If I wanted a pair of wireless headphones for working out, I’d get the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth. After extensive research—we considered a total of 147 sport-specific headphones and tested the 85 best-reviewed and newest options—our panel of experts agreed that they’d want to bring the Epic2 Bluetooth along on their next training session. The tough, lightweight Epic2 pair is easier to fit in a wider variety of ears than the competition, has better battery life than the other Bluetooth models we tested, and offers great sound for a lower price than most comparable cordless models. Many other headphones we tested not only had lackluster sound quality but also lacked in comfort and stability. The Epic2 is on the lower end of the price range for Bluetooth water-resistant headphones, as well. And because this model supports Bluetooth, you have no cord to get in the way of whatever it is you do to stay in shape.
Of all the models we tested, we think the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth is the best set of wireless workout headphones for most people headed for the gym or outdoors. These headphones are stable, sturdy, and sealed to block out distractions. And although we usually get a lot of conflicting reports from our testers on fit, this JLab pair worked for all of our panelists equally well. In fact, while many other sport headphones have a serious learning curve when it comes to setup, this JLab model was intuitive and easy to pop on right out of the box.
The Epic2 headphones also sound great, and they survived our stress testing. We listened to them, ran with them, got them wet, kicked them, tugged them, stomped them, and then listened to them again. After our endurance tests, we’re confident that these headphones can take what you throw at them. Plus, our testing confirmed their claimed 12-hour battery life, meaning you can get nearly two weeks’ worth of workouts from a single charge.
If you don’t like hooks over your ears, or if the JLab pair is sold out, the Jaybird X2 is the way to go. These headphones feel light, they stay put, they sound fantastic, they have a lifetime warranty against sweat damage (which, if you sweat through one pair of headphones a year, can really add up!), they charge pretty quickly (in around two hours), they have a nice case, and you can wear them several ways, depending on what works for you. However, getting the fit correct the first time takes a little more patience than with our top pick. As a result, in this test group the JLab Epic2 edged out the Jaybird X2 once again, but only barely.
Different workout styles demand different kinds of sport headphones, however, so if you need something a little different, we’ve got the bases covered. More on those below.
Table of contents
- What makes a good pair of exercise headphones
- The right headphones for your workout
- Our categories
- Why you should trust us
- How we chose what to test
- A word on fit
- Our pick
- What’s new in the Epic2
- Flaws but not dealbreakers
- Bluetooth headphones pro tip
- Addressing build-quality issues and concerns
- Sealed runner-up
- Our unsealed pick
- About on-ear and over-ear Bluetooth headphones
- The competition
- What to look forward to
- Wrapping it up
What makes a good pair of exercise headphones
In general, exercise headphones are for people who want to run, hike, bike, or hit the gym while listening to music, podcasts, or other media. Such headphones should be able to withstand a variety of stressors such as sweat, rain, strain from media players dropping to the floor, and abuse from being thrown into a bag along with potentially dirty and damp equipment.
Wireless headphones are for people who:
- Get annoyed by cables when working out—Nothing more irritating to you than a cord smacking your face when you’re kicking butt on the treadmill? Wireless is for you.
- Don’t mind having to remember to charge their headphones—If you work out several hours a week, you’ll need to charge about once a week or every other week for most sport models.
- Are willing to pay a little extra for the convenience—Wireless headphones generally cost a bit more money for the same quality of sound you’d get from similar wired versions.
So wireless headphones aren’t for everyone, and we totally get that. Many of you don’t want to be bothered with keeping a pair of exercise headphones charged — you’d rather be able to grab and go. You might be perfectly happy running a cable under your workout clothes, or you’re just looking for something for lower-impact activities anyway. Or you don’t want to spend the money on something that’s going to get sweaty. Don’t worry, we’ve got a guide to wired exercise headphones too.
Whatever type of exercise headphones you choose, they should sound decent. But headphones that sound fantastic and win a group listening panel are functionally useless if they don’t feel good, stay put, and keep out of the way when you’re being active. That means you have to make sure they fit your ears well and have a long enough or short enough cord (or none at all) to accommodate the exercise routines you prefer.
If you’re currently using a pair of earbuds that aren’t specifically designed for working out, such as Apple’s OEM EarPods, or if you’re using a nicer pair of earbuds for your workouts, you’ll have a better experience with one of our exercise picks. Workout headphones will take more abuse than EarPods and are designed to stay in your ears during activities. And unlike expensive headphones made only for casual use, sport headphones are created to handle sweat. Most important, many non-sport headphones have warranties that will become void if you get them wet—if you sweat and they short out prematurely, you’re out of luck.
The right headphones for your workout
We recognize that some workouts require headphones with specific features. To that end, we’ve made recommendations in nine distinct subcategories over two guides, including budget recommendations in the wired categories: sealed headphones (the headphones you’re probably used to, the kind that block out sound), in both Bluetooth and wired versions; unsealed headphones (designed to let in some sound from outside, for anyone who doesn’t like getting hit by cars while running), in both Bluetooth and wired versions; on-ear and over-ear headphones (for anyone who doesn’t like the feeling of earbuds); and swimming headphones (for anyone who dislikes land-based workouts).
- Sealed Bluetooth (cord-free without distractions)
- Unsealed Bluetooth (no cord, but situational awareness for safety)
- On-ear/over-ear Bluetooth (if you don’t like in-ears or cords)
And in our wired exercise headphones guide:
- Sealed wired in-ear over $50 (block gym noise, no battery charging)
- Sealed wired in-ear under $50 (block gym noise on a budget)
- Unsealed wired in-ear over $50 (be safe while training outside)
- Unsealed wired in-ear under $50 (be safe training outside on a budget)
- On-ear/over-ear wired (for lower-impact routines and people who dislike in-ears)
- Swimming and aquatic headphones (for boaters, boarders, swimmers, or surfers)
Why you should trust us
Not only did we do extensive research and consult with other top professional reviewers (you can read more about that below), but I also hold a bachelor’s degree in both music performance and audio production from Ithaca College. I spent several years in terrestrial radio before moving on to become a professional voice actor in Los Angeles, a job I continue to do and love. In other words, I’ve spent more than a decade in and out of top recording studios.
Around the same time, I started reviewing high-end home audio equipment for publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision. Since landing at The Wirecutter, I’ve had the pleasure of listening to and reviewing hundreds (yes, hundreds) of headphones, and my articles have been featured in Electronic House, Fast Company, Forbes, and Time. I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money.
And then there’s our panel of experts: In addition to myself, Lauren Dragan, we had Brent Butterworth, a Wirecutter A/V writer with decades of experience in the audio field for publications such as About.com, Home Theater, Sound & Vision, and many others; Phil Metzler, a musician/keyboardist with a bachelor’s in music who is in the band Just Off Turner; and John Higgins, a session musician (with a music master’s degree from the University of Southern California) and a music and audio teacher.
As for outside advice, we consulted a number of reviews on CNET, Engadget, Forbes, PCMag, Sound & Vision, and other professional sites, as well as from sports and lifestyle magazines and sites such as Lifehacker, Mashable, Men’s Fitness, and Runner’s World. And of course, we looked at what our readers said they were curious about in the comments section for our previous update.
