As an audio company Bose is many admirable things, but ‘responsive’ is not a descriptor that automatically springs to mind. So it’s mildly surprising to find the company’s excellent and well-regarded QuietComfort Earbuds II replaced after little more than a year, especially as they were still fully competitive when lined up against newer models from rival brands. It’s time to find out why Bose is in such a tearing hurry all of a sudden…
In many ways, the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are faithful to the sort of sonic attitude Bose has spent many a year refining - certainly they’re cut from that same full-bodied, fractionally bottom-heavy cloth as many Bose headphones before them. But the company has added a very welcome dash of alacrity and manoeuvrability to its sound with these earbuds - and they’re all the better for it.
So while there’s a familiar warmth and luxuriousness to the low end here, it’s rather more straight-edged than that of the model the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds replace where the attack of individual sounds is concerned. It’s no less substantial, but it’s noticeably speedier - which means there’s a deal more momentum about the way the earbuds present music, and quite a lot more positivity when it comes to expressing rhythms too.
Detail levels are as comprehensive as you would expect, but there’s a touch more clarity through the midrange and a little more bite and sharpness at the top of the frequency range. There’s decent balance to the overall frequency range - that trademark Bose bass weight notwithstanding - and there’s more drive and dynamism on display than you might be expecting. The presentation is big and spacious, and properly organised where soundstaging is concerned. The combination of composure and animation makes the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds very easy to listen to.
All of the above assumes you’re listening in traditional stereo, though. One of the major party-pieces of the QuietComfort Ultra range is the availability of Bose Immersive Audio, which is the company’s variation on the increasingly ubiquitous ‘spatial audio’ theme.
There are three settings for Immersive Audio in the control app: ‘off’, ‘still’ or ‘motion’ - ‘still’ fixes the spatial effect in position, while ‘motion’ incorporates some head-tracking that means you should always be in the centre of the sonic presentation no matter the position of your head.
In practice, Immersive Audio is your classic game of two halves. When it’s doing its thing with compliant content, there’s no denying the sound is bigger, less ‘in your ears’ than it otherwise would be - and there’s a definite sensation of space and three-dimensionality that simply isn’t apparent with the system switched to ‘off’. Not all content is compliant, though - and those recordings that don’t lend themselves to this kind of third-party interference can end up sounding diffuse and unnatural. Once you’ve established what’s what with your own personal playlists, though, it’s easy enough to switch Immersive Audio on or off as appropriate.
The differences between the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds and the model they replace aren’t all that visually apparent. About the only thing that gives the game away is the new metallic treatment on the outside of the earbud stem - “a more luxe look”, according to Bose. And there’s also a tiny notch on the top edge of the earbud to help the stability bands (of which there are three different sizes in the box) lock more easily into place.
Otherwise, it’s business as usual where aesthetics, fit and finish are concerned. The QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are made from high-quality plastics and flawlessly constructed. At 7.7g per earbud they’re far from the lightest around, but the combination of stability fins, pliant eartips (also supplied in three different sizes) and impeccable ergonomics means they stay comfortable for hours on end.
Certainly you won’t be feeling the burden of wearing them before their battery starts to feel the pressure. The earbuds are good for around six hours of playback, which is a ho-hum figure - and if you decide you want to use the clever ‘Bose Immersive Audio’ feature, that drops to a thoroughly underwhelming four hours. The charging case holds three further charges, which ain’t bad - and two hours connected to mains power can take the batteries from ‘flat’ to ‘full’, which is pretty decent too. For reasons best known to itself, though, Bose doesn’t allow the charging case to be wireless charging-compliant - instead, it is willing to sell you a cover for the charging case that incorporates this facility. Which seems, I don’t know, a bit grasping somehow…
The QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds use Bluetooth 5.3 for connectivity, and they’re compatible with the aptX Adaptive codec as well as the more prosaic SBC and AAC. There’s no multipoint pairing, though - which is a pity, because a) it’s a useful feature and b) pretty much every other premium-price rival includes it these days.
The touch controls on each earbud are properly implemented, so they’re both rapid and reliable in their responses. The ‘Bose Music’ control app remains one of the best examples of its type - not the most exciting to look at, but it’s comprehensive, easy-to-navigate, logical in its layout and utterly stable no matter the circumstances. And where call quality is concerned, the earbuds are able to detect in real time which mic in the array is subject to the least noise and prioritise it accordingly. In tandem with some improved noise-filtration, the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds are as adept where telephony is concerned as they are at music-making.
One of the most agreeable things about living with the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds is how thoroughly their active noise cancellation algorithms deal with external sounds. Obviously it’s going to come as no kind of shock to anyone that a pair of Bose headphones might feature excellent ANC - but nevertheless, the distance between the sort of noise-cancellation Bose offers and that of any of its nominal rivals is considerable. Without leaving any hint of counter-signal, without disrupting the noise-floor or in any other way hinting at just how hard they must be working, the QuietComfort Earbuds Ultra go ahead and deal with each and every external sound this side of a medium-sized detonation. Which leaves you free to enjoy the many positive aspects of their sound quality without distraction.
At the asking price, the Bose QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds have some extremely capable competition - but the combination of talents available here is formidable. The sound is predictably big, but surprisingly sprightly. The comfort of the fit is unarguable, the implementation of the control options impressive, and with its ‘Immersive Audio’ feature Bose is up to speed where features are concerned too. The active noise-cancellation is, without doubt, the best around. If it wasn’t for the completely ordinary battery life and (to a lesser extent) the lack of multipoint pairing, the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds would be out on their own.
Laurie Anderson Let X=X/It Tango
Considering how straight-edged, austere and chilly the arrangement here is, the amount of warmth and humanity Anderson manages to generate is remarkable - as long as your earbuds can reveal it, of course. In addition, attack and decay must be clearly observed, and unless the tiny harmonic variations can also be teased out the tune will collapse into uniformity.
The Cinematic Orchestra All Things to All Men
Unapologetically musicianly and a fearsome test of speed, dynamism and attack, All Things to All Men also majors on deep, fast-moving low frequencies and a midrange with plenty to say for itself too. This is an expansive performance consisting of numerous elements, so your earbuds need to be able to unify them into a singular occurrence if the tune is going to sound like a performance rather than a collection of individual events.
Kiyoshi Yamaya/Toshiko Yonekawa/Kifu Mitsuhashi Soma Nagareyama
A luxurious languid, exquisitely recorded take on Stevie Wonder’s Superstition performed by some true titans of mid-70s Japanese jazz-funk with a rare groove. Which means your Bose earbuds will need to demonstrate pinpoint tonality, must express rhythms naturalistically, and must most of all know exactly when to get down (and how much by).
You buy the QuietComfort Ultra Earbuds because you want premium sound from a premium product - and because you want to enjoy that sound in splendid isolation, thanks to the most effective ANC around.