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July 21st, 2019 at 11:29 am

Bose Frames review: smart audio sunglasses are a blast

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Music without earbuds looks and sounds surprisingly good, making these smart glasses the antithesis of Google Glass

The Bose Frames are the answer to the question: what if your sunglasses were also a set of smart, hidden headphones with no earbuds or no bone-conduction system, just a set of personal speakers?

As a wearer of true wireless earbuds, that’s not a question I ever thought I would ask. But the Bose Frames are delightful and leaving your ears free of buds or headphones has a clear and obvious case.

The term “smart glasses”’ might conjure up visions of Google’s ill-fated Glass, but the Bose Frames are not in the same league. There’s no screen, camera or any visible signs of “smart” from the front. Instead they have built-in sensors and a pair of hidden speakers, which pipe music to your ears.

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The Frames look like regular sunglasses with slightly thicker arms towards the ears – no camera or large lump up front to mark them out as smart glasses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

Bose has nailed the design of the Frames. They look like regular unisex sunglasses. Granted, the arms are a bit thicker and wider near the ears, where traditional sunglasses would taper, and there’s a small gold button for turning them on and controlling music. But I was happy wearing them when not listening to music.

There’s a choice of two frames: the larger, squarer Alto (as tested) and the smaller, rounder Rondo. Both are made from black nylon, come with black lenses and look fairly generic.

Other lenses are available as optional accessories, including a set of mirrored polarised (£30) or blue gradient (£20), which pop in and out easily enough with a bit of light force applied to the lens. But that’s about as far as customisation goes. Prescription lenses are coming, but aren’t available in the UK yet.

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Bose sells replacement lenses that users pop in and out themselves in a matter of seconds, no tools required. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

They’re comfortable to wear for extended periods without pinching on the nose or ears, and fold up just like any regular set. They weigh 45g, which is about the weight of a thicker set of premium sunglasses.

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If I was to nitpick I would say that the black frames look a little cheap and almost too generic. But the fact that’s even worth mentioning is testament to how not like other smart glasses the Frames are.

How they work and sound

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The sound is piped to your ears through the speaker grille at the end of the thick bit of the arms. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The glasses sound amazingly good for what they are. Two small speakers sit in the frame just in front of your ears. The music is directed straight to your ear through small speaker grilles, while cancelling sound is projected out into the world. The result is a sound leakage of about 1%, according to Bose.

In the real world if you have the volume below 50% people sitting right next to you won’t hear it. In fact I took delight in the look of surprise on people’s faces when I gave them the Frames and they suddenly heard my tunes blasting out as they put them on. It’s really very impressive.

In terms of raw sound quality, the Frames sound like a very open set of quality earbuds. They lack deep bass, but give them something complex and they shine with energy and warmth, with excellent separation and clarity.

Crank them up beyond 85% volume and you start to hear distortion, but they pretty loud by that point. Most of my listening was about at 60% on the street or about 30% in quieter spots.

The one thing the Frames can’t do that earbuds can is protect you from the loud din of a city. You can forget hearing music on a screeching train or while walking by a working jackhammer. In this regard they are very much like Apple’s popular AirPods.

Controls and connectivity

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A single button under the arm takes care of power and play controls. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The Frames support standard Bluetooth audio (SBC) as well as the higher quality AAC audio, and had rock-solid connectivity with both Android phones and the iPhone. No noticeable lipsync issues were present either, which made the Frames great for watching video.

 

 

The microphone was surprisingly good, picking up my voice clearly for the other end of the call (or Google Assistant/Siri). Be warned though: with no earbuds visible people think you’re talking to yourself.

 

Turning on the Frames is as easy as pressing the single discreet button under the right arm. The button also serves for pause/play or accepting a call. Double press to skip forward, triple for back. Anyone who has used wireless earbuds before will be familiar with this.

To switch them off just turn them upside down for a second or so. It all works great. The one thing they’re missing is volume control, so you’ll be reaching for your phone for that, which is a shame.

Battery life

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The charging cable clips in place with little effort thanks to some fairly strong magnets. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

You get just over three hours of continuous listening out of the Frames before the battery runs dry, which is normally enough. Charging is fairly slow and needs a proprietary magnetic USB cable that snaps on to the inside of the right arm.

The Frames come with a traditional sunglasses case, which is a missed opportunity. Most true wireless earbuds last about three hours, but are charged multiple times by their case. The Frames could really do with a battery in the case. It’s too easy to forget to charge them, turning them into standard sunglasses.

Bose AR

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Sensors are hidden in the frames that can detect your head position and interactions such as taps to the side of the glasses. Photograph: Samuel Gibbs/The Guardian

The smart bit of the Frames is support for the firm’s audio augmented reality platform, Bose AR, which is also available on the Bose’s popular QC35 II headphones, and on the upcoming Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700.

The Frames know which way you’re facing and your location from the GPS on your phone, so you can use audio to feed information about the real world into your ears.

But the platform only supports iOS at the moment and lacks a killer app. The best of the bunch are some 3D audio experiences, a golf app that can tell you where the hole is and some walking directions. None of them were interesting enough to use beyond novelty, but Bose AR has potential.

Observations

  • The USB cable comes in a small microfibre bag lose in the case with the Frames, which makes getting them out a bit clumsy
  • There’s no microfibre bag for the Frames included, which would make using them and keeping them clean while out and about a bit easier
  • Apple’s Face ID works through both the black and mirrored silver polarised lenses
  • Google Assistant/Siri is really good through the Frames
  • Polarised lenses have an odd tendency to distort the pavement, making it look less flat than it really is

Price

The Bose Frames Alto cost £199.95 with black lenses, with gradient blue lenses costing £19.95 and mirrored silver polarised lenses costing £29.95 as optional extras.

The Bose Frames Rondo cost £199.95 with black lenses, with gradient blue lenses costing £19.95 and mirrored rose gold polarised lenses costing £29.95 as optional extras.

For comparison, the Oakley Radar Pace, which has in-ear buds attached to the sunglasses, costs £400 while various bone conduction sunglasses cost from about £100.

Verdict

The Bose Frames are delightful – a set of premium sunglasses that also act as your personal music system. Kept to 50% or lower those next to you can’t hear your music, but because your ears are open you can hear the world around you.

Clearly this is a massive advantage for cyclists or pedestrians, but it also means you’re subjected to the noise of the world around you. For anyone who always walks around with earbuds in, as I do, this can be quite overwhelming when you first start out.

They look good enough that I ended up wearing them even when not listening to music. And when you do switch them on they sound surprisingly good, with rich audio that sparkles with the right track. There’s simply no comparison with bone conduction or similar other non-earbud personal audio technologies.

Listening to your tunes while still being able to hear the great outdoors while sitting in the garden or park in brilliant sunshine is thoroughly enjoyable. Trying to listen to a podcast while travelling on London’s noisy Piccadilly line, not so much.

So the Frames will never be the only set of headphones you need, and they could do with a battery in the case, volume controls and a few more styles, not to mention prescription lenses and some killer Bose AR apps.

But even at £200 the Bose Frames are the most interesting piece of wearable technology I have donned since the original Google Glass.

Pros: music without blocking your ears or making a racket for others, look good, choice of lenses and frames, comfortable, sound good, solid Bluetooth connection, excellent call quality

Cons: no battery in the case and only 3.5 hours between charges, will never be your only set of earphones, can’t protect from noise of the outside world, AR potential unrealized.

Via The Guardian

 

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