Wait, they can do that? Yes, these tiny wireless headphones can at least mask nocturnal nuisances, including snoring, barking dogs and garbage trucks. But a pair of Sleepbuds will cost you $250, require you to wear buds inside your ears all night long — and might not work for everyone. They worked only partly for me.
Medical and quasi-medical “wellness” devices have long promised to abate snoring, including face masks and mechanical pillows. Now sleep tech is booming like fitness tech did a few years ago, and Bose is the biggest name yet to try to get into your bed. It’s not hard to see why: A 2011 National Sleep Foundation poll found that 60 percent of U.S. adults experienced at least one kind of sleep problem every night or almost every night.
But the science of sleep, like fitness, is as clear as mud. David Claman, the head of the Sleep Disorders Center at the University of California at San Francisco, tells me patients lose sleep for reasons ranging from stress to environmental factors including distraction by glowing smartphones, temperature and, yes, noise. There’s little data on the most effective remedies for noise, he says.
I take Bose’s push into sleep seriously because it has a history of engineering rigor and because noise is arguably one of the hardest environmental sleep challenges to fix. Bose’s work on Sleepbuds included a pilot last year on Indiegogo, after which it tweaked its design and sent all those beta testers replacement ear buds. The final version has been available in stores since late June.
So in the interest of science, I set up a dreadful experiment on myself. Next to my bed, I played an eight-hour recording of someone snoring like a runaway freight train, while I wore the Sleepbuds to see whether I could still catch some z’s. Gadget reviewing isn’t as glamorous as it appears.
Before we get to the results, a word about how the Sleepbuds work. They don’t use the active noise-canceling tech for which Bose is famous. There’s no microphone or processor to wipe out background noise, like the Bose QC35 headphones you see on planes.
Bose wellness category director Brian Mulcahey says the company didn’t use its most well-known tech in the Sleepbuds because to be effective in bed, they needed to be small enough to wear while you sleep (they weigh 1.4 grams, according to a press release) and efficient enough to run all night (up to 16 hours). Nighttime distractions are also a different sonic beast than the steady hum of an airplane — and noise cancellation tech wouldn’t have been enough, Mulcahey says.
Instead, the Sleepbuds use noise-masking tech. That starts with buds that seal off your ear canals like earplugs. Then the Sleepbuds play additional monotonous sounds that are supposed to make your brain stop paying attention.
It’s like having two tiny noise machines inside your head, playing a low level of babbling brooks or rustling leaves while you sleep. Bose says none of the sounds is loud enough to damage your ears — and you should still be able to hear smoke alarms.
When you’re ready for bed, you put the Sleepbuds in your ears and then choose one of 10 themed “sleep tracks” on an accompanying smartphone app. (You could use them to zone out while you’re awake, too, and new tracks coming in the fall will focus on relaxation.) You can also set an alarm to wake you in the morning through the buds.
The Sleepbuds charge in a battery-equipped case, which looks neat, but I had some trouble using. When you place the buds back in, you have to line them up at just the right spot — and if you don’t, they won’t turn off … and won’t have juice next time you need them.
The biggest hurdle: You have to wear these things while you sleep. For a gadget that goes inside your ear, the Sleepbuds are remarkably comfortable. They feel snug without putting pressure on your ear, and are set in enough that you can sleep on your side. (Gross-yet-fascinating detail: Bose designed the tips to collect inevitable earwax, and then be washed out from time to time.) But despite these smart design choices, we’re still talking about a gadget that lives, literally, inside your head.
Will they work for you?
So back to my test, where I tried to survive the all-night snoretrack. Yes, the Sleepbuds did sufficiently mask the sound of the snoring for both me and my partner. (We had two pairs.) But that doesn’t mean either of us got great sleep.
My brain was perturbed just enough by the sound of my own breathing that I couldn’t get into deep sleep. I had the same problem when I tried wearing the Sleepbuds without the snoretrack playing in the bedroom. Even after a few days, it was hard for me to just forget the Sleepbuds were there.
Bose says I might eventually get used to wearing them. Jeffrey Ellenbogen, a sleep-medicine doctor and neurologist who consulted with Bose on developing Sleepbuds, says many learn to sleep with earplugs.
“The major step forward here from Bose is that they can be very comfortably worn while resting one’s head on a pillow — which is a major problem for other existing ear buds,” he says.
UCSF’s Claman, who hasn’t tested Sleepbuds, says he suspects I would respond differently than someone who is desperately sleep-deprived. Though I’m the kind of light sleeper who can be awoken by a slamming door, perhaps the Sleepbuds introduced more disturbance than they resolved.
My partner’s Sleepbuds kept falling out of one ear, leading to an uncomfortable night. Getting the right fit is key to making Sleepbuds work — it turns out each ear can be a different size.
So should you buy a pair? $250 is a lot for ear buds that can’t even play music — but it’s also cheaper than marriage counseling. The thing about sleep is that we’re all different. If noise is your main problem, you might have a great experience with the Sleepbuds — there just isn’t much evidence. Bose tells me it is considering a clinical study, but it hasn’t done one yet.
I share Claman’s view: “As somebody who believes in evidence, when there is no evidence — no research to say one is better than the other — then start with the less expensive alternative,” he said.
In this case, that’s inexpensive ear plugs. If those help, but you want more, then move on to Sleepbuds. Treat it as an experiment: If you buy the Sleepbuds directly from Bose and they don’t help, you can return them within 30 days for a refund.
Now if they could only make a gadget to turn off the noises inside your head when you’re trying to fall asleep.
Read more tech reviews and analysis from Geoffrey A. Fowler: