Sep 21, 2023

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds review

Bose just did something it’s never done. Well, two things. The company launched new wireless earbuds within a year of their last release, and debuted its spatial audio platform, which is also included on this flagship model (welcome to the party, Bose).

The QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds come with more upscale features and retain brand staples such as Bose’s award-winning acoustic noise cancellation, CustomTune audio calibration and intelligible voice pickup. As the spec sheet increases, so does the MSRP, which is $20 higher than the last-gen QuietComfort Earbuds 2.

Is Bose’s latest creation worth the splurge? Only if you want the best true wireless earbuds for noise cancellation. Here’s what you need to know about the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds.

Unrivaled ANC mixed with surprisingly good 3D and lossless audio performance make the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds a prime true wireless competitor.

The QC Ultra Earbuds have the same superior active noise cancellation (ANC) as their predecessor. They take advantage of Bose’s proprietary technologies — ActiveSense and CustomTune — to automatically tweak ambient listening to your surroundings and analyze the listener’s ears adeptly for optimal noise neutralization, respectively. Popular modes like Aware and Quiet can be activated directly on the buds, along with any of the 10 sound profiles assigned in the Bose Music app. Each profile can be set to a preferred ANC level (1 through 10) and spatial audio mode.

These buds eliminate up to 95% of unwanted sounds. That’s as powerful as some of the market’s best noise-canceling headphones. I tested the buds in many environments, including airplanes, city parks, rooftop bars and subways. The crying infant on my flight back home didn’t disturb movie time, nor did the droning noises from the plane engine. Commuter chatter, rail squealing and wind from the train tunnel were completely silent when standing on the subway platform. Blaring sounds like sirens and thunder caught my attention, but never broke my concentration.

Bose’s transparency mode is just as reliable for gaining greater awareness. I had fun eavesdropping on conversations in the streets. Night walks felt safe since I could hear oncoming traffic and runners clearly. Even basic chats in the hotel elevator sounded loud and crisp, which was awesome since it meant not having to remove the buds.

You might be wondering which is stronger, Quiet mode or any of the sound profiles when set to the highest ANC level. Quiet performs better against all frequencies.

The QC Ultra Earbuds are the launching pad for Bose’s newest 3D sound format: Immersive Audio. Two modes are available — Still and Motion — both of which present music differently. Still uses headtracking technology that directs sound to your head movement, while Motion puts sound in front of your face to hear it fully when on the go. Bose’s highly accurate motion detection makes Still a go-to for all music consumption.

Immersive Audio intensified the melancholy vibes on Emmylou Harris’ “Wrecking Ball.” The subtle kicks and snares were tight and emanated clean reverberation that decayed smoothly. Tiny details like the tambourine jingle sounded serene, and Neil Young’s accompanying vocals on the chorus were bright and blended beautifully with Harris’ rich, smoky delivery. Upbeat records like Bruno Mars’ “24K Magic” maintained their vibrant bop, which was masterfully highlighted by hyper-funky synths and impactful 808s.

On-stage performances were more enticing. I played live versions of Celia Cruz classics like “Guantanamera” and “Quimbara” and enjoyed fantastic percussion that channeled rhythmic waves through each ear. The singer’s tough, raspy voice was also commanding. Moving my head left to right and vice versa created the illusion of being there in person. This felt more real than Jabra’s Spatial Sound technology, but Apple and Sony’s versions sound more engaging.

The one major selling point with Immersive Audio is it’s engineered to work with all stereo content, much like the 3D audio technology on Yamaha’s YH-L700A headphones, our favorite wireless headphones for spatial audio.

However, spatial audio isn’t the only thing that gives these buds sonic swagger. The inclusion of aptX Adaptive results in hi-res sound when playing music on digital streaming platforms. It dynamically scales bitrate (between 279kbps and 420kbps) to pull more details from recordings with minimal latency. I could hear the improvements in clarity and reproduction on these buds compared to the QCE 2, especially on lossless services like Tidal. Instruments and vocals were noticeably crisper, and special effects in movies sounded more prominent. Apple Music and Spotify tracks were also satisfying to hear, though nothing compared to Tidal’s MQA selections (Master Quality Authenticated) at 24 bit/92 kHz.

Turning on ActiveSense in Aware mode will let you hear your surroundings without compromising sound quality, though it’s only accessible when Immersive Audio is disabled.

Only one change was applied to Bose’s handsome design: the metallic sheen on the touch panels. Besides that, the QC Ultra Earbuds have the same small stem silhouette and sturdy construction as the previous model. The outer shell is covered in solid plastic with glossy and matte finishes. IPX4 certification provides sweat and water resistance. Housing the buds is the pebble-shaped charging case that isn’t any different than the QCE 2 case. It’s still an attractive package.

Extra features were added to this release. The aforementioned aptX Adaptive and Immersive Audio are at the top of the list, followed by Google Fast Pair and multipoint technology for pairing to two devices simultaneously. All other perks are the same as the QCE 2, such as EQ, Earbuds Seal Test, Shortcut for assigning the action command a special function (ANC, Immersive Audio or digital assistant), and several toggles to automatically enable different controls.

The original QuietComfort Earbuds are arguably the best wireless earbuds for voice and video calls. Most of us expected the QCE 2 to follow suit. They didn’t. Sadly, the QC Ultra Earbuds continue that trend by bringing call quality down another peg.

According to Bose, these buds support adaptive filters, dynamic microphone mixing and more intelligible voice pickup for stronger call performance. That’s not what I experienced. My wife complained many times about background interference, from heavy wind presence to the music playing in my hotel lobby. The buds performed much better in quieter settings, where they demonstrated excellent vocal capture, much like they did when using Google Assistant or Siri. It was nearly perfect until loud noises crept through. ANC didn’t block out as much noise as it did when vibing out to music. I recommend enabling Self Voice mode to boost vocal volume.

During testing, there were many times I couldn’t access the special features in Bose Music because the app wouldn’t recognize my unit. Certain menus like Shortcut froze for several minutes. Something else that occurred frequently was random drops in sound quality; clarity decreased, while distortion increased significantly. Disconnecting and reconnecting the buds brought sound back to normal. That didn’t stop it from happening over and over.

Battery life is rated at 6 hours with ANC on, which is no different than the QCE 2. Immersive Audio drops listening time to 4 hours. Bose still doesn’t let you turn off ANC completely.

One positive is that the charging case holds more portable power: up to 36 hours, depending how you use the buds. What about wireless charging? Well, it’s available at an additional cost. Bose is selling a $49 silicone case cover that’s compatible with the QC Ultra Earbuds and QCE 2 charging cases to enable the feature.

Similarities in key categories make the QC Ultra Earbuds feel like the QuietComfort Earbuds 2.5. That’s far from a knock, because both are excellent wireless earbuds that get you unbeatable ANC and superb sound, though the QC Ultra Earbuds tout lossless and spatial audio. A few new wireless features add to their appeal.

It’s not uncommon for wireless earbuds to have software issues at launch. However, this has been a recurring problem for Bose. The bugs hinder audio and usability. Voice calling is also below company standard. Bose could fix these issues with a software patch, but knowing their approach to firmware updates, that could take months.

Nonetheless, the QC Ultra Earbuds remain a worthy investment for those wanting exceptional noise cancellation heightened by adaptive, spacious 3D sound.