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Article updated on February 15, 2024 at 6:00 AM PST

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Review: Daringly Different

With an innovative clip-on design that doesn't block your ears, these earbuds may be just what some people are looking for, even if they are expensive.

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David Carnoy
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David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
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Bose Ultra Open Earbuds

Pros

  • Innovative clip-on fit
  • Comfortable to wear
  • Very good sound for open earbuds
  • Decent voice-calling performance

Cons

  • Expensive
  • Look may not appeal to everyone
  • Not great for noisy environments

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds have one of the most unique and unusual designs of any earbuds I've seen over the last several years. They literally clip onto the side of your ears and feature an open design with micro speakers that fire sound into your ears while still being able to hear what's happening around you. At $299, they're overpriced, but otherwise there's a lot to like about them, including a surprisingly comfortable, secure fit and very good sound quality for open buds.

These aren't Bose's first open earbuds; it released the Sport Open Earbuds a few years ago. They were among the first ear-hook style true wireless buds to feature an open design, and despite sounding very good for open earbuds, they kind of bombed because they just weren't comfortable and had a kludgy charging situation. But Bose seems to have learned from its mistakes.

Watch this: Bose Ultra Open Earbuds Review: Audio Earrings

Daring design

This is a decidedly different take on the open bud design, which you find with certain stick-style "hard" buds like the AirPods 2 and AirPods 3 and those with ear hooks that have a micro speaker that sits over your ear. The Ultra Open bud has two parts to it -- the barrel, where the electronics are housed, and the speaker driver unit -- and they're joined together by a flexible rubber joint. You put the barrel on the back of your ear and then wrap the rubber part around the side of your ear with the driver element placed over the opening of your ear canal. Several affordable clip-on earbuds are available for purchase at Amazon, but their designs lack the premium quality of this model, and the few I've tried tend not to sound so good. They are much cheaper, however.

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds give you the look of wearing earrings.

The buds look a little like earrings.

David Carnoy/CNET

The rubber joint feels durable, but I just can't tell you how it will hold up over time. I do think Bose, which is known for having good customer service, would probably give you a new pair of buds if it failed for some reason. 

The earbud should sit at a 45-degree angle, Bose says, but you can slide it up and down your ear until it feels the most comfortable. You can also play some music while you're making adjustments because the sound does change a bit with the placement of the bud, and you'll want to optimize both the fit and sound quality, which is about as good as you're going to get for open earbuds.

Read moreBest Open Wireless Earbuds for 2024

I figured out how to get them on and off pretty quickly and after I got used to how they fit, I did find them quite comfortable. They may clip on but they don't clamp, and they are relatively lightweight at 6.4 grams per bud (by comparison, the AirPods 2 weigh 5.4 grams per bud).

The idea is that once you get them on you should be able to wear them throughout the day and somewhat forget that you're wearing them. That said, you may find yourself making little adjustments after wearing them for a while to alleviate any minor discomfort. 

bose-ultra-open-earbuds-black-and-white

The buds currently come in black and white as well as a special edition from lifestyle brand Kith that features a matte-black finish with the Kith logo.

Numi Prasarn/CNET

While Bose isn't marketing these as sports earbuds, they're IPX4 splashproof and can be used for running, biking and in the gym. They fit securely on my ears and they're good for those who want to hear traffic around them while running or biking for safety reasons. I could see Bose doing a slightly more ruggedized version of the buds in sportier colors and calling them the Ultra Open Sports Earbuds. Regardless, it's not unusual for Bose to offer more color options beyond the black and white versions available now. The QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, for instance, are available in light blue as an exclusive color on Bose.com.

There's a control button on top of the barrel of each bud, and it's easy to find the button and pause your music with a single click if you want to have a conversation with someone or answer a call. You click it twice to advance a track or end a call and three times to skip back. You can also choose what happens when you press and hold the button down. You can either have it toggle through listening modes (more on those modes in a minute) or set it to access your phone's voice assistant.

You can also use the control button to raise and lower volume, but I found the double-tap-and-hold gesture to access the volume controls a little tricky to pull off. Maybe I need more practice, but I'd like to see the option for the simpler press-and-hold gesture to be mapped to volume controls. 

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds have a physical control button

The control button is on top of the barrel.

