Bose SoundLink On-Ear Bluetooth Headphones - Black


Pros: Light and comfortable, battery life, controls, microphone, improved treble, tight bass
Cons: Big-ish to take around, tighter bass compared (see review)
TL;DR: Quick version? The SoundLink On-Ear bluetooth headphones are passable to good. I'm thinking these can live alongside my other headphones as my one and only bluetooth offering. They're comfortable and moderately on the light side, but the combo of folded headphone and case is bulky as, and just difficult to take around. The bass is more on the rhythmic side than melodic side, and midrange tends to follow. Sound staging needs a lot of imagination as an on-ear headphone, but it's still enough to get roomy sound from jazz or classical music. They're definitely the most detailed sounding of Bose's On-Ear range, but not historically (Compared - QC15 explains)
So, I finally sprung for my first set of Bose bluetooth headphones and decided to go for my favourite form factor for out-and-abouting (that's on-ear incase you're somehow wondering)
I've already owned the SoundTrue On Ear headphones (which are basically the same amount of enjoyable as my OE2s because....well....they are the same) so I've decided to pop a side-by-side of them on here just in case, as well as review the SoundLink On Ears on their own merit. I'd definitely say to take my review with a few extra pinches of sugar or salt, or your preferred seasoning, as I'm basically still in the "convince myself to keep them" phase (I do still love my mint on-ears) OK, let's stop my procrastinating and start!
Ergonomics & Convenience
In advance, I'm one of those people that's never had an inherent problem with cables, so I never really get bluetooth headphones because they work over bluetooth. I just get good headphones that I might or might not like the sound of. On that note, I love the fact that these connect by Bluetooth! The controls are in a good position as well, It's still easy to use blind (as in, without looking) one handed and still get what you need. Trust me, there are headphones with a cable that already make this quite difficult, let alone when it's moved to your head. The buttons you can see in the picture live on the back of the right ear cup. A.K.A, in perfect thumb distance. The microphone is also really clear. I've used them for a lot of phonecalls and when I tell people I'm using headphones they just don't believe me! Granted, I haven't used a lot of headphones that have this sort of distance between the mic and your mouth, but they do a good job in my opinion. The only downer is that Siri gets moved to phone audio and sounds awful through the headphones, but it could be much worse. (it does get bad from here)
The Case of the Case
The headphones fold up, much like everything else Bose make. One thing though, they only fold inwards. They don't fold flat. That takes the case that could be very small (SoundTrue On Ear, anyone?) and makes it double the thickness. Can these fit in a hoodie? Yeah....but it looks like you're very happy to see someone on the train. I ride a bike, so these usually just live in a backpack until I want to use them, but even then they take up a noticeable amount of space. I just can't 'not feel' these when I'm taking them somewhere, and that's a problem for a headphone that's meant to be small and portable. Wearing them neckband mode, however, isn't a bad thing and can work out as an alternative to lugging around the really big case.
This is what you really want to know though, right? How they sound? Well, here we go!
WAIT!!! Important note, this is the sound over bluetooth, which lasts 14 hours. After this, as an overview, treble and midrange become less forward. Basically, on the cable, they sound exactly the same as SoundTrue On-Ear headphones.....make of that what you will
Treble & Detail
I always have Nils Frahm on my speeddial of artists to try for this, and Hammers on the album Spaces shows the level of difference you get from Mids up to Treble for me. The subtle differences in brightness between every piano key seem to be present on this, a consumer headphone. Even Nils Frahm's hums over the top quite early into the track and his breaths are audible through these with the piano filling in the rest of the track. It's the most pleasant assault on the ears I could think of when turned up quite high.
Using SebastiAn's C.T.F.O as a test of harsh treble, these seem to handle it well compared to other plays into On Ear headphones that Bose have done. The treble has the more metallic feel I'd expect from this track, but isn't overly harsh. It still has a sense of being slightly warmed up by everything else. Trying them out with Home by Gabrielle Aplin, you notice that treble still has the warm Bose sound you expect, just with a little bit more aggression. You notice this mostly with the cymbals and the maracas in the background near the end of the track that are crisp and clean, but still ever so slightly veiled. I quite like it, others might be looking for something more analytical. In all honesty, if analytical is you, stop now.
