What do you get when you cross a pair of sunglasses with a world-class tech company? Meet Frames, Bose’s groundbreaking offering in the arena of hearables aka smart audio. The combination may, at first, sound contrived, and had Bose executed these wearables differently; the result could very easily have been awkward. But, spoiler, Bose (mostly) got it right.
Before we take a closer look at the pros and cons of Frames, it is worth asking if there is any point in yet another intelligent audio offering given that we already have smart speakers with Alexa and Google assistant. That is a valid question: why indeed? The answer is simple: because you can’t take a smart speaker for a walk.
No doubt smart speakers are fantastic entertainers and information valets. However, their value-add is mostly in your home and your car. Ask a question, request a song, even order an item from Amazon, and you will most likely get what you need. But when you are out and about, your smart assistant needs are a little different. Sure you have Voice control on your smartphone, but speaking into your smartphone is not quite the same as spontaneously saying something out loud and getting an intelligent response from an electronic device as you might at home.
Similarly, the listening experience is different as well. At home, everyone in the room gets to hear your smart speaker, a situation that won’t translate well to public spaces. After all, you don’t use the speaker mode on your phone in the wild. This is where Bose’s smart sunglasses aka Frames come in handy: they are at your ears, at your command, ready to play music or take a phone call, in public yet privately, and with very little effort expended on your part. Bose’s website calls this is a personal listening experience, and that’s on the nose! Frames allow for discreet, private, hands-free listening, on the go.
The next obvious question is: how are Frames an improvement on earbuds? For me, there are no comparisons. Frames are superior in comfort, convenience, and, yes, in that je ne sais quoi that sunglasses magically add to your personality. Anyway, I never really took to earbuds: the idea of sticking anything into my ear has never been appealing. There was also the grossness factor: the “lint” on earbud flanges post-wearing has always been a turnoff for me. The fact that wireless earbuds are easy to lose has not helped. Frames cleverly side-step the first two by using an “open ear” design which makes them comfortable as well as clean alternatives to earbuds. And then there is their undeniable convenience: most of us are already used to wearing and stashing sunglasses. Moreover, while they are not that hard to lose, earbuds are much much likelier to drop out of one’s ears or get buried in handbags or desk drawers or vanities.
My First Impressions
The experiential aspect of these audio Augmented Reality sunglasses becomes apparent the moment you unbox them. The luxe black case is sculptural with an understated elegance. The cable is housed in a black jewellery pouch. Even the instruction booklet seems thoughtfully designed.
I was a little unsure about how fashionable they would be, and how heavy especially given the wider-than-usual stems. I was pleasantly surprised to discover that the glasses did not weigh noticeably more than my regular sunglasses, in particular, some larger designer ones.
As for the fashion tech aspect: the smart glasses come in two styles, the larger, angular Alto and the smaller, rounder Rondo. The frame is matte black nylon, with metal hinges. A greater selection with more colours and more shapes including, say, aviators would have been nice. Instead, there were just those two options. Actually, in reality, the sizing of the Frames ruled out my preferred style, Alto. I was, therefore, forced to opt for Rondo. I most certainly would not have picked traditional sunglasses in that shape, but ultimately I found the overall experience of wearing Bose’s Frames compelling enough that I let them insinuate themselves into my daily go-to tech-wear. Ever since I first tried them on, despite my underwhelming reaction to their shape, I have let my much more fashionable traditional sunglasses languish in their respective cases, untouched.
Bose Frames UX Design
Pairing Frames with my smartphone was straightforward, as was controlling their various functions. The underside of the stem on the right temple has an easily accessible multifunction press-button. It lets you answer or end a call; play music, and toggle on or off. The audio shades can also be switched off by flipping them upside down. The battery life is at par with most wireless earbuds, meaning it is not great, but no worse than most. Unfortunately, though, the charging cable is proprietary, and that is a bit of a downer: you will not be able to charge the glasses without them. I thought this a bit of a misstep on Bose’s part.
The Audio Experience
As soon as I put the audio sunglasses on and launched my favourite podcast, I heaved a sigh of relief: the Frames were worthy of the Bose name. Although I had been a little apprehensive that the micro acoustics might not live up to expectations, especially given the small size and positioning of the speakers, I really wanted the glasses to succeed. However, I needn’t have worried. The sound had surprising clarity and resonance.
Contrary to what one might suspect, these glasses don’t use bone-conduction; they have small drivers that are positioned just over the ears in the side stems of the glasses. Even though the speakers don’t rest inside the ears, the sound is fat, not flat, and full with an immersive quality. Another pleasant surprise: there was no sound-fatigue as can happen with small, treble-heavy earbuds. I was easily able to forget I had them on even after an hour or so of listening.
“Although the speakers are ‘open ear’, there is very little sound leakage. At standard listening volumes, others around you will not be privy to what you are listening to.”
To those who are wondering whether these speakers are worthy of their favourite music: the sound, as expected, is not the same as wearing over-ear headphones, but the Frames are a good tradeoff for the comfort and convenience. Also, although the speakers are ‘open ear’, there is very little sound leakage. At standard listening volumes, others around you will not be privy to what you are listening to.
There is no volume control on the glasses. You have to turn to your smartphone to crank it up or down. This may seem like an oversight, but it makes sense: adding more buttons/controls on the glasses would likely have taken away from their ease-of-use especially since you have to depend on your fingers, not your eyes, to do the adjusting.
Bose AR Glasses Future
Bose had designed Frames with an eye to audio augmented reality: meaning the glasses would summon contextually intelligent smart agents to your ear. Aside from being aware of your spatial location, the Artificial Intelligence assistants would also know which way you were facing. This data would enable them to provide you with relevant information such as the shop window you were looking at, or the restaurant you were hesitating in front of. This feature has not been turned on in the glasses as of yet; therefore, for now, they are mostly useful for taking phone calls and listening to audio. While I am excited about that audio augmented reality future, I am quite happy with the comfort and convenience they bring to my life even in their current avatar.
“Stop thinking of one hearable for all occasions, and instead realise that, much like shoes, we need different audio devices for different situations”
One recent afternoon I kept them on indoors when I went in for a much-needed long pedicure. My Frames afforded me eyes-closed privacy that I usually miss during such sessions. As I leaned back and turned on a favourite playlist, I found myself ensconced in the private cocoon that the shades and the sound created around me. This created level of privacy, I decided, was tech getting it right. Without uncomfortable earbuds, no wires, no holding on to my smartphone in case of an important call. It was real relaxation: hands-free, wire-free, worry-free.
Which brings me to an often voiced frustration with Frames: they are sunglasses and, therefore, limited in their wearability to sunny days. The rest of the time you have to find alternative wearable tech devices. And that is the perfect segue to where I think this segment is headed: we are at a point where we should stop thinking of one hearable for all occasions, and instead realise that, much like shoes, we need different audio devices for different situations. You don’t wear the same footwear everywhere so why expect to wear your AirPods or Frames morning to night. Given how quickly audio-devices run out of power, moving between two or three devices through the day has the additional benefit of your never running out of a charged earphone.
The way I see it, you would do your morning workout in sporty earphones, switch to your smart glasses for your commute and, if you are a woman, turn on your stylish, smart earrings at work or for an evening out. Bose’s sunnies have set the framework for occasion-appropriate, ensemble-driven hearables.