Bose SoundSport Free review
The Bose SoundSport Free is Bose's first attempt at truly wireless earphones. They are part of the company's SoundSport series, which is aimed at fitness enthusiasts. The completely wireless form-factor is a match made in heaven for a fitness-centric set of earphones. Add to that the general Bose quality, and we may be looking at a truly outstanding product.
But is that really the case? Not quite. Read on to learn more.
Visually, the Bose SoundSport Free essentially look like the Bose SoundSport but without the cable attaching the two modules.
Each individual speaker unit has a chunky design that is at least an inch thick. This chunky design means the speakers jut out a fair bit from your ears. It's not like you can see them from your corner of your eyes or anything but it means you can't wear them while in bed. I also found myself hitting them with my hand while moving it past my ear for the first few days of using these.
The speaker units use the traditional Bose StayHear+ Sport tips. Like every other Bose earphones, these ear tips don't actually go inside your ear canal and just sit within the outside ear. To ensure they don't just fall out, the ear tips have fins that keep them in place.
Wearing these for the first few times takes getting used to. You basically have to get rid of the habit of shoving them deep in your ears as with almost every other earphones, and just let them sit in your outer ear.
Once you get used to that, you eventually stop noticing that they feel different from most other earphones you are used to. They also feel quite comfortable at first and those who don't like the sensation of in-ear earphones will definitely prefer these.
However, I did find the entire area where these sit in my ear start hurting after about an hour of use. It's not particularly painful but there is slight discomfort and it keeps increasing past an hour, and is especially noticeable immediately after they are removed.
The size of the ear tips is especially of importance with these. While the tips themselves don't vary significantly between the three provided pairs, the size of the fins changes dramatically and if you don't choose the right one you will find these very hard to keep in your ears. Just make sure you go through all of them before deciding which one to pick.
Moving on, the speaker units also have buttons on them. The right unit has three buttons that adjust the volume, play/pause and power. The one on the left just has power. If they turn off on their own, you can press the power button on each unit to turn it back on.
The buttons on these units are practically unusable. They are incredibly stiff and because they are small and suspended from your ears, its difficult to muster enough strength to press the button while also not ripping them out. It's just easier to pretend the buttons don't exist and control playback from the phone.
As discussed before, comfort while wearing them indoors is adequate although depending upon your ear shape you may feel some fatigue like me. While walking or running, the SoundSport Free have a tendency to jiggle. Because there is so much mass sticking out of your ears it tends to bounce up and down with your motion and you can feel that in your ears. They don't threaten to come out thanks to the fins but constantly feeling the jiggle in your ears gets a bit annoying after a while.
The design is also water-resistant, which means they won't get damaged by sweat or if you choose to wear them in the rain. I didn't quite test this particular claim so I will take Bose's word for it.
Now, moving on to the case, the SoundSport Free come with a fairly large charging/carrying case. The size of the case isn't really shocking considering the size of the earphones themselves but it is on the larger size. While it's not going to be an issue if you toss it in your bag, it does take up considerable space inside your jeans pockets.
The case has a button on the outside that opens the case and also shows the battery status of the case itself. The button requires quite a bit of force to open the lid and isn't kind to your thumb at all. Once inside, you can see the receptacle for each speaker that needs to be placed a certain way for the connection to be made.
As with most Bose products, there aren't many user configurable features present on the SoundSport Free. The only feature I could think of that is accessible from the earphones themselves is that pressing down on the Play/Pause button activates Siri or Google Assistant on the phone.
Bose does have its Bose Connect app for iOS and Android, which does have a few extra features, especially on iOS. The iOS app can sync with your Apple Music account and you can access your music from the Bose app itself. I'm not sure why you'd want to do that, especially since it doesn't even show the album art of the music that's actually playing but just some random image instead, but you can do that if you want to.
Besides that, you can also see other things in the app such as the battery level of the earphones as a pair but not individually. The battery life also shows up in the iOS battery widget and on Android phones that support this feature.
You can also upgrade the software on the earphones from within the app. But if you don't plan to use your SoundSport Free with a phone and would still like to upgrade the software, don't worry as Bose has you covered. Bose has a desktop utility that lets you connect the earphones to your computer using a cable and upgrade the software through there. I personally found that was the better way as it was much faster than over Bluetooth on the phone.
Lastly, there is a Find My Buds feature within the app. This lets you see the location of the earphones on the map using the location of the phone they are connected to. You can also make them play a sound so you can locate them around you. They make a surprisingly loud sound and thankfully warn you to remove them from your ears before playing it if you are just testing the feature.
Before getting to the main audio quality, I'll just get this out of the way first. Normally, there isn't much to talk about here, but with the SoundSport Free, there's definitely something to talk about.