How we chose what to test
In preparation for this article, we undertook what may have been the most involved Wirecutter headphones-testing process to date. I started by reading professional reviews from fitness journalists as well as from pro audio writers. I then looked to see what Amazon customers and other users had to say in their reviews. I checked out blogs and pored over running forums. Then I verified what had come out since our last test and brought in everything that was well-reviewed, recommended, or just-released to be tested. This group eventually totaled about 55 models, in addition to the winners from our previous test, which we also tossed back into the mix to see if they still held up. (Some did!)
I burned in every model and then turned them over to our expert panel for audio testing. I tasked the panelists with choosing the best-sounding and most comfortable models in the nine major categories: sealed over $50, sealed under $50, unsealed over $50, unsealed under $50, Bluetooth (sealed, unsealed, and on-ear/over-ear), corded on-ear/over-ear, and swim. Each reviewer gave me a list of the top three in each category; I then asked them to name their overall pick, the model they would select if they were to purchase workout headphones with their own money.
This process narrowed the field down to 11 new models that needed to be run-tested and stress-tested and two that needed to be swim-tested. In addition, four of our previous picks survived into this round.
Armed with our finalists, I took to the track and ran half a mile with each pair of dry-land-specific headphones. If you’re into math, this means 5.5 miles of test runs. I also had our panelist John Higgins give each one a run so that we could compare notes. This step reduced the field further to our potential winners, but we weren’t finished testing yet.
To check durability, I took each earpiece of every Bluetooth headphones pair and tugged sharply many times to simulate snagging and pulling off of the head. Next I put the headphones in their included cases or bags (if a pair didn’t come with one, I free-budded it) and put them into my gym bag with a small towel and a 20-ounce glass sport water bottle (that bottle is heavy!). I then shook, kicked, sat on, mashed, and smooshed the bag vigorously to simulate days’ worth of tossing it in and out of a car and plopping it onto the gym floor.
And finally—because even all of that wasn’t enough—I tested water resistance. To simulate performance under sweaty conditions, I sprayed each set of headphones using a water-filled utility misting bottle and then plugged it in to see how it worked. I took extra care to spray the in-line remotes and to press buttons to change tracks and volume while the remotes were still wet. And I listened to see if that affected anything. (Yes, I endured numerous wet-willies for you.) Once we were satisfied that each of our picks could endure the rigors of a good workout, I took into account the overall sound, fit, comfort, and price, and we were finally ready to proclaim a winner. (Whew!)
A word on fit
Fit is a critical part of purchasing any in-ear headphones, but when you’re searching for headphones that can handle the rigors of a workout, fit becomes even more crucial. Manufacturers have come up with all kinds of solutions to make their earbuds stay put, and the success of those innovations varies widely. What works perfectly for one person’s ears may feel like torture to another. As a result, finding a consensus on fit was incredibly difficult in this category—more so than for any other type of headphones we’ve tested. Sometimes the fit impacted only comfort, but other times the fit affected the sound as well.
I’ll give you an idea of the panelists’ anatomy, so you can see who you identify with most:
- Brent Butterworth has larger ears with large ear canals that are deeply set. With in-ear headphones, Brent always goes for the largest tips, and occasionally even those run small for him. He also has a sizable cranium.
- John Higgins has a medium-men’s-size head (around a 7½ hat size) and average-size ears that are close-set to his head, with medium ear canals. To get a seal with in-ears, he usually uses a medium tip.
- Phil Metzler has larger outer ears but smaller ear canals, so a medium tip on in-ear headphones works best for him. His head size is a little larger than John’s.
- As for me, though my outer ears aren’t large in size, they stick out a bit. My ear canals are (according to an audiologist who measured me for customs) slightly larger than most women’s, so with in-ears a medium or large tip generally works for me. I have a small cranium; in unisex fitted baseball hats, I’m a small, 6¾-ish size.
Our goal was to find options that will work well for the most people possible, so if one set of headphones sounded and felt good to all of our panelists, we knew we were on to something.
We asked around informally and found that most people who look for gym headphones want something sealed and Bluetooth. That’s how we ended up with our overall top picks. However, if you know that a specific design or feature works for you, check out that category individually for our top pick in that range. (All nine categories are listed and linked above.) Also, if you read farther down in each category, you’ll find some alternatives. For example, if our top pick has hooks over the ears and you hate hooks because you wear glasses, keep reading; we’re probably highlighting something with wings later on. That said, since no headphone design is perfect, no single pair of sport headphones will work perfectly for everyone.
Overall we highly recommend trying on headphones before you commit. Look for retailers (such as Amazon) that allow you to return or exchange, and save the packaging until you’ve had a chance to test all the sizing and stability options. Shake your head around, jump a few times, and give your sport headphones the same sort of indoor trial run that you would new sneakers. Give sizing your headphones the same care you would take with any other piece of sport equipment, and you’ll reap the benefits of a seamless transition into your routine.
The JLab Epic2 Bluetooth, like the original Epic model before it, gets our overall recommendation thanks to a design that was very comfortable for nearly all of our reviewers. It had a lightweight, effortless feel whether we were out on a run or doing burpees, and it offered sound quality that everyone enjoyed. We recognize that most people don’t like or want a cord when they work out, so for many people Bluetooth is a must, which confirmed the Epic2 Bluetooth as our overall recommendation over less-expensive wired and sealed options.
Whereas the fit for other sport headphones took some time to figure out, the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth’s fit was notably intuitive. The slim, wire-reinforced-cable hooks that run over the ears are stable enough to stay in place but narrow enough that you can wear them simultaneously with glasses or sunglasses without issue. The three-button remote is easy to access behind your right ear, where you can activate play/pause, call answer/end, track changes, and volume by feel alone. Some other remotes have a difficult learning curve when it comes to figuring out what each button does without looking at them, but our testers were able to adjust their music on the JLab pair without losing their stride.
The sound of the Epic2 Bluetooth is on the bass-heavy side (as is the case for a good number of the headphones in this category). However, the sound remains pleasantly warm—rock, hip-hop, and electronic music sound great. The mids are full without being muddy, and the highs are clear, not piercing or sibilant. Next to the sound from higher-end headphones, vocals on this pair can sound a little thin, and bass can slightly overpower hi-hat sounds. Classical lovers may find that orchestral recordings don’t sound as balanced as on, say, our $100 wired (non-sport) in-ear pick; while you’ll still hear the strings over the timpani, you’ll notice that the percussion section seems louder in the mix than you’re accustomed to hearing. But those are small flaws given the $100 price, especially when you consider the features, and they’re very minor next to the flaws of many of the other sport headphones we tested.
What’s new in the Epic2
JLab has added extra waterproofing to the Epic2, increasing the protection rating from IPX4 to IPX5. In addition, the circuit board now has a plasma coating, which will help to repel water should some moisture accidentally get inside the charge door. JLab also says it has improved the Bluetooth antenna to help avoid interference and drops.