David Carnoy/CNET

Everyone has different ears, of course, and people can be pretty particular about the types of earbuds they'll wear and how they fit. These are obviously designed for folks who don't like having noise-isolating buds jammed in their ears and want to keep their ears open to the world. True, plenty of noise-isolating buds like the AirPods Pro and the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds have a transparency or ambient mode that opens up the buds to the outside world, but the difference here is the ergonomics of the bud itself and the lack of a silicone or foam tip that seals off your ear canal.

To get some other people's reactions to the design, I did have others at the CNET offices in New York try the buds out (watch the companion review video to see their reactions), and they were mostly impressed with the buds' fit and sound quality. However, they were a bit turned off by their high price.

How's the sound quality?

When it comes to sound, these are about as good as you get for open earbuds, which typically don't have the bass response of noise-isolating earbuds like the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds. Bose says these have a larger 12mm driver compared to the 9.4mm driver found in the QC Ultra Earbuds. However, that doesn't mean they sound better or even as good as the QC Ultra Earbuds. You're just not going to get the same powerful bass, even if you get the driver to sit in an optimal spot in your ear. But there is ample bass, good clarity and some nice openness to the sound.

But, like other open earbuds, these aren't going to sound great in noisy environments because your ears are left open. I tried them in the subway, and yeah, I could hear my music, but it would get a bit drowned out by all the external noise, even with the volume pushed all the way up. In quieter environments, I would set the volume in the 60-to-80% range.

The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds have the same drivers that are used in the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds

Close up of the speaker drivers, which are the same drivers that are used in the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds. 

Numi Prasarn/CNET

Bose has a feature you can activate in the Bose Music app (iOS and Android) that automatically adjusts the volume to your surroundings. I also had no trouble hearing callers when walking around the noisy streets of New York.

Another highlight: The buds leak very little sound. With open earbuds, if you play them loud, people around you are likely to hear what you're playing. I used these buds in a quiet room with people sitting about six feet away and they said they only heard a very faint sound coming from the buds. So that's a nice feature. 

Immersive Audio mode and battery life

To be clear, these are not noise-canceling earbuds, but they do feature Bose's Immersive Audio for music spatialization. That's the same feature found in the QC Ultra Earbuds and QC Ultra Headphones, which arguably have the best noise canceling on the market right now.

As with those models, these buds have head-tracking, so you can set the Immersive Audio for Still mode that fixes the sound or Motion Mode that follows your head movements. Engaging it does enhance the sound a bit from standard stereo mode, but I think it makes a more pronounced difference with the QuietComfort models.

Engaging Immersive Audio significantly reduces battery life, though. The Ultra Open Earbuds are rated for up to 7.5 hours at moderate volume levels, but that number drops to around 4.5 hours with Immersive Audio on. The charging case provides an additional 19.5 hours of battery and has a quick-charge feature but no wireless charging option. 

Voice calling performance and missing features 

Voice-calling performance is very similar to the QC Ultra Earbuds. That is to say, it's good -- callers said they could hear me clearly. You could argue that the background noise reduction could be slightly better (in the companion video review, I have a sample of a voice call you can hear), but overall I was pretty pleased with the voice-calling performance. 

Likewise, the feature set here is overall pleasing. However, like the QC Ultra Earbuds, these currently don't have multipoint Bluetooth pairing, which allows you to pair the buds to two devices simultaneously. They do a decent job with manual switching between devices, but for $299, they should have multipoint. Bose has said it is working on adding the feature to both the QC Ultra Earbuds and this model, though, and I'd expect to see a firmware upgrade later this year for both that adds that feature and perhaps others along with some performance tweaks. 

The buds are also missing ear-detection sensors. That means when you take them off your ears, your music doesn't automatically pause. You can use a single bud independently if you want, but some sort of auto-pause feature would be nice.

It would also be nice to have something akin to Sony's Speak-to-Chat and Apple's Conversation Awareness modes. When activated, those modes automatically pause what you're listening to when you start talking to someone. For this type of earbud that Bose hopes you'll wear all day, that's a convenient feature. 

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds: Final thoughts

Aside from those aforementioned small gripes, the price is the only other concern. As unique as they are, $299 is a lot for these buds. I do think the price is a bit artificially high, so I won't be surprised to see them on sale for $249 and probably less during Amazon Prime Day and during the holiday buying season. 

That said, if you can afford the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds, you're getting an excellent set of open earbuds that not only feature top-notch sound for this type of earbud but an appealing design in terms of a secure and comfortable fit. I can't say everybody will like the look of the buds -- they do make you look like you're wearing earrings -- but they are innovative.