Open-ear earbuds and spatial audio ruled in 2023 | Digital Trends

Open-ear earbuds and spatial audio ruled in 2023 | Digital Trends

The two biggest audio trends in 2023 were open-ear earbuds and spatial audio. They weren’t new — both were already picking up steam a few years ago — but this was the year they became ubiquitous, as big and small brands jumped in with new products.

What was once niche is now mainstream, and you can expect that acceleration to continue into 2024.

Spatial audio

Dolby Labs. / Dolby Labs

Spatial audio is a strange term. We’ve been talking about it for years. Dolby Atmos is spatial audio for commercial and home theaters, but it wasn’t until Apple introduced it as a headphones (and earbuds)-based experience that folks started using it in casual conversation.

Those conversations center around sources of spatial audio (mostly streaming services) and the products you need to hear spatial audio (headphones, earbuds, soundbars, etc.)

On the services side, Apple’s commitment to spatial audio (and to Dolby Atmos Music as the leading music spatial audio format) is so strong that it reportedly offered to pay artists and labels to create Dolby Atmos Music versions of their songs and albums and upload them to Apple Music.

I have some strong reservations about Apple’s decision — which have been echoed by others around here — but it illustrates the importance that Apple places on this immersive, 3D audio experience. You don’t necessarily need to buy Apple’s products (or even subscribe to Apple Music) to hear spatial audio, but Apple is betting you will anyway because, in classic Apple fashion, it makes it effortless.

Screen showing Atmos Music in Dolby Atmos.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Apple Music doesn’t charge extra to access Dolby Atmos Music content (or lossless, hi-res audio), but that might change once the streaming service has acquired a critical mass of spatial audio tracks. Amazon Music also includes Dolby Atmos Music in its subscription price, but Tidal does not. If you want access to hi-res lossless, Dolby Atmos Music, or Sony 360 Reality Audio (another spatial audio format), you’ll need to pony up for the company’s HiFi Plus subscription tier — almost double the cost of Tidal’s standard $11 per month subscription fee.

The big elephant in the spatial audio room is Spotify. We’ve been waiting (and waiting) for Spotify to launch its oft-rumored Hi-Fi subscription tier for years. The thought was that it would follow Apple Music, Amazon Music, (and most other services) and create a new, more expensive subscription that would include lossless and possibly hi-res audio.

But Spotify might just be waiting for spatial audio to become big enough to make it the focus of its new tier instead of just lossless audio. Not everyone can hear or appreciate the difference that lossless audio makes — especially when listening via basic earbuds. But most people will agree (whether they like it or not) that spatial audio is a noticeably different listening experience. Spotify’s embrace of the format in 2024 would be a momentous occasion in the music industry.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Earcup/logo close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Meanwhile, headphone, earbuds, and speaker manufacturers went into spatial audio overdrive in 2023, doubling down on support for 3D experiences.

Head tracking — a way for headphones and earbuds to create a more lifelike spatial listening sensation by keeping some music elements locked in space relative to your head movements — was included on Sony’s flagship WF-1000XM5 wireless earbuds, which launched in 2023, and Sony added it to its WH-1000XM5 headphones via firmware update.

Not to be outdone, Bose did the same thing with its 2023 QuietComfort Ultra Headphones and QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds. So did Jabra. And OnePlus. And Beats.

I’m still not a huge fan of spatial audio via headphones or earbuds, but with this much momentum behind the technology, even more personal audio products will inevitably offer it in 2024.

Sonos Era 300.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Speakers are arguably the best way to listen to spatial audio for both music and movies, but there’s a greater technical lift involved in creating these products. In 2023, Sonos launched the groundbreaking Era 300 — the first non-soundbar speaker to deliver Dolby Atmos Music — and it set the bar very high. JBL’s Authentics 500 will also support Dolby Atmos Music in 2024, and we can expect to see more companies follow their lead. I expect Bose, Sony, Sennheiser, Bowers & Wilkins, Bang & Olufsen, and others are already hard at work on their spatial audio products and that we may see them launch in 2024.

Open-ear earbuds

Man wearing Shokz OpenFit (side view).
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Bose might not have realized it when it debuted the Bose Sport Open headphones in 2021, but it created an entirely new category of product: open-ear earbuds. In 2023, we saw a tsunami of small and large companies debut their versions of Bose’s formula: earbuds that let you listen to your music while still being able to hear the world around you.

Where Bose failed to capture much attention (it abandoned the Sport Open less than 24 months after they launched), companies like Shokz, Soundcore, Oladance, and 1More are proving that there’s a lot of value in having earbuds that are comfortable (and practical) enough to wear all day.

Oladance OWS Pro resting on open charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

In 2024, I expect even more open-ear models to arrive. Sony was one of the first to experiment with this design, but its innovative LinkBuds proved to be too uncomfortable and insecure for many users. I think Sony will try again, this time with a more conventional design.

So far, Jabra, Audio-Technica, and Technics have resisted the open-ear call, but they likely won’t hold out for much longer. It would also make sense for Beats to try its hand at the open-ear category. The brand has long been a favorite of athletes thanks to the success of its PowerBeats Pro, and many open-ear designs use the same earhook shape as Beats’ earbuds, making it a natural extension of the company’s strategy.

Speaking of shapes, we’re going to see more experiments. Huawei has decided to try the ear clip design with its FreeClip earbuds, and I suspect there may be other ways to make the open-ear formula work, especially if they can deliver better sound quality — the one downside to a completely open design.

Editors’ Recommendations






Solodome reinvents the classic egg chair with spatial audio | Digital Trends

Solodome reinvents the classic egg chair with spatial audio | Digital Trends

The Solodome. Solodome

The egg chair, an iconic retro-futuristic furniture design that was conceived in the 1960s, is getting an upgrade. Solodome, a manufacturer based in Southern California, has taken the classic ovoid chair, upholstered it with a plush, memory foam-based faux-fur interior, and added a 2.1-channel, 400-watt sound system. The result is “an ideal spatial audio experience without the inconvenience of installing discreet speakers or sacrificing quality by relying on headphones,” according to the company.

The original Ovalia Egg Chair.
The original Ovalia Egg chair, designed by Henrik Thor-Larsen. Ovalia

The Solodome chairs come three sizes: regular, XL, and a mini version for kids. The full-size chairs can be ordered in a variety of interior/exterior black and white color combinations, while the mini adds pink to the available options. The prices keep the Solodome from being an impulse purchase for all but the wealthiest buyers — the regular Solodome starts at $4,500, the XL will set you back $6,500, and even the mini is only small in size as it costs $2,500.

Scene from Men In Black.
Will Smith as Agent J (left) in an Ovalia Egg Chair in the 1997 movie Men In Black. Sony Pictures/Columbia Pictures

Solodome says the chairs are designed for a more immersive experience for gaming and movies, but spatial audio for music listening is also part of the company’s vision. Inside the Solodome are two full-range drivers, positioned roughly at ear height, plus two subwoofers — one in each armrest. The chair can receive audio wirelessly over Bluetooth, with support for hi-res audio via the aptX HD codecor through a 3.5mm analog input jack.

Diagram of speaker placements within the Solodome.
Solodome

Because both of these connections are only capable of sending two-channel stereo, the Solodome uses digital signal processing (DSP) to create a virtual spatial audio experience — unless you’re already using a source of spatial audio like Dolby Atmos Music from Apple Music, Amazon Music, or Tidal, in which case the audio has already been converted to a binaural spatial audio presentation.

