When you’re working out, music is motivating. But exercise is difficult enough without having to constantly worry about your earbuds falling out of your ears or your over-ear headphones getting sweaty and uncomfortable.
Thanks to the ever-growing popularity and ever-shrinking size of portable audio players, as well as the increasing use of phones as workout companions, headphone companies are focusing more and more on creating products specifically designed for athletes. These sports-oriented headphones tend to focus on comfort, a secure fit, and moisture resistance. Some also offer premium features such as Kevlar-reinforced cables for durability, Bluetooth wireless functionality, and multi-button remotes for convenient music (and voice) control.
I tested six sets of headphones designed for athletes (or aspiring ones, at least), covering a variety of styles, including earbuds, over-ear headphones, and bone-conduction models. Each offers fairly good audio quality for the category—audio quality is a tradeoff in sports headphones—but not all of them work well with every athletic endeavor. Read on to discover which headphones you should be using if you’re a runner, a lifter, or just a walker.
Key features: Waterproof—washable, in fact—thanks to a film coating.
In the box Cord shortener with clip, four pairs of eartips, a mesh bag.
The good The Sony’s XBA-S65 is comfortably designed, with eartips that fit well and unique, adjustable, rubber ear loops that help keep the earpieces securely in place during tough workouts. Audio quality is good, with bright treble and punchy bass.
The bad These headphones don’t have an inline microphone or remote, which means you can’t take phone calls during your workout, nor can you control playback without accessing your phone or media player. The XBA-S65 is also a bit less efficient than the other headphones we tested, which means it can’t play as loud from the same source as the other models, and the eartips don’t do a great job of blocking out ambient noise. The XBA-S65’s audio balance also tilts towards higher frequencies, which means fans of booming bass should look elsewhere.
The bottom line The XBA-S65 is great for most types of workouts thanks to being so darned comfortable. However, thanks to lower volume levels and mediocre noise isolation, the one isn’t ideal for noisy situations, such as a gym during peak hours.
Key features Moisture-resistant, Kevlar-core cable for durability.
In the box Seven pairs of eartips, a cable clip, an extra cable, a cable extender, a padded zipper case.
The good The Ultrafit 3000 uses an earbud design and comes with an impressive number of options, including seven pairs of eartips and two cables of different lengths (plus a cable extender), so you can find the exact configuration that works best for you. Once you manage to situate the earbuds inside your ears, they’re fairly secure and comfortable, and they offer excellent noise isolation. The inline remote offers three buttons and a mic, and audio quality is good, with excellent bass.
The bad These headphones feature hard-plastic ear loops, designed to keep the earpieces in place, that are difficult to put on—let’s just say there’s a lot of twisting involved. The inline remote is flimsy—it was coming apart when I removed the review unit from the box—and its buttons are not easily distinguishable by touch. The flat cable is good at repelling cord tangles, but that’s in part because it’s so heavy: Even with the included cable clip holding the cord (somewhat) in place, the heavy swinging of the cord gets old quickly if you happen to be, say, jogging.
The bottom line The Ultrafit 3000 is good for less-explosive activities, such as lifting weights. The tangle-free cord indeed avoids getting tangling, but it’s just too heavy for me to realistically want to wear the Ultrafit 3000 during more-active pursuits. The inline remote, while always a nice feature, is poorly-made and not very responsive when trying to perform a quick song change or music pause.
Key features Moisture-resistant, Kevlar-reinforced cables.
In the box Three pairs of eartips, three pairs of “earfins,” one pair of housing covers, one pair of diaphragm guards, a cleaning tool, a cable clip, a nylon bag.
The good The Sennheiser/Adidas CX 680i earbuds have a special “earfin” design, which means there’s a small, rubbery fin that sits inside the upper part of your ear to help lock the earbuds in place. The earfin design is comfortable and secure, and it’s also easy to place inside your ear (unlike the Monster iSport headphones, below, which have a similar design but with harder fins). The cable includes a three-button remote/mic module, and audio quality is excellent, with bright treble, punchy bass, and great noise isolation for earbuds. The maximum volume level is very high—though you won’t need it, since the noise isolation is excellent—and there’s virtually no bass distortion at the higher volumes.
The bad There’s actually very little bad to be said about the CX 680i. These headphones aren’t quite as bassy as the Polk Audio Ultrafit 3000, but they offer more detail at the higher frequencies. The inline remote features easily-distinguished buttons, although the buttons are rubbery and can be a little difficult to press quickly.
The bottom line The CX 680i is good for a variety of activities, and this model is second in comfort only to the Sony XBA-S65. Noise isolation is excellent, so you may not want to take them running outside, but these earfin-equipped ‘buds are comfortable and secure enough for indoor running.
Key features Moisture-resistant, bone-conduction technology.
In the box A USB charger, a cable clip, a three-inch cord extender, a soft carry bag.
The good The Mobile Headphones’s bone-conduction technology—which sends audio to your ear drum, in part, through the bones of your head—allows you to hear your music while keeping your ears unobstructed so you can still hear ambient noise. These headphones are extremely comfortable, because their earpieces sit flush against your face, just in front of your ears, rather than over or in your ears. The cable hosts a two-button (power, play/pause) inline remote/microphone. Audio quality is pretty good considering they’re bone conduction—treble is decent, bass is invigorating, and the maximum volume is very loud.
