Editor’s Note: With a new year comes new options. We’ve updated our list of the best sport headphones with several new options launched in 2015 and updated prices on older offerings that are now an even better deal than before.
The best training partner is one who keeps pace with your hard-driving workout, motivates you and, ideally, helps you forget how out of shape you really are. We’re talking about music here, and good tunes require great-sounding headphones that can hang on through a serious sweat and survive routine punishment. Plenty of companies make rugged, water-resistant, sweatproof headphones that sound like crap, and even more make rich-sounding, high-fidelity models that don’t stand up to exercise. We sampled the sonic spectrum, putting dozens of headphones through their paces on long runs, bike rides and bodyweight exercises to find 10 that sound great and keep pace.
Plantronics Backbeat Go 2
If you’re looking for a wireless listening solution that can handle the rigors of the gym and still leave you money for membership fees, this is it. The Backbeat Go 2s feature a sweat-proof military-grade nano-coating and boast 4.5 hours of listening time on a single charge. Speaking of power, the included charging case with an integrated battery can add up to 14.5 hours of listening time. Need juice in a hurry? 20 minutes inside the case can add a full hour of use. The set’s inline controls also make it easy to switch tracks, accept calls or talk to your virtual assistant of choice, including Siri, Cortana and Google Now. They’ll fit comfortably in most ears, but they’re meant to feel slightly loose so that some ambient noise can be heard for safety reasons.
Jabra Sport Pulse Wireless
Like other options on this list, Jabra’s Sport Pulse Wireless headphones are resistant to sweat and water, connect to your phone using Bluetooth and feature an inline remote and microphone for controlling your smartphone. Where they stand apart is the inclusion of an integrated heart rate sensor as well as NFC tap-to-pair technology for select Android devices. Apps like Nike+, Endomondo, Runkeeper and Jabra’s own proprietary service can leverage the heart rate data to “coach” wearers to peak performance via voice commands of encouragement. Reviewers like CNET’s David Carnoy report that sound quality is decent, but far from what it should be considering the steep price. Still, if you don’t already own a heart rate monitor, this pair is a solid fitness-centric listening option.
JBL Synchros Reflect In-Ear Sports Bluetooth Headphones
Many safety experts chide the use of headphones on the streets because they can distract wearers from the dangers of their immediate surroundings. JBL’s Synchros Reflect Bluetooth earbuds don’t solve this concern, but they do help raise awareness of users thanks to reflective coating on the cord that increases nighttime visibility. Combined with a sweat-proof design, a rechargeable battery good for 5 hours of use and wireless audio transmission, they’re a smart set for road runners looking to put safety first.
Westone Adventure Series ADV Alpha
Though it’s not exactly a household name in consumer audio, 55-year-old Westone is serious about headphones, as evidenced by its top-of-the-line W60; released at CES 2014, it packs an unheard-of six drivers into an in-ear headphone (presumably why it retails for $1,000). The feature-rich Alphas, meanwhile, take some of that audiophile-grade technology and package it into rugged, water-resistant magnesium earbuds that stay put with over-the-ear cable routing. The sturdy, reflective cable improves nighttime visibility on dawn patrol rides and after-work runs and features a three-button control for cycling through music and answering on-the-go phone calls.
Polk UltraFit 3000
These sweat-proof workout headphones come with seven different ear tips, serving as a friendly reminder from Polk that a snug fit is all-important for sealing atmospheric noise out of in-ear headphones. It’s especially important with the UltraFit 3000s, which require some fiddling to get snug. Once they’re in, though, moldable over-the-ear hooks keep them from budging, whether you’re pounding out intervals or push-ups. Audio is pretty solid for the price, with great midrange bump for high-intensity workouts, though the high- and low-end ranges suffer some. These headphones aren’t overloaded with features, but represent a good mid-price option that will get the job done.
We were bummed to hear that the sound experts at Pioneer had discontinued their sport line… that is, until we heard about the release of these powerful little guys. At a time when bulky over-ear headphones are all the rage, Pioneer is bucking the trend with these honest-to-god DJ-quality in-ear monitors. Engineered for discerning DJs, the sound quality here is much better than you’ve come to expect from knockaround workout headphones, with crisp, precise audio reproduction marked by Pioneer’s industry-leading digital clarity. Although these aren’t workout-specific, they’re up to the task thanks to a tangle-free cloth cord and rotating speaker housings that allow for more secure over-the-ear cable routing.