The company has redesigned the remote control with a new button arrangement: Instead of <>  it”s now <>. The cable is coated with a different material that has a matte feel, and JLab says this coating will help avoid tangling and rubbing when you’re working out. JLab has also increased the claimed battery life from 10 hours of use to 12. (We got just over 12 hours in our testing, so that claim seems accurate.) And lastly, more sizes and shapes of tips are included, as you get eight pairs rather than six.
In the end, if you want headphones that sound great, fit easily and well, stay put, and can endure the sweat and varied movements of a hardcore workout, the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth is your best choice.
The next-best offering in this category, the Jaybird X2, typically costs about $40 more as of this writing, and the less-expensive Bluetooth sealed options we considered couldn’t hold a candle to the Epic2 Bluetooth.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The best part of in-ear Bluetooth headphones is that you don’t have a cord that runs to your device. The worst part is that if the headphones’ battery dies, you don’t have a cord that runs to your device. So if you forget to charge the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth, you’re out of luck (as with any of the other in-ear Bluetooth headphones we tested). This limitation can be especially frustrating if you’re the forgetful sort or if you happen to misjudge how much battery you have left. If that restriction is a dealbreaker for you, go for a wired option instead.
Another issue with the Epic2 Bluetooth is the size of the earbuds themselves. The outer part is a bit wide, yet the cable still needs to run up and over your upper ear. So if you have outer ears that are larger, especially if you also have deep, recessed ear canals, you might find getting a seal to be tricky, as our panelist Phil Metzler did. In his case, due to his larger outer ears, getting the cable around his ears took him a few tries, though he was eventually able to find a comfortable position. However, when it came to the inner-ear fit, to get a seal Phil had to push each earbud into his ear canal farther than he preferred, and he told me he didn’t love the feeling. That said, due to his ear shape, Phil had a ton of trouble with many of the headphones in this category, and even he was eventually able to get the JLab pair to fit.
So unless you too have that specific combination, you’re unlikely to have any trouble with the fit of the Epic2 Bluetooth. (Brent Butterworth, for example, has deeper ear canals, and I have ears that stick out a bit, and both of us found the JLab pair extremely comfy.)
Bluetooth headphones pro tip
When charging your Bluetooth headphones, always check the power rating on the included adapter. Not all USB wall adapters or car adapters output the same amperage, and you can fry your battery if it’s too high. Car electrical ports (and cigarette-lighter-style power ports) especially can vary in the power they output, and many warranties don’t cover battery damage caused by plugging devices into too strong a source. Computer USB ports are always the safest bet when you need to charge. Because such warnings are printed in some of the manuals we’ve read, it’s better to be safe than sorry, especially if improper charging voids a warranty. Check your instruction leaflet for the specific needs of your headphones.
Addressing build-quality issues and concerns
We heard from a handful of people who purchased the original JLab Epic Bluetooth model and encountered issues; these readers told us that their headphones suffered from spotty connectivity and then just plain died. This development really surprised us, since the original Epic Bluetooth pair we tested is now over eight months old, still seeing regular use on runs, and free of problems.
With the Epic2 release, we decided to push the build to the limit yet again to see what the new version could endure. To be sure that we didn’t have a magical extra-durable pair, this time we got three pairs of Epic2 headphones to attempt to destroy.
Phase One: The basics—I misted them with water, tugged them, and mashed them just as I’d done with all our other headphones in this category. They lived.
Phase Two: I put on the Epic2 Bluetooth and took a shower. First I used the showerhead to spray water directly at each Epic2 earbud. Then I washed my hair, scrubbed my face, the whole shebang, listening to music the entire time.
By the way, wearing headphones while shampooing is a super-weird experience that I don’t recommend. But then I did it two more times. Because we had three pairs to test.
Despite the deluge, the music kept playing. My phone was over on the sink, and I was still able to change tracks, play, pause, and adjust volume via the headphones. I made sure to do so while under the water to test the remote’s water resistance. I also took the headphones out of my ears to simulate having a conversation while working out and then returning to being the sweatiest person alive.
After I toweled off, I left each Epic2 Bluetooth set playing for about 20 minutes to see if they would have a delayed reaction to the water. Nope. Still going. So I went on to Phase Three.
For that phase, I opened the Micro-USB charge-port door slightly. A tag on the Epic2 Bluetooth says to be sure that this door is fully closed when the headphones are in use. So I put on some music, left the door open a smidgen to simulate not closing it fully after a charge, and ran it under the sink for a 10-count.
As in the shower test, I gave each of the pairs 20 minutes of playing time after their rinse. They all kept functioning. So I opened the little door all the way and let each Epic2 Bluetooth set dry out overnight.
On to Phase Four: armageddon. The one thing you’re never supposed to do with electronics is to pour water directly into their electrical parts. So that’s exactly what I did.
For each pair I opened the door on the charge port all the way and put it under the faucet for a 10-count. Then I left the water in there and listened to the headphones for half an hour each. As the water seeped out of the remote and dripped down my neck, it felt as though my ears were crying over my music. (I mean, it was Beyoncé’s latest, so maybe?)
Here’s where things finally got interesting. The first pair took about seven minutes and then began to crackle in the left ear. The crackling-interference sound persisted for several more minutes, but as the water continued to leak out of the remote, the sound improved, and finally, after 30 minutes, it seemed fine. Dang. I powered those headphones down.
The second pair crackled almost immediately in the left ear and then began to have reception issues. The Epic2’s remote is on the right ear cable, and during the test my phone sat on my left side. If I looked straight ahead, the music cut out. If I turned my head 45 degrees to the left, it sounded fine. I amused myself with this head-turning on/off switch for another 10 minutes, but then, as with the first pair, the water drained and the connection improved. By the 30-minute mark, this set was back to normal.
The third pair … didn’t do as well. After five minutes of playing with the water in the remote, the left ear began to crackle. But unlike with the first two pairs, the crackling only got louder and worse, so much so that I took this pair out of my ears because I was concerned for my hearing. After 15 minutes, the headphones shut off. I thought that was the end of it. But no! Like a zombie reanimating, suddenly they let out a piercing, squelching sound. They screeched like that for a few unnerving minutes before cutting out a final time. I noticed that the remote had gotten rather hot. Aw, yeah—that sounded like a shorting out to me.
Sure enough, after allowing all three Epic2 pairs to dry overnight, I found that units one and two were able to charge and function perfectly. Unit three was a goner.
Based on all of this experimentation, we’ve come to a few conclusions:
- Chances are good that most issues with the original JLab Epic Bluetooth come from water getting into the Micro-USB port, and it not drying fast enough. This could happen if the door is open, the headphones get wet, and then they sit in a moist gym bag. JLab has addressed this scenario on its site.
- Many issues seem to be resolvable if you keep the door closed, or, if water does get into the charging port, if you let the Epic Bluetooth dry out and then charge the headphones again before powering them back on.
- Bluetooth connectivity issues could result from multiple factors. First, as we found in our testing, a spotty Bluetooth connection is the first symptom when water gets into the Micro-USB port. If this happens to you, confirm that you didn’t get water in there. Second, interference could be a problem. With lots of devices using Bluetooth now, you may have too many devices trying to use the same frequency. We’ve noticed this issue with several brands of Bluetooth headphones, especially when used in conjunction with smartwatches. Third, having the Bluetooth signal go through objects, such as walls and humans, can cause problems. You can read more about this topic here, and you can get some tips to improve the Bluetooth signal on not only JLab products but also all Bluetooth headphones. Some tactics are a bit drastic but still worth a shot.
