Sep 28, 2023

Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds Review: Slightly Better Than Last Year's Model

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The Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds add some small but somewhat meaningful upgrades to an already great set of noise-canceling earbuds.

Not many people expected Bose to release a new set of $299 flagship noise-canceling earbuds only a year after launching its excellent QuietComfort Earbuds 2, which we awarded a CNET Editors' Choice. But that's what it's done with the new-for-2023 QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds, surely upsetting some QC Earbuds 2 owners while perhaps delighting other folks who were on the verge of buying the QC Earbuds 2 but held off, hoping for something a little better. And that's exactly what Bose has given us -- something a little better -- which makes the QC Ultra Earbuds a tad tricky to review.

Read more: Best wireless earbuds of 2023

That's because whenever a company releases new earbuds, like the QC Ultra Earbuds, that aren't a major upgrade, one has the tendency to be a little disappointed. These new buds offer some small design refinements, including a new "metallic treatment," but they look the same as the QC Earbuds 2 while featuring an "improved interlocking fit" with slightly upgraded stability bands (there's a notch in them that prevents them from moving). They're also IPX4 splash-proof.

I really liked the fit of the QC Earbuds 2 -- they fit not only very comfortably but also very securely thanks to Bose's Fit Kit ear tips and stabilizer system -- so I'm just fine with the QC Ultra Earbuds' design, despite the fact that they're larger than some buds, including the AirPods Pro 2.

The new buds still don't come with a wireless charging case, though you can soon buy a new wireless charging case cover that's compatible with both the QC Earbuds 2 and QC Earbuds Ultra for $50. Personally, I don't care that much about wireless charging for headphones, but it should be included at this price for people who do care about it.

The QC Ultra Earbuds feature a new metallic treatment that differentiates them from the QC Earbuds 2.

Most of the changes are under the hood. The buds use the same Qualcomm 5-series chip as their predecessor. But they have some additional chips to facilitate Bose's new proprietary spatial audio feature, which the company calls Immersive Audio and says is designed to "enhance and add depth to your content." Most notably there's a new IMU chip (gyroscope with an accelerometer) that enables head-tracking technology.

Bose says that both the QC Ultra Earbuds and QC Ultra Headphones feature the Snapdragon Sound Technology Suite, enabling support for the latest Qualcomm aptX Adaptive codec for audio streaming, including lossless and low latency capabilities (Google Fast Pair is on board as well). The only problem is that it appears you may need to have a Qualcomm Snapdragon Sound-enabled device to use the aptX audio codec.

I paired the buds with a Google Pixel 7, which supports aptX audio, but it defaulted to the AAC audio code for HD Audio (iPhones use AAC) even after I accessed developer mode. When I paired them with a Samsung Galaxy Flip 5, which is supposed to be Snapdragon Sound-enabled, the same thing happened. However, when I connected them to an Asus ROG Phone 6, another Snapdragon-enabeld phone, I was able use aptX Adaptive.

I'm not sure what's going on, but it's pretty irritating and is clearly confusing consumers interested in so-called higher bandwidth audio codecs. I personally prefer Sony's LDAC audio codec to aptX, but it's all pretty subjective when it comes to audio codecs, and most people will have a hard time noticing a difference in sound quality.

But I digress. Back to Immersive Audio. Like other headphones that feature spatial audio with head-tracking -- Apple's latest AirPods, for instance -- the QC Ultra Earbuds have two spatial audio modes: one "still" mode, without head-tracking engaged, and a "motion" mode that uses head-tracking and allows the audio to "move with you, so it's always in front of you." The same Immersive Audio features are also available in Bose's new over-ear QuietComfort Ultra Headphones. Note that engaging it does impact battery life. You go from around six hours of battery life with ANC on at moderate volume levels (75 decibels) to about four hours with ANC on and Immersive Audio engaged.

The new Immersive Audio feature is really the biggest change, along with some voice-calling performance enhancements that in our real-world testing seemed subtle. "With the support of dynamic microphone mixing and adaptive filters, voice pickup is more intelligible in less-than-ideal environments," Bose says. More on that in a minute.

