Headphones for Sports and Fitness: A Shopping Guide

No matter what your athletic passion, there's a great set of 'cans' for you

By Jacqueline Emigh

Music can be a great motivator to get you out and moving, regardless of the activity you prefer. Listening to tunes you love can inspire you to run or swim a little farther, or to complete an extra set of pushups. As a result, headphones are becoming more and more common not just at bus stops and coffee shops but at gyms, in swimming pools, and on hiking trails. Unfortunately, selecting the right product for your ears and your activity can be difficult.

Headphone categories include in-ear, on-ear, and over-ear models, as well as hybrid products that integrate headphones with built-in MP3 players or RF (radio frequency) radios. Many products have the word "sport" or "fitness" somewhere in their names, but that doesn't mean that they'll work well for all sorts of athletics. A set that's perfect for bodybuilding might not make the grade for cycling, for example. Certain categories of products, such as IEMs (in-ear microphones) and bone-conductive models, are generally better suited for some sports than for others.

Beyond that, you should consider specific features—such as sound isolation, reflectiveness, or water resistance—you want your headphones to have. If you pursue multiple sports and fitness activities, you might want to pick up different headphones for different endeavors.

To help you figure out what you need, we've organized this guide into two main sections. The first describes various design categories and discusses features that are important for all sports and fitness headphones. The second looks at designs and features that can be especially useful for specific activities, from road running to kayaking.

SIZE AND DESIGN

Many headphones are specifically tooled for sports and fitness. But even so, some models marketed to a more general audience may fill the bill for your favorite type of sport.

The four main categories of headphones, from smallest to largest, are earbuds, in-ear headphones, on-ear headphones, and over-ear headphones. You'll encounter models in all four categories that target sports and fitness buffs (though relatively few in the over-ear niche). Manufacturers have also created two other types of designs specifically for the exercise market: bone conductive and "combo" headphones.

In choosing headphones for sports and fitness use, getting the right size and fit is paramount. If possible, try them on before you buy. And whether you're shopping in brick-and-mortar stores or online, make sure that the seller has a fair return policy.

In-Ear Models

In-ear headphones—also known as IEMs (in-ear microphones)—and earbuds are the smallest, lightest, and most versatile portable listening devices. Both types sit just inside the ear. IEMs come with tips—also known as stabilizers or "phalanges"—made of silicon or memory foam. The tips fit inside your ear canal, forming a seal that helps hold the headphones in place. Manufacturers generally include several pairs of tips in different sizes. If a model doesn't come with stabilizers that fit your ear, look elsewhere.

Unlike IEMs, earbuds do not enter the ear canal. Earbuds designed for sports and fitness activities typically include some sort of attachment, such as a loop that fits around the ear, to help prevent them from falling out. You can wear in-ear headphones for many types of athletic activity, including basketball or soccer. If you're into swimming or other water sports, however, you'll need water-resistant or waterproof earbuds.

Basketball

Often, the sound quality you get underwater isn't great. In addition, waterproof earbuds sometimes fail electronically or pop out of your ears, especially if you're diving.


On-Ear Headphones

On-ear headphones, which sit on top of the ears, tend to produce much better audio. There's more real estate aboard for audio drivers, and the on-ear design gives manufacturers more flexibility to tweak bass and treble notes.

On-ear models are light enough for you to use while running, cycling, and doing other athletic things. But you wouldn't want to wear them on a tumbling mat or a trampoline because they might slide down or otherwise get in your way.

Over-Ear Headphones

Over-ear headphones are bigger and bulkier than on-ear alternatives. As their name suggests, over-ear models use ear cups that completely surround the ear. Some offer very fine audio quality, but these tend to be designed for in-home or even studio sound systems, not for the smartphones and MP3 players that people typically use during workouts.

Some portable models of over-ear headphones, however, are very popular among athletes who want big sound as they exercise. Over-ear headphones are most useful for activities like weight lifting, where you keep your body upright (for the most part) and don't move your head all that much.

Typically, a headband connects the earpieces in on-ear and over-ear models, although variations include behind-the-neck and clip-on designs.

To make it easier to stuff these headphones into a gym bag, manufacturers often make the earpieces foldable, to collapse into the headband. The earpieces and/or headband may be adjustable, too, to help you to get a good fit—though a specific model might not fit you very well anyway.

In some cases, earpieces may ride too high on your ears or fall too low, which, besides posing a physical annoyance, may mean that you'll lose the nuances in sound that the manufacturer intended for you to be able to hear. If the headband is too tight, you may get an uncomfortable clamping sensation after wearing the cans for a while. (For more information about the four main types of headphones, read our earlier article, "The Definitive Techwalla Headphone Shopping Guide.")