- Although we completely get how frustrating dead headphones are, having watched how JLab has responded to the problems on Amazon and to our own comments section by attempting to resolve issues does encourage us. JLab claims a defect rate of less than 1 percent in its products. If the ballpark numbers that company representatives gave us are any indication, the number of issues compared with the huge number of products sold is, if not under 1 percent, relatively small.
- JLab is trying its best to make things right. Check out this statement that the CEO of JLab left in our comments:
JLab Audio appreciates the feedback from Wirecutter followers. Thanks to your input we’re able to offer a higher level of service and education to our customers. In reading comments, we’ve noted two main topics that can benefit from a deeper dive into the technology and service:
- Bluetooth/Sound Cut-outs. Here’s some facts about Bluetooth and why signals can be lost for any brand of Bluetooth: http://www.jlabaudio.com/blogs… We’ve also created a list of tips to improve a Bluetooth connection: http://support.jlabaudio.com/h…
- In addition, we’ve seen the majority of returns are from moisture getting into the Micro USB Port because the door is open. We’ve elongated the plug to ensure it stays closed, and here’s some ways to Prevent Moisture Damage: http://support.jlabaudio.com/h…
Anyone can contact our customer support team at firstname.lastname@example.org or 866-358-6640 if you are experiencing issues with your JLab Audio products.
President, JLab Audio
And with JLab’s claimed improvements in the Epic2 Bluetooth model, we’re hopeful that any problems that may have occurred with the original Epic Bluetooth design will be resolved.
We’re going to continue keeping an eye on this issue, however, and as always we will pull our recommendation if the problems recur.
In the meantime, if you own the original Epic Bluetooth or the Epic2 Bluetooth, make sure to close the Micro-USB door after charging. This area seems to be where water can get in and do serious damage, so before you head out to sweat, check it and confirm that it didn’t pop open in your gym bag.
Another point of concern: More recently, we heard from an eagle-eyed reader that JLab had filed for bankruptcy. However, JLab representatives informed us that the bankruptcy was related to the original corporation, from which JLab as we know it separated in 2012. Since then, JLab, the company that makes the Epic Bluetooth and Epic2 Bluetooth, has been a separate LLC. According to a message from JLab PR, “JLab Audio has not done business as an ‘Inc’ since 2011 and hasn’t operated out of Tucson since 2012. This is the founder’s original entity that he decided to BK [put into bankruptcy]. JLab has been operating as an LLC since 2012. This Inc is unrelated to the operating business of JLab.”
In other words, JLab is neither bankrupt nor liquidating, and will still be around to honor warranties.
If you don’t like hooks over your ears, or if the JLab pair is sold out, the Jaybird X2—the successor to the now-discontinued Jaybird BlueBuds X, a favorite of ours—is the way to go. The lightweight X2 headphones stay put and sound fantastic, and you can wear them several ways. They also charge pretty quickly (in about two hours) and have a nice hard case, and they come with a lifetime warranty against sweat damage (which can add up if you sweat through one pair of headphones a year). More on what “lifetime warranty” means below. Although they currently cost a little less than the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth, getting the fit correct the first time takes a little more patience. As a result, the X2 barely loses out to the Epic2 Bluetooth.
With the X2, Jaybird has taken its popular BlueBuds X design and made some minor modifications. In contrast to the BlueBuds X clamshell case, the X2 case is a rubberized box. The array of included tips has expanded from a silicone-only selection to add sport Comply tips. The X2 is available in five colors (red, army green, teal, black, and white) rather than two. In addition, the honeycomb wings on the X2 have a slightly different shape, and the rubber has more of a grippy feel to it when moistened. That said, the X2 headphones feel about the same in weight and overall design, and they’re still tricky to set up when you’re fitting them the first time.
Jaybird also claims that it has improved the signal strength (the company calls it “signal plus”) on the X2 and says that no matter which side of your body you wear your music device, you’ll never experience skipping. This feature sounds great, but we never really had any problem with our BlueBuds X skipping due to signal strength. We did hear a few accounts of the signal dropping when the BlueBuds X was paired to both a Pebble watch and an iPhone, but that problem seems to occur occasionally with many Bluetooth headphones that are dual-paired. That issue has more to do with the headphones’ attempting to connect to two sources at the same time and failing, rather than the signal’s being insufficiently strong. But I digress.
All in all, we still love the Jaybird headphones. A lot. Jaybird tweaked the sound slightly, but the bass is still full and rich, rivaling that of most wired in-ears in the sport category. The mids have a depth that’s surprising for Bluetooth headphones, let alone a pair this small. The highs, however, have been boosted a bit and now have an ever-so-slightly sibilant edge. The result isn’t terrible, but it is a bummer since we loved the sound of the BlueBuds X so much.
Additionally, both the highs and the lows on the old version and the new model are a bit more peaked than on our JLab top pick, but all of our panelists found the sound exciting and engaging, if less balanced than that of the JLab model. Also, the X2 headphones are rugged, like the BlueBuds X pieces before them. A friend of mine wore his BlueBuds X on a yoga retreat in the freaking Amazon rainforest, and they performed perfectly. Talk about a sweat test!
But about that lifetime warranty: Jaybird has recently clarified what exactly that means. Jaybird says it will cover “the expected life of the product,” adding, “the expected life of a typical lithium-ion rechargeable battery is 2-3 years.” So lifetime is really more like three years. Still not shabby, especially considering how quickly Bluetooth evolves, but worth knowing if you expected to exchange your headphones if they died five-plus years in.
As I mentioned, the fit can be a bit tricky to figure out the first time you put this pair on, as you have a lot of possibilities to factor in. Aside from the traditional tips, you get several sizes of honeycomb-looking wings that you can use to secure each earbud in your ear (the wings aren’t necessary when you’re doing lower-impact stuff). The cord that runs between the two earbuds can sit over your ear (my favorite) or hang down from your ears and behind your head. You then use a pair of clips to shorten the cord so that it hugs your head as closely or loosely as you find comfortable. Don’t worry, Jaybird made a video tutorial to walk you through this initial process. But once you get the perfect setup for you, it stays set, so you can pop the X2 on and off quickly.
Jaybird claims eight hours of use between charges, though we occasionally squeezed out a bit more time here and there. In case you want to double-check the charge before you head out, a headphone battery status icon on your phone will let you know, upon pairing, whether you have enough juice to go the distance (no app required). The X2 comes with a short Micro-USB charging cable but no charger, so you’ll need to plug it into a USB port or get your own wall adapter to charge it—just be sure to check the voltage!
Lastly, a remote and mic sit on the cord that runs between the earbuds, so you can keep your phone in your bag or pocket and still change tracks, adjust the volume, and take calls.
Our unsealed pick
You want Bluetooth but also need to hear what’s going on around you? Here’s something you should know: Generally speaking, in-ear headphones that don’t seal will sacrifice some sound quality, specifically in the lower frequencies. We mention this because you can’t expect our pick in this section to match the sound quality of the JLab or Jaybird models we recommend; those sealed-style headphones will give you a richer, fuller sound simply by virtue of their design.
