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

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The Good The Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Bluetooth Headphones 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.

8.0 Overall
  • Design 9
  • Features 8
  • Sound 8
  • Value 7

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.

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.

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