Review

Bose’s New Clip-On Ultra Open Earbuds Are Way More Comfortable Than AirPods

What’s an earclip, you ask?

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Lais Borges/Inverse; Photograph by Raymond Wong
Gear Reviews

When I write the words “earbud,” you probably have a distinct picture in your mind: a silicone ear tip with a diaphragm, drivers, and Bluetooth for connectivity.

That’s what wireless earbuds are for most people. That’s what AirPods are, and Apple’s ubiquitous white buds are pretty much synonymous with on-the-go Bluetooth audio at this point.

But as effective as shoving speakers in your ears is, it’s not always what you really want. Think about your ear canals — the pressure. Think of all the wax collecting in the silicone tips. Think of the dangerous proximity to the sensitive parts of your inner ear. Yuck, on all accounts.

So your only alternative is messing up your hair (if, unlike me, you’re lucky enough to have it) with over-the-ear headphones... right? Well, not exactly.

Earbuds? More Like Earclips

I’m reluctant to call Bose’s Ultra Open Earbuds “earbuds” even. That’s what Bose calls them, and I hesitate to say that a company that spent as much time thinking about audio devices as Bose has is wrong about a device that they made, but... Bose: You’re wrong.

I propose this: earclips. It’s a terrible name and one that will never catch on, but damn, is it accurate. Unlike traditional earbuds, the Ultra Open Earbuds’ speaker sits behind your ear instead of inside it. That means to “wear” the earbuds on your ears, you insert a plastic knob, if you will, and then tuck the speaker behind your ear. When worn, the Ultra Open Earbuds look (intentionally) like a piece of jewelry — an earring, maybe, but bigger.

If the process of putting them on your ears sounds a little strange, I’m here to report that... it is. There’s a learning curve with fixing the Ultra Open Earbuds to your ears and, for me at least, that learning curve was a little longer than I expected. With inserting a silicone tip into your ear, the objective is very clear: Is the tip in or is it not in? It’s a yes or no.

With the Ultra Open Earbuds, however, there’s some added complexity. Instead of a yes or no, there’s: Are the earbuds on right? Are they going to fall out? How do they look right now? Are they scrunching my lobes up like a geo-tagged endangered animal?

Bose’s Ultra Open Earbuds may look odd, but they’re maybe the most comfortable buds I’ve ever put in my ears.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

It sounds like a lot, but if you wear the Ultra Open buds for long enough, you will get the hang of putting them on, and once you do, the rewards are numerous.

Possibly the biggest reward during my hours of testing was comfort. These are easily the most comfortable earbuds (erm, earclips) I’ve ever tried. The knob fits nicely in my ear and never came loose while I was in motion, which was surprising to me — they look like they could be precarious, but they’re not. This is also the first time I’ve ever used this form factor for Bluetooth audio, and I was shocked at how happy I was to not have an ear tip planted firmly in my ear canal.

It may be hard to register without the context of using “earclips” versus earbuds, but the latter creates a lot of pressure by blocking out air, and that pressure builds up. The resulting feeling is... not super comfortable. It may not hit you hard on your commute to work, but on a plane, for example, the feeling can be much more pronounced. The Ultra Open Earbuds, however, don’t have that problem, since the speaker sits out in the open behind your ear, and a plastic insert that slots into your outer ear is snug enough to keep the buds in place, but not so tight that it blocks out sound and air. These are open earbuds after all.

These are easily the most comfortable earbuds (erm, earclips) I’ve ever tried.

There’s also another side effect of blocking out all that air: hearing. On one end, having a tight seal is a big benefit; if you’ve got earbuds with active noise cancellation, that’s critical to ensuring that you’re blockaded from the outside world. On the other hand, however, there is a feeling of isolation with being totally immersed in whatever you’re listening to.

That’s to say that there are situations where you benefit from having one foot in and one foot out of your environment. Maybe you’re jogging, or riding a bike or e-scooter (a dangerous habit that I’ve personally developed), or maybe you’re at work and still want to hear when someone asks you for something.

Despite lacking an ear tip, Bose’s Ultra Open earbuds stay firmly in place even while you’re moving.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

One of the absolute best use cases for this blending of environments is taking a call. I don’t know about you, but having to hear what my voice sounds like reverberating in my own diaphragm or throat is nothing short of painful. As a result, having conversations with earbuds on is less than ideal.

