I lived with the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds – here are 3 things I loved (and 3 that need improving)

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds on a wooden table
(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

It's an exciting occasion when almost any piece of audio kit crashes (metaphorically) through our test room doors. Headphones and earbuds aren't always considered the most glamorous of categories compared with multi-thousand-pound floorstanders or a highly anticipated amplifier, but I'm always excited by the prospect of a new pair of buds. From the cheapest hopefuls to established heavyweights, a new set is never far away.

Few are as interesting or intriguing as Bose's recent effort. As I'm somewhat enamoured by the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, the prospect of brand-new "Open" Ultra buds sounded equally enticing. The Bose Ultra Open Earbuds have caused a quiet sensation with their clamping, open design which clamps onto the exterior of the ear rather than burrowing into your ear canal, leaving your lugs more "open" to external sounds and noises. 

Bose bills the Ultra Open Earbuds as a "brilliant combination of innovative design, incredible audio and all-day comfort", so I was keen to see whether or not they were an audio dead-end or a rosy vision of the future. 


Love: fit for royalty (or a What Hi-Fi? reviewer)

Open wireless earbuds: Bose Ultra Open Earbuds

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Let's start with the biggest selling point: fit. A lot has been made of the open design of the Ultra Open (weird, that), with the clamped, on-ear fit not only allowing more sound to enter the ear canal but also avoiding the pain and discomfort some people experience from intrusive in-ear models. 

I'll get to that second point below, but I have to say I was generally impressed by the buds' clamp-on design. Sure, it's a little odd at first to have a great deal of the unit sitting outside of your lugs, and there initially feels like a degree of play in the fit that could cause them to dislodge after a time, but the reality is that you'll likely forget that your buds are there after a while. If you can get past the fact that it sometimes looks like you're wearing a pair of cheap knock-off earrings, the Open generally make good on their claims fit-wise: they're secure, unobtrusive and pain-free. Most of the time...

Needs improving: minor discomfort   

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds held in the hand

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

That said, I'd be remiss if I didn't mention a few issues I experienced with the Open's rather innovative fit. Firstly, I did occasionally find that the interior of the pill-shaped bud which gently sits within the bottom of your concha (the bowl-like part of the outer ear) caused a little discomfort due to its firm, slightly unforgiving material. This might be a personal issue – perhaps a quirk of my particular ears – but it's worth pointing out nonetheless.

Second, for me the fit didn't always feel super secure. While I never experienced an earbud coming loose and rolling away, that psychological niggle that plays on your mind can end up negatively colouring your experience. We'll see later that the Bose buds are great running companions, but there's an initial psychological hurdle I had to first overcome in convincing myself that I wasn't about to send our £300 review sample hurtling into a main road to be crushed by the tyres of an oncoming Volvo. 

Third, finding the fit wasn't as easy as I'd hoped. As is the case for even the most standard in-ear designs, it isn't always straightforward getting the novel Bose clip-ons to sit at that perfect 45-degree angle as recommended by the manufacturer, especially if you're new to the design as a whole. It took me a while before I was away and listening to establish that perfect clamp, though admittedly I find the mechanics of putting on a pair of socks challenging...

Love: (mostly) superb sound 

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds on a wooden table

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

I wasn't expecting much from the Bose Ultra Open. After all, myself and the wider What Hi-Fi? reviews team have been "treated" to a few open-design earbuds in recent times, and while the novelty of the fit remains a fun diversion, the sound has rarely been up to that of the best traditional – er, closed? – earbuds. The Huawei FreeClip aren't sonically up to snuff, and while the more established Sony Linkbuds certainly have their talents, they're the weakest members of the Sony wireless earbuds family in my book.

Happily, the news I can relay is firmly positive – and mirrored in our Bose Ultra Open review. While open designs can produce a sound that often feels shallow and lacking in bite and texture, the Bose do well to avoid those shortcomings and even add a few surprises along the way. They're musical, fun and sometimes actively muscular and robust for the most part, and while the bass response isn't going to knock your socks off, the rest of the Ultra Open's lively sonic presentation just might.

