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One of the big reasons Bose's in-ear headphones are so popular is they're designed for people who don't like to have eartips jammed into their ears. The secret is the comfy StayHear tips that attach to the 'buds and conform to your ear to create a secure, almost floating fit. The SoundTrue In-Ear and SoundSport In-Ear are among the most comfortable in-ear headphones available.
But those models have one drawback: They have an open design, which lets sound in. That creates problems when you're in noisy environments.
Enter the the SoundTrue Ultra, Bose's first noise-isolating in-ear headphone. It comes in Apple and Android versions, each of which is available in two colors -- black or white -- for $150, £130 or AU$200.
Noise isolation shouldn't be confused with the active noise-canceling found in Bose's QC20 in-ear headphones. The big changes to the Ultra are to the design of the bud and tips, which Bose calls StayHear Ultra tips.
The buds have the traditional mini canister design of a lot in-ear noise-isolating earphones. But the post attached to the bud is pretty long and nicely angled. After you attach the appropriate StayHear Ultra tip --small, medium and large tips are included -- the inner rim of the plastic bud stays away from the opening of your ear canal. The result is a similar floating effect to the SoundTrue In-Ear but the Ultra tips comfortably extend into your ear canal without having to push the tip deep into it to seal out a lot of ambient noise.
It's a great fit for a noise-isolating earphone and you can wear these headphones comfortably for along stretches. It also helps that the 'buds themselves are lightweight. They are plastic, which may leave you wondering why they cost so much. But they are made of high-tech plastic if that's any consolation.
As for the three-button inline remote/microphone, it looks identical to the one found Bose on other in-ear headphones. As I said, the headphone comes in two flavors: one with a remote that's designed to be used with Android phones and another that's compatible with Apple iOS devices. The headphone works well for making calls -- you can hear people better in noisier environments thanks to the noise isolation -- and come with a nicely designed compact carrying case.
About the headphone's plug: It's a straight plug and not a sturdier L-shaped plug. But Bose knows its audience; the plug is slim enough to fit into any smartphone case, including a Mophie battery case. It's not quite as compact as the plug on Apple's EarPod headphones, but it's close.
It's also worth mentioning that while the headphone cords don't seem particularly thick, they feel fairly durable and are tangle-resistant. The headphone rolls up easily to fit in the compact case.
Bose used to get accused of having bloated bass in its headphones and speakers, but the The SoundTrue is an even-handed, very clean-sounding headphone that's designed to make all music sound good. The bass may be a little lean for some who crave some extra thump to their low-end, but it was punchy enough for me. I thought the treble was smooth and the midrange (vocals) clear and warm without being too laid back.
I gave the headphone to fellow editor Ty Pendlebury, CNET's home audio editor, who's pretty picky with his headphones. I was a little surprised by how much he liked the Ultra -- both for its comfort and its sound. He doesn't like bass-heavy headphones and leans toward rock music, and the Ultra's sound profile was right in his wheelhouse.
With certain tracks, such as Miguel's "Coffee," I thought the headphone's bass could be a little fatter, but for the most part I didn't miss the extra bass and the tight seal helps retain the low-end that's there (at least you don't lose any bass to sound leakage).
In this price range, I like in-ears like the Bowers & Wilkins C5 Series 2 , Etymotic HF5 or Beyerdynamic's DX160 IE , but the Bose is more comfortable than that headphone. I had Focal's Sphear headphone on my desk (I'd referred it to Steve Guttenberg, the author of CNET's Audiophiliac blog, who liked it a lot), so I compared it to the Bose.
The Focal is a more revealing, exciting headphone, with more bass. I like it a lot, too, but it's perhaps a little too revealing. It was really good with jazz tracks like Michael Brecker's "Midnight Voyage" and had more immediacy and presence than the Bose. However, on certain tracks the Focal's added transparency magnified the flaws in poorly produced tracks and gave the music an edge that bordered on grating. Sonic accuracy can be a double-edged sword.
The Focal did play louder than the Bose, and some people have complained about that the SoundTrue Ultra's volume level isn't high enough for them. Its top volume is about 10-20 percent lower than a lot of in-ears on the market. Since this is the company's first true in-ear headphone, I believe that as a precaution Bose set the top volume a little lower to prevent people from damaging their ears (the volume was loud enough for me). But if you've already had some hearing loss, it's possible these may not play quite loud enough for you.
I've also seen some comments about cord noise when the cord rubs against your clothes. Yes, there is some, which is par for the course for an in-ear noise-isolating headphone. And while I wouldn't say the noise is excessive, if you're used to the open design of the SoundTrue In-Ear, you will notice it more.
I liked the SoundTrue Ultra a lot -- both for its comfort and sound. It is a little pricey at $150, but if you're looking for a pair of clean sounding, really comfortable in-ear noise-isolating headphones that stay in your ears, the Ultra should be on your short list.