Review: Bose Soundlink Around-Ear Wireless Headphones II
If your commute involves public transport, you probably don’t realise how much time you spend moving cords out of the way or having headphones yanked off your head. I certainly didn’t until I tried out Bose’s new Bluetooth headphones, and now I think I’ve been spoiled for wired headphones forever.
Setup & Use: When you first get these out of the packaging, all you need to do is switch them on (there’s a switch on the outside of the right cup) and push it slightly upward to make the headphones discoverable via Bluetooth. My iPhone picked them up right away, and the headphones provided audio guidance that they’d connected (“Connected to Toby Nieboer’s iPhone” – even got the pronunciation right!) There’s also audio guidance for the battery level when you first turn them on.
Control in normal usage is done via a rocker button on the underside of the right cup. If you’ve used any kind of inline remote headphones, you’ll know how these work – volume up and down, and a central button for play/pause/next track, answer call etc. The placement is spot on – it’s slightly towards the rear, exactly where your thumb falls if you put your hands over your ears.
There’s a port on the underside for an included audio cable, which means these can be used even when you’re out of power – a nice bonus. (However, Bose do note that there’s some “power electronics that implement the active EQ” that you don’t get when using the audio cable.) The other cup has a USB port, which is used for charging and for firmware updates. (Yes, these get firmware updates – there were two during my testing. Welcome to 2015!) In my usage, which was about four hours per day, I got five to six days between charges. A fringe benefit for Apple users: if you use the Battery widget in Notification Centre on iOS, the battery level will also appear there.
Look & Feel: The darker variant of these headphones is black with a dark blue band on the outside of the cup. It’s a subtle and classy highlight. I’m less convinced about the white variant, which has grey in place of the dark blue, as well as tan padding on the cups and headband – a bit much for my taste, particularly as these are otherwise all about subtlety. The microphone is a grill in the right cup, which you wouldn’t notice unless you were looking, and the ports, lights and buttons are all located on the underside of the cups.
In terms of fit and comfort, these were pretty amazing. The amount of clamping force is spot on – a total seal all the way around my ears, without ever being excessive. The padding on the cups is very plush, which probably helped. As mentioned earlier, I wore these about four hours per day – to and from work, plus about three hours at my desk – and they never got uncomfortable. Coming from my previous headphones (Beats by Dre Solo) these are a gigantic improvement. If I had to nitpick, the only thing is that they’re not very comfortable when worn around the neck (e.g if taken off for a second to talk to someone).
Sound: These are the first Bluetooth headphones I’ve used, but I’ve used Bluetooth speakers in the past – standalone speakers like the Logitech Boom series as well as car integration – so I’m familiar with the compressed, almost phased sound you sometimes get from Bluetooth audio. There’s none of that with these headphones. Not only is the sound indistinguishable from wired headphones – zero compression, no odd artefacts – these are easily the best-sounding headphones I’ve ever used.
Bass is very punchy – not at all muddy. They’re not as responsive at super-low levels as a good pair of speakers but they’re as good in this department as a pair of Beats, which generally favour the low end. The rumble around 0:20 of Kanye’s “Monster” is appropriately menacing, while the beat in NIN’s “Closer” is quite clean despite its depth. Other things these headphones handled well were the bassline from “Moves Like Jagger” by Maroon 5, the opening bass drum from Black Keys’ “Howlin’ For You”, and the whole of “Know Your Enemy” by Rage Against The Machine. (I’ve included my headphone testing Spotify playlist at the bottom of this post, in case you’re not familiar with any of these songs.)
In the middle range, songs like “Take A Bow” by Muse and “I Am The Resurrection” by Stone Roses are very balanced. No one element dominates the sound – the guitars, vocals and drums are quite distinct from one another. Hair metal sounds surprisingly awesome on these – think “Panama” or “Welcome To The Jungle”.
When it comes to vocals and highs they’re quite precise and crisp. The gold standard for vocal performances is the version of “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” from Sinatra At The Sands, and these headphones handled it perfectly. Frank’s voice is clear, front and centre, and the horns are perfectly in balance. You can even hear the silverware rattling at the end of the applause. The version of the Eagles’ “Hotel California” from the Hell Freezes Over album is another example of really clean, crisp highs – the percussion at the far edges of the stage in particular.
Of course, headphones aren’t just for music. I don’t listen to many podcasts, but the quality of the sound seemed to be variable depending on the podcast itself. The Lore podcast sounds excellent, with Aaron Mahnke’s voice and the atmospheric background music melding together very clearly. Vocal-only podcasts were very dependent on production quality. The Talk Show with John Gruber is very clear and almost too loud, whereas Ctrl-Walt-Delete is a hair too quiet. That isn’t the fault of these headphones though, and in all cases voices are rendered very cleanly.
Phone calls were another area that was a bit variable, though again this can’t be pinned on the headphones. The microphone picks up voice quite clearly, and it seems to filter out some of the background noise, but it also picks up some of the noise within a certain range – things like leaves moving on the ground, for example. That’s a nitpick though, as callers said I was very clearly audible and couldn’t tell I was on headphones.
One other issue appeared only once – the audio dropped out intermittently and then lost the connection. A quick look around Google suggested this might be a firmware issue, and after the update it never recurred; but then again, it only came up once in the first three weeks.
Verdict: Overall, these are a phenomenal set of headphones – all of my preconceptions about Bluetooth headphones have been shattered. Even as wired headphones these would be the best-sounding ones I’ve ever used, by a long shot – the fact that these are Bluetooth makes that all the more impressive. If there are any deficiencies with the sound, I can’t find them; the battery life is long enough that I didn’t have to spend any time thinking about it, and I wore them all day without ever noticing any discomfort. If you’re in the market for Bluetooth headphones, these are the ones to get.