Monday , January 18 2021

Best workout headphones in 2020: Apple, Beats, Sony, Bose and more compared

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An assortment of the best headphones for working out and running.

After testing plenty of sports headphones and wireless headphones over the years, some models have emerged as far better suited for workouts than others. The best workout headphones should be wireless — and ideally, true wireless earbuds — to avoid wired headphones getting in the way of your stride.

Secondly, and more importantly, they should give you a comfortable and secure fit, whether they’re over-ear headphones with a squishy ear cup or wireless in-ear buds. This is especially important because losing one earbud on your run would be the worst. Decent sound quality is also a necessity, as are battery life, durability, reliable performance (with minimal dropouts), and noise cancellation (as well as hear-through or transparency modes). And lastly, they need to be sweat resistant, if not fully waterproof headphones, for obvious reasons. That’s why the otherwise awesome Sony WF-1000XM3
isn’t on this list of best running headphones. While Apple does not claim water resistance for the standard AirPods, that particular ear bud makes the list because we’ve found them to handle sweat reasonably well.

After many outdoor runs and gym sessions, I’ve formed strong opinions on which are the best workout headphones. To share my hard-earned knowledge of headphones with great sound, I’ve put together a selection of wireless gym headphones I’ve tested that I think are well-suited to become your go-to exercise headphones. I’ll update this list as I review more of them.

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof and sweat-proof).

Jaybird got off to a bumpy start in the world of true wireless — that’s “AirPods-style headphones” — when it released its Jaybird Run wireless workout headphones back in October 2017. That model, updated to the wireless in-ear Jaybird Run XT in early 2019, was well-designed but had some small sound performance issues that held the wireless earbuds back from being great. But its wireless earphones successor, the Jaybird Vista (cue the Windows Vista jokes), includes design, battery life and audio quality performance improvements that make it the product I’d hoped the Jaybird Run would be. This wireless earbud set will appeal to those looking for a more discreet set of totally wireless running headphones that are fully water-resistant.

Read our Jaybird Vista review.

Water-resistantYes (IP67 rating — can withstand immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes).

The AfterShokz bone conduction wireless headphone delivers sound to your ear through your cheekbones. The big benefit of this technology is that, thanks to its open design, you can hear what’s going on around you while listening to music or having a phone conversation through the wireless headphones. That openness allows runners to hear traffic sound, an important safety feature for sport headphones. Also, some race coordinators don’t allow runners to wear anything in their ears, which is where over-ear headphones like this come in handy, particularly for people who need to listen to music while they run.

Aeropex ($160) over-ear headphones, which AfterShokz describes as its “lightest, highest-quality headphones yet,” were released in 2019. From my initial testing, sound quality in this pair of headphones is definitely better than the company’s previous flagship model, the Trekz Air — or the Air, as it’s now called. It’s also slightly more comfortable to wear with a comfortable fit. However, while AfterShokz continues to make small improvements to performance with each new iteration of its wireless headphones, the sound quality still can’t match that of a traditional headphone.

Read our AfterShokz Aeropex first take.

Water-resistantYes (IP55 splashproof).

Sony’s WF-1000XM3 is considered one of the best set of true wireless noise-canceling earbuds. But to the dismay of some people, it lacked any sort of water resistance, making it unsuitable for sports. It took a while, but now we finally have a new true wireless noise-canceling sports model from Sony: the WF-SP800N.

This isn’t quite the WF-1000XM3 with a water-resistant body. It’s missing Sony’s QN1e processor, but there’s still a lot to like about it, including very good sound, solid noise canceling and good call quality. It’s definitely a nice upgrade over the WF-SP700N, which came out in 2018, and its “arcs” (sports fins) lock the buds in your ears. Just make sure you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips or else both the sound and noise-canceling will be lackluster.

Read our Sony WF-SP800N review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Yes, the Beats Powerbeats Pro’s jumbo charging case is a notable drawback. But the combination of incorporating all the features that make Apple’s AirPods great while delivering richer sound quality and better battery life in a wireless workout earbuds design that won’t fall out of your ear (seriously, ear hooks for the win!) ultimately is a winning proposition for earbuds for running. Just make sure you buy these running earbuds somewhere that has a good return policy in case you’re in the small minority that has ears that aren’t quite a match for the buds. Note that these headphones are frequently reduced from $250 to $200 — don’t pay more than that if you’re buying them.

Read our Beats Powerbeats Pro review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Even if they don’t sound quite as magical as you’d hope a $249 model would, the AirPods Pro still manage to be a great pair of truly wireless headphones for running. That’s largely due to their winning design and fit, improved bass performance, effective noise cancellation and excellent call quality. While I can’t run with the standard AirPods (those in-ear headphones don’t fit my ears securely), I had no trouble running with the AirPods Pro, which have a noise-isolating design with a silicone tip that sits snugly in your ear.

For runners, it’s worth noting that there’s a transparency mode that allows sound to leak in. You’ll still have to lower the volume of your music to hear the sound of traffic noise. The AirPods Pro are also officially rated as being sweat-resistant.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water)

Some people, particularly weightlifters, like to work out in full-size headphones, and the BackBeat Fit 6100 over-the-ear wireless headphones are a very solid choice for both the gym and everyday use. The adjustable sport-fit headband has an IPX5-rated water-resistant and sweat-proof design, 40mm angled drivers and noise-isolating earcups with an “Awareness” mode. Battery life is rated at 24 hours. They sound quite good and really stay on your head securely (you can adjust the tension in the headband, which is innovative and ideal for exercise headphones). 

They’re expensive at their list price of $180, but Amazon has them for $90, which makes them a lot more attractive. They’re available in black, camo and gray.

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

At first glance, the Elite 75t seems more like an evolutionary upgrade from the highly rated Elite 65t. But the updates to these bluetooth headphones turn out to be a little more substantial than I first thought. The Elite 75t’s smaller size will allow more people to get a comfortable, secure fit, and its boosted battery life and USB-C charging are significant upgrades. And then there are the smaller changes, like the new charging case design with magnets inside it that make it easier to open and close and to keep the buds inside. 

While the Elite 75t isn’t quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro and doesn’t have active noise-canceling features, it does sound better. It has clearer overall sound and better bass definition, so long as you get a tight seal. There’s a HearThru setting in the app that allows some ambient noise in, but even with it on, you do have to lower the volume of your music to hear traffic noise. The Active, which offers slightly better sweat resistance, came out in February but will set you back $50 more.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

If the AirPods don’t fit your ears securely for running, the Soundcore Liberty Air 2 in-ear buds are a good alternative that cost much less than the AirPods Pro but have a similar noise-isolating design in a “pipe” shape. These earphones sound as good, if not better, than the AirPods, and they fit my ear better and more securely, making them excellent running earbuds. They’re also sweat-resistant and are excellent for making calls — just don’t make those calls while you’re at the gym! In short, as long as you’re OK with a noise isolating design, the Anker Liberty Air 2 true wireless earbuds are an excellent AirPod alternative that happen to cost around $100. They’re available in black or white.

Read our Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 review.

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

If you don’t want to shell out $160 for AfterShokz’s new Aeropex bone-conduction wireless headphone, the Trekz Air — or Air, as it’s now called — retails for about $50 less. This pair of around-the-neck headphones does have some design and performance upgrades, but the sound from the AfterShokz Trekz Air is still good for a bone-conduction headphone (again, beware that the sound doesn’t measure up to that of a traditional headphone). 

Read our AfterShokz Trekz Air review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Bose’s totally wireless earphones, the SoundSport Free (the true wireless earbuds version of the SoundSport Pulse), are comfortable to wear and deliver excellent sound for true wireless. These SoundSport wireless headphones have a few small downsides (both the wireless earbuds and carrying case are a bit big), but they have a secure fit, work reliably, and are water-resistant. Note that Bose will be bringing out its next-generation true wireless headphones — the Earbuds 500 — in early 2020.

Read our Bose SoundSport Free review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Companies like Under Armour (with the help of JBL) have released sporty on-ear models designed for people who want that type of secure-fit workout headphone that covers their ears. I personally prefer the over-ear Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100 and this Adidas RPT-01, which I think looks and fits better than the Under Armour headphones. 

I found them comfortable for on-ear headphones (which tend not be as comfortable as over-ear headphones), but those with larger heads may feel they clamp down a little too snugly on both your head and your ears. This set of headphones is sweat-resistant with an IPX4 certification. Also, the ear cushions and inner headband are removable and washable (there are instructions for how-to do this, but Adidas should do a how-to video). As far as I’m concerned, the more ways to combat sweat smells, the better, when it comes to exercise headphones.

These were designed by the same Swedish company that makes Urbanears headphones, and they sound quite decent, with well-balanced sound that doesn’t push the bass too much. They’re a little expensive at $170, but the UA headphones cost the same or more.    

Water-resistantNo (Apple does not claim water resistance, but they handle sweat reasonably well)

If they fit your ears securely, Apple’s AirPods are actually great workout headphones because the earbuds are so light and also have an open design, which allows you to hear the sound of traffic noise. Alas, I can’t run with the standard AirPods (they fall out of my ears), only the more expensive AirPods Pro, but many people can. You can buy third-party wings (ear hooks) to make them fit securely, but you have to take the wings off every time you put the buds back in their charging case. That’s a pain.

Note that Apple does not offer a water-resistance rating for the standard AirPods. They seem to withstand light sweat just fine — and plenty of people use them at the gym and for running — but it’s unclear how much moisture they can withstand. 

You can pay extra for the model with the wireless charging case, but it’s not really worth it — spend up for the Pro models instead. Otherwise, the baseline 2019 model lists for $159, but it’s often sold for as low as $129. Don’t pay more than $144, which is the normal street price.

Read the AirPods (2019) review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof)

What’s most impressive about the EarFun Free is the features: Bluetooth 5.0, both USB-C and wireless charging and fully waterproof (IPX7), according to their specs. Do they sound fantastic? No, but they sound pretty good. They don’t have the sound clarity of higher-end true wireless earbuds that cost $150 or more, but they do have plump bass and enough detail to avoid sounding dull. They’re also pretty solid for making calls. An excellent value at less than $50, they may not fit everybody’s ears equally well (they’re slightly bulky so they may not work for those with smaller ears). However, they’re relatively lightweight and they fit my ears securely enough to run with them.   

Water-resistantNo (Bose does not claim water resistance)

Bose’s Frames audio sunglasses are surprisingly good wireless running headphones, with decent sound quality from their embedded micro speakers. What’s also good about them is that since there’s nothing in your ear, you can hear traffic sound and have a conversation while wearing them. While the arms are slightly bulky, the sunglasses don’t feel heavy on your head and are comfortable to wear. They also work well for making calls. 

If it’s really windy, the audio quality won’t be great. The wind factor also makes them less suitable for biking. They’re available in two versions — Alto and a smaller Rondo style — for $200 and support Bose’s AR (augmented reality) audio platform. Additional lenses are available for $20 to $30, and sells discounted prescription lenses for them.  

Read full review of Bose Frames.

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