However, with sealed headphones, you’ll also seal out traffic, people near you, and other sounds from your surroundings, which can be dangerous depending on your activity. Unsealed headphones will give you a bit of both worlds, but if that’s a compromise you’re prepared to make, read on.
While you don’t have many unsealed Bluetooth options, we found one that we think will meet all of your requirements: the Plantronics BackBeat Fit Bluetooth. In fact, the BackBeat Fit is the only pair of unsealed Bluetooth headphones we’ve heard that we would consider to be worth your money.
Why? First of all, among the unsealed in-ear Bluetooth headphones we tested, the BackBeat Fit sounded the absolute best. As I mention above, you do lose some of the low-end frequencies and the richness that comes with a good, deep bassline, but overall the BackBeat Fit doesn’t sound objectionable in any way. The mids and highs are clear and balanced, and they don’t pierce or sizzle, and although you’ll hear only the overtones of a hip-hop bassline, you’ll be able to hear vocals, piano, brass, and guitars just fine.
The fit of the BackBeat Fit is comfortable and stable, and it’s easy to pop this pair onto your head and go. The rubber cable that runs behind your neck can occasionally rub against your shirt if you turn your head, but we didn’t feel as though the pieces would fall out as a result. The big play/pause button and the call-answer button are easy to find and use while you’re in motion. The volume and battery-level buttons are more like nubbins next to the other two, so they are a little trickier to find, but once you have your finger on one, they’re simple enough to use.
Add to all of this the fact that the BackBeat Fit feels substantial in quality, comes with a neoprene case that doubles as an armband for your smartphone, and typically retails for around $100. No other unsealed Bluetooth headphones even come close.
About on-ear and over-ear Bluetooth headphones
On-ear and over-ear workout headphones are for people who dislike the feeling of in-ear headphones and whose workouts are less physically dynamic. Because of the added weight, an on-ear/over-ear design will stay put if you’re running on a treadmill or lifting weights, but it most likely won’t tolerate jump squats or other high-impact sweating styles. A good pair of such headphones will sit comfortably on your head for a long period of time without pinching or irritating your ears.
Now that you know what we look for in such a pair, you’ll probably understand why we didn’t end up with a pick. After listening to and testing several pairs of on-ear/over-ear workout headphones, we didn’t find one that satisfied our requirements, and we’re not going to make a recommendation we don’t believe in just to fill a category. When we do find something worth your money, we’ll be sure to update this section.
Denon Exercise Freak: These headphones have a hearing-aid-like styling that only one of our panelists (Phil) appreciated last time around. You have no way to control tracks from the headphones, and John, Brent, and I could not get them to fit properly and stay in place. Brent compared the process to “trying to put a human sweater on a dog, it was so bizarre.” Take from that statement what you will, but factor in the Amazon reviews that mention build-quality issues, and we’d say to stick to our JLab pick.
Huaham Magnetic Earphone Morul U5: At less than $50 when we checked, the U5 ranked among the lowest-priced of the sealed Bluetooth headphones we tested, and we were hoping to find a really affordable gem. The magnets in the earbuds are a nice touch, and for the cost, the build quality is rather good.
However, both Brent and Phil had difficulty getting the U5 earbuds to seal in their ears, despite trying all of the included tips. Meanwhile, though neither John nor I had trouble getting a seal, the U5 didn’t feel stable enough in our ears to handle more than a brisk walk; we both thought that a jog or more strenuous activity would cause the earbuds to fall out. Plus, to the two of us who could get a good enough fit to test the sound, the bass was unfortunately a bit one-notey and bloated-sounding. Highs and mids seemed clear enough but lacked depth and dexterity. In the end, the sound was at best middle-of-the-road, which even for $50 wasn’t enough for the U5 to make the cut.
Jabra Rox: The Jabra Rox gave the Jaybird BlueBuds X a run for its money. The Rox is feature-packed, with magnets on the earbuds that not only enable you to wear the Rox around your neck when you’re taking a break but also let you put the headphones into sleep mode when you snap them together, thus saving battery life. This set also features near-field communication (NFC) pairing and an in-line remote and mic. The headphones sound fantastic and feel comfortable—when you’re sitting still.
The Rox might have won this category, if it weren’t for two fatal design flaws. First, that magnet-into-sleep-mode feature? It works, but you can’t turn the headphones off completely. The center button turns them off temporarily, but if the magnets on the earbuds find each other in the carrying case and connect (or if you connect them before storing), and then they unhook again, the Rox powers right back on and connects to any paired Bluetooth devices. You can imagine my confusion when I attempted to answer a call and found that said call had been auto-routed to headphones I thought I’d powered down—and were in the trunk of my car. Jabra says that if the Rox doesn’t find a paired device to connect to within five minutes, it will automatically power off, but that means keeping the Bluetooth on your phone turned off all the time in case the Rox’s magnets become disconnected in the set’s fabric bag. And this happens pretty easily.
We might have been able to overlook that issue (and would suggest getting a hard-sided carrying case to prevent the magnets from disconnecting), if only the headphones were comfortable on a run. Depressingly, they weren’t. The smooth metal casing around the earbuds that was so lovely when we were walking and sitting felt heavy and ready to slide out when we were jogging. The included silicone wings are designed to slip over the metal earbud rubber-band style, but in our use the wings didn’t stay on the earbuds. At the end of just half a mile, the wings were slipping and rubbing inside our ears, which meant we were constantly readjusting the fit. It’s distracting and frustrating, especially if you want to go for more than a mile. If you’re seeking Bluetooth in-ears to use only on your commute, and if you’re willing to spring for a hard case, you might want to give the Jabra Rox a look. But as a set of workout headphones, it’s slightly off target.
Jabra Sport Pace: The hooked design of the Sport Pace is comfortable to wear, but the mushroom-shaped silicone tips pose a fit issue for larger ear canals, as well as for my own medium-sized canals. I did manage to barely get a seal, enough to evaluate the sound but not enough that I am confident that they would stay sealed through a vigorous workout.
As for the sound, the mids and highs are decent, but the lows are rather dull and blah-sounding. The Sport Pace comes with an included training app that you can trigger through the earbud; it’s a nice bonus feature, but with so many other fitness apps out there, the app itself isn’t enough to overcome the Sport Pace’s flaws.
Jabra Sport Pulse: The Sport Pulse is part of an all-in-one trend in workout headphones, as it’s among several recently released models that include a built-in heart-rate monitor. However, as with many of the other sport headphones we tested, its fit was divisive, with two of our four panelists having difficulty. Phil and I were the lucky ones this time, whereas Brent and John couldn’t manage a seal without actively pushing the Sport Pulse earbuds into their ears. They both found that the tab that functions as the heart-rate monitor sensor prevented the tips from reaching far enough into their ear canals to seal fully.