Midrange & Bass
I decided to pop these both into one because I just couldn't get to grips with each one individually. Using Joss Stone's 'Drive All Night' as an example, when the song picks up a lot more and the background vocals come in, they still have separation compared to the rest of the track. Stone's voice seems pleasantly intimate, akin to a more forward, narrower QC15 with a bit more fullness from the on-ear fit. The only issue I have is with the Bass. The punch to the drums is definitely there and defines the rhythm of the track....and lets you know it defines the rhythm of the track. The bass guitar however, which I've always remembered as the 'front' of the baseline, is wrongly tamed by the headphones. It's there, and I know it's there, but it's just.....missing it's soul a little bit. It's a shame, because on more modern types of music these excel (my next 'review' as an example) but here is where I feel that there's a little bit missing in a minor but annoying way. As you can tell, I really want to have these burn in and this become a non-issue as the drivers become smoother and get used to moving, but at this time as pretty fresh headphones I'm a little bit saddened.....maybe they'll change....
Move it over to something modern, like the Tourist Remix of 'The Wire' by HAIM, and aggression, fun, and some sense of teenage parenting become the way that these headphones live. The lower end of bass (not sub-bass, just lower frequency normal-bass) is on the right side of boomy for my young ears, and the punch that defines the rhythm and pace becomes a lot more welcome with the speed of the track. The headphones also don't seem to have too much of a problem giving the Bose softness a bit more pepper and Red Bull. The synthesised steel drums get a little bit sibilant when accompanied with 20 different instruments, but the SoundLink On Ears keep everything moderately under control. Bass response then comes into it's own and shows that it's still got a place in our hearts, being able to just about vibrate the ear pads (I love that feeling!) but it still doesn't just blindly overpower everything. I can enjoy the musicality of electronic music with these, something which a lot of other bluetooth headphones aimed for the common consumer don't seem to do.
Soundstagins is......passable....for these headphones. They'yre not Beyer Teslas, but they still have a slight width to them. Granted, you do have to use your imagination for this one. The start of For-Peter-Toilet Brushes-More gives you a very spacious echoing effect to the synthesiser being played live on stage by Nils Frahm. It stretches quite far, but still feels slightly local to the headphone itself. In their defence, they are on-ear, but in our defence, this should be executed a little bit better even taking into account the restrictions on size of the headphone. Separation of instruments is good when you have a lot, and it can handle quite complicated things. Hell, 'The Wire (Tourist Remix)' is a good example of the style of organised chaos this can give, and Jazz still gives you a good 'room' feel for it's sound staging.
Listening to 'Stratsbourg/St. Denis' by the Roy Hargrove Quintet makes me feel like I'm the microphone in the middle that they're all playing towards (and I have an afro, so that could be closer to the truth than you'd imagine) and everything seems to be correct here. The piano sounds like it's a teeny tiny bit behind me, to the left. The drummer's to the left of me asking why I'm drinking vanilla coca-cola like it's water, and the bassist knows how to fill the room. Roy knows he lives on my right shoulder, maybe pointing towards my ear. The soundstage in this track feels like it just about gets to the width of my shoulders at it's maximum. Not bad for On-Ear consumer, but it could be better.
Overall, these are good headphones. I quite like them. I think they have a pleasantly forward treble and midrange among Bose's history of On-Ear headphones, and the battery life means that I actually have to remember to charge them occasionally. They are difficult-ish to take around though, having the larger case compared to what I would be used to is a bit annoying and is a limitation on their part, but it could be worse...they could be the size of other branded headphones, or Around-Ear cases.
If you're planning on buying these new, I would definitely ask if you ​need bluetooth. Do you need to connect these to two things at once? Do you need to be wireless? If the answer's yes, or 'no, but I really want to' then these are the Bose headphones you're looking for. If you're like me and don't need it, then still consider these for their sound. Over bluetooth, I'm actually debating between the SoundTrues and the SoundLinks (these) over subtle-ish differences.
