphones you get for audiophile listening, I wouldn’t want to listen to a new album from my favourite band for the first time on these headphones. Headphones like these are for listening to music or a podcast while exercising outdoors, or keeping an ear out in case your once sleeping child starts screaming, or so you can subtly listen to music while you’re at work.

I’m going to compare them to the other pair of open ear headphones I have on hand, the Shokz Open Fit. The sound on the Bose is richer and fuller, even though it doesn’t have as much bass. I don’t need to have the Bose as loud as the Shokz to get a full audio experience, the midtones are more present.

But, I also find it a bit more difficult to hear the world around me or have a conversation when the music is playing. I find the Bluetooth drops out or distorts much more frequently than the Shokz. The Shokz play steadily and evenly, while I’ve noticed ten audio glitches in one verse with the Bose, where the same song had none on the Shokz.

Yeah, the music might be fuller and sound better, which is great. But if the point is to hear the little sounds of the world around me while the music plays, and have a steady stream of beats to power my ride, the Bose isn’t living up to the full purpose. For running in a park, I think these are great, and the Bose would be my pick. But for riding in the streets, or being at work, I’d pick Shokz over Bose.

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds call quality

A lot of people get open ear headphones so they can take calls without having to put a headset on and off to talk to people around them. Unfortunately, the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds are the worst headphones I have ever used for calls. The microphone is so bad that even alone in my quiet apartment, the person on the other end of the phone says my microphone is too quiet to be heard over the “background noise”. Reader, there is almost no background noise in a basically empty apartment, save the occasional fire truck outside, many floors below. Conversely, the other open ear headphones I have are the best headphones I’ve used for calls in a long time, and the microphone is so good I can have calls when riding at 20kmph. There is no justification for the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds to be this bad for calls.

Bose buds outside of case - one bud turned over
Image: Alice Clarke

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds verdict

Whether you should rush out now to buy a pair of Bose Ultra Open Earbuds depends on what you want them for. If you want them for running in the park, then they are fantastic for that. They sound excellent, you’ll have a great time.

But if you want them for calls, or for open ear listening while riding a bike, there are much better options out there for you at cheaper prices.

I love the idea of the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds, and it’s fantastic that Bose has been bold enough to try a new form factor. I hope the second generation evolves to be what I want them to be.

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds are available now for $449 at Bose, JB Hi-Fi and Amazon Australia.

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At Gizmodo, we independently select and write about stuff we love and think you'll like too. We have affiliate and advertising partnerships, which means we may collect a share of sales or other compensation from the links on this page. BTW – prices are accurate and items in stock at the time of posting.