Review: Bose SoundLink Around-Ear II

At one point in time, Bose was a very divisive brand. The people that purchased Bose products loved them and would never consider buying another brand. Those that didn’t buy them either wanted them but saw them as outrageously priced, or they were audiophiles that saw them as over-processed, over-marketed products hocked to ignorant consumers. 

While there was some truth in all of those opinions, the audio market has changed and Bose evolved right along with it. On one hand, the consumer audio market is now flooded with great options and Bose is just one of the many manufacturers that can wow consumers with a demo display at their local Target. But on the other hand, Bose’s pricing now sits comparably to their competition and their decades of experience in consumer audio results in some pretty amazing products—even for audiophiles. 

While Bose’s QuietComfort 35 Series II is the newest product with arguably the most visibility (and highest price tag at $350), they have a number of lower-priced options that are worth trying. I did just that with the Bose SoundLink Around-Ear II headphones—a product that proves to be much better than its long and confusing name. 

The headphones have a relatively limited feature set, and use an old Bluetooth standard. Call quality is mediocre, and while they can activate Siri, it’s a laggy, buggy process. They come with a nice carrying case, a USB cable for charging, and a headphone cable for passive use. 

Styling & Construction

The look of the headphones follows suit with their feature set; you likely won’t be purchasing them due to their handsome looks. While I appreciate a no-nonsense, understated design, I have some issues. First and foremost, they come in only two color combinations: black and blue, and white and tan. I certainly don’t dislike the options, but I’m not in love with them, either. But that’s clearly a matter of personal preference.

My bigger concerns are a matter of materials selection. While they have the benefit of being very lightweight and flexible, they are very plasticky. The ear cups swivel a total of about 135º and the hinges don’t feel especially sturdy. The pleather on the ear pads and top of the headband feel very nice and are very comfortable, but I’ve seen this same (or very similar) material crack and flake on older Bose headphones. Lastly, the Alcantara on the underside of the headband looks and feels nice, but it seems to have a lot of slack and I’m wondering about staining on the white and tan model. 

These things may not ultimately be issues at all, but I see them as things to watch out for. Only long-term testing will tell. 

Alcantara on the underside of the headband is comfortable, but I question its durability and ability to stay clean (particularly on the white and tan model). 

Comfort

On to the positive parts of the review, starting with overall comfort. I have been blown away by the comfort of these headphones. They are very lightweight (a perk of all that plastic!) and the materials that touch your head and skin are very soft. The closed ear cups truly sit all the way around my ears as circumaural headphones should, and despite the closed design, I really haven’t experienced any breathability issues. Finally, there’s virtually no clamping force on your head, allowing you to almost forget you’re wearing headphones at all. 

Sleek (but boring) design and amazing comfort.

Isolation Issues

While lack of clamping force is nice for comfort, it seems to create some isolation issues. These will not block out much environmental noise, so these are not especially well-suited for loud commutes. There is also a surprising amount of leakage, meaning people around you will hear your music—quite loudly, actually. 

Sound Quality

The SoundLink AE2 headphones will undoubtedly wow the average consumer, as Bose products have typically done. But I think these will actually win over many of the more discerning audiophiles out there. The frequency response on these is phenomenal! Bass is plentiful and impactful, all the while never being overpowering or exaggerated. The midrange is silky-smooth. The treble is clear and peaks in the correct range (around 3 kHz), but does tend to roll off and lose some consistency beyond that. 

Despite having angled drivers within the ear cups—something typically done to help with soundstage—the soundstage and imaging are both worse than average, but that’s not entirely surprising for a relatively low-priced close-back pair of headphones. A consequence of those angled drivers: headphone placement is very sensitive. Having the ear cups even slightly uncentered and/or off-axis results in a noticeable change in sound signature. While it’s not difficult to find the sweet spot, these are more sensitive than most headphones with that particular issue. 

Bose has been successful largely due to their software engineers. Look at any one of their products over the years and there’s always something about it that feels like there’s magic (or trickery) involved. Tiny satellite speakers that sound like a full theater; a single Bluetooth speaker that sounds like a stereo; active noise cancelling that erases the world around you. All of this is called DSP, or “digital signal processing.” It’s used to shape the audio signal into some alternate version of itself, and Bose uses it to trick your brain. 

The SoundLink AE2 certainly uses much less DSP than most of their products, but it’s still present in the form of something they call “Active EQ.” This likely means a number of things, but I’m guessing the primary use is optimizing the sound for your preferred volume level. Unlike many headphones, these actually sound great at low levels. Additionally, they sound extra-dynamic and punchy at loud volumes. The trick is subtle and almost always works, though sometimes I pick up on a hint of a difficult-to-explain, “processed” sound. Bose never provides a “pure” listening experience, but it certainly is enjoyable. 

Conclusion

While I ended up discussing many negative aspects of these headphones, it was only in an attempt to be balanced and objective. But to be clear: the pros vastly outweigh the cons. To recap, the only potential reasons to not buy these are if (1) you’re particularly rough with your belongings, (2) you need strong noise isolation (in or out), and (3) if you want the latest and greatest "smart" features. 

Otherwise, the AE2 headphones sound great on almost all types of music and their incredible comfort allows for hours of listening with no fatigue. Their newest market price is hovering around $200 and at that price, these are a real value and an easy recommendation.