As a result of the fit issues, only Phil and I were able to judge the sound properly. In general, the Sport Pulse sounds as though it has a W shape to the frequency response: a peak in the bass that extends a little too far up into the lower mids and produces a bloated bass sound, another small spike in the guitar range, and a final peak in the very high highs (around 10 kHz—right where “s” sounds on words and the “tss” sound of a hi-hat are) that makes the treble sound a bit sizzly, with a lack of presence in the meat of the vocals. Phil didn’t mind the extra bass and treble, but I found that the holes in the upper mids and lower highs left the sound somewhat lackluster, especially considering the set’s $200 price tag at the time.
What drives the price so high is the addition of that heart-rate monitor, which requires a connection to a phone as well as the operation of one of several free apps. At first, we all thought the heart-rate monitor idea was cool. And if you don’t have any other method of measuring your heart rate, it kinda is. However, the design limits how and when you can use your heart-rate monitor—it’s useful only when you’re using both your headphones and your phone. Taking a group class at the gym? Can’t use the headphones there. Trainer/instructor? Nope. Want to bike and chat with a friend? Can’t.
Because of those limitations, we found ourselves questioning the practicality of having heart-rate headphones at all. In the end, if you were to purchase a simple watch-based heart-rate monitor (like the Polar FT7, for example) for around $60 and then get our top Bluetooth headphones pick from JLab, you’d still pay less money overall than you would for the Jabra Sport Pulse (at list price) alone. And although you’d need to remember a second device, you’d have far more versatility. In addition, telemetry strap heart-rate monitors are generally more accurate (which is something I noticed in my test run, as well).
And, of course, the need for such a setup is negated if you have something along the lines of an Apple Watch. So who exactly are heart-rate monitor headphones for? Casual users, or people new to fitness tech, who always work out alone with headphones, perhaps? But would a casual user really want to spend about $200 for headphones that sound only okay and work only okay as a heart-rate monitor? After taking everything into account, we decided probably not.
Jaybird Freedom: The Freedom (not to be confused with the older Freedom Sprint) is unique in a few ways. First, it gives you the ability to EQ the sound and store your settings in the headphones themselves—no need to play music through a proprietary app. Second, it has an add-on battery pack, called a charging clip, which you can charge separately from the Freedom and then attach to boost the playing time if you’re running out of juice. And third, it offers especially small external earbuds that don’t add weight to drag down on your ears.
We really liked these headphones. The sound is great, and it’s customizable, so you can adjust as needed. The fit, though it takes some trial and error at first, ends up similarly comfortable to the Jaybird X2, at least for most ear canals. Brent, who has larger ear canals, couldn’t get a good seal with any of the silicone tips and had to use the less-isolating memory-foam style, which we found greatly affects the wearer’s ability to hear the bass. However, you could bump the bass with the EQ to compensate somewhat.
The add-on charging clip was a wash for us. While it’s nice to have the extra battery life when necessary, the headphones’ playing time is four hours, and the addition of the charging clip doubles that to eight hours. Even though this design means that you don’t always need to have your headphones docked to charge, you’ll still need to remember to charge something relatively frequently. Additionally, the charging clip is especially tiny; though it costs only $25 to replace, if you’re prone to losing small objects, that could add up quickly.
While the lightness of the earbuds is nice, if you run with the charging clip attached, that extra weight somewhat negates the minimal build, and in our experience it can cause some slight rubbing in the right ear where it tugs the earbud in the canal.
All that said, we might still recommend the Jaybird Freedom for certain people, if it weren’t for the $200 price tag. Currently that’s double our top pick’s cost, and we don’t think the benefits merit that level of additional expenditure.
Jaybird Freedom Sprint: The Freedom Sprint may cost a bit less than our Bluetooth winners on occasion, but the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth and the Jaybird X2 (or BlueBuds X) are worth the additional money. The Freedom Sprint lacks bass and doesn’t sound as good as either of our picks. Because of the weight and shape of the bigger, outer portion of the earbuds, they don’t stay in place as well as the diminutive X2 or BlueBuds X pieces, or the hooked Epic2 Bluetooth headphones. Trust us on this one: If you’re going with Jaybird for the warranty, the X2 or the BlueBuds X will be worth every extra penny. Otherwise, stick with the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth.
JBL Reflect Mini BT: Mini is the right word for the tips included with these headphones. If you have small ear canals and never manage to find tips that are small enough for you, these are your Bluetooth sport headphones. What’s interesting is that if this pair were to include a large tip, we might even consider it as an overall pick. The sound is well formed, offering a somewhat forward bass that isn’t blobby or muddy, just extra oomph. The highs are a smidgen sibilant, but not unlike what we heard from the Jaybird Freedom, which we also like. And the wings are flexible and cushy enough to be stable yet comfortable. If we thought a larger portion of the population could get a seal, this model would rank among our picks, but as it is, we can recommend it only as an option for the narrow-ear-canal set.
JLab Go: The cord that runs behind your head on the JLab Go is rigid and feels like a coat hanger—it’s stiff enough that it pulled the earbuds out of every one of our panelists’ ears. Brent couldn’t even get this pair fully around his head, and that was when he was sitting at a coffee table. If you want headphones for working out, these just won’t work.
Kicker EB300: Something about the tips on the EB300 creates a seal that causes a kind of suction. Although they seal, the suction not only feels odd but can also warp the sound. At one point, one of my test tracks sounded as though it had changed key; this happened to John, as well. It took both of us several tries to get the EB300 to seal without that inner-ear vacuum feel. Adding to the issues, the wires over the ears were stiff, and the controls were difficult for us to feel when we were wearing this pair. Such problems made it a challenge to change tracks and the like while on the go. And once we got a proper fit, none of us cared for the boom and sizzle sound. PCMag wasn’t a huge fan, either.
MEE Audio X7 Plus: We tested the original X7 model. The X7 Plus has the same sound profile but adds a second battery to improve battery life to 7½ hours, as well as improved water resistance over the original model. Very lightweight and a little more affordable currently, the X7 has a build quality that admittedly feels a bit flimsy. However, this plastic design is what makes the X7 so lightweight, and anyone who dislikes the feeling of more substantial earbuds in their ear canals might prefer the fit. The X7 headphones fit three of our four panelists comfortably and easily, a pretty good result for this round. In fact, for two of our experts, Brent and Phil, the X7 ranked among the top three sealed Bluetooth picks. The pieces have hooks over the ears that are reinforced with wire, so they feel stable on your head.
One thing worth mentioning is that these guys have a lot of bass. The bass has pitch to it, though, with a slight touch of resonance that can overpower the upper frequency ranges in all kinds of music, especially in EDM and hip-hop. If you like to crank your subwoofer, you might become a fan of the X7. But if you prefer a bit more balance, we think you’d be happier with one of our picks.
Monster iSport SuperSlim Bluetooth: Oh, Monster. The SuperSlim design looks cool because of the flat earbud shape, but nobody on our panel liked this pair. Although these headphones are flat, they’re also wide, and as such, Brent, John, and I all felt as though they might fall out at any second—despite the little rubber wings that go inside the ear. In addition, the cord hangs down from your ears in such a way that turning your head can cause the cable to snag on your shirt.
And sadly, the sound was unpopular as well: “Muddy bass,” “muffled, boxy mids,” and a “pinched tinny sound to the highs” were among the comments from our expert panel. Overall, we think Monster (and you) can do better.
Mpow Swift: For $35 (at the time we checked), we wanted this Mpow pair to be good—even pretty good! I mean, Bluetooth and sweat-resistant for that price? Amazing. Unfortunately, the sound was not so amazing. Peaked treble, absent low end, and sizzly substance-free mids meant the sound lacked any depth or oomph. That said, if you are using this pair only for podcasts and other spoken-word applications, you’ll understand the audio just fine, and the earbuds are relatively comfy, light, and inexpensive. But if you’re looking for headphones that can play the music that drives your workout, you’ll (sadly) have to look elsewhere.
Panasonic Wings: Messy, blobby lows smeared every kind of music we played through the Wings. The buttons on the remote are flush with the remote chassis, too, so it’s challenging to know which button you’re pressing without looking. It’s a shame, as we thought the fit felt secure and comfortable.
Plantronics BackBeat Go 3: We had some fit issues with the BackBeat Go 3. The stem of the earbud, which hangs down and connects to the cord, can push against your face (or, specifically, your tragus). For some of us on the panel, that meant an inability to get a proper seal. The cord itself is really long, and you have no way to fold it up in back. If you can get a seal, the highs are harsh and sibilant, making snare drums sound inauthentic. The lows are decent, but again only if you can get that elusive seal to work for you. The BackBeat Go 3 comes with a carrying case that doubles as a portable battery/charger, which is nice, but overall the fit is off and the highs are too much for this model to be one of our picks.
Beats Powerbeats 2 Wireless: Beats headphones have been doing a lot better sound-wise lately. The Solo 2 and Solo 2 Wireless on-ears came very close to surpassing other models for our recommendation in their category, a far cry from where Beats started in our ratings. And as with the Solo 2, the Powerbeats 2 Wireless is an improvement over the original Powerbeats. The sound is better, and the fit was comfortable for all of our panelists. Brent, Phil, and John all liked the build quality and found the hook design easy to pop onto their ears. I needed to do a bit of work to get the seal right, but once they were in, the Powerbeats 2 earbuds felt like they would stay put.
This pair still has flaws, however. First, the bass is just plain overpowering. That added boost extends up into the lower mids, makes pianos sound uneven, and colors the rest of the sound. It’s a shame, too, because the upper mids and highs are pretty nice. Phil found the higher frequency range to be a bit “slappy” sounding, but John, Brent, and I were okay with the slight peaks here and there that added some detail to strings and vocals (when they weren’t overpowered by a bassline).
But that brings me to the second flaw: the price. For $200 (the list price at the time we checked), we expect more than a label and packaging. We’re all for spending more to get more—better sound, better fit, better durability. But we don’t see the justification for the Powerbeats 2. If you like a lot of bass, you could be happy with the sound, but the MEE Audio X7 Plus also boasts a lot of bass, a lightweight hook-over-the-ear fit, and a significantly lower price tag. Aside from the “b” logo on the side, we don’t think the extra money you’d pay for the Powerbeats 2 Wireless gets you any major improvements over the X7 Plus. And as such, this Beats pair failed to make our list of picks.
RBH EP-SB: The EP-SB almost unseated the Jaybird BlueBuds X. This pair sounds great, offers similar build quality and comfort, and carries an IPX4 rating. All of our experts liked the EP-SB listening experience, too; we detected a little boost in the treble frequencies, but it wasn’t unpleasant, and many people will appreciate the extra detail in strings, fret noise, and consonants.
Regrettably, all of us found that without the wings or hooks or some additional stabilization, the EP-SB earbuds didn’t feel secure enough in our ears to handle a workout. If you’re a power walker, or if you’re seeking commuter headphones that can handle drizzle and sweat, you’ll love the EP-SB. But our inability to get the EP-SB to stay put through jogging or bouncing around was enough to push this pair out of contention as a top workout-headphones pick. If you want to read a little more of my thoughts on the EP-SB, check out this article at Sound & Vision.
Red Fox Wireless Edge: Oh boy. These headphones did not do well. The fit is so stiff, they hang off your ears like dead weight. Brent mentioned that they felt as though an alien creature had clamped to the back of his head. Our expert panel described the sound as “tinny,” “like listening in a tunnel,” “worse than Walkman headphones from the ’80s,” and “like mud.” So despite our hopes for a behind-the-head design, the Red Fox Wireless Edge fell out of the running.
Sony MDR-AS600BT: The design of the AS600BT is unusual, with an outer bud portion that looks like a paddle of some sort. Despite the extra weight of this element, most of our panel thought that the fit was pretty secure. The wings felt stable and comfortable, and the included tips sealed for everyone. Once we had the headphones on, however, the AS600BT started to disappoint.
First of all, the sound wasn’t fantastic. The bass was boomy and sloppy, and Brent and Phil said that at higher volumes the bass could be fatiguing to listen to at length. That problem alone would have placed the AS600BT in the middle of the pack at best, but then…
The AS600BT has only a single control button; you access on/off, change tracks, control the volume, take calls, and perform other functions via a series of Morse-code-like short and long holds and taps that trigger the desired action. Want to decrease the volume? Sure. Just “press the multi-function button three times at about 0.4 second interval, holding the button down at the third push (. . –).” Did you get that? Now let’s memorize the various Konami codes for each function and then go for a run. Wait, where are you going? Yeah, okay, we’ll pass too.
Soul Electronics Run Free Pro: This model has ingenious little “winglets” (my term) that everyone on the panel found comfortable and stable. In fact, the entire design is great: The headphones are lightweight and feel sturdily built, and the remote is easy to find and use without looking.
Sadly, these headphones don’t sound very good. The highs have a hissing, sizzly quality that makes cymbal hits sound like “pahhh” instead of a tidy “tss.” Brent described the highs as “coarse,” and John and Phil described the bass as “boomy” and “ringing.” The mids were decent, but that and the great fit weren’t enough to compensate for the flaws in the treble and bass. We think your money would be better spent elsewhere.
V-Moda Forza Metallo: This pair of sweat- and weather-resistant headphones seemed like a good candidate for this review, since its titanium neckband is designed to help it stay in place around your neck. However, while testing the Forza Metallo, we found that the metallic collar actually made these headphones too uncomfortable to wear during a workout. We still think they’re good wireless headphones (and we are testing them for our guide to the best wireless earbuds), but if you’re looking for a new pair to score your runs, look elsewhere.
Aftershokz Bluez 2: I’m going to admit something here—I have never been able to get a pair of bone-conduction headphones to sound any better than a tiny, tinny pair of speakers hanging in front of my ears. I’ve positioned, repositioned, pressed the conductors to my head, and had PR people show me how to wear them, and they have never impressed me. Or, for that matter, our panel.
Despite all of us trying to give this pair a real chance, the Aftershokz Bluez 2 failed to please. All of the other panelists described the experience as “stupid” (I think I settled on “frustrating”). Phil commented on how the bass notes tickled his face, and despite cranking the volume, he and Brent both remarked that they would hear songs better if they ran with music playing from the crappy speakers on their iPhones. You get the idea. It’s an interesting concept, bone conduction, and the Bluez 2 is built sturdily. But we sure couldn’t get it to sound good enough to make us happy. And it costs $100 currently. We just can’t recommend this pair.
