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Bose SoundSport Free review: Bose's bulkier, better-sounding AirPods alternative gets $50 price cut

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Bose SoundSport Free (Black)

(Part #: 74801)
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The Good Bose's SoundSport Free, a set of totally wireless earphones, offers richer sound than Apple's AirPods and a more secure fit. The buds are water-resistant and durable, battery life is decent and a charging case provides two extra charges on the go.

The Bad The buds stick out pretty far from your ears. The case is a little large compared to the AirPods' and Jabra Elite 65t's cases.

The Bottom Line Although Bose's SoundSport Free may not be perfect, thanks to some software upgrades and a price drop, it's become one of the best -- and best sounding -- totally wireless earphones.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 8.0
  • Features 7.0
  • Sound 9.0
  • Value 7.0

Apple's AirPods may have dominated the totally wireless headphone market since their release but some compelling alternatives, including the Bose SoundSport Free, have hit the market in recent months. 

The Free is essentially the cordless version of Bose's popular and highly rated SoundSport Wireless earphones. It's one of the best totally wireless models out there, and it's become more enticing now that Bose has lowered its price from $250 to $200 (£180 or AU$300).

Marketed as a true sports headphone, SoundSport Free has a couple of advantages over the AirPods. For starters, the buds fit more securely. Yes, a certain percentage of AirPod users can get a snug enough fit to use them while running -- they work great for those people. But plenty of others, including me, can't run with their AirPods. They simply won't stay in my ears.

Like the SoundSport Wireless, the SoundSport Free are equipped with Bose's StayHear+ Sport tips. What's great about them is that they comfortably lock the buds into your ears and seal out a good amount of ambient noise, maximizing sound quality without really jamming the tips into your ears.

Close up of the integrated controls and StayHear+ Sport tips.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Instead of an inline remote, the control buttons, including volume controls, are integrated into the buds themselves. They're a little small and a touch stiff, but they worked better than I thought they would. I had no problem skipping tracks forward by double clicking on the middle button with my fingernail. The only real design gripe I have is the same one levied at the SoundSport Wireless: The buds stick out from your ears quite a bit and aren't exactly discreet.

The SoundSport Free also sound better than the cheaper AirPods ($159, £159, AU$229) and Jabra Elite 65t ($170, £150, AU$300), with more bass and richer sound overall. For those familiar with the "corded" SoundSport Wireless, the SoundSport Free has a similar sound profile. As I said about that model, there's some clarity missing (the highs are a little recessed), but you get lots of bass and the midrange sounds pretty natural and warm. They also sound pretty open and played plenty loud, for me anyway.

Inside, in a quiet room, the bass can sound a little bloated, which gives everything a slightly dull edge. But when you're walking around outside, the bass sounds toned down because it's competing with ambient noise, whether it's the wind or traffic or whatever. If you didn't have that extra bass the headphone would sound thin outside. The way it's tuned, it sounds smoother and better balanced outdoors and in noisier indoor environments (like a gym). I thought they sounded a little bit better than the Jaybird Run totally wireless headphones, which I also like.

The buds in their included charging case, which provides two additional charges on the go.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Rugged design

Because the buds are on the larger side, Bose has been able to equip them with adequate sized batteries. While they don't have Apple's custom W1 Bluetooth chip, in my tests they delivered (like the AirPods) Bose's claimed 5 hours of battery life at moderate volume levels. The included charging case provides two additional full charges for up to 10 additional hours of battery life. Note that the case is significantly larger than the AirPods' case and not nearly as lightweight.

The earphones are sweat-resistant, with an IPX4 water-resistance rating. While Bose doesn't advertise full waterproofing, the buds survived a complete dunking without a problem in my tests. They seem sturdily built.

Due to their small, independent nature, there's a perception that totally wireless earphones are easy to lose. They are. To that end, there's a new "Find My Buds" feature on the Bose Connect App that displays the last time and place they were used to help locate them should they get lost. You also use that app to update the buds' firmware, a 30- to 45-minute process (it seems like an eternity).

One of the reasons I'm mentioning the firmware is because Bose has issued software updates that are intended to fix some small problems that users were experiencing -- they mainly involve audio syncing when using certain video apps and the left bud dropping out.

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