Without the closed seal of an ear tip, however, the Ultra Open Earbuds give your ears space to take in the sound more naturally and therefore give you a more familiar impression of your own voice. It’s a subtle thing, but once you notice how much more natural you feel having a conversation (I talked for an hour with them on one day), you’ll never want to go back.

As long as we’re talking about sound bleed, it’s also worth noting (in case you were wondering) that the Ultra Open Earbuds do not, in fact, disrupt your neighbors with unwanted music. Even if you’re holding them in the palm of your hand at full volume, the sound from the buds is barely perceptible.

Oh, another nice touch — there are physical buttons, which is great for someone like me who isn’t a huge fan of touch or squeeze controls.

Opening Up the Possibilities

You can’t say these wireless earbuds look just like AirPods, that’s for sure.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

So, the form factor has a lot of perks, but what about the nitty-gritty? What about what makes earbuds matter in the first place? What about the sound?

If you’re like me, you were skeptical about how good, crisp, or dynamic a speaker tucked behind your ear could sound. For example, can it really replicate the fidelity of a speaker that funnels directly into your ear? The answer is... honestly, mostly yes!

I’m going to be real with you all: The Ultra Open Earbuds sound great. Over my hours of testing, I never found the buds to be lacking in fidelity, especially considering they are technically so far from your ear canal. Am I surprised that Bose made this form factor sound good? Not at all. But it doesn’t make me any less impressed with the execution.

While we’re getting into the hardware/software of it all, it’s worth noting that there is one obvious area you need to account for if buds like this interest you: I’m talking about active noise cancellation (ANC).

For obvious reasons, the Ultra Open Earbuds cannot give you ANC. That means you are more prone to having outside sound bleed into whatever you’re listening to. I gave the Ultra Open Earbuds kind of the ultimate test by using them repeatedly on the subway in New York City and can confirm that they do not block out as much outside sound as other more traditionally designed wireless earbuds with ANC (duh). This is a benefit if you want to soak in more of your surroundings for safety or communication's sake, but a downside if you just want to block everything out.

The charging case gets almost 20 hours of juice while the buds should get 7.5 hours per charge.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

So yes, buds without ANC are not for everyone, but even if you miss the noise cancellation, you do enjoy one major benefit from not having it: battery life. Bose says the Ultra Open Earbuds can get 7.5 hours of active use at moderate volumes (which is fairly solid) and that that charging case comes with 19.5 hours of charge.

And just because there isn’t any ANC doesn’t mean the Ultra Open Earbuds are featureless. Bose equipped these buds with immersive audio, which is Bose’s equivalent to spatial audio. Admittedly, I didn’t find myself springing to use immersive audio a whole lot (I like my music to be stationary), but that doesn’t mean it’s not magical.

When toggled on via the Bose app, immersive audio gives you 3D sound. That means if you tilt your head to the right, for example, the buds register that shift and will direct the audio to the ear you’ve positioned forward. It’s impressive how well immersive audio works, and if you’re the type of person who’s into 3D sound like that, then I’m pretty sure you’ll be pleased with the results.

Ultra Interesting

A view of the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds from the underside.

Photograph by Raymond Wong

It’s not often we get to try something truly different when it comes to earbuds, but if you’ve been waiting for something new, Bose’s Ultra Open Earbuds are definitely it. And the best part is that they’re not just new for newness’s sake. Their unique form factor makes them extremely comfortable; it makes them look pretty damn cool; it makes them a lot more versatile for different types of situations like having a conversation or a phone call or exercising.

I’m not alone in wanting something different to put on my ears, either. As I tested them, I posted the Ultra Open Earbuds on my Instagram to see if your average person would be down to wear an audio device that looks as wild as they do — the response was surprisingly positive. It turns out that, despite the ubiquity of AirPods, there are plenty of listeners out there who find traditional earbuds to be more invasive than they ought to be.

I’m not alone in wanting something different to put on my ears.

Sure, it helps in the convincing department that Bose has the pedigree to back up a funky form factor, but the reception also speaks to just how much more we can do to make earbuds truly comfortable. That’s all to say: if you’re the type of person who’s sick of the same old or or you’re tired of the discomfort in your ears while you’re listening to music, then Bose has delivered what could be your new Bluetooth audio solution of choice.

Move over earbuds, the age of earclips is nigh!

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