Bose SoundWear Companion Speaker Sound Quality

Bose_SoundWearCompanion_Photo_ConeOfSilence

Well, it's not a cone of silence, but it certainly does give the impression of all of a sudden being in a completely different acoustic environment, largely unlike anything I've experience before. Every person I've put them on, whether an experienced or novice listener, react essentially like I did at the airport, "Woah! That's really weird...and sounds way better than I expected."

Sound Quality
The closest thing I can liken it to is a pair of better-than-average, modestly sized and priced self-powered speakers in near field listening. But even then it's not really very close...this is a very different sort of listening experience entirely.

Bass extension only goes down to about 60Hz, but just like with small desktop speakers, this can still be satisfying, and does seem to be okay with the SoundWear Companion. While it was way better sounding than I expected, it does still sound somewhat insubstantial. Tinny is too strong a word, but the sound does lack some weight. Dynamic punch was rather limited.

A novice listener wouldn't be able to pick it out without some encouragement, but with experience the out-of-phase bass is quite audible. If you've ever heard a pair of speakers or headphones wired out of phase you'll know that the center image collapses and the image seems very wide.

Well, with only the low frequencies out of phase I tend to hear the bass as being somewhat spacious on the SoundWear Companion. I think if the bass had been in phase, the lows would be centered tightly and heard as coming from low in the neck area. Out of phase it delivers a sense of spaciousness that integrates fairly well with the rest of the image.

I do think some people may be sensitive to the out of phase bass and my experience listening fatigue. I know I could let it capture my attention and become fixated on it. But when I just relaxed and stop fretting about it I was pleased by the listening experience in general.

With headphones one normally hears the acoustic image as inside or very close to the head. With the SoundWear Companion the acoustic image is more like an acoustic cocoon close around the head. It's closer to headphones than speakers, but still quite different from both.

Tonal balance, other than the lack of bass extension, is fairly good. I didn't hear any annoying boxiness or peaks, and it didn't sound overly bright, or overly bassy. The bass did seem to intrude a bit on the low mids, but it's hard to tell if it's a level issue or the weirdness of the out-of-phase bass. I did try to turn down the bass a bit in the app, but in the end felt the factory setting most satisfying.

They did seem to get a little hard sounding when the volume was raised. Vocals would come forward and the presence region could become edgy. They don't play really loud and probably wouldn't sound good if you tried. The on board volume control did seem to have more finely spaced volume control steps than the phone, which was welcome.

As hinted at in the measurements, they also seemed to react a bit differently to differing program material. Generally, it seemed the better the recording the better they performed. Or, put another way, they seemed to exaggerate the recording's character—for good or ill.

But the biggest problem with evaluating them, by far, is how they're completely unlike anything I've ever heard before. I'm tempted to call them artificial, but that would put ideas in your head about phasy and weird response...and they just don't sound that weird. I think the Bose engineers have done a lot of trickery to better sound than they should have from something this small...and then managed to to put it all back together in an admittedly artificial, but surprisingly pleasing, soundscape.

I did have a couple of unexpected sonic surprises. Head movement did change the sound some. Turning your head left to right didn't change the image as much as it acted to roll-off the treble and turn the volume down a bit as your ears got farther away from the drivers. Tilting your head side to side had a dramatic effect on balance as one ear got closer and the other farther from their respective driver. Neither of these seemed particularly problematic in use.

I mentioned earlier that placing the SoundWear Companion under the neck of a t-shirt to stabilize them didn't effect the sound much, but it would get more and more muffled as you add layers...no surprise there. With a zippered sweatshirt with hood, if you leave it unzipped and put the hood up you can get a nice, relatively even bass boost. But try the same thing with a winter shell and the stiffer, less permeable hood tended to deliver a honky character. Similarly, having them trapped between your neck and pillow in bed at night caused them to take on some significant colorations.

Now, do they sound as good as a decent pair of $300 wireless headphones? No. Do they sound as good as a livingroom Sonos system while sitting in the sweet spot? No. But in some cases I think they'll deliver more listening pleasure than either one.

Use Case
While my Sonos system may sound good in the livingroom, on the porch, and in the garage where the speakers are located, as soon as I start walking around away from the speaker locations the sound gets poor pretty quickly. With the Bose my head is always in the sweet spot.

If I'm working in my garage wearing headphones, I'll often have to readjust them on my head as I get up and down and crawl around working on a project. Now winter is upon me, and thick, warm hats don't play well with headphones. With the SoundWear Companion I can put on any hat I want, I can crawl around under my truck, and I can put on my ear protection muffs when I run a saw.

