Audio is a harsh mistress when it comes to workout headphones. Some companies make earbuds and headphones that can take a beating, but they sound like coins being thrown down an aluminum drainpipe, suffer from volume issues, and reduce your cardio-pumping bass beats down to something the little drummer boy would be ashamed of. On the other hand, you can get some incredible audio out of certain headphones which will short circuit at the first drop of sweat or suddenly slip off your head, slap you in the face, and not only ruin your workout but leave you brain damaged. Don’t let these poor imitators into your life.
Workout headphones need to walk a tougher line than your average noise-cancelling headphones in that they must be comfortable yet bombproof. You should get great sound quality that can pump you up and let Eye of the Tiger help get your knees high, but they also need to be something that doesn’t bloody well embarrass you whenever you take a run past the yoga studio just as class is letting out. To do all of this and more, we’ve found the 10 best workout headphones.
Con: Awkward controls
Best Bargain: First off, these look badass. The Skullcandy skull logo either in silver on black, white, red, or chrome is as metal as a Slayer concert without being garish. Besides looking good, the sound quality is excellent compared with most workout headphones that bear a much heavier price tag. These are especially good for those who like to get their cardio with some drum and bass or EDM because they have a hidden bass port that thumps out those sweet beats without needing to be backed by a huge driver. Naturally, they won’t keep the die-hard audiophile happy, unless that same music lover loves having more money, but for the average bass lover who just needs something that works, this is it. The Fix doesn’t use a specially designed contour or exterior molding to keep their hold, rather they seem to just fit perfectly for staying in place even during more rigorous activity. Sounds distort if you crank them, but you shouldn’t be doing that anyhow. The in-line controls only truly work with iOS devices, so Android users won’t get the full range of operation. Ultimately, it is the controls that are the biggest downfall, since the remote hangs out of sight, and since all the buttons feel alike, expect to lower the volume rather than pausing or activate the phone when trying to play.
AFTERSHOKZ SPORTZ M2
Pro: Neither an in-ear nor on-ear design
Con: Hard to find best placement
Ambiance: In-ear headphones can block out sound and many people find them uncomfortable. On-ear and over-ear headphones often can’t stay in place when you exercise. In an attempt to strike a balance between these two extremes, Aftershokz created an workout headphone that is neither an on-ear nor an earbud yet somehow the best of both. These hook around the top of your ear to a neckband that stays in place passably, though if you go over hill and dale rather than sticking to flat roads or gym workouts, then these will probably jitterbug away from their optimal placement. They rest on your cheek bones and project into your ear so they aren’t truly resting on your ear canal, stopping external noise from seeping in. The sound goes right to your inner ear which offers better clarity since it is passing through bone, rather than air in a new stereophonic technology that you’re likely to see much more of in the future. The biggest trouble here is finding the sweet spot on your face to get ideal sound clarity.
RELAYS BY SOL REPUBLIC
Pro: Very hard to damage
Con: No noise cancelling
Most for the Money: It’s tough to get true out-of-the-box use from workout headphones. Typically you need to adjust and tweak, trying different tips on the earbuds, moving the mount further around behind your ear, or just getting them to stay put without chafing. The Relays suffer from no such issues. They slide in perfectly on the first time and ensure that you’re not going to be spending half of your workout trying to get them to stop moving around. If you like to pump or do yoga with a little sound in your skull, the Bluetooth capability means you won’t be contending with a cord, yet still receiving near corded quality. The sound isn’t dazzling, but certainly keeps pace with most corded models, and the convenience is well worth the minor drop in true sound acuity. The larger backing dampens noise, but doesn’t truly cancel it. As to abuse, these do it all: water, sweat, impacts, and being yanked out of your gym bag over and over. Sol even replaces lost or damaged tips at no cost should they go rogue.
LG FR74 HEART RATE MONITOR EARPHONES
Pro: Takes over many fitness tracker roles
Con: Neither an impressive tracker, nor impressive headphones
The More You Know: Landing somewhere between interesting niche product and middle child of technology is the FR74 heart rate monitoring headphones from LG. These are one of the few devices that begin to bridge the gap between fitness trackers and workout headphones in that they provide accurate data at a glance without the need to add in extra weight or more wearable gadgets. The headphones monitor distance, calories burned, number of steps, direction, and pulse rate, all of which is sent to a small medallion-shaped box where it is processed and sent to your smartphone or other device. The headphones themselves are held in place by a flexible cord that goes over your ear and can be wrapped snugly for a tighter fit. The hi-fi sound that these produce is good, but given the limited space where large quantities of data is being parsed, the drivers don’t have the room to be amazing. Overall, if you want a hybrid fitness tracker and headphone set, this is an affordable innovation that is worth trying, even if only as an experiment.
YURBUDS INSPIRE LIMITED EDITION
Pro: Lifetime warranty
Con: Terrible microphone
The Immovable Object: We’re going to admit it right up front: These don’t sound the best. Good, but they won’t give you an eargasm. They aren’t the most comfortable. Again, very comfortable, but not like giving your ears a massage. What these accomplish better than anything else is sticking to their guns. They stay in place through your pop and lock routine. They don’t move when you cliff dive. They stick around as you throw your own private headbanger’s ball. The cords are kevlar that is tough and doesn’t catch or snag, but rather lays flat while the silicone tips dig in to the curve of your ear and never let go. Complemented by a 15.4mm dynamic driver, complete waterproofing, and a lifetime warranty against abuse, and you’ve got something to crow about. The directed tips channel sound deeper into your ear, which allows you to reduce the volume and keep more battery life in your mobile devices.