The QC Ultra Earbuds in black.

When Apple released its spatial for the AirPods, the emphasis was on what it did for audio while you were watching movies, as it created a sort of faux surround sound mode. The music side of spatial audio was initially less hyped, but in its Apple Music catalog Apple did point users toward "Made for Spatial Audio" tracks that featured Dolby Atmos mixes. Over time, the number of those tracks has grown.

In contrast, Bose is pretty much exclusively touting its Immersive Audio feature as it pertains to music listening. It will work with any stereo tracks, including movie soundtracks, but it appears to be geared more toward music listening with no mention of Dolby Atmos mixes.

Bose says Immersive Audio "goes beyond special effects and creates a wider, more spacious soundstage so your content becomes multi-dimensional and layered, regardless of the audio platform or device."

I think it mostly lives up to its billing, though it can be a bit hit or miss, working better with some tracks than others. Also, the sound does shift slightly when you move your head, even when you're in "still" mode. Some people will like that, but others may not.

On most tracks, there's a noticeable difference in sound quality with Immersive Audio engaged (as I said, you can debate how much better it is with different tracks). For example, I listened to Diddy's Another One of Me track and the sound was clearly more open (and more out of my head) with Immersive Audio on. With it off, the sound came across as slightly recessed. I should note that I did think the Apple Music Made for Spatial Audio version sounded slightly bolder and punchier than the Spotify version, so sound quality will vary according to your music source (I also use Qobuz for testing).

It's also worth noting that Bose appears to have ever so slightly improved the overall sound quality of the buds through some digital processing upgrades. Compared with the QC Earbuds 2, they seem to have a touch more clarity and bass definition. Sony's WF-1000XM5 earbuds may be a tad more revealing, but these QC Ultra Earbuds are in the same league for sound quality. They're excellent overall, and you can tweak their sound profile via an equalizer in the Bose Music companion app for iOS or Android.

Wearing the Bose QC Ultra Earbuds in New York City.

In my tests, the voice-calling performance has improved a bit from the QC Earbuds 2, but the buds still let in more background noise than competing models like the AirPods Pro 2. They do very well in less noisy environments, but in my torture tests in the clamorous streets of New York City, callers said they heard a good amount of background noise. My voice came through sounding fairly clear, but it did compete with that background noise.

Bose hasn't upgraded or moved the microphones. Any performance gains are due to tweaking software algorithms to try to better filter out ambient noise (that includes wind noise) while the microphones pick up your voice better. It's tricky. And while the buds rank in the "good" range for call quality, they're not in the upper echelon when it comes to making calls in noisier environments -- at least judging from my tests using an iPhone 14 Pro on the Verizon network.

Since these small gains are made through updated software algorithms, you'd think that the QC Earbuds 2 could get the same updates to improve its voice-calling performance, but Bose wasn't able to confirm for me whether that would happen.

The QC Ultra Earbuds have an IPX4 water-resistance rating (splashproof).

Like I said in the intro, the QC Ultra Earbuds aren't a major upgrade over the QC Earbuds 2, so if you already own the QC Earbuds 2, I wouldn't bother upgrading. That said, the QC Ultra Earbuds are definitely a little better -- I'd say about 15% better. They should fit most ears very well, and they feature superb noise canceling, arguably the best out there. And a natural-sounding transparency mode with a new ActiveSense feature kicks in some ANC should the sound get too loud around you (it's sort of similar to the AirPods Pro's Adaptive Audio feature). They also sound slightly better overall, with a touch more clarity, and the Immersive Audio feature noticeably opens up the sound a bit.

They still lack multipoint Bluetooth pairing, and wireless charging can be added only with an optional $50 accessory. But those gripes aside (hopefully multipoint and better support for aptX will happen at some point with a firmware upgrade), the QC Ultra Earbuds are among the very top true-wireless earbuds on the market, and they're worthy competitors to both Apple's AirPods Pro 2 and Sony's WF-1000XM5 earbuds.


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