If you want these as a refresh of Bose OE2s or SoundTrue On-Ears just because they're On-Ear and new, I wouldn't. You need to be compelled by the sound of these to want them. The cabled OE2 and SoundTrue OE are still good headphones. I'm still keeping mine just in case I want a bit more uncontrolled fun! Or some minty freshness.
Quick-ish Comparisons
Compared - SoundTrue On Ear (mint headphones in the picture)
Most importantly, the difference is around £70 in the UK. Seriously though, other than the obvious bluetooth thing, the SoundTrue On Ear headphones are much lighter and therefore a lot more 'wear-all-day-able' and have a lovely case that fits everywhere. Jeans? yep. Hoodie? you bet. Under your pillow? Where did they go?!
Sound-wise, the SoundLink On-Ears (bluetooth guys) are definitely a lot more.....'equalised' and 'hi-fi' like. The SoundLinks have a sharper and clearer midrange upwards, although that means that by the law of perception their bass isn't as dominant. The SoundTrue On-Ears (minty) tend to wobble a lot more on your ear, so you actually feel the music. That makes them fun for me. They don't have a huge amount of detail compared, but to me that makes them slightly warmer. Their bass also isn't as punchy. Actually that's wrong!! Their bass is the same, it's just that their emphasis is on the melody of the bass rather than the rhythm that the SoundLinks like. Their midrange is the thing you hear more and that's what makes the SoundTrue On Ear more...maybe veiled by comparison.
Overall, SoundTrues aren't as detailed, but make up for it in a less forward and more melodious midrange and bass. SoundLinks are overall more accurate, but are punchier for the mid and bass, by adding in some extra treble. Both are aggressive as they can be, and know how to be fun in a controlled way. It's just that the SoundLink Bluetooth On-Ears are a bit on the sharper side, SoundTrue On-Ears are a bit blunter and softer, to veiled on the extreme mean-talk of them.
Compared - Bose QC15
....Get QC15s.
Compared - Bose QC15
OK fine, I'll be serious. QC15s are the SoundTrue On-Ears bass and midrange with a much nicer treble compared to all of the other Bose Headphones (including the QC25s I returned) They are detailed, but still have a nice warmth. Sound staging on the QC15s is much wider because they're Around Ear and the speaker is physically further away, and everything's quieter because they are noise cancelling. They're also cabled, with a cable that's a teeny bit on the long side. So when I said get QC15s, it's because sound-wise (which is what matters a lot for me) they are better.
Out and about, if I'm completely honest, I manage. Most people who want a headphone to commute with or use as their daily headphone will find these, at the best of times, as large as the SoundLink On-Ears and manage like I do. At worst, they'll find them big, and find that having to use AAA batteries (even if they're rechargable) annoys them. Hell, with a 35 hour battery life on a single AAA though, it's a first world problem for me but is a deal breaker for most.
Price-wise, you might be able to get a good condition set used, and some new ear pads direct from Bose for the same price as these. Or, if you want QC25s, you can spend an extra £40 in the UK. My overall opinion: if you want them for noisy environments and want better sound, and don't mind a bit of work to integrate them into life, QC15/QC25 are worth a go. SoundLinks aren't bad, QC15s are just better.
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Bluetooth Guru
Pros: Comfort, portability, balanced sound
Cons: price, no aptx
At fist, a warning: it seems that the Bose Soundlink On-Ear have compatibility problems with iOS devices, which cause intermittent connectivity and skipping music. It is not clear to me if this problem happens always to all iOS users or just on some units, but given this risk I would suggest to buy them only where you can return them in case of problems. Like here in Amazon.
I am waiting for an answer from Bose about this. For now I only know they are aware of it and are searching for a solution which could be applied via firmware update.
Android and Windows users are not affected by this issue.
Now, my impressions.
Light, small and foldable. You can even keep them in the pocket of your jacket.
Elegant form and small dimension = Look good and discrete on the head
Fit tightly enough to do fitness, and still feel gently and soft on the ears for many hours.
