Bose sprung a surprise recently when it announced the arrival of the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, one of two new flagship pairs of wireless headphones for the brand.
The reason it came as a bit of a shock was the pair that they are replacing, the QuietComfort Earbuds II, are barely over a year old. In their relatively short life, they have already managed to bag a five-star review and a 2022 What Hi-Fi? Award in their category. So you’ll forgive us for thinking there still might be some life left in them.
So, do the new earbuds pick up from where the old model left off? It would have to go down as an own goal if not. Let’s find out.
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds will set you back £300 / $299 / AU$450. That means for some territories there’s been a slight jump in price compared to their predecessors the QuietComfort Earbuds II, which we first tested at £280 / $299 / AU$429.
Now, at the top end of the wireless earbuds market there’s some serious competition, not least from the Sony WF-1000XM5 which cost £259 / $299 / AU$419 at launch and the Apple AirPods Pro 2 £249 / $249 / AU$399. What makes things interesting is that both pairs can now be found with money off, especially around big sales events such as Prime Day and Black Friday. The new Bose could have their work cut out.
Design & comfort
If you own or have seen a pair of Bose’s QuietComfort Earbuds II then you’ll be familiar with the look and feel of the new Ultra Earbuds. The design is pretty much identical, save for a couple of things.
First, there’s a tweak to the finish on the outer stems of each earbud. They’ve been given a new metallic treatment, in Bose’s words “for a sleeker, more luxe look”. You’ll be the ones to make a judgement on that – we’re not quite convinced, at least on the White Smoke finish of our review sample.
Codec support SBC, AAC
Wireless charging? No
Waterproof rating IPX4
Battery life 6hr (+18hrs from charging case)
Finishes x 2 (Black, White Smoke)
The second visible tweak relates to the way the stability bands attach to each earpiece. Look on the top edge of each bud and you’ll see a small notch which helps you to line up the bands more easily and lock them in place more securely.
We didn’t really have a problem with the originals, but this does help you line the bands up quicker if you find yourself having to swap to a different size. We’d certainly recommend experimenting with them to optimise fit. You won’t be surprised to learn that comfort levels for the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are first-rate, just like their predecessors.
Unlike many rivals, the Bose tips are super soft and, although they don’t burrow into your ears, they still manage to maintain a great seal. You just slide and twist them into place and they sit there – during testing, the general consensus was they’re more comfortable than the Sony WF-1000XM5.
Other than the stability band tweak, it’s business as usual. The plastics used still look glossy and feel premium and solid enough, while the stems once again include touch-sensitive controls which allow you to control playback, switch listening modes and change volume at the tap or swipe of a finger.
The big news for the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds is they feature Bose Immersive Audio, which is basically the company’s spatial audio tech.
The general idea is to get the sound out of your head so it feels less like you’re listening to headphones and more like you’re listening to an image served up by a traditional pair of stereo speakers.
There are two modes of Immersive Audio to switch between: Still and Motion. Still is recommended for when you’re stationary and you want your music to be in a fixed position. Motion introduces head tracking and “allows the audio to move with you, so it’s always out in front of you – great for staying immersed on the go,” according to Bose.
During testing, we get mixed results. When it works well, the sound does appear to raise itself out of your head, so to speak. It feels like there is a greater sense of spaciousness, and it does feel like the music is coming at you from a slightly different, more immersive angle.
However, with some tracks, it just doesn’t come together. In Motion mode in particular, you can hear a delay and phase issues as the processing struggles to track your head movements. Even with the slightest head movement, there’s quite an abrupt shift in the imaging, which we found distracting.
Bose claims the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds boast improved call quality compared to their predecessors. The headphones can now prioritise the mic on each bud that is experiencing the least noise and also filter out extra noise so your voice sounds clearer.
And during testing, we found the new model does provide a big step up. Background noise was more heavily suppressed and broke through less often, while our voices came through much more clearly.
Battery life for the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds remains unchanged from their predecessors at around six hours, but if you want to listen in Immersive Audio mode you need to be aware it hits your playback time quite badly. It drops to just four hours when turned on, so you’ll want to make sure the charging case is fully juiced so you’re not caught short.
At the time of writing, there’s no multipoint Bluetooth, which is disappointing for a pair of earbuds, especially at this price point. Wireless charging isn’t included either although you can buy an optional wireless charging cover for the case for an extra £50 ($49 / AU$80).
We’d be worried if the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds weren’t competitive on the ANC front and we can confirm they’re still one of the class-leaders in this department. They’re able to take the noisiest environments, whether it's the rumble of heavy machinery as you walk past a building site or the loud chatter and sound system of a crowded pub, and reduce their impact quite dramatically.
Every time you pluck the buds from their case and place them in your ears, Bose’s CustomTune calibration tech lets out a tone as it surveys the noise in your environment and adjusts the sound accordingly.
As with their predecessors, you can preset different levels of noise-cancelling for different situations and you can cycle through them using the touch controls on the earbud stems. Again, the Bose’s ‘Aware’ mode impresses as it balances out your music with surrounding noise so you can hear just enough of both worlds and not be completely sealed off in your own sonic bubble.
One slight nuance we found during testing was the earbuds tended to emphasise certain loud noises. For example, the clunk of train doors closing together was actually over-emphasised instead of being subdued.
If you were expecting the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds to sound identical to the model they replace you might be surprised. Yes, Bose has kept the same tonal characteristics which is great in terms of consistency. There’s a familiar richness and fullness to the sound, but the new buds have a bit more of a skip in their step.
They sound a touch punchier and a little clearer in their delivery. Having compared the two during testing, we don’t think the Bose are quite as transparent and insightful as the Sony WF-1000XM5 but the slight change was enough to raise an eyebrow or two during testing and enough to make us switch back to the QuietComfort Earbuds II to make sure we weren’t hearing things.
Play Futures by Jimmy Eat World and the Bose immediately puts the foot to the floor with this anthemic rock track. The drums and electric guitar burst onto the scene with a real sense of purpose and drive. There’s a good sense of openness and spaciousness to the whole presentation and the lead vocal slots neatly in the middle. The edges of drum thwacks are clearly defined, and there’s a real sense of dynamism as Zach Lind makes his way around his kit.
Switch over to something with something with a more bassy persona, such as Bad Guy by Billie Eilish, and the Bose hit with purpose and intent, but they’re not short, sharp jabs lacking substance. There’s depth and weight behind each note but they’re also dispatched efficiently enough to keep the music bouncing along. This new pair hasn’t lost the sense of musicality or the entertainment factor of their predecessors.
The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are more than just a new lick of paint. The addition of Immersive Audio is interesting, although we found it a little hit-and-miss during testing.
However, we do think they sound a little better and call quality has improved. Add to that the still-excellent noise-cancelling and you’re looking at a five-star pair of earbuds. Of that there is no doubt, but if you already own a pair of QuietComfort Earbuds II we wouldn’t be rushing to upgrade.
- Sound 5
- Features 4
- Comfort 5
Read our review of the Apple AirPods Pro 2
Also consider the Sony WF-1000XM5