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Bose Frames review: Audio sunglasses that sound surprisingly good

Their AR features are still in the works, but for listening to music and making calls, the Frames exceed expectations.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy

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Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable e-reader and e-publishing expert. He's also the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks and Nook e-books, as well as audiobooks.

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Bose Frames were initially hyped as audio augmented-reality sunglasses that were compatible with Bose's upcoming AR audio platform, Bose AR. Again, that's audio AR only -- the glasses don't offer a Magic Leap- or HoloLens-style digital overlay of the real world. While that platform is still in development with apps arriving later this year, Bose has released the Frames with a more straightforward, limited mission: They're sunglasses that are "enhanced with Bose technology to play music and take calls." Available in two styles for $200, they're initially on sale only in the US.

The Good

The Bose Frames deliver surprisingly decent sound using embedded micro speakers. While the arms are slightly bulky, the sunglasses don't feel heavy on your head and are comfortable to wear. Using the sunglasses to make calls works well. Even though the audio sounds loud to you, people won't hear it unless they're standing right next to you.

The Bad

Battery life isn't great. There's no prescription lens option available from Bose, and adding a third-party prescription lens voids the warranty. The charging cable is proprietary.

The Bottom Line

While the audio AR features are still in the works, the Bose Frames managed to produce decent enough audio to make them a compelling wearable audio device that can take the place of headphones.

To be clear, these don't pass sound with bone-conduction technology like some new audio sunglasses do (AfterShokz OptiShokz Revvez glasses are due out this spring). There are actually tiny speakers in each arm along with a microphone near each temple.  Technically, Bose says the Frames are its smallest audio system ever.

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Sarah Tew/CNET

While they're a little bulkier than your typical sunglasses -- the arms especially -- they don't feel too heavy on your face, weighing in at 1.6 ounces (45 grams).

Don't expect each style to fit the same. The more rounded Rondo style is designed for smaller heads, while the more squarish Alto is suited for those with larger heads. The Rondo fit me better, but I was a little more partial to the look of the Alto. There was some debate in the office about how good the Frames looked, with some people not exactly smitten with either style. But I thought they looked fine -- I didn't have a major problem with either style. That said, I suggest you try before you buy if possible.

Bose Frames have built-in speakers only you can hear

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Sound that exceeds expectations

How do they sound? Well, a lot better than you might expect. I was impressed, but that doesn't mean they sound great. While they don't sound quite as good as the AirPods -- they're not far off -- they sound better than any audio sunglasses I've tried previously, with just enough bass to avoid sounding tinny. That the sound is nice and open helps. And most people will be surprised by how loud they can play, though they start to distort at anything higher than 60 to 70 percent volume, so you won't want to listen to them cranked to the max, with music anyway.

What's cool is that, even though they sound loud to you, they leak very little sound, so people around you can't hear your music or who you're speaking to on a call. Bose reps told me their engineers learned from working on the company's earlier horseshoe-shaped wearable, the SoundWear Companion Speaker, and were able to reduce the amount of sound leakage in the Frames as a result.

They do work well for making calls. I was able to hear callers reasonably well in the streets of New York, even though my ears were open, taking in all the sounds around me -- and they could hear me fine. Because there's nothing in your ears, people will really think you're talking to yourself, but I undoubtedly got a certain feeling of freedom from not having anything in my ears, even something as light as the AirPods.

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A Bose drawing of what's inside the arm.

Bose

Missing AR features at launch

As noted, the Frames are the first commercial product built to work with Bose's new audio augmented-reality platform. Unlike video-based AR platforms, Bose AR delivers audio feedback based on your GPS location and which way you're facing, thanks to a nine-axis head motion sensor in the sunglasses. In demos, Bose showed how apps could give you details about a particular building or landmark that you're facing. Instead of having to look at a screen, you could be walking around the world as you normally would and have a guide speak to you.

Bose has several partners working on apps, some of which should be available this spring or summer. It's also worth mentioning that additional features, such as the gesture controls that we previewed in an earlier article, might be added in the future.

For now, you can just use the Frames to stream audio and make and take calls. There's a little multifunction button near the temple of the right frame that allows you to turn the Frames on and off, skip tracks forward and back and answer and end calls. If you turn your glasses over and set them down for 2 seconds, they'll automatically turn off. Since there are no volume controls on the sunglasses, you'll have to use the controls on your device to adjust volume levels. 

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The case and included cleaning cloth, which is also a pouch for storing the charging cable.

Sarah Tew/CNET

You need 20/20 vision... or contacts

Battery life isn't great. Bose says that at average listening levels, they run up to 3.5 hours for playback and up to 12 hours on standby, and can be fully recharged in less than 2 hours using a proprietary pogo-pin cable that adheres magnetically. A pretty swanky protective case is included along with a cleaning cloth that's also a storage pouch for the proprietary charging cable -- don't lose the cable or you can't charge your glasses.

Alas, Bose doesn't yet offer prescription lenses for the Frames. But the lenses, which aren't polarized but seem pretty decent, do pop out and you could get a prescription lens on your own. The only issue is that you void the warranty if you pop the lenses out -- that's annoying.

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They automatically turn off when you turn them over and lay them down.

Sarah Tew/CNET

While they don't offer a high degree of water resistance -- they're IPX2 certified -- Bose reps told me I'd be OK to run with them. Some Bose AR fitness apps are allegedly in the works (think guided workouts), and I could see people using them for running and biking and other pursuits where it's good to have your ears open so you can hear traffic and other sounds.

It's hard to completely assess the Frames without experiencing the upcoming AR features, but what I can say after experiencing their baseline features is that they're a compelling wearable that has a chance to shake up the audio market in the coming years. 

Yes, they're a little expensive at $200 -- and they're not for everyone, particularly those who wear prescription glasses -- but companies like Oakley and Rayban don't have a problem charging $150 to $200 for sunglasses, and those models don't have high-tech motion sensors or micro speakers that pump out audio that sounds surprisingly decent.

Editor's note: We'll update the review and revisit the rating after the AR features are added.

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7.9

Bose Frames

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 9Sound 7Value 7