Cutting the Cable with the SoundSport™ Free Wireless Headphones

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As the floodgates for completely wireless headphones (that is, without a cable connecting the earbuds like most models have) were burst open wide by a small company with a fruit logo last year, the consumer public has begun to see more and more models that offer the opportunity to cut all cords, not just the one connecting your headphones to your mobile device. Peruse the customer review sections of many available models, however, and you’ll see not all the current offerings are quite ready for prime time. So when audio giant Bose® introduced its SoundSport Free model, many, including myself, were interested to see how the first effort from one of the most popular headphone manufacturers would fare.

Bose SoundSport Free Wireless In-Ear Headphones

Challenge 1: Reliable Connectivity

Completely wireless Bluetooth headphones spent a long while in the incubation stage, remaining a tough technology to crack for a reasonable amount of money. The most distinct challenge that headphone manufacturers face with truly wireless designs is that Bluetooth wireless technology, which is ubiquitously employed, can only transmit to one location at a time. So all headphones that fall into this category will receive the Bluetooth signal in one earbud (in Bose’s case, the right one), which then needs to transmit to the second, all without any perceived delay by the listener. This connection needs to stay consistent and reliable, otherwise you’ll get drop outs in one ear, then the other.

Performance:

The SoundSport Free’s connectivity to my iPhone 8 Plus performed near flawlessly during any indoor activity; while sitting at my desk at B&H, at the gym, or at home, I experienced no drop outs or hiccups. However, the real test was going to be how they handled the streets of Manhattan, which is flooded with all sorts of potential wireless interference. Here, walking just south of Times Square, I experienced infrequent drop outs where one earbud went silent for about a second before fading back in.

In the week I’ve had with the SoundSport Free, I experienced some sort of wireless interference only a handful of times, and, most importantly, no more frequently than I normally do with my usual commuting Bluetooth ear buds, the Jaybird X3, which have a wired design. They essentially performed on par with multiple wired Bluetooth headphones I’ve had in the past, as well. Once you get used to the difference of the drop outs (losing sound in one ear bud as opposed to other digital hiccups), they become less jarring altogether.

One aspect of connectivity that genuinely impressed me was how immediate the headphones reconnected to my iPhone once I removed them from their case. As soon as they were in my ears, I was hearing the digital assistant announcing they had connected to my device, and I could hit play on the right earbud and get moving without having to get my phone out of my pocket.

Challenge 2: Battery Life

The second major challenge any wireless ’bud is going to face is battery life. Designers need to cram the drivers, a Bluetooth antenna, a transmitter to send the signal to the second earbud, and a receiver into as little real estate as possible. These are, for the most part, power-demanding technologies, and to keep the designs small enough to function as earbuds, battery sizes need to remain small. Those accustomed to the 20+ hours of battery life more traditional over-ear headphones offer are going to have to manage expectations a bit, and many pairs offer even less play time than their wired Bluetooth counterparts.

Bose reports you can expect up to 5 hours of battery life from the SoundSport Free (only an hour less than the wired SoundSport versions). Using them on my commute, at the gym in the morning before work, and most of the morning at the B&H offices, they more or less hit this benchmark. A helpful announcement of remaining battery life is played when the Frees connect to your device.

Bose (like pretty much all other completely wireless offerings) mitigates the limited battery life by having the carrying case double as a portable charger, which gives you another 10 hours of life before you’re entirely out of juice and looking for a micro USB cable. I found myself going easily 3 days before the battery case was sapped of juice (A 5-light LED gives you an estimate of how much of a charge remains in the case).

Challenge 3: Sound Quality

How can I put sound quality as the third challenge? Shouldn’t it be the first aspect you look for in a pair of headphones? With more traditional headphones, absolutely, but a great sounding pair of true wireless headphones that are constantly dropping connection and die after 2 hours of use would be a terribly frustrating experience, so until the technology advances across the board on all completely wireless models to an assured stable performance, the category faces bigger challenges.

Bose is known for the audio quality of its products, and the SoundSport Free lives up to expectations; these sound like a Bose product (which, in the finicky world of audiophilia, can be a pro or con depending on your tastes). Personally I was impressed by how balanced the performance of the SoundSport Free is. The bass was present, but not exaggerated (often the challenge with earbuds period, let alone true wireless ones), and across the spectrum I’d say they have a pleasing tone, meaning they’re far from neutral for pro audio applications, but great for actually, you know, enjoying your music.

Other Performance Factors

Bose does offer its Bose Connect app to supplement the product, but it should be noted that there is no EQ feature, the sound designed is very much the sound you get. One novel feature to the app is the “Find My Buds” function, which can help you locate a missing earpiece as long as it is connected via Bluetooth. This works reasonably well to give you an idea of where you may have dropped it, as long as you’re within range (the earpieces definitely do not have GPS).

One aspect of the SoundSport Free that can’t be ignored is how far they stuck out of my ears; I did end up feeling like a pasty, bearded Lieutenant Uhura. While some other models sit a bit more flush with your ear canals, the SoundSport Free’s body begins essentially where your ear ends. This aside, they are very comfortable, and they stayed snugly and safely in my ears during all my work outs, walks, and commutes.

The Takeaway

Bose entering the completely wireless field lends the company’s reputation to this relatively new category of audio products. For the athletically inclined, these stay snug and fit, so you won’t have to worry about chasing falling earbuds and losing what is no small investment in a pair of headphones. These are the first pair of completely wireless headphones that actually impressed me with overall performance, and the first pair I’ve found myself actually wanting to own.

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