Solodome also touts the benefits of using its chairs for therapy: “The unobstructed visceral impact of Solodome’s full-frequency audio makes it an unparalleled tool for audio therapies and wellness treatments in the home or office.”

Editors’ Recommendations






Apple’s Dolby Atmos Music bounty could be a disaster for the format | Digital Trends

Apple’s Dolby Atmos Music bounty could be a disaster for the format | Digital Trends

Apple

Apple is offering to pay artists more money if they provide Apple Music with versions of their songs recorded in the immersive Dolby Atmos Music format, according to a report from Bloomberg. On the surface, that makes a lot of sense, especially as Apple lays the groundwork for its soon-to-launch Apple Vision Pro headset, a device that will benefit greatly from immersive audio. But the move also could create exactly the wrong set of incentives at a time when the jury is still split over whether spatial audio for music actually is a good thing.

Apple has spent the past several years ramping up its support for spatial audio in general and Dolby Atmos specifically, through its AirPods family of wireless headphones, its Apple TV 4K streaming device, and virtually all of its computing products, too. Apple Music has a growing catalog of tracks in Dolby Atmos Music, and the Apple TV+ video streaming service offers Dolby Atmos soundtracks on nearly all of its movies and shows.

But while Dolby Atmos for movies is typically seen as a big enhancement of the movie-watching experience, the same isn’t necessarily true of Dolby Atmos Music. The reasons are myriad.

It’s not entirely clear that people want their favorite songs to be presented with the added width, depth, and movement of sounds that are made possible by a format like Dolby Atmos Music. When you’re used to stereo, spatial audio can be jarring. That disconnect can be made more pronounced when you introduce head tracking, which Apple uses on its AirPods Pro Gen 2/AirPods Pro Gen 2 USB-C, AirPods Max, and AirPods Gen 3, as well as Beats products like the Studio Pro and Fit Pro.

Sound engineer at a studio mixing board.
LightFieldStudios/Getty Images

Then there’s the challenge, from an artistic perspective, in creating a Dolby Atmos Music track that uses the technology in a way that adds immersion, but doesn’t go too far. On the opposite end of the spectrum, you can also end up with a classic track that has been remixed in Atmos, but that doesn’t offer a truly new way to experience the song. In the hands of an inexperienced engineer, this can rob a song of its impact instead of reinforcing it.

Herein lies the problem with Apple’s Dolby Atmos Music bounty program. Apple plans to reward artists and labels merely for creating tracks in Dolby Atmos Music — there is no requirement that Apple Music subscribers listen to these versions according to Bloomberg’s sources.

But if Apple doesn’t put any creative quality control measures in place — and it’s not clear that it could even if it wanted to (how do you tell an artist their Atmos track sucks?) — the financial incentive could favor quantity over quality. It could easily send record labels in search of shortcuts (perhaps even AI-driven remixing software) in order to backfill their catalogs as quickly as possible. That’s the last thing a nascent audio format needs.

There’s a parallel here to another immersive format: 3D. In the 3D feeding frenzy that happened after James Cameron revealed his groundbreaking 3D movie Avatar, many movie studios continued to shoot in 2D, relying instead on software to perform a conversion to 3D after the fact. The results were often less than impressive.

In fairness, Apple’s own requirements for Dolby Atmos Music submission prohibit this kind of thing. The very first line in its Immersive Audio Source Profile declares that “Dolby Atmos audio files generated from stereo mixes are not allowed.”

I suspect that for many artists who are creating entirely new works and using Dolby’s suite of mixing tools to bring them to life, the results will be amazing. I’m slowly compiling a list of tracks that sound better to me in Dolby Atmos than in stereo. So far, most of them are recordings that were released in the past three years.

Which is not to say that songs that have been with us for decades as stereo tracks can’t be thoughtfully — and stunningly — remixed as Dolby Atmos (Giles Martin’s Atmos mix of INXS’ Kick remains one of my favorites).  But the promise of money can create unpredictable results, and there’s a real risk that Apple’s plan could backfire, and doom us to a massive library of spatial audio tracks that aren’t worth listening to.

Editors’ Recommendations






In IAMF, Dolby Atmos faces its first open-source competitor | Digital Trends

In IAMF, Dolby Atmos faces its first open-source competitor | Digital Trends

When you think of immersive, 3D sound for movies and music, one name usually comes to mind: Dolby Atmos. Despite the existence of competing surround sound formats and technologies,like DTS:X, MPEG-H, Sony 360 Reality Audio, and Auro3D, they barely register when compared to the juggernaut that is Dolby Atmos. With strong (and growing) support from movie studios, music labels, streaming services, game consoles, smartphones, and audio equipment makers, there’s little doubt that Dolby Atmos and Dolby Atmos Music have become the de facto 3D sound standards.

And yet, if Google and Samsung get their way, Dolby Atmos’ reign as the king of immersive audio might be about to meet its biggest challenge to date. Together, the two tech giants have been quietly working on an open-source and royalty-free 3D sound format known by the awkward name Immersive Audio Model and Formats. But if history has taught us anything, it’s that format wars are rarely fought for the benefit of the public. And even a free version of Atmos that’s every bit as good as the original could face harrowing barriers to adoption.

Why do we need another Dolby Atmos?

Marantz

Why have Google and Samsung teamed up to create a Dolby Atmos competitor? It’s probably somewhat about control, but almost certainly mostly about the money. Specifically, the licensing fees that Dolby Labs charges any company that wants to make a Dolby Atmos-compatible product or service, like a TV, a streaming media player, a soundbar — or a smartphone. (Lest we forget, Google and Samsung are the driving forces behind Android and between them own a major chunk of the non-Apple smartphone market).

It’s hard to say just how much money Samsung and Google pay to Dolby Labs annually (Dolby licensees are forbidden from sharing the terms of their agreements), but we do know that in 2022, Dolby Labs recorded $1.25 billion in revenue. It doesn’t break out the licensing revenue from Dolby Atmos separately, but you can bet it represents a significant percentage of the total.

Beyond the cost savings, Samsung touts the benefits of having a single 3D audio standard for an entire industry. It claims that IAMF will improve the overall audio experience through scene-based AI analysis, as well as give listeners the ability to emphasize the portion of a soundtrack that matters most to them. In one example, a sports broadcast could be adjusted to emphasize the commentators’ dialogue or the on-field action.

Who’s going to use IAMF?

IAMF appears to offer audio creators the same level of flexibility when it comes to creating spatial audio mixes that Dolby Atmos does, including built-in adaptation to a wide variety of playback devices and environments, from headphones to soundbars to full home theater systems.

Since Dolby Labs also charges licensing fees for its Dolby Atmos software tools — between $100 and $300 depending on your eligibility for discounts — there’s an immediate financial incentive for creators (especially amateur recording artists) to start exploring what IAMF can do. That’s especially true if adopting IAMF ends up being a relatively smooth transition from Dolby’s tools.

Again, it’s hard to say how much a record label like Universal Music Group or a movie studio like Disney spends on Dolby Atmos for their music and movie productions, but a free alternative likely would prove tempting.

