Watch out, Ray-Ban, there’s a new competitor in town, and it’s…Bose? It’s difficult to determine whether to classify the $ 199.95 Bose Frames as Bluetooth earphones or headphones, as they make no contact with your actual ear. But there’s no mistaking the fact that they’re also a pair of sunglasses. And surprisingly, they succeed on both fronts, delivering crisp and clear audio through a classic, stylish design. The real drive behind the Frames is to showcase Bose AR, the company’s upcoming foray into augmented reality. For now, however, these are simply sunglasses that output wireless audio, and while they aren’t perfect, they’re pretty cool.
The Frames comes in two styles: Alto, which looks similar to the classic Ray-Ban Wayfarer, and Rondo, which features rounded frames in a smaller fit (this is the model we tested). No matter the style, the plastic frames are matte black, and the lenses are dark, but your eyes can easily be seen through them. The look may not be for everyone, especially the temples, which are far bulkier than on most sunglasses. This is where the audio drivers, battery, mic, and Bluetooth circuitry are located.
One button, located on the right temple, is all you need to power up, pair, play, pause, manage calls, and skip tracks. There is no volume control on the Frames, so you’ll need to do it through your mobile device.
The included USB charging cable connects via a magnetic port on the interior of the right temple. Bose estimates battery life to be about 3.5 hours, which is similar to many true wireless earbuds and will vary with your volume levels. The Frames ship with a drawstring pouch for the cable and a sleek, stylish case for the glasses. A microfiber cloth for cleaning the lenses would have been a nice inclusion.
Bose bills the Frams as sweat resistant, but they have a rating of IPX2, which is about as low as IP ratings get. I’m not sure I’d wear the Frames in a downpour, or even rinse them off under a faucet. Considering that they’re built for outdoor use, this seems like an odd limitation.
This brings up some other limitations of the design. The Frames are, after all, sunglasses, so unless you work in an exceptionally bright room, you won’t be wearing these at your office desk, or in any other indoor scenarios. I asked Bose reps if there are plans to create regular glasses for indoor use, and the answer was vague, but it seems like the company is interested in expanding this lineup.
Another issue for some users (like me) is the lack of prescription lenses. I have poor eyesight and only wear glasses, so wearing the Frames means squinting quite a bit to read signs. Bose says you can add prescription lenses without disrupting the internal electronics, but it will void the warranty.
Pairing, App, and Bose AR
The pairing process is straightforward, but more than a few times, the Frames disconnected unexpectedly and almost immediately after pairing, and occasionally it took a few tries to get them to reconnect. This happened whether I used the Bose app to connect or not.
Using the Bose Connect app to set the Frames up is almost unnecessary. Pairing can be done via your phone’s Bluetooth menu, just like a regular pair of wireless headphones, and this is what the app walks you through. Other than that, the app provide updates for the Frames and allows you to name them.
The Frames are made to work with Bose AR, and the company has provided developers with the SDK necessary to create apps that utilize the Frames in unique ways. There’s more to come in that regard (specifically, there should be some announcements at SXSW 2019), but the gist is: The Frames can detect which direction you’re facing, and that, combined with the audio element, makes them an interesting tool to combine with, say, map-based or exercise apps. It all depends on developers answering the call, of course, but there is potential.
The temples house drivers aimed at your ears, but there’s no actual contact with your ears like you’d have with headphones or earphones. The audio isn’t intended to leak out to the world around you, but in a quiet setting, others nearby will be able to hear what you’re listening to if you’re playing it at moderate to high volumes.
This lack of an in-ear seal, and the distance between the ear and the drivers presents a real challenge—without a seal or the ability to rely on the proximity effect, there’s potential for a bass drop-off. On tracks with challenging intense sub-bass content, like The Knife’s “Silent Shout,” the Frames don’t distort at top volumes, but they also don’t output much bass depth. At lower volume levels, the bass sounds fuller, which means there’s some serious DSP (digital signal processing) that kicks in at the higher volumes to prevent distortion. The result is a thinner sound at higher volumes, and a fuller one at lower volumes.
Bill Callahan’s “Drover,” a track with far less deep bass in the mix, gives us a better sense of the Frames’ general sound signature. The drums here sound a little thin; most of the richness and depth comes from Callahan’s baritone vocals. There’s an excellent crispness, which provides clarity, but this is not a terribly bass-infused audio experience.
Our experiences with Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “No Church in the Wild” and orchestral tracks, like the opening scene from John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary, were also similar. The lows are dialed back, the highs are bright and crisp.
There’s a single microphone inside the Frames, which helps with wind resistance, as does a mechanical gasket. The mic offers strong intelligibility. Using the Voice Memos app on an iPhone 8, we could understand every word we recorded cleanly and clearly. There wasn’t much in the way of fuzzy Bluetooth audio artifacts, and the mic even picks up a little bit of bass depth.
Normally we’d provide more detail here, but in testing, something became clear: The Frames are decent headphones, but not amazing. Their purpose seems to be for the future—for augmented reality apps and clear communication, and perhaps this is ultimately what they will really be used for, more so than music.
As sunglasses, the Bose Frames are comfortable and stylish. As headphones, they deliver impressive sonic performance for drivers that make no contact with your ears, but again, there’s no seal, and this ends up meaning not much bass. In their current iteration, in which they’re basically basically sunglasses with built-in headphones, they’re not for everyone. If developers come through with integration for maps, fitness apps, messaging, and other communication, they could be a game changer.
If you’re hesitant to be an early adopter, and really just want wireless audio, consider the true wireless Bose SoundSport Free, or the less expensive JBL Endurance Jump, JBL UA Sport Wireless Pivot, or Jaybird Tarah. Of course, none of these are built for augmented reality or shield your eyes from the sun, but they all deliver stronger sound quality.