Sennheiser OCX 685i
Sennheiser-quality sound pairs with adidas-quality sport durability to make the OCX 685i a worthy workout companion. Despite their relatively cheap appearance, these headphones get pretty much everything right: they’re waterproof and durable and they have a secure fit and great audio. Adjustable rubber clips loop over the ears for a slip-free fit that still offers decent situational awareness in the gym and on the street. The sound isn’t quite premium — the highs and mids get distorted as the volume goes up — but, at $35+, neither is the price. And, most important while exercising, juicy, thumping bass is there to drive your workout.
JayBird BlueBuds X
Bluetooth headphones have gotten a bad rap: Internal batteries add bulk (then die mid-workout); connections are dropped; feelings are hurt. In fact, until recently, the main selling point of these headphones was the wireless technology itself, with sound quality coming as an afterthought. With BlueBuds X, JayBird has produced the smallest Bluetooth headphones on the market (just 4.5 ounces), and they don’t compromise on features, sound quality, battery life or durability. These headphones play music and handle phone calls, feature foolproof Siri-like voice prompts and guard against sweat and rain with Liquipel’s nanotech waterproofing. All of that is powered for up to 8 hours by a USB-chargeable battery. Are the sport-friendly features worth the hefty price tag? USA Triathlon, who’s adopted them as its official training headphones, thinks so.
Monster iSport Freedom
Even as the personal audio industry trends increasingly toward premium over-ear headphones a la Beats by Dre, there haven’t been many models suited to the rigors of a hard workout. Monster made the wireless iSport Freedom to fill that void. Waterproof and shockingly rugged — you can flatten the headband without breaking them — these headphones are constructed primarily of tough plastic and rubber to keep weight down for long-lasting comfort. You’ll certainly be aware of them, but wireless convenience helps offset the weight factor, and they stay in place even on hot, sweaty endurance runs. The 40mm drivers’ big sound isn’t quite as dynamic as less durable headphones in the same price range, but it’s a trade-off we’re willing to make for a bombproof build.
Klipsch Reference R6i
Like Pioneer, Klipsch is in the process of phasing out its sport-specific headphones. Luckily, it released the Reference R6i this spring, an in-ear “monitor” that’ll admirably fill much of the upcoming void: the lightweight earpieces deliver a secure, barely-there fit that’s sufficient for low-intensity workouts like cycling and elliptical training. The thumping sound is the headline here, thanks to a robust, “boosted” bass response that out-muscles most other headphones in the segment. Sound purists might be overwhelmed by the exaggerated lows that sometimes overpower the higher frequencies, but bass lovers will get the motivating kick they want, and more.
While most in-ear workout headphones are noise-isolating, meaning that they block out environmental sounds to improve audio quality, that’s not always a good thing. When we’re dodging taxis on bike or running on New York’s manic streets, for example, hearing hazards we can’t see helps us avoid Frogger-style catastrophes. Bose’s SIE2i has, by far, the best sound we’ve heard in an in-ear model that doesn’t close you off from the environment. Crisp high notes are balanced by deep bass tones. A hydrophobic, durable build and included Reebok armband round out the workout-friendly features.
These sport-specific headphones from Skullcandy use simplicity to their advantage; they’re liberated from complicated over-ear hooks and in-ear doodads that require precise maneuvering to secure. You just slide ‘em in and they stick, thanks to Skullcandy’s “off-axis” fit and Stickygel buds, which the company says become 30 percent more sticky than standard silicone earbuds when you sweat. They’re also incredibly lightweight and produce remarkably full sound for the $50 price tag. Honestly, they are so straightforwardly good that we’ve put more mileage running and cycling on them than on any other headphones in this roundup.
Jays a-Jays Five
These headphones, made in Sweden by Jays, don’t stand out until you put them on. That’s because, in understated Scandinavian style, they embrace a clean, logo-free industrial design and come in only two colors, solid black or solid white. As Jays likes to say, the color is all in the sound, where rich bass thumps beneath crisp, bright tones in the middle and high ranges. The sturdy tangle-free cord, though a little bulky when you’re bounding down a local trail, features a three-button control/mic combo that’s among the best we tested. Overall build quality in the a-Jays Fives suggests long-lasting durability. For a hundred bucks, you can’t find a much better headphone.