Bone Conductive Headphones

Bone conductive headphones relatively rare, but most such models aimed designed for avid runners or swimmers. Headphones of this type don't touch your ears at all. Instead, they rest on your cheekbones, and sound waves travel from there to your inner ears.

Combo Devices

Most of the newer combo devices are designed to eliminate the need to carry either a smartphone or a separate MP3 player as a source of sound. Manufacturers have built MP3 players into on-ear, bone conductive, and earbud models. One such device, the Sony Waterproof Walkman, comes with four different pairs of buds to help you get the right fit.



FEATURES


When you're shopping for sports and fitness headphones, look for sound isolation, wirelessness, reflectiveness, and resistance to sweat, dust, and water. Resistance to sweat and dust is important regardless of how you spend your workout time. The relevance of other features on this list will vary depending on whether you prefer to walk a treadmill, pump iron, row a boat, hit a punching bag, or whatever.

Water resistance—or better yet, waterproofness—is a desirable feature no matter what you do. But it becomes essential if you spend time outdoors on rainy days or if you participate in a water sport.

Wirelessness is nice to have, too, but it often costs more. Manufacturers typically provide wirelessness via Bluetooth technology. However, they occasionally use radio frequency (RF) instead for greater range. If a pair of headphones isn't wireless, it comes with a cord or cable that connects to a phone or M3 player.

Most people can get by without wirelessness unless they pursue some activity in which a cord might get twisted on tangled. But if you keep the cord, make sure that it's the right length for your needs—neither too long nor too short.  On cord-dependent models, controls for operating the phone or MP3 player are usually located inline (as is a mic); on wireless models, the most common location for the controls is somewhere on the earpiece.

Another downside to wireless headphones is that you'll need to use batteries as a power source separate from your phone or music player, which means recharging not two devices. If you want the extra freedom of movement you get from wireless cans, look for a set that offers long battery life. Generally, you can expect to obtain more battery life in on-ear and over-ear headphones than from in-ear models..

Reflectiveness can help keep you safe if you spend time on roadways at night while running, cycling, or walking, but you can get similar reflectiveness in many other types of gear, from running belts to clothing to sneakers.



You should probably avoid sound isolation if you're out on the roadways at any time of the day or night. After all, being able to hear the noise of oncoming cars can be a plus for survival. Likewise if you involve talking to other exercisers at the gym, you might not want sound-isolating headphones there, either.

But sound isolation is useful if you'd like to screen out the rest of the world and just feel the beat as you push your body to the limit—or if you just want to keep the details of your inspirational soundtrack private.

Sound isolation is available in IEM headphones—if the tips fit securely enough—and in on-ear or over-ear headphones that have a conventional closed back design.

If you don't want this feature, scout around for portable on-ear or over-ear cans that have an open or semiopen back, in which material that lets sounds weave in and out replaces all or part of the back of the conventional earpiece. Or opt for a bone conductive model (though not the kind designed for swimming).

In bone conductive headphones, you can hear sounds from the ambient environment directly through your outer ears, while the music from your phone or MP3 player bypasses your outer ears and instead travels through your cheekbones to your inner ears.

SPECS


Three specifications that often crop up in the context of headphones are frequency response, sensitivity, and impedance. (For details about these three specs, see our "Definitive Techwalla Headphone Shopping Guide.")

Many  sports and fitness models are rated for dust resistance and/or water resistance. Under international IP (ingress protocol) standards, the highest possible rating for dust resistance is 6. Theoretically, the best possible rating for water resistance is 9, but we have yet to see headphones with so high a water resistance spec.

Headphones with a water resistance rating of 5 are splash resistant. Models with a spec of 7 can withstand immersion in water for 30 minutes to a depth of 1 meter (a little over 3 feet) of water. Products with a water resistance rating of 8 can tolerate immersion for long periods of time at greater depths. Typically, headphones with a rating of 8 can survive submersion at depths of 6 to 10 feet. When you look at IP specs for a particular product, you may see two numbers. The first number is the product's dust resistance rating, and the second number is its water resistance rating. For example, BlueAnt's Bluetooth-enabled Pump HD Sportsbuds are rated at IP67, meaning that they have ratings of 6 for dust resistance and 7 for water resistance.

If you see an X instead of a number, it means that the product has not been rated for that feature. Another pair of Bluetooth buds, SoundWhiz's Wireless Sports Headphones, are rated at IPX7, meaning that they haven't been rated for dust resistance, but they are rated at 7 for water resistance.