PLANTRONICS BACKBEAT FIT
Pro: Highly visible in low light
Con: Cord length cannot be adjusted
City Slick: During a run, it should be just you and the road or the trail, but the world doesn’t work like that. Most people have to get their training in wherever they can, and that means dealing with traffic, with the city, with other runners, cyclists, and whatever other impediments crop up. To do this, you can’t have your ears completely blocked, plugged up by your workout headphones. The BackBeat Fit aims to give you high grade wireless audio quality without deafening you to the outside world. The silicone backer wraps around your ear to hold the headphones in place during strenuous activity, be it P90X, lifting, or tackling trails on your mountain bike. The cord can’t be adjusted, which can annoy distance runners as it feels a little sloppy, but the simple controls are responsive and work for anybody. Call quality is very clear, as is most music, though the open style will bleed sound in noisy environments. Especially impressive is the armband and included carrying case. A P2i coating keeps sweat and rain from bringing ruin to the Fit.
JAYBIRD BLUEBUDS X
Pro: Very light
Con: Tricky remote
Immortal: Runners in the Century Club who like long marathons and lots of them will fall desperately in love with the BlueBuds X. Ordinarily Bluetooth wireless headphones are a mite touch and go, with a lot more touching than going, but these are exceptional. First off, they are only 4.5 ounces, making them very light. The battery lasts for 8 solid hours per charge, so there’s no need to lug around spares or have a wire slapping against you when you feel like taking a jog to check the weather 50 miles away. Nanotech waterproofing from Liquitech allows them to fight off both your macho sweat and whatever the sky decides to throw at you. USA Triathlon has adopted these as their official headphones, and you know the good people who sanction the Ironman wouldn’t tell you lies. The bass is very good, with fairly crisp and clean mids and highs to back it up. The behind the neck remote is a little touchy, and the over/under fit either works great or fails horribly.
BOSE SIE2I SPORT
Pro: Soft, ergonomic fit
Con: Unimpressive sound quality
Complete Comfort: Bose is universally known in the audio industry for their incredible sound. In this case, the sound is secondary to the shocking comfort that comes from the SIE2I. The silicone earpieces are buttery soft and fit in the ear canal comfortably for long-term wear. You might not fully forget you have them on, but you’ll come pretty close. They have the ability to let in some ambient noise, which is preferable for outdoor exercise, though if you use a noisy gym it could irritate you pretty quickly. The design is ergonomic, using additional soft holders to conform to the interior of your ear rather than sitting over the top of it or curling around the back, resulting in a more natural hold. Oddly enough, where the SIE2I falls short is on their sound quality. It isn’t bad per se, but for the price it isn’t up to Bose’s usual standards. They also lack a carrying case and the comfortable materials are subject to breaking if treated roughly. Thankfully, Bose backs them with an outstanding warranty.
BOWERS & WILKINS C5
Pro: Beautiful sound
Con: Sound bleed
Beautiful Noise: B&W ordinarily don’t get out of bed for trivial nonsense like workout headphones. They’re too busy making AirPlay speakers that can blow the doors off of brick buildings, but they decided to slum it, and the results are impressive. The C5s bear what B&W call a “Micro Porous Filter” system which projects outward more like a true speaker than a simple headphone. The result is much richer, deeper, more impressive audio quality that also tends to reach people around you. They’re held in place by a loop over your ear that is comfortable and fully pliable so you can adjust it to suit your very special needs. The loop and the sound blocking seal are a single piece that conforms to your whole ear similar to custom made pieces designed to give you a better hold and keep the sound going where it is supposed to. The sound that comes out is smooth and supple, so whatever poison you like to pour in your ear, it will sound amazing. Unfortunately, they are iOS dependent, leaving anyone not in the Apple camp with only the most basic controls.
MONSTER ISPORT FREEDOM
Pro: Powerful Bluetooth reception
Con: Will cause some ear sweat
Big Noise: The entire Monster iSport line is, without exception, very good, so if you like the Strive or the Victory, by all means, buy them. What we liked about the Freedom should be clear just by looking at them: They are on-ear headphones for peaking your pump, rather than sticking with the pack and only making in-ear workout headphones. Inside are 40mm drivers that give you plenty of sound, though you’re going to be able to find plenty of similar styles with bigger, better, badder sounds, though none as rugged. The body is made of rubber and plastic that can practically be put through the dishwasher (don’t do that) while also allowing the headband to get completely squashed and still bounce back. Completely Bluetooth enabled, they work with any smartphone or mp3 player and have excellent reception, even outside. Using the tried-and-true control method of putting the remote on the outside of the earphone in a method reminiscent of Beats by Dre, they’re easy to control. The fit is snug against your head so even if you’re doing a bouncy stair-a-thon up the Freedom Tower, they’ll stick with you.