Royalty-free, but not cost-free

Photo of Disney+ interface showing the info screen from Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, featuring Dolby Vision and Dolby Atmos logos.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

For folks at home to hear IAMF content, we’ll need a source of IAMF and compatible devices. It’s far from guaranteed that the larger entertainment industry will oblige.

One of the keys to Dolby Atmos’s massive adoption has been brand awareness. Dolby Atmos began its public life in commercial movie theaters in 2012, where it quickly earned a reputation for putting audiences in the literal center of the action, as music and sound effects zoomed overhead for the first time. As soon as the technology made the leap to home theaters, it became a must-have for any serious cinephile.

Seeing the Dolby Atmos logo on AV receivers, Blu-ray players, TVs, and soundbars became a big selling point, even though — as we’ve lately argued — there’s no longer a real connection between the Dolby Atmos brand and a specific sound experience. Nonetheless, a strong and widely recognized brand is hard to beat.

IAMF will find itself in a familiar chicken-or-egg battle when it comes to adoption. Even though IAMF is open-source and royalty-free, there will still be costs associated with implementing it. Before major studios, labels, and content distribution companies like Netflix agree to invest in IAMF content, they’ll want to see proof of demand — this is one of the reasons why DTS:X is so hard to come by on streaming platforms.

If we don’t own IAMF-compatible equipment, why would those companies make such an investment? And it won’t be easy for makers of TVs, AV receivers, or soundbars to convince us to buy IAMF products if there’s no content.

Sennheiser Ambeo Soundbar Mini - Dolby Atmos indicator.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I’m willing to bet that a lot of people have bought Dolby Atmos-capable products purely on the strength of the Dolby Atmos brand. They probably assume that they’ll get a movie theater-like experience as soon as they plug it in, even though that likely won’t be the case (a Dolby Atmos system without Dolby Atmos content can only deliver upmixed stereo or 5.1 sound.) Without Atmos’s powerful brand recognition, IAMF won’t be able to accomplish the same task.

Device manufacturers might simply take the long view and add IAMF to any product that currently supports Dolby Atmos, to prime the pump. They might even market it as a future-proofing feature to “be ready when IAMF content comes to your favorite streaming service!”

The hope might be that, eventually, the installed base of IAMF products will be big enough that the content providers and distributors become willing to throw their hats in the ring.

Google, with its control over Android, Google TV, and Google Assistant-driven Nest devices, could simply add IAMF to all of these platforms, giving the nascent format an impressive head start.

It’s also worth noting that Google and Samsung aren’t in this alone. IAMF gained its royalty-free status via the Alliance for Open Media, which includes representatives from Apple, Netflix, Google, Samsung, Intel, Microsoft, and Meta — just to name the heavyweights. IAMF could gain a lot of traction via these companies’ combined products and services, much as the AV1 codec has started to do.

At that point — if it ever comes to pass — the entire content ecosystem could decide to walk away from Dolby Atmos and save itself all of the associated costs. And yet, somehow this seems unlikely.

We’ve seen this movie before

HDR10+ example.
Samsung

There’s a parallel between the Dolby Atmos-IAMF relationship and the Dolby Vision-HDR10+ relationship. Just like IAMF, HDR10+ is a royalty-free dynamic HDR format that has many features in common with Dolby Vision. And just like IAMF, Samsung is HDR10+’s biggest supporter. To this day, no Samsung TV has included Dolby Vision.

And yet, despite its royalty-free nature, Samsung’s full-throated support, and the fact that it’s been around for many years, the HDR10+ standard still isn’t used by major streaming services like Netflix, Disney+, Peacock, or Max.

This suggests that it will take more than the promise of lower costs to get widespread adoption of IAMF.

The cost of confusion

This brings us back to the question of branding and awareness. Previous advances in movie audio have had the benefit of the full weight of the Hollywood hype machine. At this point, I doubt there’s a moviegoer alive who hasn’t heard (and seen) the THX “Deep Note” intro prior to watching a movie that uses George Lucas’s famous invention. And as I mentioned earlier, Dolby Atmos was thrilling theater audiences long before it became available at home. Will IAMF ever get the same red carpet rollout?

If it does, there’s a chance that people will become familiar enough with IAMF that they start to look for it, and possibly base their buying decisions on its presence.

If it doesn’t, most folks will likely only find out about it through sites like Digital Trends. And the most we’ll be able to say is something like, “it’s a royalty-free version of Dolby Atmos.” Not exactly a ringing endorsement.

Then there’s the game-time decision question. Remember when I said that device makers are likely to build products that support both Dolby Atmos and IAMF? Any streaming service (or disc-based media) that currently offers Dolby Atmos — and wishes to add IAMF — will have to provide its subscribers with a way to choose between these formats, adding yet more complexity.

Don’t get me wrong, competition is almost always a good thing, and I’m excited to see that Dolby Atmos’ near stranglehold on immersive audio is about to face its first real challenge. But I’m deeply skeptical that IAMF — without the help of a major branding and awareness effort — will prove to be an alternative that will see the mass adoption needed to hold its own.

Editors’ Recommendations






Apple will reportedly reward artists for offering music in spatial audio

Apple will reportedly reward artists for offering music in spatial audio

Apple will reward record labels and artists who offer their music in spatial audio, a relatively new audio format that is more immersive than regular stereo. According to a Bloomberg report, artists who release their music in spatial audio will receive “added weighting” starting next year. That, Bloomberg speculates, could mean higher royalties.

Nearly all of Apple’s audio hardware such as AirPods, HomePod, the iPhone and the upcoming Vision Pro headset, support playback in spatial audio, so the company’s move to incentivize artists is almost certainly to ensure that most music available on Apple Music is available in a format that Apple has positioned as a selling point. Notably, Bloomberg notes that Apple Music listeners wouldn’t necessarily have to stream a song in spatial audio for artists to be rewarded. Simply having their music available in the format would be enough.

Apple added spatial audio, which is powered by technology from Dolby Atmos, to Apple Music in 2021. Most of the company’s original shows and movies on Apple TV+ are also offered in the format. Artists also have the option of mixing their older music in the new format, something that bands from all decades are already doing. Mixing music in the format isn’t wildly expensive, according to Bloomberg; if true, this push could help get independent musicians and smaller acts on board.

Some Apple Music competitors like Amazon Music and Tidal also offer spatial audio on their services. But Spotify, Apple’s biggest music stream rival, is a notable exception, even though rumors about a high-quality music format on the service have swirled for years.

1More’s PistonBuds Pro Q30 look like great budget buds at $50 | Digital Trends

1More’s PistonBuds Pro Q30 look like great budget buds at $50 | Digital Trends

1More

The new PistonBuds Pro Q30 from 1More boast AirPods-like looks along with active noise cancellation (ANC) and spatial audio, but it’s their rock-bottom $50 price that stands out. As part of the launch, 1More has dropped the price to $40 for a limited time, making these wireless earbuds even more attractive. The PistonBuds Pro Q30 are available in white/gold or black/gold combos.

In the past, 1More has favored a stemless design for its PistonBuds lineup, but this time the company has opted for a stem-based approach. If you’ve ever tried PistonBuds in the past and found them a poor fit, this new shape might be a better option.

Man wearing 1More PistonBuds Pro Q30.
1More

Inside the buds are 10mm diamond-like carbon (DLC) drivers that 1More claims will deliver “powerful bass and vibrant vocals” and three microphones per side. The mics power the earbuds’ ANC modes, which include transparency, wind noise resistance mode, and an adaptive mode. With the help of an AI-enabled voice recognition algorithm, 1More promises the new PistonBuds will deliver clear calls.

