Essentials Week spotlights unexpected items that make our daily lives just a little bit better.
There are many sensitive inches of space on or in your body. Two of the most important are known as your ear canals. Stuff earbuds like the Apple AirPods in them, and not only are you isolating from the outside world — you’re also blocking air flow, which makes your ear canal’s sweat glands churn out more earwax.
Ear, nose, and throat doctors have called this blockage “a fertile breeding ground for bacteria” if you leave it in place for too long. And while there’s a chance you might be breeding the good kind of microbiome by having earbuds in all the time, you might also (like me) be particularly susceptible to bacterial ear infections. Doctors also note that wearing earbuds for hours at a time may damage the jaw joints that sit next to those inch-long canals.
Luckily, a new kind of earbud technology arrived in 2021 — one that doesn’t block the canals at all. Nor does it rely on bone conduction, a weird and still experimental form of transmitting sound that some users (like me) find too soft and tinny for enjoyable listening. No, the $199 Bose Sport Open Earbuds are the first headphones to use the company’s OpenAudio system. They sit far above your ear canals, and blast tunes into them from what Bose calls “precision-placed acoustic ports” — tiny speakers, basically — using the shape of the ear to augment the sound.
That explains why Bose has been marketing its open earbuds to runners like me who find music extremely motivational yet still want to hear everything going on around them. They’re not designed for use in any situation where some small sound leakage could cause problems, such as lying in bed next to a partner who’s trying to sleep. That said, having owned and enjoyed the Bose Open Earbuds for the past six months, I can confirm that this leaves a lot of use cases where they’re better than the regular earbud model — not just exercising.
In large part, this is because the Open Earbuds are easy to wear when you’re not listening to anything. The position of each bud at the top of the ear makes them seem more like cool black ear jewelry than headphones. My ears aren’t just open to out-in-the-world sounds, they look that way too. Which means there’s no sense of being silently judged when you walk, run, or cycle past someone. They instantly know they can call out to me if they need to. I no longer feel part of the problem of technology isolating us in wider society.
This is why I, an Apple fanatic, never even considered AirPods as exercise headphones. It wasn’t just the stress dreams I’d have about them dropping out of sweaty ear canals (not a problem with the curly shape of the Open Earbuds, which are very secure once you practice the unusual “slide them around the back of the ear” maneuver). It was also this: What do you do when you’re sick of having AirPods in? If you’ve run for an hour to the store, say, and want to quickly grab some food as a reward?
You could stick them in your pocket and risk losing them there, carry the charging case and risk losing that, or keep them in your ears and use the mic to “pass through” the sounds outside, which seems as weird as wearing glasses with a live video feed of what you’d be seeing if you weren’t wearing glasses. Why not just, y’know, listen to the outside?
My running headphones of choice prior to my Open Earbuds purchase was Bose’s $120 regular SoundSports. This was partly because the sound quality of all Bose headphones seems to work incredibly well for my hearing range (your musical mileage may vary, as well as your experience with Bose products in general.) But it was also because of the very simple design choice of having the buds connected by a wire at the back. Which meant that at the end of the run, I could dangle them around my neck.
But with the Open Earbuds, I simply leave them in place. They’re just a bit too heavy to forget they’re there altogether, but they’re also not uncomfortable; I can go for a couple of hours at a time without wanting to take them off. Which tends to mean I use them while grabbing groceries on the way home from running: There’s no fear of cart collisions, and the small sound leakage effect isn’t something other shoppers could possibly hear over the noise of the store. You have to be within 6 feet of someone in a quiet indoors environment to hear them even slightly. Which has made them the perfect headphones for the COVID era: If you can hear what I’m listening to, you’re too close.
The downside of being open
Of course, there are still plenty of instances where Open Earbuds aren’t the perfect fit. While their sound is surprisingly clear, you’re not getting all the rich, deep bass other headphone models will readily provide. If I’m listening to music or watching TV quietly late at night, I’m wearing an over-ear wired set of cans. If I’m doing chores, especially if there are distracting noises around me, I’m going to grab my favorite walking-around noise-canceling headset (the now sadly discontinued Bose QC30s, still available for $199).
The QC30s can also connect to two devices at the same time, something I wish the open earbuds would do. It’s a minor hassle to have to switch back and forth for runs where I want to take my GPS Apple Watch (on which I can now pre-load my mega Spotify running cadence playlists, or at least the first 50 tracks), and leave my iPhone at home. Which is a shame, because hitting the streets with just the watch and these Open Earbuds is the lightest, most liberating information-rich experience I’ve had in a decade of trying out running tech.
There are other negatives worth noting. The Bose Music app, which you’re forced to use to set up the Open Earbuds, is bare-bones and inferior compared to the Bose Connect app, which worked with all older headphones. The customizable touch-sensitive sides on each earbud are apparently so sensitive to movement that I’ve turned off the ability to use them, rather than have my volume go up and down randomly while jogging.
The magnetic charger is weird and nonintuitive, so much so that I have put the Open Earbuds on it the wrong way round more than once; unless you know to look for the blinking white light, you won’t know whether it’s charging or not. (Luckily the Open Earbuds carry a pretty decent charge for these kinds of devices, enough for eight hours of use. By comparison, AirPods only get five hours of listening time.)
Still, the Open Earbuds are better and clearer when it comes to talking on the phone than their noise-canceling elder Bose brethren. If I know I’m going to take a long call, I’ll grab the open earbuds from their default position (on the weird magnetic charger, which I’ve placed right by the front door). They also look better on Zoom calls than ear-blocking devices, to my eyes. (I’d wear them more often if the earbuds connected to multiple devices at once.)
And when I’m traveling alone, the Open Earbuds have become my default device to fall asleep to, because I’m a side sleeper and these things, again, do not smush into your ear canal like regular earbuds.
In fact, the biggest problem with the Bose Open Earbuds may be that name. They’re not buds at all; they’re high-powered, highly directional miniature speakers that happen to live at the top of your ears. The company needs to find a way to market that fact to more than just the exercise set. It shouldn’t be hard to emphasize just how gross regular earbuds are, with their bacteria-breeding blockages that basically require you to be extra vigilant about how long you have them in at a time.
If AirPods feel like a relic of the past, this kind of unobtrusive headphone design could well be the future.
If AirPods feel like a relic of the past, this kind of unobtrusive headphone design could well be the future, especially if they can improve the bass end of their EQ spectrum. There’s already a massively oversubscribed Kickstarter with a similar design. We can’t wait to see, or rather hear them in action.
In the meantime, my fellow runners and cyclists will have to carry the cans, so to speak. Our numbers appear to be growing; I see a surprising amount of runners wearing them on the nearest trail to my Bay Area home. We see each other coming, we hear each others’ footsteps, we’re less likely to be enclosed in a world of our own. We spot the peculiar black ear jewelry as our own; we nod, and smile, and pass on by — quiet custodians of an ear canal-liberating revolution.