Although some small design gripes remain, Bose's SoundSport Free are among the best totally wireless earphones available now.
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.
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.
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.
Bluetooth is inherently laggy and that lag can even be more noticeable when you're dealing with a set of totally wireless buds. And so what happens is that unless the device and app you're using have a video delay built in, the audio can be a touch behind. Sometimes it's barely noticeable and sometimes it's really noticeable.
I personally never had an issue with audio-video syncing using an iPhone X and Samsung Galaxy S8 Plus. I watched iTunes and Google Play movies downloaded to my devices, streamed Netflix and Amazon Prime movies and watched YouTube videos. Initially, there was an occasional touch of lag, but after I watched for a minute or two everything synced up well. Maybe not totally perfect, but it was comparable to what I've experienced with other Bluetooth headphones and I had no trouble watching.
My personal experience aside, the aforementioned software updates seem to have fixed the audio-video sync bug for others.
The other, more persistent complaint some people have had is with the left bud dropping out. (Check out this long support thread on Bose's site.) From the beginning I had minimal dropouts and interference, but CNET editor John Falcone had some dropouts walking the streets of Brooklyn using an iPhone 6 . But after upgrading his SoundSport Free's firmware and switching to an iPhone X with the latest software update, the headphones are working perfectly for him.
I can't tell you why this remains a problem for some people. With this type of totally wireless earphone, you can expect some dropouts and interference. None of them are perfect, even the AirPods and Jabra Elite 65t, which I liked a lot. But they should occur infrequently, and we only call it out as a problem when we get more than one or two dropouts in a listening session. Those dropouts haven't materialized in our recent tests of two different SoundSport Free review samples. As I said, the connection has been virtually rock solid. (At the time of writing I am using firmware version 1.4.5.)
I've also seen some criticism of the way the SoundSport Free acts as a headset: Sound only comes through the right earbud, making it a mono situation. It is a little disappointing that you don't get stereo sound, but the Free does perform very well as a mono headset. Bose clearly made a tradeoff to get better performance, but the AirPods and many other totally wireless buds will let you make calls in stereo.
As I said in the intro, this is one of the best totally wireless headphones out there right now. It fit my ears comfortably and securely, sounded good and has performed well over several months using it as a sports headphone at the gym (and while running) and as an everyday headphone. It's hard for me to go back to using the SoundSport Wireless -- with its wired tether between the buds -- after using this totally wireless headphone, which says a lot about how good it is.
Like the AirPods, which also had a few bugs that ended up having to be patched with firmware upgrades, I initially gave the SoundSport Free a 3.5-star rating. However, now that Bose has improved the product through a series of firmware upgrades and dropped its price by $50, I'm raising its score to 4 stars. It's still not perfect product, but it is one of the best in its class -- and probably the best sounding totally wireless earphone.
Editors' note, April 11: This review was originally published Nov. 22, 2017 and has been updated to raise the rating from 3.5 to 4 stars, taking into consideration a price drop and further testing.