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Bose Sport Open Earbuds review: Made for runners

Using the same runner-friendly audio tech as Bose's Frames glasses, the Bose Sport Open Earbuds fit securely and sound better than the Frames.

As far as headphones go, Bose's Sport Open Earbuds are pretty funky. Not to be confused with the company's more traditional in-ear Sport Earbuds and QuietComfort Earbuds, they feature an open design without a tip, meaning the earpiece sits on top of your ear and doesn't penetrate your ear canal. 

Geared toward runners and bikers who want their ears open to the world for safety reasons -- or to people who don't like to have any sort of bud in their ears -- they sound surprisingly good. I ended up liking them, but their design isn't for everybody, and how comfortable you find them will determine how much you like them. They're currently available in the US for $200. (There's no official international pricing yet, but that's about £150 or AU$260.)

7.9

Bose Open Sport Earbuds

Like

  • No earbuds in your ears
  • Sound surprisingly good with plenty of volume and just enough bass
  • Open design allows you to hear the world around you while you're running or biking
  • Fit is secure and comfortable
  • Decent battery life
  • IPX4 splash-resistant
  • Case is compact

Don't Like

  • Fit may be uncomfortable for some people
  • No battery in charging case
  • Leak some sound at higher volumes

The earbuds are the first to use Bose's OpenAudio technology -- not bone conduction -- the same technology Bose uses in its $250 Frames audio sunglasses. They have an IPX4 water-resistance rating, which means they're splashproof, just like Apple's AirPods Pro earbuds.

Read moreBest workout headphones

The first time you put them on, the process can seem unnatural. You wrap the hook around your ear and the headphone basically clips on. It can take a little adjusting to get it on securely and in the most comfortable position. The clip doesn't pinch your ear, but it is wedged between the earhook and bud. There's also a pressure point because these aren't totally lightweight -- they actually have a bit of heft to them, making them feel like a premium product, not a cheap set of earbuds. Simply put, some people are going to be OK with how they fit and some people aren't. The only way to know if the fit works for you is to try them.

What you get in the box.

David Carnoy/CNET

I got used to them being on my ears and found the Open Earbuds fit comfortably and securely, though they aren't super comfortable. I was able to run with them without a problem -- they stayed right on my ears -- and they really are designed for running and biking safely, because they leave your ears open so you can hear traffic. The downside is that the buds' audio is competing with ambient noise. While biking you may experience some wind noise but they're more aerodynamic than Bose Sport Earbuds. 

Strong sound

As far as their sound goes, it's fairly similar to what you get with Bose's Tempo Frames audio glasses, although I thought the sound was slightly better with these, even though their speaker drivers are smaller. The Frames employ 22mm drivers, whereas the Sport Open Earbuds have 16mm drivers. But I think the way they sit closer to your ear does improve the sound quality, particularly in the bass department.

On the run.

David Carnoy/CNET

These still don't have as much bass as Bose's standard in-ear Sport Earbuds -- and overall don't sound as good. But for this type of open-style headphone -- and that includes bone-conduction versions of both headphones and audio sunglasses -- the Sport Open Earbuds have the best sound out there right now, with good clarity and natural sounding mids and just enough bass along with nice open sound that you might expect from an open headphone. Their sound blows away the sound you get from bone-conduction headphones like AfterShokz, which admittedly have improved over time. 

With these, you just don't get the bass extension and kick that you get with standard in-ear headphones (such as Bose's Sport Earbuds), particularly ones that cost $200. So if bass is your thing, this isn't the headphone for you. But if you're running, biking, at the gym or just don't want to be cut off from your surroundings, the sound is more than acceptable and these can double as everyday headphones with some caveats. 

The buds have 16-millimeter speaker drivers.

David Carnoy/CNET

Initially, I was disappointed with the call quality, but Bose released a firmware update a couple of weeks after launch and it seems to have helped with the noise reduction. There are two microphones on the right earbud for making calls. Bose says the advanced microphone system is "designed to focus only on your voice and reduce the sound of wind and other noise around." As I said, at first callers told me they heard more background noise compared to when I used the second-gen Bose Frames, which have a beam-forming microphone array and are excellent for making calls. However, they said they noticed a small improvement after the firmware upgrade. The noise reduction still isn't stellar, but I held a 15-minute conversation outdoors in the streets of New York without a problem. Also, it's nice to be able to hear your natural voice when you're having a phone conversation since your ears aren't blocked. I expect Bose will make further tweaks (hopefully for the better) with additional firmware updates over time. 

The right earbud has a couple of microphones.

David Carnoy/CNET

Batteryless case

Aside from their unique design, what's also unusual is that their charging case doesn't have a built-in battery for charging on the go. The good news is the case for these is relatively compact and lightweight considering the size of the earbuds. I liked it.

The bad news is the earbuds have their own charging dock, which is just another thing to worry about losing. But it's easy to drop the buds in the dock and they stay there thanks to some magnets.

Battery life is rated at 8 hours at 50% volume level, which is decent. And these earbuds actually sound best between 50% and 75% volume rather than cranking them to 90% or 100%, where you might start to hear a touch of distortion. So you may actually end up getting 6 to 7 hours if you keep the volume in check.

These earbuds don't have touch controls. Rather, they have a single little button on each bud for controlling playback (there are currently no volume controls on the buds themselves, though it's possible they could be added in the future). They also don't automatically turn on or off. You have to press the button to turn them on, and they don't turn off when you stick them in their case. However, in the Bose Music companion app, you can set them to shut off automatically after a set interval, starting with 5 minutes, if you're not playing any audio. And unlike Apple's AirPods Max, you can manually shut them off if you want. 

The app offers some limited customization that doesn't seem quite fleshed out yet. There's no equalizer for tweaking the sound (though you don't really need one). Moreover, there's no multipoint Bluetooth pairing, so I had to use the app to switch between pairing with an iPhone 12 Pro and a Samsung Galaxy Note 10. 

In their charging dock.

David Carnoy/CNET

It's also worth noting that if you do pump up the volume to more than about 70%, there's some sound leakage. So people standing nearby will hear your music or someone talking on the phone with you. At home, on a few occasions, my kids told me they could hear my music when they passed by me. In that regard, the buds are similar to the Bose Frames, which also leak some sound at higher volumes. This obviously isn't an issue when you're outdoors running or biking, but don't expect to use these in bed, for instance, without disturbing your partner. 

Bose Open Sport Earbuds: Final thoughts

Despite their downsides, I came away liking the Bose Open Sport Earbuds and will continue to use them. From someone who tests a lot of headphones, that's saying something.

They're obviously not for everyone and they're pricey at $200. But if you're a runner or biker who likes the concept of an open ear headphone for safety reasons -- or if you don't like having any sort of bud jammed in your ear -- this an appealing option. So, too are the Bose Frames, although people tend to be pickier about choosing a pair of sunglasses than earbuds -- at least when it comes to aesthetics.

The one thing I can't tell you is how comfortable you'll find them. As I said, the only way to know is to try them, so just make sure to buy them from somewhere with a good return policy. I know that doesn't sound like a ringing endorsement, but this is one of those products you'll either love or hate. 

If you're trying to choose between these and the Frames, which have their own advantages, it's a hard call. It comes down to whether you want to be wed to a pair of sunglasses for your audio. And while I wasn't thrilled that you can't charge the buds in their case on the go, you can store the Sport Open Earbuds in your pocket and wear glasses with them without a problem.

Editors' note: This review was originally published earlier in February. It has been updated to reflect improved call quality from a subsequent firmware upgrade.