Though not intended as sports wireless earbuds per se, the PistonBuds Pro Q30 have an IPX5 rating for water resistance, which will keep them very adequately protected from sweat and the occasional splash if you clean and dry them after each use.

1More PistonBuds Pro Q30 in white/gold.
1More

Battery life is rated at 7.5 hours with ANC off, and the charging case’s supply can extend this to 30 hours. A fast-charging system can top up the earbuds with an extra two hours after just 10 minutes in the case. Unfortunately, wireless charging is one feature that didn’t make the cut at this price.

There’s an optional low-latency mode for gaming applications, and the 1More Music app can enable a spatial audio feature for “360-degree listening.” Bluetooth 5.3 is supported, along with Bluetooth Multipoint for simultaneous connections to two devices.

As soon as we get a chance to try them, we’ll let you know if they belong on our best budget wireless earbuds and headphones list.

Editors’ Recommendations






Soundcore Motion X500 puts spatial audio in a more portable package | Digital Trends

Soundcore Motion X500 puts spatial audio in a more portable package | Digital Trends

Anker Soundcore

Anker Soundcore has added yet another model to its Motion family of portable Bluetooth speakers — the Motion X500. It’s a scaled-down version of the Motion X600 and includes that speaker’s integrated carry handle and spatial audio sound. Anker plans to sell the Motion X500 for $170 when it hits regular retail channels on November 9, but it’s also knocking that price down to $130 for those who preorder the speaker before that date.

Just like its bigger brother, the Motion X500 comes in three colors: black, blue, and pink. But unlike the X600, the X500 includes a subtle Soundcore “d” logo embedded in the paint scheme on the speaker’s metal grille.

Anker Soundcore Motion X500 speaker in three colors.
Anker Soundcore

Anker claims the Motion X500, which weighs 3.59 pounds, can produce 40 watts of power from its three full-frequency drivers (two for stereo channels and a third, up-firing “Sky Channel” unit for spatial effects). Its internal rechargeable battery is reportedly capable of keeping your tunes playing for up to 12 hours, though if you ever run it completely dry, you’ll need six hours to bring it back to full.

Despite its metal grille and carry handle, the Motion X500 is fully waterproof with an IPX7 rating, and it can stay afloat if it happens to end up in the pool. Like the rest of the new metallic Motion speakers, including the X600, Motion 300, and Motion 100, the X500 is compatible with Sony’s LDAC Bluetooth codec, giving it the ability to reproduce hi-res audio at up to 24-bit/96kHz — which is something of an anomaly for smaller Bluetooth speakers.

We were pleasantly surprised at just how effective spatial audio proved to be on the Soundcore Motion X600. When activated, it drastically increased the height and width of the soundstage for a much more immersive experience that regular stereo.

The X500 promises to achieve something similar, but in its own unique way: The the Sky Channel top-mounted driver is equipped with LED lights that can create a mini light show, with variations based on the EQ mode you pick.

Editors’ Recommendations






Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: a new ANC and spatial audio king | Digital Trends

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: a new ANC and spatial audio king | Digital Trends

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

MSRP $429.00

“Noise cancellation and spatial audio have a new king, and it is the Bose QuietComfort Ultra.”

Pros

  • Premium materials and design
  • Excellent comfort
  • Best-in-class noise canceling
  • Natural-sounding transparency
  • Impressive spatial audio
  • Hi-res compatibility

Cons

  • Tricky volume control
  • ANC can’t be turned off

Bose fans can breathe a sigh of relief. The new Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones are a return to form for the company after its four-year experiment with the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. I say experiment because the NCH 700’s design was a significant departure from the company’s previous efforts and not everyone fell in love with the new direction.

Though very light and comfy, the NCH 700 could only fold flat, had middling battery life, introduced touch controls, and didn’t necessarily move the needle in the right direction on sound quality.

By contrast, the QC Ultra (which have replaced the NCH 700) fold flat and fold up, they (mostly) ditch the touch controls. And Bose has gone to great lengths to put these new cans on par with (or even ahead of) wireless headphones from Sony, Apple, and Sennheiser with its version of spatial audio called Bose Immersive Audio, plus support for lossless and hi-res audio. Their price reflects that effort: the QC Ultra are $429, a $30 price hike over the NCH 700.

After spending over a week with the new QC Ultra, I think Bose has delivered a fantastic set of wireless noise-canceling cans that can stand toe-to-toe with the other flagships.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: design

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Whether you get them in black, white, or sandstone, the QC Ultra are classic Bose in all the right ways. In addition to the welcome return of the dual-folding design, Bose has upped the luxe factor by fabricating the headband sliders and earcup forks from aluminum. This might offer small benefits in terms of durability, but it definitely adds an element of class, especially as buyers compare them to the all-plastic build of the Sony WH-1000XM5 and the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones in travel case with accessories.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Ironically, despite the critiques that were thrown at Bose for its fold-flat design of the NCH 700 — which Sony, Sennheiser, and Apple all copied — when you compare the zippered travel cases of the QC Ultra and NCH 700 side by side, there isn’t a big difference in size. The QC Ultra are narrower than the NCH 700 by an inch or so. Inside, you still get a USB-C cable and a 2.5mm to 3.5mm analog cable, though these are now stowed inside an elastic internal pocket instead of the slick hidden compartment that graced the NCH 700’s case.

The headband has been widened from the NCH 700’s dimensions, and the soft rubber has been replaced with even softer and better-cushioned synthetic leather, which is also used on the ear cushions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: comfort, indeed

Simon Cohen wearing Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones in white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The QC Ultra are essentially identical to the NCH 700 and Sony XM5 in weight at 8.96 ounces, which keeps them among the lightest noise-canceling headphones you can buy. On your head, they feel solid and balanced, with a clamping force that’s just strong enough to keep everything where it should be, and no more. Compared to the NCH 700, you notice two things right away: the Ultra’s headband does a better job of distributing pressure, and they hug your head more securely. For me, that makes them more comfortable than their predecessors, especially across the top of my head. Overall, I think I still prefer the Sony XM5 (they just feel lighter) and Sennheiser Momentum 4 (cozier), but I’d take all three over the AirPods Max in terms of comfort any day of the week.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Earcup interiors.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The headband sliders are very grippy. Once you set their length, they don’t budge at all. This also makes them tricky to adjust. The technique that usually works best on many headphones — expanding the headband to its biggest size, putting the earcups on your ears, then reaching up with your fingers to pull the headband down to the right size — won’t work with the QC Ultra. There’s just too much resistance.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: controls and connections

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Right earcup controls.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Touch controls can be great, and I’ve had good experiences with them on Sony, Sennheiser, and Bose headphones in the past. But I just prefer physical buttons. They work predictably, you know exactly where to press with your thumb or fingers, and they don’t care if you’re wearing gloves.

So am I happy with the QC Ultra’s controls? Mostly, yes. Bose has managed to consolidate three buttons, plus touch controls on two earcups on the NCH 700 down to just two buttons and one touch control on a single earcup on the QC Ultra. The heavy lifting is performed by the multifunction button, which controls playback, ANC modes, and call management.

NCH 700 users might miss having a dedicated button for ANC — I kind of miss it myself — but that’s tempered by my huge relief at not needing to cycle between three different ANC modes every time I press it.

