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Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (formerly Bose AE2w) review: Expensive but impressive (for Bluetooth)

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Editors' note: When this product was originally reviewed, it was called the Bose AE2w. Bose has since renamed it the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones. Anyone interested in this product should also check out the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Headphones, which were announced in the fall of 2014.

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8.0

Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (formerly Bose AE2w)

The Good

The <b>Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones</b> offer very good sound for Bluetooth, and they're arguably the most comfortable over-the-ear Bluetooth model. The control module is also well designed, with well-placed buttons that can be operated easily by feel alone.

The Bad

Pretty pricey; protruding Bluetooth module looks a little strange; volume may not be loud enough for some people, depending on device used and type of file played.

The Bottom Line

Despite a few question marks and a high price, the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones are a very good-sounding Bluetooth pair that's lightweight and very comfortable to wear.

Bose has been surprisingly low-key about its first Bluetooth headphones, the AE2w. I'm not sure why that is, but the company didn't announce the AE2w headphones to the press when they were first launched and it hasn't been promoting them as much as its new in-ear QuietComfort 20i Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, and its new smaller portable Bluetooth speaker, the SoundLink Mini.

Perhaps the reason for that is the AE2ws are a little strange. Why?

Well, they have the same design as Bose's AE2 headphones, the company's very popular non-noise-canceling over-the-ear model. But Bose has made some tweaks to the sound of the AE2s and added what amounts to a Bluetooth "control module," which connects to the headphone port -- you know, the jack you'd normally attach the headphone cable to.

That module doesn't look like it's removable from the headphones, but in fact it is, which will leave some owners of the wired AE2s wondering why Bose doesn't just sell this accessory separately. It may someday, but right now it doesn't, so if you want a wireless pair of Bose headphones, the AE2w is currently it.

The headphones' protruding Bluetooth module is removable.

What I will say is that the AE2ws are surprisingly impressive wireless headphones. They're arguably the most comfortable over-the-ear Bluetooth headphones on the market and they manage to passively seal out a good amount of external noise.

The headphones sound very good as well, particularly for a Bluetooth model. While they've improved over the last year or so, all too often Bluetooth headphones can sound a little dull and muddy. But the AE2w headphones have good clarity and the sound is well-balanced and dynamic. And while the bass may be a little lacking for some folks, I thought they were pleasant-sounding headphones that I could wear for long periods.

The rub? Well, the AE2w headphones are expensive. In an ideal world, they would cost $199 or less, but we're talking about Bose, so you can expect to pay a bit of a premium.

Design and features
The AE2w Bluetooth headphones' design tends to get mixed reviews. The standard AE2 model and its predecessor, the AE, are somewhat iconic headphones. The module grafted onto the side of the left earcup spoils the symmetry, but some people will be more bothered by that than others. I suspect that Apple's Steve Jobs wouldn't have had much good to say about their design and might have called the control module a "wart."

In a way, of course, it's brilliant. Bose doesn't have to worry about going to the expense of engineering a completely new set of headphones; it simply adds an accessory to a tried-and-true product, changes the cosmetics slightly, tweaks the sound (using technology inside the module), and tacks on $100 to the AE2 price tag and adds a "w" at the end of its name (Note: Bose also sells the iPhone-friendly AE2i headphones for $179).

The headphones are lightweight and very comfortable. Sarah Tew/CNET

Yeah, the headphones with the module are a touch heavier than the standard AE2s, but they're still very light for over-the-ear style headphones -- and very comfortable, with memory foam in the earcups and just a great ergonomic fit. You can argue about the sound quality of AE2 and Bose QC headphones, but their high degree of comfort is hard to dispute. I also think they're a more durable than they seem at first glance -- and first touch -- though they're certainly not built like a tank.

Bose has also done a good job with the design of the control module and the button placement, which makes the "remote" features of the headphone easy to operate by feel. The up and down volume controls are easy to tell apart and the large call/answer end button (Bose calls it the "multipurpose button") is on the top of the module, so your finger practically falls on it when you go to look for it with your hand. That button also serves as a track skip forward and back button, which comes in handy when you're wading your way through a long playlist or in shuffle mode and want to jump ahead. It also works with the iPhone's Siri feature for voice commands.

Close-up of the control module. Sarah Tew/CNET

The microphone for making cell phone calls is integrated into the control module, so it's somwhat close to your mouth, though not right next to it. Still, I thought the AE2ws performed well as a headset.

If you're wondering whether the module works with other pairs of Bose headphones, it doesn't because it's been custom-designed to fit the AE2 model. It'd be nice if Bose offered a Bluetooth adapter for its noise-canceling models, the QuietComfort 3 and QuietComfort 15, but no other adapters currently exist.

With the QuietComfort noise-canceling headphones Bose includes a hard carrying case and those headphones fold flat. The AE2w Bluetooth headphones also fold flat, but you get the same cloth carrying pouch you get with the standard AE2s. It's not a bad cover, but it's not terribly protective, and it's pretty easy to misplace. I expect a little more with $250 headphones, but then again, Parrot's high-end Zik Bluetooth headphones ($399 list) ship with a similar protective pouch.

The included accessories.

