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Workout earbuds and headphones: These are the features you really need
Music and podcasts are an underrated motivator when it comes to hitting the gym, the trails, or wherever it is you get fit. Working out in silence is often boring — but with a good soundtrack, you can feel like a Norse god. At the very least you’ll be entertained.
Picking out a good set of workout earbuds or headphones can become really important, as a result. But what should you actually be looking for when you shop?
I’ve been a gym-goer for a long time, and it’s not uncommon to see people exercising with whatever buds or headphones they would use elsewhere. That could be a cheap set bundled with their phone, or a high-end pair clearly designed for home or travel listening only. I’m looking at you, Beats Studio Wireless owners.
The main reason this is a mistake is sweat. If you’re putting in enough effort, sweat is inevitable, especially around your ears. If buds or headphones aren’t specifically water-resistant, you risk breaking them or even shocking yourself. I’ve had this happen with review units — it hurts, and the pain is undoubtedly compounded if you spent a lot of money.
If you're putting in enough effort, sweat is inevitable, especially around your ears.
Runners and hikers also have to consider rain and snow. The more adventurous your workouts are, the tougher your gear needs to be.
At a minimum, workout audio should have IPX4 water resistance (like the Beats Fit Pro), which translates to protection against splashing from all directions. Even better is an IPX7 or IPX8 rating, meaning something can be fully submerged for a short time.
Dig deeper: Everything you need to know about IP and ATM ratings
2. Wireless connectivity
Wireless is quickly becoming the default for audio. The tech takes on special importance in fitness, however. Assuming your workout clothes even have a phone-sized pocket, it’s possible to accidentally yank a cable out of a phone’s 3.5mm or USB-C/Lightning port, particularly if the cable is barely long enough to reach your head. In the past, I’ve had cables catch on weight machines or pop out when running.
Going wireless also makes it possible to leave your phone behind by pairing with a music-capable smartwatch or fitness tracker instead. And some exercises can be uncomfortable or impossible with wired headphones — try doing hanging upside-down crunches without an armband to keep your phone from plummeting to the floor.
3. Fins, hooks, or alternatives
I’ve always been baffled by people who exercise wearing standard AirPods. Though Apple finally added water resistance to them with its 2021 update, they’re still missing tips for a tight fit, much less something to guarantee they won’t fall out.
Non-slip tips can help, but if you’re shopping for dedicated workout earbuds, focus on options with fins or hooks. I prefer hooks myself, since while they’re not aesthetically appealing to everyone, they’re absolutely bulletproof — I couldn’t shake my Powerbeats Pros off if I tried. Fins are a good compromise, though, and tend to be more common. You can find them on options like the Jaybird Vista 2 or Bose Sport Earbuds.
If you're shopping for workout earbuds, insist on something with fins or hooks.
With on- or over-the-ear headphones, matters get tricky. It can be hard to keep any headband in place unless you’re always upright, but keep an eye out for products that offer a tight-fitting band and grippy material, such as rubber or fabric. One of the few choices that meet these criteria is JBL’s UA Project Rock Over-Ear Training Headphones.
See also: Why aren’t more wireless earbud makers concerned about keeping them in our ears
4. Tough construction
There’s a saying in the home gym-building community that applies here too: buy once, cry once. Cheap audio gear may save you money, initially, but if it’s flimsy, you’ll spend extra replacing it when it breaks.
Fitness can impose a lot of strain on buds and headphones. They’re stuffed into gym bags, dropped on the ground, and mashed into ears, never mind the effects of constant sweat exposure. A good case can solve the first problem — ultimately though, you need to be thinking about the build quality of the gadget itself.
That can be hard to judge if you’re shopping online, especially since anything meant for workouts is going to use a lot of plastic to stay light. In general, you should look for thick and/or flexible material, and as few seams as possible.
5. Week-long battery life
I don’t mean a week of non-stop listening, naturally. Instead, I mean enough life to get through multiple workouts without plugging in a cable or using a wireless charging pad. It’s easy to forget charging mid-week if your buds are tucked away in a bag or drawer somewhere.
For a weightlifter like myself, the bar is at least six or seven hours. Most people will probably fall under that mark. With athletes or long-distance trekkers, the number could well go higher.
Read more: The best general-purpose wireless earbuds
The good news is that many products top six hours and then some nowadays, even if buds should be stashed in their battery cases between workouts. Things can get dicey if you use a product outside of the gym too, but in that scenario, you’re likely expecting to charge more often anyway.
If you know you’re bound to forget charging occasionally, you’ll want to hunt for models with USB-C ports and other rapid charging features. The Beats Fit Pro, for instance, can recover an hour of playback after just five minutes of case time, so as long as your case has some juice, you’re fine.
6. Active noise cancellation (or strong isolation)
Gyms and city streets can get loud. Some gyms insist on playing their own soundtracks over the PA, which is only an improvement if you enjoy their taste. Not everyone is in the mood for Taylor Swift when they’re deadlifting 400 pounds, say, or Slayer when they’re running on a treadmill.
A quality pair of buds or headphones should keep unwanted sounds under control. It’s important to distinguish between noise isolation and cancellation, however. Isolation simply refers to a good seal, whether over the ear or in your ear canal. While it’s not perfect, this can go a long way toward shutting out the world — and anything you buy should have this at a minimum, not the least because it improves bass response. With earbuds, you may have to switch tips to find a tight seal.
A quality pair of buds or headphones should keep unwanted sounds under control.
Active noise cancellation (ANC) takes matters a step further, using microphones to read your environment and a dedicated chipset to generate counteracting soundwaves. This works best at eliminating repetitive sounds like air conditioners, but with high-quality ANC, the results can be uncanny — the world falls away to the point that people (and other things) may have trouble getting your attention. Some products include a transparency mode to cope with the problem.
ANC is increasingly standard, but not strictly necessary. My Powerbeats sound just fine, and some people may always want external sounds in the mix, specifically those who run surrounded by traffic. The ideal is ANC with variable transparency levels, as on the Jabra Elite 85t.
What should I prioritize when buying workout headphones?
Many products check all of these boxes, but it’s rare to find something that excels in every category. The Jabra Elite 85t might have great ANC for example, yet it doesn’t have the best noise isolation, and its design is fin-like rather than equipped with full hooks.
In my opinion, two things are non-negotiable for gym earphones: waterproofing, and some sort of design feature to keep things locked in place. The world’s best sound hardly matters if your workouts are interrupted by a bud falling out or a headband flailing around, never mind electric shocks.
Two things are non-negotiable: waterproofing, and some sort of design feature to things locked in place.
Things get more subjective from there. You can sometimes take a risk on products that look flimsy and be surprised, and battery life is less of a concern if you’re willing to charge frequently. Likewise, you might consider wired headphones if you’re willing to wear an armband.
ANC might be pure luxury, though, since noise isolation is enough for a lot of people. The technology is spreading so quickly, however, that even some budget options now have it. If you want your workout earbuds or headphones to stay relevant for years, you should include ANC on your checklist.