Perhaps the biggest change is the elimination of the voice assistant button. Not only is the assistant button gone, but so is the assistant. The NCH 700 gave iPhone users a choice between a button-activated Siri and a voice-activated Amazon Alexa, while Android users could choose between Google Assistant and Alexa. The QC Ultra is strictly BYOA (bring your own assistant), and if you want to access it, you’ll need to enable the shortcut option (a long press on the volume touch control) and select voice assistant access as your preferred shortcut. The other options are to hear the battery level announced, change immersive audio mode, and Spotify Tap.

I’m not a big voice assistant user when it comes to earbuds and headphones. But there’s no denying the convenience of being able to summon one hands-free, so it’s a shame to see this convenient feature disappear.

The combo power/Bluetooth button is self-explanatory, which just leaves volume control — a raised 1.5-inch line that sits a little farther out from your head than the buttons. Because it sits in the valley of the earcup, it’s easy to find with your thumb. But it suffers the same fate as many touch controls — it’s inaccurate. Intuitively, you might think you would begin at the bottom of the line and slide your thumb upward or downward gradually to slowly increase or decrease the volume as though it were a real slider. But no — you need to use small, swiping gestures instead. These can shift volume a little or a lot, and it’s hard to master the difference between these extremes. Unfortunately, there’s no setting in the Bose Music app to help you out. You either figure it out, or you remain vaguely frustrated by it, as I have been.

Still, Bose partially redeems itself by giving the QC Ultra the wear sensors that the NCH 700 lacked, so now you can automatically pause your tunes when you remove the headphones. In fact, when you remove them, you can choose to have them enter a standby state after a certain amount of time to save power. They’ll power back up as soon as you put them on again.

As with Bose’s other headphones (though notably, not its wireless earbuds), the QC Ultra support Bluetooth Multipoint for two simultaneous connections. To get the most out of it, the QC Ultra let you see and manage those connections in the Bose Music app, and they also announce the connected devices when you power them on, which can be very handy. If you find it annoying, you can also turn it off.

Transitioning between connected devices is seamless. Unlike some Multipoint devices, which make you choose between running a hi-res codec like aptX Adaptive or using Multipoint, the QC Ultra have no such restrictions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: sound quality and spatial audio

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Top of earcup close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The QC Ultra may be a throwback in terms of design, but their sound quality is decidedly evolutionary. The NCH 700’s sound signature is centered on Bose’s energetic approach to high frequencies, putting a lot of — some might argue too much — sparkle into vocals, while taking a conservative approach to bass. The QC Ultra step the sparkle back just a smidgen, but they add copious amounts of low-end. This puts them closer than ever to Sony’s more bass-forward tuning, such that the Sony WH-1000XM5 and QC Ultra now sound like slightly different interpretations of the same sound signature.

For me, it’s a move in the right direction — I happen to enjoy Sony’s sound a lot — but I wouldn’t be surprised if some Bose fans find it too thick through the low end.

If you don’t love it, the Bose Music app provides EQ presets that deemphasize that extra bass. You can also manually adjust the low, mid, and high EQ sliders. But, maddeningly, Bose still doesn’t let you save those tweaks as your own presets.

According to Bose, its CustomTune technology automatically adapts the sound of the QC Ultra to your ears every time you put them on. You’ll hear the same zoomy Bose startup sound that the company uses on its other headphones, but this time, that sound is used to analyze the shape of your ears. Does it work? It’s impossible to say — Bose doesn’t give you the option to turn it off.

Owners of select Android handsets can take advantage of the QC Ultra’s adoption of Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform, which — depending on your phone — can deliver lossy hi-res audio at up to 24-bit/96kHz or lossless CD-quality audio at 16-bit/48kHz, via Qualcomm’s aptX Adaptive Bluetooth codec.

If you’re a Spotify junkie, there’s probably zero benefit to be had. But those who have jumped on the lossless and hi-res lossless train via services like Amazon Music, Apple Music, Qobuz, and Tidal will be able to hear a more nuanced rendition of their favorite tracks. Thanks to the QC Ultra’s Bluetooth Multipoint, I was able to place my iPhone 14 side by side with a Snapdragon Sound-equipped Motorola ThinkPhone and perform reasonably quick A/B comparisons using Apple Music.

Both sounded great. But where the iPhone delivered thick, meaty sound, especially in the lower-mids and bass, the ThinkPhone offered a more refined, precise, and detailed performance.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: earcup fork detail.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Where things get really interesting is the QC Ultra’s new support for spatial audio. There are two distinct versions of spatial audio. When a track has been recorded in an 3D format like Dolby Atmos Music and is then played back using software that can render multichannel 3D sound into just two channels for headphone listening (like Apple Music), I consider it “native” spatial audio. Native spatial audio will work on any set of headphones.

But you also can apply computational audio to good ol’ stereo recordings to create a simulated 3D sound either in an app or in hardware like the QC Ultra. I think of this as “virtual” spatial audio.

Traditionally, attempts at virtual spatial audio have had mixed results. It can sound fake or forced. And it can have a damaging effect on some frequencies as the software tries to widen the sound field. In short, it can sound bad enough that you revert to regular stereo and never look back.

With its Immersive Audio, Bose has created the best virtual spatial audio I’ve heard so far. It gives you a genuine alternative to stereo that doesn’t sound cheesy or forced. It preserves detail and frequencies better than any competing system and, depending on the track, you may actually prefer it to the original recording.

The QC Ultra also provide sensor-based head tracking that lets the Immersive Audio mode untether your music from your headphones, giving you the sense that the music is being played from stereo speakers mounted in front (and slightly above) your listening position. Turning your head does the same as it would in real life — it sounds like you’ve turned away from the source of the music and it happens in perfect sync with your head movement.

Not everyone will like Bose’s Immersive Audio — just like not everyone will like native spatial audio tracks in Dolby Atmos Music. But for those who do, it’s a killer feature.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: noise canceling and transparency

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: headband close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Here’s what you really want to know: the QC Ultra cancel noise more effectively than the Apple AirPods Max and the Sony WH-1000XM5. If you want better noise cancellation, you’ll have to switch to wireless earbuds like the Bose QuiteComfort Ultra Earbuds or the Sony WF-1000XM5. But when it comes to wireless headphones, the QC Ultra Headphones are the current king of quiet.

The QC Ultra provide impressive levels of hush in a variety of scenarios. I haven’t had a chance to put them to the quintessential ANC test of an airplane cabin during flight. But given how they perform in other locations like noisy city streets, riding a transit bus, or working in a busy coffee shop, I have every reason to think they’ll ace the cabin test too.

They’re also insanely good for transparency. Until now, the transparency gold standard has belonged to the AirPods Max, and deservedly so. They’re excellent. But the QC Ultra sound more natural. The AirPods Max put a slight emphasis on higher frequencies — arguably a smart move that helps you hear voices more clearly — while the QC Ultra have a more neutral sound. Since both headphones give you roughly equal amounts of situational awareness, it’s going to come down to personal preference, and I prefer the QC Ultra.