Do bear in mind, though, that the Open don't offer proper (active) noise cancellation, and while this may sound like an exercise in stating the obvious, it hit home to me during a ride on a screeching Central Line London tube just how much noise these guys let into your lugholes when your environment isn't exactly as tranquil as a Tibetan monastery. The Auto Volume setting in the Bose app does go some way to managing those unwanted external intrusions, but if you need sonic isolation for your morning commute, maybe look elsewhere.

Needs improvement: bass

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds held in the hand

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Yes, the bass is impressive for buds of this type, and I'm aware that our review rightly praised the Ultra Open for having "an impressive sense of weight and solidity to low frequencies". This is certainly true, it's just that there remains a sense of artificial hollowness that just leaves you a little cold, especially when you need to be inspired or spurred as you take the Bose out for some physical exertion.

While listening to Run The Jewels' The Ground Below on a brisk five-miler, I felt invigorated by the punch and life of the robust guitars and enthusiastic delivery at the middle and top frequencies, yet I couldn't escape that artificial, slightly hollow feel of every bass thwack. Whilst running, the phrase "bucket being hit at the bottom of a well" kept circulating through my mind, and while that sounds a tad harsh, it's not far away from my sonic experience. 

There's a hollowness to the bass response that you don't get from, say, the classic Bose Ultra Earbuds which, in part thanks to their deeper fit, can produce a low-end richness and resonance that an open form factor physically struggles to replicate. 

Love: open fit(ness)

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds in front of Nike trainers

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

Speaking of running, the Bose Open Ultra are great for just that. I usually gush to my bored, glaze-eyed co-workers about the virtues of the Beats Fit Pro as they slip into a semi-coma, but I might have found a pair of earbuds that could rival my beloved pink companions. That's no mean feat. I really do like the Fit Pro...

Firstly, that fit is actively conducive to physical exercise. I've used over-ear hooks and in-ear wings, but the clamp design of the Open Ultra Earbuds, while initially feeling a little odd, has yet to let me down. You might start every jog wondering whether they're about to drop out, but you'll likely end most runs forgetting where your banging tunes are even coming from. That's a massive tick in the Ultra Open Earbuds' box, as many runners find that long periods of wearing with more intrusive alternatives cause discomfort that, as the miles wear on, can become unbearable. 

And they sound good enough, too. I know it might have seemed a bit doom and gloom regarding the bass, but there's still so much more that the Open Ultra get right sonically than they get wrong. That fast, crisp sound communicates a sense of drive and intensity that so many open models fail to grasp, so if you love the fit, you won't be left with an inferior sound that causes you to choose between comfort and audio fidelity. With the Bose, you can conceivably have both, especially if you're a pro pavement pounder or committed Crossfit champ.

Needs improvement: paying the price 

Bose Ultra Open Earbuds on a wooden table

(Image credit: What Hi-Fi?)

I've enjoyed my time with the Bose Ultra Open Earbuds. They're fun, funky and innovative, and while they might not end up as my daily earbuds of choice due to my noisy commute and love of meaty bass, there's a lot here to like. If you're hunting for an unobtrusive pair of sporty earbuds or you struggle with a traditional in-ear fit, the Ultra Open are a solid option. 

If you don't need an open design, though, I'd recommend searching elsewhere. For this kind of money (or less) you could nab a pair of the Sony WF-1000XM5, the Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 4 or the standard Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and, while I still support the open concept, I don't think its comfort benefits make up for the inevitable sonic sacrifices it incurs. Drop it down by £100 / $100 / AU$150? That's a different story.


Read our original Bose Ultra Open Earbuds review

And our Huawei FreeClip review

Bose’s spatial audio tech is a nice idea for headphones but it’s too hit-and-miss

Check out our best wireless earbuds: top pairs tested by our experts

Harry McKerrell
Staff writer

Harry McKerrell is a staff writer at What Hi-Fi?. He studied law and history at university before working as a freelance journalist covering TV and gaming for numerous platforms both online and in print. When not at work he can be found playing hockey, practising the piano or forcing himself to go long-distance running.