Let's just cut to the chase; the Bose SoundSport Free can only play the audio from phone calls in the right speaker. There is absolutely no way to make your phone calls sound in both ears. Bose says this is some limitation of the Truly Wireless Technology they are using to make wireless audio possible on this set. Of course, this is not an issue on other wireless earphones, even fully wireless ones.
Here's the thing, I personally don't make enough voice calls in a day for this to be an issue for me at all and I can live with it. However, for people who do make frequent phone calls I can imagine this will be deeply annoying and quite honestly a deal breaker.
It's hard to imagine that Bose somehow thought people would be okay with this implementation and they don't even mention it anywhere in their marketing material for the product. Bose's forums are filled with people complaining about this issue, with Bose then having to assure them that the product is working as Bose intended. It's also something that they can't fix later so if you have your hopes up for that, it's not happening.
Annoyingly, even the voice prompts work in only the right ear. These are the voice cues that tell you when the earphones have been turned on, when they are connected or disconnected, or when the battery is low. I'm not sure why they couldn't get even this to work across both speakers.
So far the SoundSport Free hasn't done much to redeem itself, but this is where that changes thanks to a surprisingly good audio performance. The SoundSport Free have a warm, luscious sound signature that is richly detailed and expansive for the size and design.
The bass is thick and creamy, with a surprising amount of body and heft considering the speakers don't have an in-ear design. The bass or even the mid-bass never gets overwhelming even though there is an abundance of both.
Cutting through the bass is the mid-range, which comes through nice and clear. Vocals and string instruments have sufficient projection and separation that they don't get drowned out among other sounds.
Finally, the high-end has enough presence and sizzle that you can appreciate its presence without it being too in your face or just doing the opposite and rolling off.
It's also admirable just how much stereo separation and 3D imaging the SoundSport Free are capable of despite their size. Binaural recordings sound incredibly involving and even regular stereo music sounds spacious.
Of course, I'm not going to sit here and pretend these are audiophile grade. The sound is meant to be heavily equalized and fun, and Bose never makes any claims to the contrary. They don't have the most detail nor do they excel in any particular frequency group. But what you have here is largely a very enjoyable sound that's tuned to what most people would normally tune their sound to. Of course, it can't be all things to all people but I'm willing to bet most people would find this sound signature perfectly enjoyable.
Because these aren't noise-canceling earphones, you will hear a fair bit of ambient noise while wearing them. This is by design as they are meant for use while working out and so you need to have some awareness of the world around you. At home, they drown out some of the quieter sounds but as I sit here wearing them and typing this review, I can still clearly hear the sound of the keyboard, which I'm not a fan of. However, if someone were to call out my name or if someone was at the door, I would be able to hear them, which is nice.
Before using these, I had read multiple reports of them not syncing properly with video. With the latest firmware on my review unit, I had no issues with audio sync and everything played just fine. It seems the issue was extremely widespread but Bose does seem to have fixed it so if you're buying them now you shouldn't have to worry about that.
Update: YouTube app does have major audio sync issues on iOS and Android. The issue seems limited to just the YouTube app, however, as none of the other apps on either platform had sync issue. Also, simply playing YouTube in the browser posed no issue.
Considering the size of the earphones and the case, it would be fair to assume the battery life on the SoundSport Free is fantastic. That would be a wrong assumption.
Bose claims a battery life of 5 hours on the earphones and then two full charges from the case, totaling 15 hours. I got about 4 and a half hours, which is not bad, and then about two full charges from the case.
The battery life isn't bad, per se, but the earphones charge a bit slow and a full charge takes two hours, which is far behind many of its rivals. Also, the incredibly tiny AirPods also have 5 hours of battery life and with the case they get a total of 24 hours.
Also worth noting, if the battery in the case gets empty, the earphones don't turn on when you pull them out of the case as they normally do and you have to manually turn them on until you charge the case.
As I mentioned in the beginning, the SoundSport Free are Bose's first attempt at a truly wireless pair of earphones and honestly, it shows. The earphones and case are physically too large, the buttons are frustrating to use, the voice calls only work in one ear, and the battery life isn't fantastic considering the size of the case, nor do they charge quickly. There are also audio sync issues with the YouTube app.
The good thing about the SoundSport Free is the sound quality and the fact that they are weatherproof. Those are two major advantages over the Apple AirPods, which only have average sound quality and no weatherproofing to speak of. However, the AirPods beat the SoundSport Free with their hands tied behind their back in every other aspect, and because of that the AirPods actually come out ahead when you factor in everything.
If you have an iPhone, the AirPods are still the best wireless earphones you can get; the competition is not even close. If you are on Android or other platform, I'd suggest waiting for more devices to come out if you want the truly wireless form factor. I'm sure Bose's version 2.0 product will have several of the teething issues of the SoundSport Free ironed out. If not, someone else will get it right. But for now, the SoundSport Free are hard to recommend, especially at their $200 price tag.