March 7, 2019

Bose Frames Alto Review: Seeing Potential

What I’m about to write is a very 2019 statement: my favorite pair of headphones are attached to my sunglasses.

Over the past year or two, I’ve had an audio crisis. At home, it’s pretty simple: Beats Studio 3s for the occasional noise cancellation necessities and HomePod for everything else. But when I’m not in the house—driving, walking, at the store, etc.—it becomes a bit harder to choose my headphones of choice. AirPods are great, but can be fidgety to use and don’t sound amazing; the aforementioned Beats Studio 3s sound wonderful to my ears, but block all sound and are bulky. And though I’ve never owned a pair of bone conduction headphones, I’ve never loved their look.

Which is why when I first heard of the Bose Frames, I was intrigued by their premise of delivering high-quality audio paired with a familiar form factor in sunglasses. I’d never been much of a sunglasses guy but hey, it was a new tech product that was affordable, different, and promised to offer some form of augmented reality. They might as well have made one pair and shipped it to me asking for a check in return.

Before I go too far, I want to address an obvious downside to the Frames—unless you’re going for a Casey Neistat look, you’re probably not going to wear sunglasses all the time, especially every time you want to listen to music. This was an issue I thought about often in my early days of using the Frames, and what I settled on was this: Bose Frames aren’t meant to replace your headphones. But if you’re frequently outside or in a car, they offer a one-of-a-kind complement to your usual set of headphones.

Feeling Good, Looking Good

The pair of Bose Frames I picked up are the Alto” variety, which feature a more squared-off look and a larger fit. Bose also offers the Rondo in a rounded, smaller shape. I think both look good, if not like most other pairs of fashionable sunglasses, though I’m not exactly the authority on fashion as evidenced by my excitement to change from jeans into cargo shorts in the summer.

The Bose Frames come wrapped in a rough plastic that feels nice and premium, but is still certainly plastic. On the face, my Frames have a noticeable weight without being too heavy; considering they are packed with sensors, batteries, and speakers, Bose did well keeping them light enough.

One common sentiment among those who’ve used my Frames is that their fit is hit and miss. For some, they fit snug on their face without feeling like they’re slipping; for others, though, they aren’t quite comfortable resting on the ears. On the surface, it looks like Bose has accounted for this problem by offering two size options—until you consider that the different sizes also feature different styles. This means that if a smaller person wants the Altos, they aren’t always going to fit right; and, of course, the same goes for the Rondo Frames.

For what it’s worth, I found that the Altos fit perfectly on my face, but your mileage may vary.

Using the Frames

The Bose Frames setup process includes the Bose Connect app which, at the time of writing, is basically just used to show somewhat of an interface for the Frames. I’ll address this part later, but my suspicion is that they require the use of the Bose Connect app because it will eventually be the starting place for using the Frames’s AR features.

Along with Bose Connect, the Frames pair in the standard Bluetoothy way. Once they’re set up, there’s not much else to do other than play audio. The Frames do also feature one hardware button for play/pause, skipping tracks, and interacting with your default digital assistant.

All in all, interacting with the Frames is a lot like interacting with Apple’s AirPods—the gestures/button presses are fine, but I wish there was a way to control volume from the Frames. Still, I can use my Apple Watch or Siri to change the volume, so I’m not completely hopeless here.

A couple more important things to note: the Frames turn off after a user-set period of inactivity or by flipping them upside-down for a few seconds. This may sound a little clunky in writing, but actually works pretty well. The Frames have a battery life of roughly 3.5 hours when playing audio and 12 hours of standby time. This isn’t going to blow anyone away, but it’s likely that it’s enough to get you through whatever activity you have them on for. When you need to charge them, you’ll have to use a magnetically-attached cable.

All About the Sound

…well, it’s not all about sound with a fashion-focused pair of headphones, but it’s still arguably the most important part.

I want you to imagine, based off of your experience with speakers and headphones, what you think good open-ear sound quality might be. Now, I don’t know your background or how much of an audiophile you are, but I can almost guarantee that you’re thinking too little of how good these Bose Frames sound.

Because considering what the product is, they sound really, really fantastic. No, they aren’t as good as traditional cans. And no, they aren’t even as good as many pairs of in-ear headphones. But for what they are—headphones attached to sunglasses that feature a tiny speaker that shoots sounds into your ears—they sound great.

I’d even go as far as to say that details in the Frames’ sound is better than AirPods despite being an open-ear design. The Frames aren’t punchy or base-heavy—how could they be?—but still deliver a really crisp audio experience that I was surprised by the first time I heard them and still continue to find satisfying.

Here, then, is the kicker: for $153, you can buy a pair of Ray-Ban Wayfarers that look almost identical in style to the Bose Frames. And for another $160, you can pick up a pair of AirPods. All of a sudden, the $200 price point for Frames doesn’t seem so radical. In fact, it seems like a bit of a bargain.

The Promise of Augmented Reality

Apart from the sound, Bose’s big selling point for the Frames is their Bose AR platform, which promises to offer unique augmented reality experiences delivered via audio through the Frames. Currently, Bose is still gearing up for the release of Bose AR, but we do have an idea of what’s coming via some demos the company gave to outlets like Engadget last year.

For now, I’m not sure it’s worth speculating what Bose AR could sound like in practice, but the idea of an audio-based augmented reality platform could be exciting. I love the thought of getting information about landmarks or restaurants as I’m looking at them (determined by the phone’s gyroscope and non-camera sensors in the Frames) or other unobtrusive applications of the technology. Until then, I’m looking forward to seeing where Bose takes the Frames.

A Surprising Success

My first interaction with the Frames was trying them out in a Bose store, and between that first listen and my eventual purchase, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much I enjoyed listening to audio through the Frames.

In a lot of ways, the product didn’t make much sense at $200 for my current lifestyle. And yet, as I’ve continued to find times to use them, I’m thrilled with the purchase. They aren’t perfect and they’re certainly a luxury; even still, it’s in that category of technology that makes me excited about the future.

And that’s worth something.