Snooze chasers: test-driving Bose’s ‘noise masking’ earbuds

A new product from the upmarket US audio company promises to lull you to sleep. Toby Manhire takes them to bed.

Fruit flies need it, homo sapiens need it, we all need it, even if scientists may not know all the reasons why we do. And the moments we know most of all that we need it – god, how we need it – are when we’re not getting enough.

No wonder, then, that sleep has become such big business. From artisan mattresses to elaborate biometric apps, the desperate quest for a decent kip is a powerful motivator to spend money. Into this somnambulant marketplace steps Bose, with its Noise-Masking Sleepbuds: wireless little things that nestle into your ears. “Designed for comfort, these tiny, truly wireless Sleepbuds deliver uniquely engineered sounds that mask unwanted noise and lull you to sleep,” boasts the marketing. “So you can wake up refreshed and ready to take on the day.”

What do they do? Better to start with what they don’t do. Bose are upfront about this: “They don’t stream music or have acoustic noise cancellation.” So they won’t perform in-flight noise-cancelling wizardry, and they won’t do your Spotify or podcasts. They’re dedicated to masking – with 10 atmospheric soundscapes, such as “swell” or “rustle” or “tranqulity” – designed to absorb and disguise whatever might be keeping you from slumber: chattering neighbours, traffic, a barking dog, a snoring partner.

The tech is as impressive as the design is exquisite. Housed in a brushed-aluminium case – something like the size of an old shoe-polish tin – they’re genuinely tiny, and unobtrusive, and comfortable. The case itself carries power, so that you can stick the buds in the tin and charge them untethered from the grid. They offer as much as two full nights’ juice. The need to keep them souped up for long stretches, while staying so small, is a large part of why they’re not tasked with additional battery-draining functionality such as playing music.

Across the course of a week I experimented with the 10 different “soothing sounds” as they’re called – which are delivered via an unfussy app, which also allows alarms to be set, or for the sounds to be programmed to quit after playing for a bit. Some of them worked for me, some of them less so. The crackling of “Campfire” had me wanting to put it out forever. “Tranqulity” was, for me, anything but: the eerie synth sounds just left me lying there imagining myself in a scene with a serial killer circumventing the house. But, look, each to one’s one.

“Cascade” I quite liked. “Warm static” had its advantages in a white-noise sort of way –and maybe that’s what these things are in essence, a sleek-tech grown-ups’ answer to getting a baby to sleep by putting a dehumidifier on high-power alongside the cot.

Best of all I took to “Rustle”, the sound of leaves coursing through an Able Tasman National Park forest (or a suburban driveway, whatever you like). It was loopy and distracting enough to send me under, and especially effective at sucking up the traffic noise that bounces off the busy-ish road beside which our house sits.

In my own tussle with returning bouts of insomnia, I’ve tried sleeping with in-ear headphones distracting my brain with dreary music or the most soporific imaginable podcasts, and almost invariably I’ve found them uncomfortable and flung them out. Just as often, I’ll nod off, only to be woken by one of the bloody things prodding at an ear. On this front, the sleepbuds are, in contrast, an unqualified success. I could barely feel them at all, even when sleeping on the side.

As for the noise, it took a while to find the best formula, which for me was old mate “Rustle”, set at medium volume, and flicking off after an hour or so (I found it disconcerting to wake to half way through the night). No doubt something like these sleep buds take a bit of getting used to, and I don’t think I’ll be wearing them every night, and I’d like them even more if they let me listen to endless podcasts, but they work. Obviously I didn’t conduct anything like a clinical trial, but they did help me ease into sleep.

Certainly they’re not a gimmick. You’d bloody hope not, given they retail at NZ $439.95. But even at that price, even if it can help in a small way to boost the tally of sleep hours, those are dollars many will be more than willing to spend.

Toby Manhire travelled to the Sleepbuds launch in Sydney as a guest of Bose

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