As with the standard AE2 headphones, you get a detachable headphone cable, so if you want to go wired, say, when the rechargeable battery on the module dies, you can. A USB charging cable is also included.

Performance
I reviewed the AE2 headphones a while back and it's worth noting that I like them. They offer good though not fantastic sound for their price range. But they're one of those pairs that you might use over even better-sounding headphones because of their comfort level. And for those who don't like active noise-canceling headphones, they offer decent passive noise isolation for half the price of the $300 QuietComfort 15 model.

The AE2ws have two modes: wired and wireless. In wired mode you remove the module and you're listening to standard AE2s -- and they sound the same as that model.

It's nice that you can go wired like that but I presume people are buying these headphones for their wireless capabilities and will rarely, if ever, use them in wired mode (perhaps only while the module is charged because it won't pass audio while charging). The AE2ws pair easily and, just as importantly, should pair again automatically when you turn the headphones on and have Bluetooth activated on your mobile device.

As I said in the intro, a lot of Bluetooth headphones end up sounding dull and muddy (thought they have been improving as the technology matures), so what I'm looking for in good Bluetooth headphones is that they don't sound like what they are. You want a pair that sounds natural and full, with good clarity -- and the AE2w is just that sort of Bluetooth headphone.

The headphones fold flat. Sarah Tew/CNET

Part of the reason for that is a feature Bose calls Bose Active EQ. The company says, "The headphones also feature active equalization in the control module that provides a noticeable improvement to the sound quality. Your music and movies will take on a dramatic new dimension."

Yes, there's some digital processing going on, but all the good Bluetooth models seem to have some sort of extra digital secret sauce to help optimize the sound. The $399 Parrot Zik headphones are still among the best Bluetooth models (they add active noise cancellation and are a slight notch up from the AE2ws). We also like the $349 Nokia Purity Pro headset by Monster, which also provides active noise cancellation. And I'm a fan of the Harman Kardon BT over-ear headphones, which can be had for around $200.

I'd say the Bose AE2w headphones are right there with the Harman Kardon BTs in sound. They're strong in the mids, and have pretty clean treble and punchy though not overpowering bass. It's fairly dynamic, though Bose leans toward a smoother, creamier sound that's warmer and a little less aggressive, which makes it easier to listen to the AE2w for long periods. The Harman Kardon BTs were a better fit for hard rock like AC/DC, but the Bose's balanced sound worked better with pop tracks. I tend to prefer better-balanced headphones that don't push the bass too hard, but if you like a bit more thump or a more aggressive sound, the AE2w headphones might not be for you. You do get a little more bass when you shift to wired mode.

The battery recharges via USB. Sarah Tew/CNET

It's also worth mentioning that when testing the headphones with our set of lossless (uncompressed) test tracks, I thought they played too softly. Switching between the AE2ws and the Harman Kardon BTs on a MacBook Pro, the Harman model was undeniably louder. (I tested the headphones with an iPhone 4S, iPhone 5, iPad Mini, Samsung Galaxy S4, MacBook Air, and MacBook Pro). The issue was less noticeable with standard MP3 files, but some users have complained that the headphones don't get loud enough and that Bose has limited the maximum volume.

Since the module has a USB connection, Bose could issue a firmware update, but part of the problem of optimizing Bluetooth headphones is that there are literally thousands of different Bluetooth devices out there, including computers, so it's hard to optimize for all devices. (You can connect two devices to these headphones at once and switch between the two sources.)

As for battery life, the headphones are rated at 7 hours but I managed to get a bit more than that, which means you should be able to get through most of day without recharging (the headphones do take a few hours to recharge).

Like most Bluetooth headphones, these have a range of about 30 feet, and they will cut out from time to time due to interference (Bluetooth signals actually don't pass through the human body as well as you'd think), so don't expect totally seamless playback. But it was mostly smooth sailing in my tests, walking around the streets of New York, riding the subway, and listening at my desk. And, as noted, I thought the AE2ws performed well as a headset for cel phone calls.

You can use the AE2w as a wired headphones using the included cable.

Conclusion
I think one of the reasons Bose has been relatively low-key about the AE2w Bluetooth headphones' arrival is that the company may not be entirely sure how they will go over in the marketplace. Some people will undoubtedly think the removable control module isn't a terribly elegant solution and wish Bose had built the circuitry into the headphone like it does with its noise-cancelling headphones. Also, if you do the math, Bose is charging $100 extra to turn the AE2s into wireless headphones -- only there's no option for current AE2 owners to buy the control module for $100, which would be nice.

However, despite a few question marks and the high price, I liked these headphones a lot. To be clear, I'm reviewing these as wireless headphones, and I've only come across a few Bluetooth models that combine good sound with a very comfortable fit. And while the Bose AE2ws may not surpass competing models in terms of sound quality, they're definitely a notch up on the comfort scale. The fact is I have a few reference Bluetooth models in my office (Harman Kardon BT, Parrot Zik) that I listen to regularly, but I found myself reaching for the Bose AE2w headphones for longer listening sessions. There's something to be said for that.

Bose_AE2w_wireless_headphones_35782753_09.jpg
8.0

Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones (formerly Bose AE2w)

Score Breakdown

Design 9Features 8Sound 8Value 7