Over the years I frequently get asked what the best Bluetooth sports headphone is. My stock answer is that none are perfect, all have their drawbacks, and the handful of top models may fit you well and work great -- or they may not.
Bose's SoundSport Wireless, the company's first Bluetooth sports headphone, isn't perfect either, but it may just be the best Bluetooth sports headphone currently out there.
What makes it the best? Well, it's very comfortable to wear, sounds good, seems well built, and -- at $150, £140 or AU$249 -- it isn't outrageously priced.
Like the original SoundSport wired, which remains in the line and gets a price chop from $130 to $100, this new SoundSport Wireless has an open design. By open, I mean you don't jam the earbud into your ear and completely seal off your ear canal (that type of headphone is referred to as a "noise-isolating" in-ear headphone). Thanks to Bose's StayHear+ eartips, which come in three sizes -- small, medium, large -- the bud sits loosely in your ear yet remains securely in place.
This model is equipped with a special sport version of the StayHear tips that's different from the StayHear tips included with Bose's earlier in-ear headphones, so they aren't interchangeable. I should also point out that because the earpieces extend out from your ears you'll probably have some trouble wearing these under certain helmets.
The ear pieces are somewhat bulky, but not so bulky to feel heavy on your ears. However, if there's a criticism of this headphone's design, it's that the ear pieces could protrude out a little less and be more discrete-looking. Easier said then done, of course -- today's battery technology is holding back miniaturization efforts.
Rival headphones -- such as Jaybird's X2 and Freedom, Beats' Powerbeats 2 Wireless and Monster's Adidas Sport Adistar -- give you the ability to shorten the cord length (or cinch up the cord) for those who want to wear the cord closer to the neck. With this headphone, you can't adjust the cord length, but what Bose has done is provide a clip you can hook on to the back of your shirt (at the top) to keep the cord from flopping about. It's a smart design and I thought it worked well; the cord remained fairly stable, even while I was running.
The only downside to the floating-fit, open design is that ambient sound does leak in: this isn't a great headphone for noisy environments. (If that's your preference, Bose's upcoming QuietControl 30 is a wireless model that features active noise-canceling.) But if you're out running or biking, you'll be able to hear cars coming, which is why a lot of runners and bikers prefer their headphones to have open designs.
As you might expect, the headphone is sweat- and water-resistant and there's an inline mic and remote that lets you skip songs, adjust volume, and take and make calls. Bose is touting its quality as a headset for making calls, as well as how reliable the Bluetooth connection is. I can attest to experiencing only minimal Bluetooth hiccups and was satisfied with how it performed as a headset, though the QuietControl 30 and QuietComfort 35 offer superior headset performance. Those models have noise-reduction features that muffle ambient sound, including wind and street noise.
Just as importantly I had no trouble pairing and repairing the headphone with my iPhone 6S and Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge (the Bose features near-field communication tap-to-pair technology for devices like the Samsung that support this feature). I also simultaneously paired it with my iPhone 6S and MacBook Air and had no trouble switching between the two when a call came in as I was watching a video on the computer.
Bose Connect, a free app for Android and iOS, allows you to manage your pairing list, upgrade the firmware and change the auto power off settings (the headphone powers down if you don't use it for a certain length of time, which is a good battery-saving feature). When you turn on the headphones, a female voice alerts you how much battery life is remaining and with which devices you're paired. That information is also available in the app.
At launch, the headphone is available in two colors -- black and aqua -- with citron (yellow) coming in September. Also in September, Bose is releasing the SoundSport Pulse Wireless, which costs $200 (£170, AU$299) and has an integrated heart-rate monitor that's compatible with Runkeeper, Endomondo and other fitness apps.
Battery life for the SoundSport is rated at 6 hours, which is fairly decent for this type of small headphone (though not great overall), and 5 hours for the SoundSport Pulse. Both SoundSport wireless headphones come with a simple neoprene carrying case, but Bose will also sell an accessory case that has a built-in battery for on-the-go charging that'll cost $50. That battery case provides three full charges, or up to 18 hours of battery life.
I used the the SoundSport Wireless for over a week, taking it to the gym, using it on the streets of New York, and doing two runs with it on Randall's Island. I used the large StayHear+ eartips and was able to get a comfortable, secure fit.
With a lot of in-ear sports headphones, I find myself having to make little adjustments to relieve some discomfort or get a more secure fit, especially while running, but with this headphone the adjustments I had to make were minimal. They were easy to put on and take off, they powered on and paired quickly to my phone, and worked as well as any Bluetooth headphone I've used.
The sound quality is very good for an in-ear sports Bluetooth headphone. There've been some complaints about it not playing loud enough, but I didn't have that issue with the iPhone 6S or Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge I tested it with. (Bluetooth performance on computers tends to be a little dodgy and perhaps some of the volume complaints are related to computer connectivity.)
The headphone doesn't sound as good as Bose's $130 SoundTrue Ultra wired headphones, which I like a lot and offers cleaner, more dynamic sound, with better defined bass. But that's the nature of Bluetooth. You lose a little something. In the case of the SoundSport Wireless, the loss isn't huge. 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. It's also a fairly open-sounding headphone.
What's interesting about the sound is that this headphone seems to be optimized for outside use. 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.
I didn't think it sounded better than the Jaybird Freedom, which also delivers excellent sound for an in-ear Bluetooth headphone -- though that model costs 33 percent more. But it bests the Beats PowerBeats 2 Wireless, Plantronics' BackBeat Fit and Monster's Adidas Sport Adistar. The latter two models cost less than the Bose.
All that said, what ultimately makes the Bose the superior headphone and easy to recommend is its fit and comfort level. No, it's not perfect -- and it won't be a perfect fit for everyone -- but it's one of the few "premium" in-ear Bluetooth headphones that I think will work for the vast majority who buy it.
The SoundSport Wireless' highlights:
- Available in two colors at launch (black, aqua), with citron (yellow) version coming in September
- Price: $150, £140, AU $249
- 6 hours of battery life
- Water- and sweat-resistant
- Auto-power off feature
- Accessory charging case costs $50
- Works with Bose's free Connect app for Android and iOS devices
- NFC tap-to-pair technology for devices that support it
- SoundSport Pulse Wireless with built-in heart-rate monitor ships in September for $200, £170, AU $299; comes in red and has 5 hours of battery life
Editors' note September 27: After a small percentage of SoundSport Wireless units experienced problems with heavy sweat, Bose removed this product from stores in July 2016 and updated its design (read the full story here). If you've had any issues with the SoundSport Wireless, Bose will replace your unit free of charge with the updated model, which is now shipping. CNET has received the updated version of the headphone and is currently testing it. If there are no issues with the updated SoundSport Wireless, we'll reinstate the Editors' Choice award that the product initially received.
Editors' note December 1: After some testing, we've determined that earlier problems with the Bose Soundsport Plus have been resolved, so its Editors' Choice award has been reinstated.