We all know that comfort and styling can be almost as important as sound quality, and maybe more so in some cases. The SoundWear companion seems quite a bit more comfortable than any headphone I've worn. It's just a little weight on my shoulders tucked under the neck of my t-shirt. No encumbrance on my head at all—I don't care how comfortable a headphone is, it isn't as comfortable as nothing at all.

And in terms of styling they virtually disappear in a collared shirt or under long hair. Along those lines I think women might be more apt to wear the SoundWear than traditional headphones as it won't muss their hair.

The SoundWear Companion is great for:

  • Cooking and kitchen clean up.
  • General housework aside from running the vacuum.
  • Most workshop activities for artists and craft persons.
  • Exercise activities when a helmet is worn and/or situational awareness is required.

The SoundWear Companion is not good for:

  • Loud environments where the isolation of IEMs, sealed headphones, or noise canceling headphones work much better.
  • In extreme cold when many layers of clothes will overly muffle the sound, or in bed at night where the pillow will create too much coloration of the sound. Headphones are better here.
  • Despite the fact that the sound is much louder for you than those near by, other people in public areas will hear sound coming from you. They don't create as much noise polution as a boom box in public places, but they would be bothersome to others at times.
  • When high-fidelity is desired. Despite being astonishingly good given their size and ergonomics, they remain an artificial and mid-fi sounding device.

Bottom line, I've found them quite pleasing when I'm active around the house and workshop where speakers or headphones become problematic. They're perfectly adequate for casual listening and have the added benefit of being a really good headset for your phone. (Many people have commented that the headset mic is quite good.) They fill a niche I didn't know existed until I found myself using them.

Bose_SoundWearCompanion_Photo_OtherNeckSpeakers

I really think this is a breakthrough product which will produce a whole new category of listening device. I expect we'll be seeing quite a few competitors arrise; I did find a few in the course of this review as shown above and will be requesting samples. But just like with noise canceling headphones, I think the competition is going to have a tough time with Bose's engineering chops—and patents—as they try to achieve better performance.

Summary
The Bose SoundWear Companion sounds way better than I expected. It produces a very unusual sonic cocoon around your head. While it might be somewhat artificial and foreign sounding, it remains a remarkably pleasant listening experience.

It works great for puttering around the house or garden when moving from place to place makes a speaker less than ideal, and where physical activity makes headphone less comfortable. It also allows you to hear the kids call or chat with a spouse in passing. When tucked under the crew neck of a t-shirt they are quite stable and could easily be used for exercise activities, and may be particularly well suited for bicycling and skateboarding where helmets are used and you want to retain some situational awareness.

On the other hand it's poor in loud environments where IEMs, and sealed or noise canceling headphone work better. Though they will be much louder for you than the people near by, they will still be able to hear your music. These do produce some noise pollution and should be And though they're pleasant enough for casual listening, they won't have the fidelity desired for a high-end listening experience.

Yeah baby, the Bose SoundWear Companion delivers a surprisingly pleasant listening experience in some use cases that are poorly served by speakers and headphones. It's without doubt the best sounding and most useful neck speaker I've ever heard. Okay, it's pretty much the only one I've ever heard, but I like it, and you gotta start somewhere.

Resources
Bose home page and SoundWear Companion product page.
SoundWear Companion manual and patent.
Amazon customer reviews for SoundWear Companion.

COMPANY INFO
Bose Corporation
The Mountain
Framingham, MA 01701
1-508-879-7330
ARTICLE CONTENTS

COMMENTS
tony's picture

The Technology Curve is getting steeper!

Something you didn't suggest in 'your daily use description' of these devices was a comment about 'what percentage of the Day' were these things useful? I'd say that I'll wear my LG Tone for 90% of my working/waking hours, I have a ( never been used ) back-up.

Shure are making a headset using their 215 but also able to use their 535 and 846 in-ear monitor.

Geez, I see this segment getting some Style Attention, hmm, how long before they're on the Front Cover of GQ, being worn by Anderson Cooper or someone else, doing: Product Placement?

I still have uses for my wireless Sennheiser headphones but for how much longer?

Tony in Michigan

ps.. Onkyo & Pioneer have just released little Digital Audio Players with MQA, these devices seem like having an entire 1980s front end music system in the palm of your hand ( include having TTVJ's entire 12,000 vinyl collection on SD memory cards ) phewwwww.

ps.2, those Europeans, like Goldmund & DynAudio, are getting serious about going Wireless & Active.

