They're big and heavy, but these $200 sport headphones track heart rate and balance sound for running.
By Ian Birnbaum
MacworldMAY 14, 2020 8:30 pm PDT
Image: Ian Birnbaum / IDG
At a Glance
Strong bass sound
Thick, heavy cord that doesn’t tangle
Reliable pulse tracker
Good app support
Weak high-end sound
Short battery life
The Bose SoundSport Wireless headphones are big and chunky, but they’re well-suited for exercise and they support popular running apps.
Since the shelter-in-place orders came into full effect, I’ve seen a lot of people in my neighborhood take up running. It’s no wonder: the gyms are closed and people are looking for any excuse to get out of their homes for an hour a day and burn some pent-up energy.
At first glance, these SoundSport Pulse wireless headphones look like a solid choice for comfortable running headphones. They’ve got the power of the Bose brand name behind them, and they feature an integrated heart rate sensor that plays well with popular workout apps like
MapMyRun. But when so many other wearables offer the same pulse tracking and integration, I don’t think the beefy SoundSport Pulse headphones do enough to justify their equally beefy $200 price tag.
There’s a certain look that exemplifies “sport” tech, and these headphones check off everything on the sporty-tech cliche list. They’re thick and heavy, with rounded rubberized shells and prominent BOSE logos on the front panels. They’ve also got a two-tone black-and-red color scheme that will fit in with your favorite GPS-connected fitness watch, your extra-tall compression socks, and that sweat-wicking running jacket that glows in the dark.
It’s not cool to brag about wires in a tech gear review, but here goes: the wire on these SoundSport Pulse headphones is really nice. I ran with enough wired headphones before the dawn of readily-available bluetooth audio gear to know that floppy wires can really suck the fun out of a workout. The wire connecting the two earbuds is thick, heavy, and protected with a layer of rubber. The wire is substantial enough that it didn’t bounce and flop across my neck, and it never bunched up or twisted.
It seems almost quaint, but with the support of a seriously top-notch wire the SoundSport Pulse show off a lot of great features that I’ve been missing from true wireless headphones lately. The inline remote and microphone—sitting proudly on the aforementioned really excellent wire—just plain works better than any touch control on a set of true wireless earbuds. Plus, that inline microphone sounds great. Having the ability to bring the microphone around to the front of my face makes me sound better in calls than algorithmically boosted, sound-focused in-ear microphones.
The star of the show and the main selling point of the Pulse—the bullet point that makes them cost $200 instead of $130—is the built-in heart rate tracker. It’s a cool idea: built into the left earbud is a smooth plastic nub. When I have the earbuds in, the nub presses into the flesh of my ear with enough pressure to sense my pulse. Bose has a free app that I used to connect to the SoundSport Pulse and get the heart-rate tracking feature active. From there, I was able to hop over to the Devices section of fitness apps like MayMyRun or Apple Health.
I won’t knock it: the heart rate tracking works really well. I’ve taken the SoundSport Pulse on several runs now across all kinds of uneven ground. The earbuds fit securely and don’t bounce around. This means that my music doesn’t get interrupted and my heart rate stays connected. There’s no problem with the Pulse heart rate tracking in practice. My concern is simple: do I need my headphones to track my heart rate?
Looking at the Devices section of MapMyRun is the first hint that this feature might not be necessary. To connect the Pulse headphones, I scrolled past options for connected shoes, smart watches, and GPS watches. There are commercially available smart socks, smart jogging bras, clip-on shoe pods. Almost all of them track heart rate—it’s one of the simplest mechanical biometrics to track.
I feel conflicted about ragging on the SoundSport Pulse for this. The Pulse set out to do a job, and it does it well. Mission accomplished! Well done, Bose. It’s just that I don’t think this mission is something that I needed Bose to take on. I haven’t tried the non-heart tracking version of these headphones myself, but as far as I can tell they’re the same piece of audio equipment without the built-in heart rate tracker. Unless you find yourself without a smart watch or other pulse tracker of any kind, I just don’t see anything to recommend the $200 Pulse over Bose’s own, simpler $130 option.
Battery and Fit
I routinely get a bit over 5 hours of playtime out of the SoundSport Pulse headphones. That battery life is pretty consistent whether I’m using any of that time to go for a run or not, which makes me think that active pulse tracking isn’t a heavy drain on power. This isn’t a ton of battery life, especially for wired headphones with this amount of heft. To be honest, I would have liked to see more.
Plugging in a mini-USB cord to the right earbud charges these headphones pretty quickly. On realizing that the headphones were dead right before I wanted to go for a run, I was able to plug them in, do other things for half an hour, and then head out for the run with about 50% battery—plenty for a workout.
The SoundSport Pulse headphones come with three different tip options for in-ear fit and security. I usually tend to favor smaller earbud tips, but I found that I got the most secure fit with the Large option. It took me a little longer to squeeze and massage the earbuds into place, but once I got them set they stayed put and I never had the heart rate-tracking nub lose contact with the skin in my ear.
The SoundSport Pulse sound great. Really great, actually. Their sound profile is distinctly boosted on the low end, which I found to be a bit annoying for general listening but absolutely perfect for listening to music while running. My stress tests showed that all that weight and bulk didn’t go to waste: the SoundSport Pulse headphones handled the bass shaker test more smoothly than any other headphones I’ve tried. They have a wide dynamic range that handled bass sounds better than I expected. Their frequency response was pretty weak on the high end, which helps explain their bass-boosted sound profile.
When it came time to sit in a quiet room and soak in the SoundSport Pulse, I stuck with what these headphones are good at: music straight off of my running playlist. I unironically love the silly manic energy of “Kick Out the Jams” by the Presidents of the United States. The SoundSport Pulse put way too much mustard on the heavy bass riffs and the electric guitar distortions, but I have to admit that I liked it.
“Wildcat” by Ratatat came on next, and I was happy to go with it. A faux-bobcat wild-animal snarl that repeats throughout the song showed just how reedy the SoundSport Pulse is on high- and mid-level sounds. At least the bass sounded fat and happy.
Finally, I played “The Nights of Wine and Roses” by Japandroids. Again, the SoundSport Pulse thumped through the steady bass drums and distorted guitar riffs. The higher sounds of cymbals and screeching guitar solos were lacking, though.
On reflection, I thought the only truly fair sound test for these headphones was to repeat the same set of songs while out for a run. The SoundSport Pulse headphones are definitely bass-boosted, but it turns out they’re boosted in exactly the way that balances out a hard run. Running is not an acoustically neutral activity, of course: the sound of my steps, my heart beat, and my breath all competed with music for attention. This is where these headphones perform the best. They’re never going to have a kind of studio-level accuracy because that’s not what they’re for. These headphones are designed to drown out the sounds of my physical suffering with “The House that Heaven Built” cranked up to 11, and they’re pretty damn good at that.
If you’re looking for great headphones for running, you could do a lot worse than the SoundSport Pulse. They have a solid, bass-heavy sound profile that is perfect for the sounds and distractions of a long run. They’re easy to wear, and they pair easily with fitness apps to track your heart rate. They’re a bit expensive, but if you’re shopping for headphones and a heart rate tracker in one, the SoundSport Pulse have it covered.