The bad The bone-conduction design, which uses drivers that are more like small speakers than traditional headphone drivers, means that your music is no longer private—if you turn up the volume while using AfterShokz’s Mobile Headphones, everyone nearby will be able to hear what you’re listening to. The wrap-around neckband, while comfortable, is a bit long, which means that if you lean your head back, the neckband will hit your back and move the headphones. The inline remote is limited to a power button and a play/pause/talk button—there are no volume controls. Audio quality, while good for bone-conduction headphones, is the worst of the headphones in this roundup.
The bottom line AfterShokz’s Mobile Headpones work better for outdoor activities where your head doesn’t move very much, such as running, hiking, or cycling. Using them indoors will result in a lot of annoyed people, since the design doesn’t keep your headphone noise in, and you can’t use them in environments where you need noise isolation, since they don’t cover your ears at all. Also, the headphones aren’t very secure, so using this model during activities that require lots of head movement will displace them, as will, for example, lying on a weight bench, thanks to the around-the-head band. The inline microphone works fairly well (audio sounds crisp on both ends), but the open design means your conversation will be pretty public.
Key features Moisture-resistant, wireless (Bluetooth).
In the box Two pairs of spare earpads, a USB cable.
The good The SB2 Sportsband is, without a doubt, the most stylish model in this round-up. It’s also the only wireless set of headphones, and the only full-size (on-ear) model. The SB2 is comfortable, thanks to a rubberized interior that helps them stay put on your head during workouts. Audio quality is very good, with “warm, thumpy bass” (an accurate description by the company) and decent treble reproduction. The wireless functionality is excellent, offering up to 30 feet of range, so if you belong to a small gym, you can even leave your phone or other Bluetooth-enabled player in your locker. One of the earpieces sports volume and playback controls, and there’s also a microphone for calls. The rechargeable battery offers about seven hours of continuous play time.
The bad The headphones aren’t super-secure, so they’ll slide around if you move your head too quickly or forcefully. Large-headband headphones are also not ideal for people who have a lot of hair, or who like to wear high ponytails. The SB2 Sportsband’s four-button control feature (which perform a variety of functions, including adjusting volume and controlling playback and phone calls) takes some getting used to—it’s easy to accidentally activate voice controls when you want to turn up the volume. And, of course, you can’t use Bluetooth headphones with old-school iPods or MP3 players.
The bottom line These headphones are best for running or for lifting indoors. Wireless functionality is an absolute godsend on a treadmill, as is the fact that you can leave your iPhone in your gym bag instead of toting it around with you while you work out. The Sportsband is a little bulky for outdoor sports, however, and if they fall off, there’s no wire to save them from the abuse of hitting the ground.
Key features Waterproof (washable).
In the box Five pairs of eartips, five pairs of earclips, a spring-clasp pouch.
The good Monster’s iSport headphones seems like they’ll be the perfect solution for strenuous workouts: They’re fully customizable, with five sets of eartips and earclips; they have flat, “tangle-free” cables; and they’re water-resistant and washable. They also include a three-button inline remote/mic module. Audio quality is pretty good, though treble is very bright. Bass isn’t deep, but it’s jumpy and invigorating, which is not a bad thing if you’re working out. The earpieces are, as the name implies, immersible.
The bad The iSport headphones are very, very, very difficult to set up. Though Monster includes a ton of different eartips and earclips for personalization, switching these out—especially the earclips—is difficult. In fact you may end up snapping an earclip off when trying to change it. Putting the iSport’s earpieces in your ears is also difficult, since the earclips are not quite as well-designed as the Sennheiser/Adidas earfins: The earclips are made of harder, less-flexible rubber, and it takes several tries to get them to fit properly in your ear. Finally, once the iSports are in your ear, they’re not very comfortable, especially for a long workout—after about 45 minutes, I ended up taking the iSport earpieces out because they were hurting so much, and that was using the smallest eartip/earclip combination). On the audio front, the headphones get very loud, but audio starts to sound a bit harsh and twangy at higher volume levels.
The bottom line I wanted to like Monster’s fancy, expensive sports headphones, but they’re just not designed very well. Audio quality is good, and microphone quality is excellent (voices sounded very crisp to the other person on my calls), and the earpieces are good at blocking out ambient noise. But the iSport just isn’t very comfortable or easy to use, despite Monster’s attempts at making them convenient and customizable. The flat, tangle-free cord is lighter than that of the Polk model, above, but it’s also not quite as tangle-free—I found the iSport cables to be very prone to tangles, especially near the earbuds.
Finding the perfect sports headphones
There’s no such thing as the “perfect” pair of sports headphones—which pair you choose really depends on your workout. So it’s important to think about what you need in a pair of sports headphones—and whether or not you’ll want to use them in non-active situations—before you run out and drop $70 to $150 on them. The AfterShokz Mobile is an extreme example: Because they’re bone conduction headphones, they’re too loud for quiet places, such as the library, or the office, or even the bus. Similarly, most of these headphones sacrifice some audio quality and noise isolation for durability and water-resistence, so audiophiles won’t want sports models as their primary headphones.
If you enjoy lifting weights, I suggest the Sennheiser/Adidas CX680i headphones, thanks to good sound, a good fit, and a short cord that won’t interfere with plate changes. If you’re training for a marathon, the AfterShokz Mobile bone-conduction headphones will let you safely run on a busy street. If you’re a casual runner who always creates playlists (so you can get away without having an inline remote), the Sony XBA-S65 headphones are super-comfortable. Fans of versatility (or who have weirdly-shaped ears) will appreciate Monster and Polk Audio’s ultra-customizable earbuds. Hate wires? Try the Jaybird SB2s. If you choose carefully, at least you won’t be able to blame your headphones for not being motivated to work out.
This story, "Find the right fitness headphones" was originally published by TechHive.