Phoniac's picture

They forgot the Mute button...

AndreasCY's picture
wiinippongamer's picture

There's one product category that serves the same use cases even better: Wireless IEMs

Tyll Hertsens's picture
But you can't hear what's going on around you.
brause's picture

..and then the same old same old: when battery has been consumed after 3-4 years, one can throw it away and people have to buy another one. That's how Apple, Bose, and Co. create repeat customers.

Glad I still have two noise-cancelling earphones that run on a (rechargeable) AAA battery.

Thank you Bose - too expensive in the end.

Corsair's picture

Tried it in the bose store. Comfy and surprisingly good sound. Certainly good for doing the dishes, laundry, talking on the phone. You don't always want to put in and take something out of your ears. This is far less intrusive. Even custom fit or "comfy" iem's are not appealing to me. Will I buy this new bose product? Hell no, not even at a used price. I have better things to spend my hard earned cash money on, but it was fun trying it out, and I bet it will make a lot of users happy.

Harry Manback's picture

We have new Sennheiser HD660s headphones and you are reviewing a gadget?!? Come on Tyll, I value your opinion, please skip the silly gadgets and review the 660s.

Tyll Hertsens's picture
I have my request in, should be relatively soon.
davidmelis's picture

Thank you for your detailed review and for your passion / appreciation of quality music. I read and watched and just now ordered my own SoundWear. Thanks again!

yelero's picture

Tyll, when will you finally review and measure the Sennheiser HD660S?

zobel's picture

How about the new Sennheiser HD600S?

ednaz's picture

Not sure what brand (now that I know this is a "thing" I'll be obsessed with finding out) but a couple of cashiers at a nearby supermarket wear these around their necks. Headphones wouldn't be tolerated by the market (or probably by customers) because they're so obvious and would send a clear "I'm not listening to you" image. I did hear what they were playing, really low level, and it was way better than the pervasive, far too loud Muzak the store plays. I wonder if they are hearing both the blaring Muzak and their own music, simultaneously.

Not sure how I feel about this category of device being worn in jobs where someone's work involves dealing with others. At least the couple times I've seen this, the cashiers weren't tuning out their job or customers, so I didn't really pay too much attention.

This review did get me thinking about them for myself, though. I do photography, and on travel shoots, or when I'm out shooting street photography, there are long periods of time of just hanging out, waiting for the right light, or the right character to wander by. By long periods I mean an hour or two of just hanging out time. These would make that dead time a lot less boring. Headphones, even IEMs, take you too much out of the environment.

shing's picture

Hi, thank you for the in-depth review. I seem to be noticing a touch of lag whereby the movement of mouth is not syncing to the word. I'm connected to a macbook pro touchbar. Is this to be expected?

jimx1169's picture

Heard them at the Bose display at the local Frys. Sounded way better than I expected. The Bose display let me pair them to my phone so I could listen to my own music and I was pretty impressed. As mentioned in the article they won't replace a good pair of headphones for critical listening but they will, for me, replace my computer speakers for everyday listening. I love that I can hear the music but can also hear what's going on around me. For casual listening they're just what I didn't know I was looking for. Wish they were cheaper, though.
Jim

Johnson's picture

Thanks for the detailed review Tyll, I'm gonna check these out. I do tree service Raleigh NC all day and need a something like while I'm working.

Habu2u's picture

Tyll, Nice review of alternative listening gear. You mention "Sonos" throughout you review.

May I ask what Sonos gear you listen with at home?

I considering the simplicity of the Sonos system...

Thank you!

audioengineer's picture

Why do you refer to the application of science to design as tricks and trickery rather than audio engineering. Nearly a century ago pioneers like Stanely Stevens and Fletcher realized that in order to accomplish good acoustic playback (of music, voices, whatever) it would be valuable to understand how humans receive/process/perceive sound and incorporate that knowledge into the engineering design process. Maybe I'm just too sensitive but describing what you've discovered about the design of this device as tricks and trickery seems a bit biased or negative. Otherwise, I really enjoy your reviews because they are full of interesting content based on facts uncovered by your investigations.

annashetty's picture

I seem to be noticing a touch of lag whereby the movement of mouth is not syncing to the word. cool math games

rolltheballaz's picture

I think this is an informative post and it is very useful and knowledgeable. I really enjoyed reading this post. big fan, thank you!
- roll the ball

agariogames1's picture

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