Review: Bose SoundSport Free versus AirPods — sport-ready without the magic

While no one has managed to match the magic of AirPods in the almost two-year period since they hit the market, there is one Apple-endorsed pair of wireless earbuds that arguably fits the slot where theoretical AirPods Pro could exist.

Bose SoundSport Free Wireless are truly wireless, offer 5-hour battery, and include a protective charging case like Apple AirPods. SoundSport Free Wireless also adds water resistance with an IPX4 rating, in-ear sport tips for delivering louder sound and natural noise cancellation, and a higher retail price.

Bose hasn’t quite captured the wireless-without-compromise balance that Apple struck two years ago, but SoundSport Free Wireless includes a few significant features that may be worth the trade-off with AirPods in some situations.



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Apple hasn’t updated AirPods since their launch in December 2016, but it has previewed an update coming to the charging case and there are rumors about future versions. Apple showed off its AirPower charging mat that will work with a new wireless charging case for AirPods, but Apple hasn’t shared an update on when we should expect either product to debut.

Future versions of AirPods are rumored to include some level of noise cancellation and water resistance as well as voice-activated Siri without double-tapping, but Apple hasn’t announced any of these features yet. For now, customers need to look for alternative wireless solutions if water resistance and noise cancellation are priorities over size and automatic pairing.

I really like AirPods — two years in and they’re absolutely unmatched in what they offer. I’ve used AirPods during a half marathon run, hundreds of humid and sweaty workouts, and even during moderate rain without issue, but I’ve heard of lots of examples of AirPods meeting their match in similar situations so your mileage may vary. My interest in Bose SoundSport Free Wireless today (and future versions of AirPods for that matter) involves a mix of noise cancellation and battery life though.

The single area where AirPods under-deliver for me is actually a combination of both volume and battery life. AirPods are rated for up to 5 hours of battery life on a single charge, but that’s based on continuous playback at 50% volume. In practice, AirPods can deliver around 2 hours 30 minutes of battery when playing at 100% volume. Music keeps me motivated on longer workouts, but AirPods can power down before I’m ready to do the same.

This was my experience a year ago when running a half marathon — my AirPods had 4% battery life at the end of the race:

I started the race with the audio volume set to about 50%, then steadily increased it to 100%. AirPods are great because they pair wirelessly to the watch and don’t have a cable in between earbuds. You can also hear your environment fairly well and quickly take out an earbud which pauses your music if needed.

I heard the audio indicator letting me know my AirPods reached 10% battery at 8:48 am — just under two hours into the race. […]

I lowered the volume to 75% to extend battery life a bit and checked percentage remaining from Control Center on my Apple Watch a few times. Ultimately I completed the half marathon without my AirPods actually dying, but I’d need to run faster or bring the charging case (or use BeatsX or PowerBeats3) if I wanted to run a longer distance.

Bose SoundSport Free Wireless match AirPods battery life with 5 hours promised, but the in-ear style earbud makes audio sound louder without cranking up the volume as high. The in-ear style also naturally eliminates some level of ambient noise like earplugs. I love how AirPods don’t always block ambient sound, but noise cancellation can be ideal for noisy environments including flights.

My goal with Bose SoundSport Free Wireless is to match the convenience of AirPods and extend battery life without compromising on volume. I’m running a half marathon again this year, and this time I’ll be using SoundSport Free Wireless.

While I’m not in love with the design of Bose SoundSport Free Wireless, I have to admit that AirPods looked weird for months too. I don’t think SoundSport Free Wireless have been quite the same phenomenon as AirPods, so the normalization process won’t play out quite the same, but I can see similar truly wireless earbuds becoming “normal” in time.

Looks aside, Bose SoundSport Free Wireless has a few wins over AirPods in general. Here are a few things that are better than AirPods in certain situations:

  • In-ear style with natural noise cancellation and more sealed audio delivery
  • IPX4 rating for water resistance against sweat and rain
  • Clicky buttons for volume and playback control without relying on voice control
  • Black option available unlike AirPods which only come in white

SoundSport Free Wireless also includes small, medium, and large ear tips which means they should fit in more ear sizes than AirPods which have a one-size-fits-all approach. You can also be actively paired to two devices at the same time and easily switch between either of those devices; you can’t hear audio playback from two devices simultaneously, but Bose switches between whichever is sending audio and lets you switch with a button click.

If you don’t need noise cancellation or stronger water resistance, AirPods deliver an overall better experience. These are some less favorable differences to expect:

  • Micro USB charging versus Lightning (why not USB-C?)
  • Charging case is noticeable bulkier, but offers only 10 hours battery versus 24 hours
  • No auto-pause when removing earbuds
  • Pairing is wonkier and firmware updates are not automatic

The difference between the two charging cases is especially notable. The Bose version is like a mini sunglasses case in your pocket, but overall it’s not nearly as miniature as the AirPods charging case. It also features a push button to open and close (the button doubles as a case battery indicator) compared to Apple’s more impressive magnetic method.

Bose features buttons for changing volume, toggling playback, activating Siri, and even switching between pairs of devices, but the buttons certainly aren’t a pleasure to use. They’re hard to click and feel like they need to be worn in before they’re more comfortable to use while wearing.

Speaking of comfort, in-ear earbuds are immediately louder than earbuds that just sit in your ear, but that can lead to discomfort during long listening sessions. This isn’t a deal breaker, just a trade-off.

The polished experience isn’t the only difference between SoundSport Free Wireless and AirPods. Apple’s AirPods are remarkably good at staying paired and in sync without responding to wireless interference. Bose SoundSport Free Wireless are much more responsive to environmental interference that causes one channel to momentarily drop. The connectivity challenge is worth not having a cable running between each earbud, but it also makes you appreciate the wireless work Apple put into AirPods.

Ultimately, I strongly recommend AirPods if you’re in the market for wireless earbuds and use Apple devices. AirPods are just as impressive today as when they first launched. A different solution that makes other tradeoffs may be worth considering if AirPods don’t work for you for any reason.

For me, Bose SoundSport Free Wireless won’t be my everyday, take-in-my-pocket pick, but I do think they’re better suited for the job of multi-hour workouts and noisier environments. SoundSport Free Wireless is closer to what Beats Powerbeats3 (which Apple owns) should be. They also show me which market a more premium version of AirPods could strike.

My final concern is simply how SoundSport Free Wireless looks. AirPods looked weird initially, but market adoption made them look normal. Now they hardly draw attention. SoundSport Free Wireless look more like something The Avengers would wear to communicate. My dream design for higher-end AirPods is more like Apple’s old in-ear wired earbuds — cross that design with current AirPods and now we’re talking.

Apple Stores sell Bose SoundSport Free Wireless at their regular $199 retail price, but other retailers including Bose, Amazon, and Best Buy currently have a $30 discount at $169. Worth consideration if you’re in the market for something like AirPods that can handle more ambient noise and maybe even a little water.

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