The overall sound is impressive, considering how small they are, and the absence of APTX.
The "tone" or quality of the sound is pleasantly "fresh", like I prefer, and still they're balanced enough not to miss any part of the spectrum. Neither too warm nor too cold.
The Highs are well represented and never "ear-hurting".
The mids/vocals are warm, near and present.
The basses are actually surprising for something so little. They are not vibrant like the Fidelio M2BT, but still strong and punchy enough to make you move the head while listening to your favorite Techno theme, especially after some EQ.
The soundstage is not thrilling, but is quite ok for such a small and on-ear headphone.
The detail is also quite good, especially if you consider that they do not support Aptx.
You can turn them on and off very quickly due to the analogical lever.
They have got voice prompts which tell you "connecting to...", the state of the battery, and more.
You can connect them to two devices at same time! This means, you can listen to music on your PC, and still be able to receive a phone call from your mobile phone. The music on the PC is automatically stopped when you receive a call, but on my experience you still have to close the music player on the PC or there are interferences. Occasionally I even had to disconnect the Headphones from the PC to avoid clips while talking. Not a big deal. After all, it's an exclusive extra. But it should be improved with a new firmware.
Firmware can be updated via USB
Nice semi-rigid carrying case
one single button to pause the music and go to the next/previous track. Not the best solution. Three clicks for the previous track is a bit annoying.
They have no APTX. I am convinced that the APTX would give them more detail.
They require a mini jack if you want to use them with a cable. The cable is anyway included.
The speakers cannot turn 90° in flat position. This allow the Bose to fold smaller in the pocket of your jacket, but makes them thicker than the Fidelio in a backpack, especially once in their carrying case.
The carrying case also compresses them a bit. If you leave them in the case for some days you will find that the soft pads are pressed. Do not panic, it is memory foam, give them a while and they come back normal. Anyway, Bose, this should be improved.
The two LED on the back of the right speaker cannot be disabled, but at least do not blink.
They are expensive.
I bought these phones on an impulse.  I had won a $400 Best Buy gift card and since I couldn't cash it or buy food with it, I decided to get some Mo-Fi headphones.  I ended up returning them and getting the Bose SoundLinks.  I have written a comment on the Mo-Fi's elsewhere so I won't discuss that here.
I had been thinking about a set of high quality bluetooth phones and had tried and returned some Sony's.  OK, is using high quality and bluetooth in the same sentence an oxymoron?  Not in this case.
That said, I've never been a big fan of the Bose sound although I have owned several of their headsets over the years.  I decided to try these with the idea that I would return them if they were not satisfactory.  I'm using found money after all.
I should also mention that I own several very fine headsets.  Beyer DT 1350, Sennheiser Momentum (over ear) and NAD Viso HP50's.  I do most of my critical listening with my Fiio X3 or on my Mac with an Audioengine D1.  However, the idea of being able to listen wirelessly on my iPhone 6 was appealing.  Thus, I bought the Bose.
Simply put, they sound great.  They're light and comfortable and sound good.  I would not use them for critical listening.  They sound better in the bluetooth mode than they sound connected directly because of active equalization that Bose applies to the bluetooth signal.  But, its fine.  After all, the iPhone is limited ( I use the Onkyo HD player app) to 48Khz 24 bit FLACS and bluetooth is inherently compressed.   All in all a very enjoyable experience.
The comment was made in the review that they lack APTX.  Well, currently so does iPhone.  Most of the hype on APTX is from the company that owns the rights to it.  It is still compressed, but its different compression.  Is it better compression?  I don't know.  The bottom line is that I can't use it anyway so I not going to stress over it.
I bought these purely for the enjoyment and convenience of using bluetooth to listen to music on my phone (and take calls at the same time).  Until there is a new bluetooth standard that can accomodate greater bandwidth, there will be a compromise.  In the mean time, if you want a fine sounding pair of bluetooth headphone the Bose are worth considering.
I forgot to mention that I had no problems pairing with my iOS devices.  The connections are solid.