Plus, Bose actually one-ups Apple via the QC Ultra’s Active Sense — an option when you’re in transparency mode that listens for loud noises and automatically kicks the cans into ANC mode to protect you hearing. Apple has this technology, too, but only on its AirPods Pro Gen 2 wireless earbuds. The AirPods Max (for now) lack this feature. It works well, but there can be up to 2 seconds of lag between a loud sound (like an emergency vehicle siren) beginning and Active Sense kicking in. On the AirPods Pro, it’s almost instant.

Bose also has rethought the way you work with ANC on the QC Ultra. On the NCH 700, you could reach into the Bose Music app and manually adjust the amount of noise cancellation at any time. But the headphone controls required that you cycle through three favorite ANC settings. Those settings could be any amount of ANC you wanted, but you couldn’t choose to use just two of them — a limitation I never understood.

On the QC Ultra, favorites have been replaced by Modes, and they’re far more flexible. You can create as many modes as you like, and each mode can have its own level of ANC, or you can select a wind block option that overrides ANC control. But the best part is that you can then pick which of these modes will be your favorites, as long as there are at least two favorites at any given time. Want to switch between maximum ANC and maximum transparency? Just select the default Quiet and Aware modes as your two favorites. Want to toggle between transparency and wind noise mode? Create a mode that uses wind noise and then select it as a favorite along with Aware mode and make sure Quiet mode is deselected.

It’s a great system with just one flaw: you can’t create a mode in which ANC is simply turned off to preserve battery life. In fact, there’s no way to turn off ANC at all — you can choose how much you want (or you can pick transparency), but there’s no setting to eliminate both.

There’s also a somewhat idiosyncratic aspect to Modes. Bose includes a default mode for Immersive Audio, which is illogical. Immersive Audio can be enjoyed whether you’re using full ANC or transparency — it’s a layer on top of your ANC preference, not its own thing.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: call quality

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: Earcup/logo close-up.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

If we lived in a world where Apple had never created the AirPods Max and Sony had never created the WH-1000XM5, I’d be telling you that the Bose QC Ultra Headphones are the best wireless headphones for call quality. It wouldn’t be hard to defend that statement. Even in noisy conditions, the QC Ultra all but erase environmental sounds, leaving just your voice. And when you’re in transparency mode, you can hear your own voice very clearly as well.

However, the QC Ultra struggle at times to keep your voice from wavering or sounding echoey as it strives to eliminate those unwanted background noises. Sony and Apple do a better job with this balancing act, keeping your voice sounding more consistently audible regardless of what’s going on around you.

But just to be clear: The QC Ultra are still excellent for calls — especially indoors. And if you have a Snapdragon Sound-equipped phone, your voice will sound richer and fuller thanks to aptX Voice. It’s just that the AirPods Max and XM5 are better for folks who need to take their calls in a wide variety of conditions.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones: battery life

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. USB-C charging port and analog input.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Bose, like Apple, seems to believe that no one really needs their wireless headphones to last more than about 20 to 24 hours between charges, and maybe it’s right. But given that companies like Sennheiser and Sony have proven that far more juice than that can be packed into a set of wireless cans (up to 60 hours in the case of the Sennheiser Momentum 4 Wireless), it’s a bit difficult to commend the QC Ultra for their 24-hour stamina — a number that drops to 18 hours when using immersive audio — especially when there’s no longer an option to extend that time by disabling both modes.

There is a quick-charge option: 15 minutes will buy you an extra 2.5 hours of playtime (2 hours in immersive audio mode), so even if 24 hours isn’t quite enough, you’ve got a Plan B.

One thing to keep in mind with the battery is that you’ll need it even for wired listening via the included analog cable. If the battery is totally dead, you can power it directly using the USB cable, at which point you can listen wired or wirelessly, but the QC Ultra can’t recharge simultaneously.

I’ve managed to find some minor nits to pick with the Bose QC Ultra Headphones, but overall, these wireless headphones are seriously impressive. They cost a bit more than their predecessors, but make up for the extra investment by delivering a better design and tons of features. Some of those features, like Immersive Audio, noise canceling, and transparency mode, represent the current state of the art and are reason enough to consider upgrading from the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

And if you’re contemplating your first set of serious wireless headphones? I’m confident you won’t regret going with the Bose QC Ultra.

Editors’ Recommendations






Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: A new spin on a reliable formula | Engadget

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review: A new spin on a reliable formula | Engadget

There are a few things you can bank on when it comes to Bose headphones. The first is (ANC) that’s been the best in the industry for years. You can also reliably expect that the company’s new set of cans over the course of a long flight or extended work session. Bose continues to check both boxes with the ($), but the marquee feature here is the company’s unique take on spatial audio. However, more immersive sound and a refreshed design, along with everything else the company is known for, comes at a higher price.

Design

After debuting a refreshed design on the Bose 700 headphones in 2019, the company returned to its old aesthetic on subsequent models. With the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, Bose did a mix of the two, but it mostly stuck to the traditional look of the QC line. The outside of the ear cups are where the blend of the 700 and previous QuietComfort models is most apparent. They have a similar shape to those on the 2021 QC 45s, but the physical buttons are almost entirely gone, more like the 700s.

Bose

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones

Pros

  • Excellent ANC
  • Improved audio
  • Clearer transparency mode
  • Comfy

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Immersive Audio is inconsistent
  • No USB-C audio

Bose removed the three-button setup for playback and volume, instead assigning play/pause, skipping tracks and changing audio modes to a single multi-function control. Just below it on the right ear cup, the Bluetooth pairing button also handles power. The company moved the on-board volume adjustment to a touch-sensitive strip that you can glide your finger across to raise or lower the level. Bose also allows you to assign a shortcut to the volume slider that’s activated by long pressing on it. Even though it’s touch-based, the slider reliably recognized my thumb swipes.

Another notable design change is the headband and hinge. Bose gave these a refined look by using metal instead of relying entirely on plastic. The hinge is better integrated in the headband so there are no visible screws until you fold the ear cups in. Those ear cups can also rotate flat, consistent with previous models over the years. Even with all the changes, Bose managed to keep things extremely comfortable during long listening sessions. Both the earpads and the inside of the headband are soft and cushiony, and I didn’t notice the extra weight.

Software and features

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

All the settings are found inside the Bose Music app. Once connected, the software serves up battery life and a volume slider right up top, with quick access to audio modes, Bluetooth connections, EQ, Immersive Audio, shortcut customization and tips underneath. The app also has a media player that mirrors whatever you’re playing elsewhere, so you don’t have to leave to control tunes when you’re tweaking headphone settings.

For audio modes, Bose gives you three by default: Quiet, Aware and Immersion. The first is just active noise cancellation, while the second is full transparency. Immersion is both  maximum ANC and Immersive Audio. Bose also offers the ability to create your own modes with an adjustable noise canceling, the option of wind block and Immersive Audio. Once you create a new mode, favoriting it will make it accessible via the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones’ on-board controls.

For Immersive Audio, there are three options to choose from. You can disable it entirely for the stock Bose tuning, and to save battery life, or you can opt for Still or Motion settings. The former keeps the audio at a fixed point and it is best for when you’re sitting. The latter allows the audio to follow you as you move around, using head tracking to keep the sound in front of you at all times.

In order to use that long press on the volume slider shortcut, you first have to enable it in the Bose app. From there, you can assign a handful of actions to the gesture. These include hearing the battery level, cycling through the Immersive Audio presets, accessing a voice assistant or playing content from Spotify. If none of those seem particularly helpful, you can always leave it turned off.