Unfortunately, there is no industry-standard rating system for sweat resistance. You can simply accept manufacturers' claims on this criterion, or you can ask around and read product reviews.

PRICING

Sports and fitness headphones are relatively affordable. At the low end, you might pay as little as $15 for waterproof earbuds. At the upper end, you might shell out $200 for sweat-resistant portable on-ear cans.

You shouldn't expect to pay much more than that, however. Although prices for headphones can be stratospheric (hitting $10,000 and up), top-of-the-line models are audiophile products that aren't suitable for use in sports and fitness activities.

SO WHICH HEADPHONES SHOULD I BUY?

Here are some suggestions on types of headphones to look for when you have specific activities such as running and cycling or water sports in mind.

Running and Cycling

To maintain their awareness of traffic noises and other ambient sounds, many runners and cyclists use earbuds. Others use bone conductive models.

On the other hand, portable on-ear models with an open-back design can produce much better sound quality than earbuds, IEMs, or closed-back on-earers. Although this is still somewhat of a niche market, several excellent products—such as the Grado SR80e—are available. Priced at about $100, the on-ear SR80e headphones sound like a million bucks, with smooth tonal balance, detailed treble, and warm, rich bass.

Sennheiser's PX 100-II open-back on-ear cans are priced at around $60. These handily collapsible, lightweight headphones deliver a particularly wide range of sound.

Koss offers the $20 KSC75, a set of open-back over-ear clip-ons, but also two sets of open-back on-ear headphones: the long-time, retro-looking Porta Pro ($50) and the fitness-oriented Sporta Pro ($30). The Sporta Pro features a headband that you can wear either in normal over-the-north-pole style or around the back of your neck.

None of these over-ear headphones are water resistant or sweat resistant, however.

Hiking and Camping

Your headphones are more likely to get drenched if you're out in the woods, where effective cover from a sudden rainstorm can be hard to find.

Some bone conductive headphones are water and sweat resistant. One example is the $130 Aftershokz Trekz Titanium, which carries an IP rating of IP55. And because the Trekz Titanium uses bone conductive technology, it lets in some sound from the surrounding environment, which many people like on a hiking or camping excursion.

But if you prefer sound isolation on your retreat into the wilderness, the Monster iSport Freedom ($200) might be a better choice. This great-sounding set of closed-back on-ear cans manages a very impressive 30 hours of battery life. It's Bluetooth-enabled, too, for maximum freedom of movement.

The Freedom also provides a hint of reflectivity—a plus if you ever venture onto the campground parking lot in the dark.



Doing Calisthenics at Home

A behind-the-neck model like the Titanium will restrict your movement if you're lying on the living room floor doing multiple crunches. An on-earer or over-earer may slide off your head as you bend over from a standing position. What you need instead is an IEM like the noise-isolating Shure SE215, priced at around $100.

Body Building

Sound isolation may be exactly what you want if you're pumping iron at the gym. Soul's $200 Combat+ closed-back over-ear headphones can inspire you to new heights of performance, with its awesome and powerful bass. The Combat+ also provides sweat resistance across three elements: the headband, the earpieces, and the Kevlar straps.

Soul has recently unveiled a follow-on product, the Combat+ Sync, which might let you leave your smartphone in the locker room. This combo unit incorporates RF technology and features a strong, highly flexible headband. Without a smartphone in hand, you can't use the Combat+ Sync for communicating very far outside the building. But you can speak by RF walkie-talkie—and share music and workout rhythms with training buddies in the gym.

Gymnastics

Denon claims that its Exercise Freak earbuds (listed at $150) will stay on your ears even if you're turning somersaults on a trampoline. Their uniquely shaped fasteners provide an especially secure connection to your ears while permitting you to converse with people you might meet.

The Exercise Freak's earbuds are impact resistant and sweat resistant, but they aren't water resistant. So you shouldn't plan on wearing them in the pool.



Water Sports

For swimming pool workouts, look for headphones that carry an IPX8 rating. One option is the Finis Duo, a combo unit that integrates bone conductive headphones with a built-in MP3 player. Reportedly, you can wear this in a swimming pool, a lake, or the ocean.

If you'd prefer to bring your phone into the swimming pool with you, you can use AquaPac 100% Waterproof Headphones, an IPX8-rated product that works with the company's waterproof smartphone case.

Sony, Underwater Audio, DryCase, and Avantree all produce IPX8-rated headphones. In fact, there are so many IPX8-rated swimbuds to choose from that there's only one reason to use a less waterproof product for other water sports, too, such as water skiing, sailing, and kayaking—namely, that if you want to use Bluetooth, you won't find that feature in headphones rated higher than IPX7.