April 15, 2019

Bose Sleepbuds

Two days might be the shortest review period I’ve ever taken to get to my conclusion about a product, but I’m sad to say that’s all it took for the Bose Sleepbuds.

They’re going back to the store today, and the reason I didn’t like them has nothing to do with comfort, cost, or capabilities.

The Concept

The idea behind the Sleepbuds is to develop a pair of intelligent ear plugs that provide good passive noise isolation, a silent alarm, and that optionally play soothing, noise-masking sound loops.

The value of good sleep is so under-appreciated in today’s society that it’s almost ridiculous. Having just come back from a holiday where I was reminded of what good sleep can do, I’m now paying more attention to how I can optimize my sleep back home.

There has been significant research suggesting that noise exposure has negative effects on our health, and since I live in a city this is particularly relevant to me. Even before the trip, I had been experimenting with wearing earplugs while I sleep.

In this context, the Sleepbuds seemed like a compelling, if expensive, solution.

So I tried them.

The Good

Bose provides three sizes of silicone tips with the Sleepbuds so you can try them and find the ones that best fit the size and shape of your ears.

Once properly fitted (the default medium size worked great for me), I found the Sleepbuds to be very comfortable. They’re light, they sit well within the ear structure and thus don’t stick out in any way, and they didn’t fall out or feel at all loose during the two nights of sleep I had them in for.

The charging case and battery life situation is also a positive; the case is relatively compact and easy to use, and the buds can be used for two or three nights before needing to be recharged.

I also found the app intuitive and helpful in its instructions for how to set alarms, transfer new sounds over, and update the firmware.

The Bad

Given the cost, my expectations for the Sleepbuds were fairly high, but—I think—not unreasonably so. I expected two things:

  1. That they be as comfortable or more comfortable than using generic earplugs
  2. That the sounds be useful, well-made, effective at masking noise, and pleasant to listen to

The Sleepbuds let me down on both of these fronts.

Pressure

While they are indeed very comfortable and fit more securely in my ears than earplugs do, I quickly realized that sleeping on my side with my head on a pillow was less comfortable with Sleepbuds than with earplugs.

Even though they’re very small and sit deep within the ear, they’re still ultimately a hard object, whereas earplugs have the advantage of being squishy foam. So with the weight of my head pressing down on the ear, the Sleepbuds became slightly painful where generic earplugs just compress to accommodate the pressure.

It wasn’t enough to prevent me from sleeping, but it meant that I woke up to sore ears both mornings. If you sleep on your back or stomach, this may be a complete non-issue for you, but since I often sleep on my sides for part of the night, it’s a problem for me.

Audio

The biggest letdown was the sonic aspect of the Sleepbuds though. They sound absolutely terrible.

Bose doesn’t (currently) allow you to use your own sounds with the Sleepbuds so I’m not sure if the problem is the hardware or the audio files they’ve prepared, but the audio fidelity is abysmal. Distractingly, hilariously bad. So bad that it depresses me to have seen no other mention of this on any of the existing reviews of the Sleepbuds that I’ve read.

I don’t mind at all that you can’t use your own sounds, or that you can’t listen to music on them, or any of the usual complaints I’ve seen. All of that is entirely forgivable to me given the focused intent of the product.

But I can’t forgive the sound quality. It sounds like you’re listening to very poorly compressed, low bitrate audio from the earliest days of digital sound.

Bose made a lot of technical trade-offs to keep the Sleepbuds so small, and to push for safety given the delicate use case. It uses an extremely low power Bluetooth chip, very small batteries, and emits as little radiation of any kind as is possible. I suspect that these trade-offs are what account for the sound quality too—the onboard storage is likely minuscule, so they had to heavily compress the audio to get it to fit.

This is, however, unacceptable to me. My background in audio makes me deeply allergic to bad compression, and while I fully accept that this makes me sound like an audiophile snob, I defy anyone to listen to these and not notice the compression artifacts, the thin sound, and the overall plastic quality to the recordings. The plain white noise ones fare better since the sound is uncomplicated, but the ones that include rain, ocean waves, and other natural sounds are just unusable. And those are exactly the ones I wanted to use.

Having short loops of heavily compressed, profoundly unconvincing sound piped into my ears does not help me fall asleep.

Snooze

You may be thinking: don’t use the sounds then!

And sure, that’s an obvious solution. But if I’m not using the sounds, then the only advantage these have over normal earplugs is that they offer a silent alarm. The silent alarm is the only positive on the audio front, incidentally—an alarm is supposed to be grating, after all. In all seriousness, having an alarm that plays directly into your ear and doesn’t disturb your sleeping partner is great and reminds me of the silent vibrating alarm on my old Jawbone Up bands of the pre-Apple Watch era.

But a silent alarm is not worth over $300 CAD, particularly when you consider the comfort issue for side sleepers.

I really wanted to like the Bose Sleepbuds, but…I don’t. If you need a silent alarm and ambient noise protection, spend a fraction of this cost on generic earplugs and a Fitbit and call it a day. Or a night, I suppose.


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