Sound quality and Immersive Audio

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

While the headline feature is Immersive Audio, Bose has also improved its stock tuning on the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Before I even activated spatial audio, I could tell the sound was considerably warmer and clearer, with more bass right out of the box. Overall sound quality is one area Bose lagged slightly behind the likes of Sony and Sennheiser, but the company is certainly catching up.

Bose’s take on spatial audio doesn’t rely on specialized content like Dolby Atmos in Apple Music or Sony 360 Reality Audio. Those formats have been engineered to specifically make the instruments sound like they’re playing around you. Bose uses a combination of headphone components and its newly developed signal processing for Immersive Audio. Thanks to virtualization, it works with any content and that makes it more convenient.

Like the dedicated spatial audio formats, the first thing you’ll notice is the sound is louder. Immersive Audio lends more overall presence to music, but there’s also heightened clarity and detail. Rather than surround you with sound, Bose claims to put you in the acoustic sweet spot, as if you were sitting in the perfect position in front of a set of high-end speakers. Indeed, the company achieves this as albums like TesseracT’s prog-metal War of Being have an atmospheric depth while preserving finer details – from the texture of the singer’s growl to subtle nuances in the drums.

At times, Bose’s spatial audio can make songs sound worse. On Tyler Childers’ “In Your Love,” the vocals are sharp and tinny, and the reverb is accentuated to the point it becomes a distraction from the rest of the music. And the vocals are now several notches louder than the instruments. When it hits, this audio tech is a joy to listen to, but because Bose is relying on signal processing rather than carefully engineered content, the results can vary greatly.

Another area Bose continues to improve is transparency mode. On the QuietComfort Ultra Headphones, the company offers noticeably clearer audio when piping in your surroundings and allowing you to hear your voice. It’s still not as good as what Apple manages on the AirPods Max (no one comes close really), but Bose is making strides. That certainly helps when you’re taking a call or need to be tuned into your environment.

Stellar noise canceling performance is nothing new on a set of Bose headphones. The company is consistently the best in terms of allowing you to block out the world and the same holds true with the QC Ultra Headphones. Constant rumbling from an air conditioner or white noise machine is reduced to barely a whisper. The headphones do a great job with TV sound and human voices too – even the lethal combination of a nine-year-old playing Fall Guys.

Call quality

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review

Photo by Billy Steele/Engadget

Bose promises “amazingly clear calls” on the QC Ultra Headphones, a claim that’s on par with nearly every headphone company these days. While I wouldn’t describe the audio quality for calls that way, it’s suitable for everyday voice and video calls when you just need to hear and be heard. It doesn’t sound like you’re on speakerphone, but it’s not pristine either. That’s better than what a lot of the competition offers and near the best you’ll get on wireless headphones.

Battery life

Bose says you can expect up to 24 hours of use with ANC turned on. If you opt for both noise cancellation and Immersive Audio, that figure drops to 18 hours. However, during my tests using the latter option, both the Bose app and macOS were showing 30 percent remaining after 20 hours. So while it’s true that the company’s new spatial audio impacts battery life, the QC Ultra Headphones still surpass the stated numbers.

To help you conserve battery, the QC Ultra Headphones will automatically turn off when they aren’t being worn and no audio is playing for 10 minutes. There’s also a quick-charge feature that gives you two and a half hours of use in 15 minutes. That’s with ANC on and Immersive Audio off though. If you need spatial audio during this time, Bose says you can expect 30 minutes less battery life after the fast top off.

The competition

While Bose has done a lot to catch up, it still doesn’t offer the suite of features that Sony does on the . No company does and that’s why the M5 is consistently at the top of our list. The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones do offer more effective noise cancellation, but there’s nothing akin to Sony’s Speak-to-Chat automatic pausing or the ability to change audio modes based on your activity or location. The M5 also supports Sony’s DSEE Extreme that uses AI to upscale compressed audio and increase depth and clarity. The results are far more consistent than Bose’s Immersive Audio.

Wrap-up

With the , Bose remains near the top of the headphone heap. While Immersive Audio is great at times, the results are inconsistent and can be downright bad with some albums and songs. Still, the default tuning is improved and puts these headphones closer to the level of Sony and Sennheiser sonically, mostly due to added bass, increased clarity and enhanced warmth. Bose needed to nail its new trademark feature to help justify the higher price, but it failed to do so. The QuietComfort Ultra Headphones showcase a number of improvements over previous Bose models, but they’re not good enough to dethrone the king.

Gallery: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Headphones review | 12 Photos


Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds review: amazing spatial sound | Digital Trends

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds review: amazing spatial sound | Digital Trends

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds

MSRP $299.00

“if you’re keen to try spatial audio, the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are a great companion.”

Pros

  • Very comfortable
  • Excellent sound quality
  • Top-notch noise canceling
  • Hi-res and lossless audio
  • Excellent spatial audio

Cons

  • No wireless charging
  • No Bluetooth Multipoint
  • Outdoor call quality could be better

I’m not gonna lie: It’s a little weird when a company like Bose trots out a new set of wireless earbuds like the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds barely one year after it introduced its last set — 2022’s QuietComfort Earbuds II (QCE II). After all, wireless earbuds aren’t like smartphones. They don’t need to be refreshed every year. The market doesn’t expect it, and not that much changes in a year to warrant a refresh. And yet here we are.

So what was so important that we needed yet another set of QuietComfort earbuds? The price hasn’t changed — still $299. The Ultra Earbuds still can’t do Bluetooth Multipoint, and if you want wireless charging, you’ll need to pay an extra $49 for a bizarre silicone charging case cover.

It turns out that Bose simply couldn’t figure out how to deliver hi-res and lossless audio — which it had promised would be added to the QCE II — or spatial audio, without creating new hardware. Thus we now have the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.

Bose also took the opportunity to make a few other minor modifications but the bottom line is that the Ultra represent a small, incremental improvement of the QCE II. After using them for about 10 days, here’s what you should know whether you’re thinking of upgrading, or buying your first set of Bose wireless earbuds

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: design

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II.
Nearly identical: Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds (left) and the QuietComfort Earbuds II. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and QCE II are almost identical from a design standpoint. That’s a very good thing. Though not quite as small and sleek as the Apple AirPods Pro, the Ultra look great, whether in black (seen here) or in white. Bose has given the Ultra a fresh coat of paint — literally — a new metallic layer adorns the main touch control surface, giving the buds a decidedly upscale look.

Bose has made a tiny change to the stability bands — the silicone loops that wrap around the body of the earbud to help them stay anchored in your ear. They now have a tab-and-notch design that ensures they sit correctly on the earbud when you swap them for a different size. You still get three sizes of bands (and three sizes of oval eartips) to work with.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds in white.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The charging case also is unchanged, save for a more prominent Bose logo. That’s not such a good thing. Overall, it’s still a good design and way more pocketable than the monster box that the original QuietComfort Earbuds came with. But I’d hoped that Bose would have taken the opportunity to add wireless charging — something that was conspicuously absent from the QCE II. Yet Bose tells me that doing so would have affected its ability to deliver the Ultra this quickly given the existing design architecture.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: comfort and controls

Simon Cohen wearing Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I find the QC Ultra Earbuds, like their predecessors, very comfortable to wear even for long periods. The portion that sits in your concha is relatively small and the combination of the smooth, rounded surfaces and the silicone eartips and stability bands makes for a very ergonomic shape. Unlike the AirPods Pro, which I find have a tendency to work themselves loose over time, I hardly ever felt the need to adjust the QC Ultras. For me, they were more than stable enough for my gym regimen, but I don’t do a ton of high-impact exercises. High mileage runners and CrossFit enthusiasts may still prefer an earhook-based design.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds with accessories.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

I still prefer physical buttons to touch controls. But as touch controls go, the QC Ultra are very good. Taps and swipes were almost always registered, and I’m a big fan of the swiping gesture used to control volume. To me, it’s the most convenient and accurate way to do volume changes on a set of earbuds.

