Bose SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphones II review: A very comfortable Bluetooth headphone with strong performance
Bose's second-generation over-ear wireless headphone features strong performance in a lightweight, comfortable design for $280.
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What's the best-sounding wireless headphone available today? That's a tough question to answer, but Bose is staking its claim on the title with its new SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II, which comes in black or white for $280, £240 or AU$379.
The SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II is very comfortable to wear, sounds excellent for a Bluetooth headphone, and offers good battery life (15 hours). It also works well as a headset for phone calls, its buttons are easy to operate by feel, and a nice carrying case is included.
Somewhat expensive; not the best option for those who like their music loud and bass-heavy.
The Bottom Line
The SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II mixes a strong blend of comfort and performance in attractively designed wireless headphone.
Bose's earlier over-ear AE2w -- now called the SoundLink Bluetooth Around-Ear -- simply added a removable Bluetooth component to an existing wired headphone (the AE2, which is now called the SoundTrue Around-Ear ). We gave high marks to that model, but the Bluetooth module does look a little grafted on and doesn't make for the sleekest design.
Thankfully, the new SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II doesn't have any such Frankenstein qualities and looks a lot like Bose's active noise-canceling headphone, the QuietComfort 25 .
As you might expect from a Bose headphone, the SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II has a very comfortable fit. Weighing in at a touch over 7 ounces or 200 grams, it's lightweight and has plush, memory-foam equipped earpads. While it doesn't look particularly sturdy, Bose says the headphones were tested in its labs to "survive drops, bumps and grabs," and use impact-resistant materials, including "glass-filled nylon and corrosion-resistant stainless steel." At times, you barely notice you're wearing the headphones.
By comparison the QC 25 weighs 6.9 ounces (196g) while the more compact SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth headphone weighs 5.4 ounces (153g). All these models are at the top of their respective classes as far as comfort goes, and while this headphone does not feature active noise cancellation -- headphones that generate soundwaves that literally negate the exterior environmental noise -- the around-ear design does a good job passively sealing out a lot of that same ambient noise to begin with. The only issue is that like most around-ear headphones, your ears will steam up in warmer environments, but they do work great as earmuffs in the cold.
The remote control buttons are well placed on the right earcup and to answer calls, you tap the middle control button, which also allows you to skip tracks forward and back when you're playing music.
Like its on-ear Bluetooth headphone, Bose has equipped this model with a two-way microphone system and something Bose calls Adaptive Audio Adjustment technology, which automatically changes volume based on speech level and ambient noise. Whatever it does, it does well, because I had no problem making calls on the noisy streets of New York. I also had no problem pairing the headphones with both iPhones and Android devices. Moreover, I only experienced a few wireless hiccups (there were some, but that's par for the course with Bluetooth).
The headphone also connects to Bluetooth-enabled computers, though the sound didn't seem quite as good when I streamed music from an iMac and a MacBook Air instead of my iPhone 5S or Samsung Galaxy S6 (I also streamed from an iPhone 6).
Unlike the QC25, this headphone folds flat but doesn't have a second hinge that allows it to fold up and further reduce its footprint when stowed in its included carrying case. That carrying case has a pocket to store the USB charging cable and a headphone cable to use in case the battery dies and you want to listen to the headphones in wired mode (that cable doesn't have an integrated microphone, but that's a minor omission).
Battery life is rated for 15 hours, which is good enough to get you through a long-haul flight, and it has a quick-charge mode that gives you 2 hours of battery life with just 15 minutes of charging. When you turn the headphones on, a female voice tells you exactly how much battery life you have left. She also helps guide you through the Bluetooth pairing process, and Bose has done a good job of smoothing out the Bluetooth kinks (my devices automatically re-paired with the headphone without any issues).
The headphones appear to use Bluetooth 4.0 and support multilink technology, which means you can connect multiple devices at once and switch back and forth between them (you can only stream audio from one device at a time).
NFC tap-to-pair technology is also on board (Apple's phones currently don't support this feature but most Android devices do). But AptX streaming didn't make the features list. AptX is supposed to improve the quality of Bluetooth streaming but it's unclear how much of an impact it has (Apple phones currently don't support this feature either but many Android devices do).
Like I said, it's pretty hard to definitely declare a best sounding wireless headphone because everybody's ears and audio tastes are different, but what I will say is that this is one the best sounding Bluetooth headphones currently available, though it isn't necessarily for everybody.
The sound is clean and well balanced with ample but not overpowering bass. You're not going to get that little bit of extra crispness, sparkle, and depth that you get from a really good pair of wired headphones, but Bose tends to focus on delivering smooth, pleasant sound and these certainly fit that profile.
I compared them to the popular Beats Studio Wireless , a more expensive Bluetooth headphone that features some light noise cancellation. The Beats has more bass, plays louder, and is a bit more dynamic, but the Bose is clearer sounding and has a little bit better stereo separation.
If you listen to hip hop and electronica and crave more bass, this isn't going to be the headphone for you. In my tests, I put on The Weeknd's "Beauty Behind the Madness" album and the Beats simply had more visceral impact and seemed like the better choice to listen to such tracks as "Can't Feel My Face." The Bose handled it fine, but seemed a bit subdued by comparison.
Editor Justin Yu remarked, "These just don't seem like headphones that are designed for people who like to play their music loud." No, probably not. Which leads us to a couple of technical notes.
Like with all Bluetooth headphone, there is some digital processing going on, and Bose has equipped the headphone with Active EQ and volume-optimized EQ. Volume-optimized EQ is designed to make your music sound better at lower volumes. Often, when you lower the volume, you lose the bass, and Bose's digital processing makes things sound fuller and more detailed at lower volumes.
Meanwhile, Active EQ makes sure the incoming signal is complete and accurate and isn't distorted. The idea is to get a more perfect transmission without boosting anything, the bass, for instance. The problem, of course, is that the quality of the digital files you're streaming to your headphones vary and Bose is doing its best to smooth everything out and make it sound better.
It works -- to a degree. As I said, all Bluetooth headphones have their limitations (they can only perform so well) and for hard-core audiophiles such as CNET contributor Steve Guttenberg, the sound quality always seems to fall short.
As for comparisons to Bose's SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth headphone , that model also sounds excellent for a Bluetooth headphone, but you get slightly fuller, more open sound with this model, as well as better noise isolation.
I'll finish by noting that I liked the sound of the headphone when I connected a cord. There's no Active EQ or volume-optimized EQ and the bass remains about the same, but it does play a little louder while retaining the overall smooth sound. In other words, if you do run out of battery and have to plug in, you don't really lose anything by going the wired route, which hasn't always been the case with Bose's powered headphones.
I'm not sure anybody's created the perfect wireless headphone. And by that I mean one that sounds as good as a decent wired headphone. But Bose has done a good job mixing a sleek, comfortable design with strong performance, which makes for an appealing product. And while the SoundLink Around-Ear Wireless Headphone II may not be the Bose active noise-canceling wireless headphone that some people are waiting for, you do get a decent amount of passive noise-isolation from the around-the-ear design.