Steve Jobs once said, “If you always wait for the next price cut or to buy the new improved model, you’ll never buy any technology product because there is always something better and less expensive on the horizon.” He wrote this in a public letter after Apple reduced the price of the original iPhone by several hundred dollars, which left early adopters feeling burned. That quote came to mind earlier this month when Bose introduced its completely overhauled QuietComfort lineup. In the case of the $299 QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, the new model replaces an expensive pair of buds released only a year ago. That’s… unusually fast.
By now, we’re accustomed to seeing annual smartphone refreshes, but earbuds typically have a longer cadence of two to three years between updates. Not so this time around for Bose. As it was explained to me, the company felt it had come up with enough worthwhile improvements to justify a quicker-than-most upgrade. Compared to their predecessors, the QC Ultra Earbuds feature Bose’s proprietary spatial audio audio processing, which the company refers to as Immersive Audio. They’re certified for Qualcomm’s Snapdragon Sound platform and offer support for the AptX Adaptive Bluetooth (if you’ve got a compatible Android device). Aside from those two changes and some microphone enhancements for phone calls, the only other tweak is that Bose made the silicone stabilizer wings easier to apply thanks to new grooves on the earbuds.
That’s the extent of what’s new. And owners of the QuietComfort Earbuds II are none too pleased about their buds already being left in Bose’s rearview mirror. This is partly because Bose initially promised to bring AptX Bluetooth audio to those earbuds via a firmware update — an update that still hasn’t come to fruition. Some owners are convinced that Bose has all but abandoned that plan with such a rapid jump to the QC Ultra Earbuds. They’re worried about being left in the lurch despite spending a premium on last year’s buds, and I can understand the frustration. But Bose spokesperson Joanne Berthiaume says the promised features are still coming eventually. “On QCE II, we have been delayed in bringing the Snapdragon update to that product, but we still have plans to roll it out via a software update later this year,” she told me by email. “We prioritized launching it in our latest earbuds/ headphones first.”
At their core, the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds deliver the exact same sound quality, six-hour battery life, IPX4 water resistance, and active noise cancellation as the prior model. That’s nothing to be disappointed about in the case of ANC: this is still as good as it gets, with Bose outranking Sony, Apple, and all other competitors in lowering the volume of the outside world. These earbuds are the best I’ve experienced when it comes to their noise cancellation effectiveness, bar none. Bose’s transparency mode is also excellent and provides the illusion that you’re not wearing earbuds at all. Like Apple’s new adaptive transparency feature on the AirPods Pro 2, Bose’s buds can tamp down loud noises on the fly if you activate the “ActiveSense” setting.
Sound quality is quite good, but Bose can’t lay claim to the same lead in this department. Whenever you insert the buds, you’ll hear an orchestral tone, which is used to calibrate output for each ear individually. Bose’s tuning gives the QC Ultra Earbuds plenty of clarity, and there’s a fullness to the bass that I really enjoy. Treble frequencies are similarly clean without any harshness. If desired, you can customize the EQ with a handful of presets in Bose’s mobile app. But the default sound profile is right on the money for my taste. I’ve got a Pixel 7 Pro, which isn’t certified for Snapdragon Sound. So the only codecs I saw available to me were AAC and SBC. But theoretically, Android phones with a recent Qualcomm chipset should be able to take advantage of AptX Adaptive for low-latency gaming and higher-bitrate streaming if your connection permits it.
Audio performance is identical to the QC Earbuds II for regular stereo listening, but the flagship feature of the QC Ultra Earbuds is Bose’s Immersive Audio mode. It joins the standard “quiet” (ANC) and “aware” (transparency) modes. Within Immersive Audio are two subsettings: you can choose still, which allows for side-to-side head tracking while the music stays at a fixed position in front of you, or motion, which reduces head tracking and keeps the audio sweet spot where it should be no matter which direction you turn. Bose says it has developed new digital signal processing (DSP) software that makes your music sound more multidimensional and layered “regardless of the audio platform or device.”
It makes no difference if you’re listening to stereo content or an actual Atmos song from Apple Music or Amazon Music: Bose’s processing treats them the same way. As ever, there are examples where Immersive Audio works wonderfully — like on The National’s new song “Smoke Detector” — and others where the vocals can sound a bit distant and the music has this faux live performance feel to it. When it’s good, it can lend music more depth, but I wouldn’t go rushing out to upgrade from the QC Earbuds II strictly because of this new listening mode.
Immersive Audio also comes with a noticeable impact on battery life. While the QC Ultra Earbuds can last for up to six hours on a charge during normal listening, that estimate drops to four hours if you’re playing Immersive Audio the entire time, so the processing happening in the background is somewhat demanding.
I wish Bose had tackled other weaknesses of the QC Earbuds II with the Ultras. There’s still no multipoint support, so you can’t pair these with two devices at the same time. And the carrying case continues to lack wireless charging — at least natively. Bose plans to sell a $49 silicone case that adds Qi compatibility, and it will be backward-compatible with the QC Earbuds II. But multipoint and built-in wireless charging are both features that I increasingly expect to see from $300 buds, and either one would’ve served as another meaningful upgrade over the last earbuds. As is, you’re really just looking at some software differences (Immersive Audio), the improved stability fins, and some optimizations for voice call performance. With the latter, Bose claims “improved far-end call quality.”
With the support of dynamic microphone mixing and adaptive filters, voice pickup is more intelligible in less-than-ideal environments. These technologies work together in real time to determine and prioritize which microphone on each bud is experiencing the least wind noise, and selecting from a variety of noise filters so your voice presents more clearly to those you’re calling.
I haven’t made a ton of calls using the QC Ultra Earbuds yet, so I can’t definitively say how thoroughly those tweaks have paid off, but I haven’t gotten any complaints about how I sound, either — and there were some of those with the QC Earbuds II.
Are the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds a better product than last year’s QuietComfort Earbuds II? Sure, but the advancements aren’t exactly plentiful. Immersive Audio is a fun mode to try out and lends depth to songs that are a good fit, though it takes a bite out of battery life. Outside of that and better voice calls, the other improvements are marginal. It’s fair to question how much of this Bose could’ve brought to last year’s QC Earbuds II through software upgrades, and I don’t blame those customers for feeling irked.
But at the end of the day, these earbuds continue to offer best-in-class noise cancellation, very enjoyable sound, and a crystal clear transparency mode. I still recommend them, even if I wish Bose included multipoint and wireless charging (that doesn’t require a sold-separately case). Perhaps the company’s quickened release cycle means we’re not too far away from a new set of earbuds that address those remaining downsides. If you’re willing to wait for the next model, that is.
Photography by Chris Welch / The Verge