Bose doesn’t let you customize the main gestures for playback, call management, or volume, but you do get a choice over how the long-press works on each earbud. By default, it’s set to ANC control, but you can also select spatial audio control and voice assistant control. Since I hardly ever use my phone’s voice assistant, I chose ANC and spatial audio and it worked really well.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: sound quality and spatial audio

I’ve always enjoyed the way Bose products sound. They have what I can only describe as an energetic sound signature, which tends to put a little extra sparkle on the upper-mids and highs. There’s no real difference between the QCE II and QC Ultra on this front — they both use Bose’s CustomTune technology to adjust themselves to your ears and they’re both a joy to use with a huge variety of genres.

What has changed is the QC Ultra’s support for additional audio formats. There are two big additions to QC Ultra: They now support Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform — an overarching set of technologies that includes the aptX family of hi-res Bluetooth codecs, plus some improved Bluetooth bandwidth for voice applications — plus they incorporate Bose’s new immersive audio tech, which can be thought of as very similar to Apple and Jabra’s spatial audio modes on the AirPods family and the Elite 8 Active and Elite 10 wireless earbuds.

First, let’s discuss those Snapdragon Sound aptX codecs. The QCE II were limited to SBC and AAC codecs, which are lossy and thus just fine for listening to Spotify, but not a great choice when trying to hear the extra detail in a CD quality or hi-res lossless track from Apple Music or Amazon Music. With aptX Adaptive (and a reliable Bluetooth connection) you can get far greater fidelity. It’s not theoretical. When listening to the QC Ultra on a Xiaomi 12 Pro and a Motorola ThinkPhone, the soundstage took on noticeably better precision, depth, and detail versus listening on an iPhone 14 (AAC only). It’s the same bump in quality that I’ve heard when using other equally capable wireless earbuds or headphones.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds in front of charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

But with the QC Ultra, that bump came with a bit of a surprise. Normally, on the iPhone, when listening to bass-heavy tracks, like Hans Zimmer’s Warming Up My Instruments or Bob Dylan’s Man in the Long Black Coat, the QC Ultra (and the QCE II) respond by delivering incredibly deep, almost sub-bass tones. If you’re a bass-head, it’s kind of awesome, but it’s not a very balanced approach. Switch over to aptX Adaptive and it’s almost as if the earbuds switch to a different EQ setting. The bass becomes tempered; it’s more musical and less boomy.

I’d love to tell you that aptX Lossless, which is only available when you have a compatible Snapdragon (i.e. Android) phone, is even better, but I’ve struggled to identify the difference between aptX Adaptive and aptX Lossless in the past, and it was equally hard with QC Ultra. Still, perhaps those with even more finely tuned ears will be able to appreciate it.

As delighted as I am that the QC Ultra now support hi-res audio via Bluetooth, I was far more struck by Bose’s efforts in spatial audio.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and Bose QuietComfort Earbuds II.
Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds (left) and QuietComfort Earbuds II. Note the tab-and-notch design on the Ultra Earbuds. Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

From a conceptual point of view, Bose isn’t doing anything new here. Just like Jabra’s Elite 10, Apple’s AirPods Pro, and the LG Tone Free T90Q, Bose uses software to simulate what it sounds like to listen to your music as though it were coming from large speakers in your room as opposed to tiny speakers wedged in your ears. It then uses gyroscope sensors to offer you an added level of realism by fixing those speakers in space relative to your head position. Turning your head one way or the other sounds like you’re turning away from the source of the sound.

The difference is that Bose’s version of spatial audio sounds better to me. I like the way it creates a virtual set of point sources that appear to be in front and slightly above where I’m sitting. It manages to do this without the corresponding loss of detail that sometimes accompanies Dolby Atmos Music tracks when you hear them via headphones. And when you engage the head tracking mode, it’s impressively smooth. Apple’s head tracking does an amazing job of simulating a 5.1-channel home theater system when you use the AirPods Max with an Apple TV 4K. and Bose’s immersive audio does the same thing but with a two-channel stereo arrangement. Unlike Apple’s tech, which requires either Dolby Atmos or Dolby Digital 5.1, Bose’s system works with any content — even phone calls.

For a while, I was dubious as to whether people would genuinely prefer spatial audio to classic stereo. After having spent time with the QC Ultra, I’m closer than ever to believing a day may come when we look back at stereo the way we used to look back at AM radio.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: ANC and transparency

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds in front of charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

The QC Ultra, when it comes to active noise canceling (ANC), are just about the best you can get. While it’s true that both Apple’s AirPods Pro and Sony’s WF-1000XM5 are also superb in this regard, we’re talking about fractional differences. I wouldn’t pick one as clearly better.

The same isn’t quite as true for transparency mode. As good as the QC Ultra are (and they are very good), the AirPods Pro are still the reference, with an uncanny ability to just disappear when you engage transparency mode.

However, Apple is proving that it knows how to tweak the magic of ANC and transparency in new and useful ways. The conversational awareness and adaptive noise control modes introduced to the AirPods Pro with iOS 17 are proof that noise cancellation can become a highly dynamic and responsive feature when a set of earbuds can monitor things like your voice or the outside world. This puts Bose in catch-up mode once again.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: call quality

Bose says it has improved call quality on the QC Ultra by making more intelligent use of the microphones, especially in windy conditions.

I’m not sure I was able to detect much of a difference. But in fairness, I had only mildly breezy conditions while I was testing them.

Overall, the QC Ultra are good for calls — your callers will have no problem understanding you — but Bose’s environmental noise cancellation still needs work. Loud sounds still make their way through and as that happens, your voice becomes echo-y and distant, making it sound like you’re speaking from across the room. Indoors, things are far better, but that’s usually true of wireless earbuds.

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds: battery life

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds in charging case.
Simon Cohen / Digital Trends

Bose has never wowed us with its battery life, and you won’t find much in the way of big numbers on the QC Ultra. They’re the same as the QCE II for single-charge play time (about six hours at 50% volume), and total time (24 hours when you include the case). However, this drops considerably when using immersive audio: down to four hours per charge or 16 hours total. That’s a big hit to battery life. The AirPods Pro also pay a price for spatial audio, but it’s a small one by comparison — just a 30-minute drop in stamina.

Since Bose hasn’t changed the price — the QC Ultra maintain the QCE II’s $299 cost — and you’re getting some decent upgrades in terms of audio capabilities, I’d have to say there’s never been a better time to buy a set of Bose wireless earbuds if you were thinking of taking the plunge. On the other hand, since there’s still no Bluetooth Multipoint, and you can now add wireless charging to either generation for $49, it’s hard to argue these are a must-have upgrade. Still, if you’re keen to jump into the world of spatial audio, I can think of no better wireless earbuds to take you there.

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