Review: Bose TriPort IE In-Ear Headphones
Pros: Bose’s smallest earphones, delivering price-appropriate sound detail and a typically warm sound signature, with unusually detailed stereo staging by earbud standards. Includes nice magnet and leather carrying case with cord manager.
Cons: Odd silicone ear tips will have serious fit problems in many users’ ears, rarely providing the isolation, snugness, or consistency of sound of competing designs at this or lower price points; some users will find these to be lacking in treble detail or overaggressive in bass, depending on fit alone. Pre-April 2007 version tips have been replaced based on widespread complaints that the tips fall off easily. Earphones are inefficient by standards of competitors at this price point, requiring more iPod power to be heard at normal listening levels. Larger and more square than typical headphone port plug will have issues with some iPod cases.
When you first see Bose’s TriPort IE In-Ear Headphones ($100), you’ll be surprised by their larger-than-average physical size and odd styling, but they’re actually the company’s smallest earphones yet. Best known for its larger, earcup-style TriPort and QuietComfort series headphones, Bose has been making an effort to miniaturize its designs over the last couple of years, and the results have been mixed: while trying to preserve sound quality, the company has traded off comfort, noise isolation, and pricing, not necessarily with the best results. Now that in-canal earphones have sharply increased in popularity, the company has taken an equally unsteady stab at this genre with TriPort IE, a product that begs for a revised sequel.
It’s obvious that Bose designed TriPort IE to be a step up from typical $50 earbuds, most of which are designed to feel nearly disposable. The package starts with a nice-looking, magnet-sealed leather carrying case with an integrated cable manager, visually similar to the two-piece, snap-closed set Sony includes with its similarly priced and designed MDR-EX90s (iLounge rating: B). Bose’s set also includes three different sizes of silicone rubber eartips that are unusually large by “in-ear” standards, and supposed to provide comfort and external sound isolation superior to most cheap earbuds. The biggest tips are alone roughly the size of Apple’s old iPod pack-ins, while the smallest are still larger than many in-canal earphones; each has a fluted end designed to channel sound into your ears. Because the eartip sizes are somewhat hard to visually distinguish from one another, Bose has colored their interior plastic black, gray, or white to help you figure out which set is which.
In our view, these silicone tips were Bose’s biggest design mistake with TriPort IE, but we understand why it went this route. Rather than following the standards set by earlier in-canal earphone designers, and placing at least a substantial part of TriPort in your canal, Bose leaves each earpiece lingering as far outside as possible, with the oversized silicone pieces providing padding. Unfortunately, no matter which size of tip we tried, we couldn’t get a good seal, and the earphones felt off-puttingly large by contrast with their competitors. The result is an earphone that feels like it’s less stable in the canal than even Apple’s current iPod pack-ins, and with noticeably less passive noise isolation than literally any of the $100 in-canal earphones we’ve reviewed. It’s actually a step backwards in this regard from even the MDR-EX90, which we felt was Sony’s weakest in-ear design in years.
The best thing that we can say about TriPort IE is that we generally liked its sound - the reason that it still rates at our B level rather than a lower C. Though we don’t generally believe that headphones need to be “burned in” - run for a number of hours before their drivers sound right - we heard a significant difference between TriPort IE straight out of the box, when it sounded atrociously flat and boomy, to how it sounded after a 10-hour burn-in period at peak volume. We’re not sure whether the process knocked some dust loose or more substantially settled TriPort’s driver, but the sound was significantly better.
Once burned in, TriPort IE was directly comparable in detail to recent $100 offerings from JAYS (d-JAYS, iLounge rating: A-), iSkin (Cerulean X1, iLounge rating: B+) and v-moda (Vibes, iLounge rating: NR), with a typically pleasant Bose sound signature - warm midrange and lows - thankfully here bolstered by clean highs. While we strongly preferred each of these named options to the TriPort IE design, this was more due to their relative snugness and isolation than any defect in IE’s sound. The biggest differences we noted were that IE did an especially good job of revealing intricacies in stereo separation, and presented a larger than average apparent “stage” - most likely the reasons Bose went with its unusual housing design. However, TriPort IE was slightly weaker in high-end detail than several of its competitors during typical listening - not offensively so.
There’s an extremely important caveat to the prior paragraph. Because of those silicone tips, we strongly believe that the TriPort IE listening experience will vary significantly from listener to listener. When the earbuds were pressed more into our ears, they were considerably more overwhelming in bass, and additional treble detail was also apparent; the further away they were - and the more “natural” their position in our ears - the less we could hear. Our impression was that Bose assumes that you won’t get a great seal with its design, and overcompensates on bass to guarantee that you’ll still hear warm sound anyway. The better the seal, the more exaggerated the bass will be.
Two other brief notes are also merited on smaller iPod-specific issues with the TriPort IE design. First, TriPort IE is one of the least efficient in-canal earphones we’ve yet tested, so our iPods had to be set at or above the 50% level to hear most songs at “normal” volume. This puts extra strain on an iPod’s battery life - an issue that doesn’t exist with the other $100 earphones we’ve noted above - and weakens TriPort IE’s sound signature at lower volumes. Second, Bose’s headphone port plug is one of the largest we’ve seen - a big chunk of plastic with the company’s name on it. Though it’s tapered at the very bottom, it’s large and square enough to present connection or fit problems with some iPod cases.
Overall, TriPort IE is somewhat of a disappointment: while it’s clear that Bose cared enough about sound quality and value to use drivers worthy of the $100 asking price, it hasn’t quite figured out the best way to get those drivers in your ears. The net gain of the larger driver design is slightly enhanced staging, but at the cost of consistent user-to-user sound, passive noise isolation, snugness, and overall comfort - features that would lead us to recommend Bose’s competitors instead. Our limited recommendation for TriPort IE is for those users who are looking for a sonic step above Apple’s pack-ins and other $50 earphone offerings, and have either larger, accommodating ears or an aversion to true in-canal designs; everyone else should consider the competitors mentioned above to be definitively superior options.
Updated April 3, 2007: In partial response to consumer complaints that the TriPort IE earphones lacked for stability, Bose in March 2007 announced that it would update the earphones with new silicone tips, a wire clip, and a lanyard. The new tips (above, left, and below), which began arriving in April, 2007, retain the same shapes as their predecessors (above, right), but are slightly more firm. Bose says that the tips “should remain more firmly in place” on the earphones, rather than falling off randomly. Those who have had the full earphones fall out of their ears will need to wait for the stabilizing neck lanyard and clip to provide added cable stability; those who found the earpieces uncomfortable overall would be advised to consider other alternatives. Updated September 18, 2007: Bose has now released the remaining two stability accessories, a neck cord and a shirt clip, shipping them to previous TriPort IE customers. A photo is shown below.