Avantree Jogger Pro: This was the only set of unsealed Bluetooth headphones in the category our first time around, and it was rather disappointing. The headphones were indeed very light, but they felt as flimsy and breakable as a Happy Meal toy. They didn’t produce much volume to speak of, and the bass was nonexistent. As with the Aftershokz set, the sound wasn’t too far from listening to music through the speakers on your iPhone. We say to save your money.
Bose SoundSport: Not quite sealed enough to block out sound, but not quite unsealed enough to give you a sense of your environment, the SoundSport wireless headphones ended up being a bit of a letdown for us. Although the sound was okay, with slightly blobby bass but decent mids and highs, it was the fit and build that really kept this pair out of the running.
The cable has a grippy quality that snagged on my shoulder as I turned my head, occasionally tugging the earbuds and requiring repositioning. The buttons on the remote also have an odd wiggle to them when you press down; they feel like a remote-control toggle as opposed to a button. This tactile aspect means that pressing the controls while you’re running takes a little more concentration. And the nonremovable wings irritated my ears, so if you dislike the wings, you can’t modify the pieces to your taste. Overall, these minor flaws added up and prevented the SoundSport from making the cut as a top pick.
On-ear and over-ear Bluetooth
Gibson Trainer: While the ideas behind this pair’s safety light and “cooling touch” moisture-wicking materials are nifty, the intensely uncomfortable clamping force and sloppy bass on the Trainer really disappointed us. In an attempt to ensure that the Trainer is secure on your head, Gibson made the headband so tight that it’s nearly immediately headache-inducing. On top of that, the bass is blobby and bloated, and it coats every other frequency range.
To add to the woes, the volume buttons are small and difficult to access, with the Bluetooth-pairing and power buttons easy to press inadvertently. And the Trainer doesn’t fold up—a definite problem when you’re trying to smoosh your gear into a gym bag! Overall, the Trainer represents so many great ideas executed poorly.
Monster iSport Freedom Bluetooth: Both wired and over Bluetooth, these headphones sound lifeless, crude, sibilant, and terrible. The clunky build includes earcups that don’t seal well, and the overall design gives the impression that the set will fall off if you move too quickly. While the antimicrobial earpads are a good idea, they feel rubbery and uncomfortable against your face. And at the time we checked, this pair cost $180! No. Just … no.
Monster Roc Sport Freedom: Once you’ve powered on and connected the Roc Sport Freedom, the headphones emit a slight whine. That isn’t a big deal, unless you’re sensitive to high-frequency sounds like I am. When you play music, however, things don’t improve, as that shrill sound gets covered by coarse lower highs and a tremendously bloated bass.
The earcups don’t pivot, so it’s difficult to get a seal. I had to press them down to hear properly, though to be fair, my outer ears stick out a little. Regardless, if you turn your head too quickly, the Roc Sport Freedom really moves around, because the earcups are heavy. It’s clear that either Monster or Cristiano Ronaldo (the soccer star for whom this model is named, and we’re sure he had a lot to do with development) attempted to thwart movement by making the clamping force especially tight and adding a grippy material to the headband, but after 10 minutes, these headphones start to feel hot and uncomfortable. While I was uncertain whether the heat was from the Roc Sport Freedom’s power source or from the material covering them, I was unhappy either way, and I wasn’t even working out yet.
Urbanears Hellas: The Hellas has so much going for it. First off, having a washable, removable headband and earpads is genius. The carrying bag also doubles as a mesh delicates bag, so you can just pop the washable bits off, cinch the bag, and throw the bundle right into your machine. We ran ours through a regular cycle, and the bits came out good as new.
The sound is pretty great, as well. The lows are boosted, but the result isn’t unpleasant, and the mids and highs are nice, especially considering that the Hellas doesn’t completely block out external noise due to the foam/mesh in the earpads. This isn’t a fit issue but rather seems to be a purposeful decision to create situational awareness. The build is light, and the Hellas stays put when you move your head. The headphones fold up nicely to smoosh into your bag.
This model’s fatal flaw, however, is that earpad mesh. While it helps to keep your ears cool, it also digs into your outer ear. I wore the Hellas for 30 minutes to test it further and ended up with aching ears (and a waffle-like marking on them). I wanted to be sure the problem wasn’t my ear shape, so I had Brent give this pair a go. Brent found the same thing in his gym testing, not even making it more than 10 minutes before he was uncomfortable. He said, “Comfort matters much more than sound when you’re working out at the gym.” From an audio reviewer who has been in the industry for decades, that’s a bold statement. And I have to agree. I love nearly everything about the Hellas, but its one drawback is an absolute dealbreaker.
What to look forward to
In February 2017, Denon announced the AH-C160W Wireless In-Ear Sports Headphones. Priced at $150, the AH-C160W pair has an over-the-ear hook design and is sweat- and moisture-resistant, with an IPX5/7 rating. Playback and volume controls are on the right side of the headphones. The new set will be available toward the end of February.
Monster, 808 Audio, Samsung, and Altec Lansing showcased new wireless exercise headphones at the CES 2017 trade show. While some options, like the 808 Audio Ear Canz and the Samsung Level Active, are available now, the offerings from Monster and Altec Lansing won’t go on sale until later this year. We’ll look into the models as they become available, and we’ll update this guide with our thoughts.
The Jaybird X3 is the follow-up to our current runner-up pick, the X2. The X3 is available now from Jaybird for $130, and we’re currently putting a pair through our run tests and stress tests. We’ll update this guide with our findings soon.
The TalkBand N1 set from Huawei plays music and records your exercise progress via an accelerometer (which you can then sync with an Android device or iPhone). Huawei claims the N1 will play music for seven hours while tracking, and you don’t even need your phone—you can load your music onto the TalkBand, because it has 4 GB of internal storage. If you want GPS data, however, you’ll need to bring your phone along with you. We look forward to seeing how the N1 performs in testing.
We also plan to try the crowdfunded (and completely wireless) Bragi Dash, which is rolling out to backers on a first-come-first-served basis (and for which we are in the queue), despite the fact that many reviewers, such as Digital Trends, have panned it so far. We’ll also be checking out the Skullcandy SP50.
The Roc Sport SuperSlim Wireless In-Ear Headphones by Monster have the same look as the Monster iSport SuperSlim Bluetooth model (mentioned above) in a new color scheme, but they have a different tuning, so we’ll test them when we get a chance.
A new version of the Normal headphones is available for preorder. The previous model was our unsealed pick in our guide to the best $200 in-ear headphones, but the new design is wireless. We’ll be testing this custom-fit model when it’s available to ship.
Beats announced the Powerbeats 3 and Beats X at Apple’s September 7, 2016, event. Although we haven’t recommended Beats in the past, we’re testing the latest models out to see whether they fit in with our picks.
Wrapping it up
Whether you’re training for a marathon, going for a PR in CrossFit, or just getting moving, we know that the JLab Epic2 Bluetooth or one of our other top wireless picks will meet your needs. (If not, check out the wired options!). So now that you’ve got the audio gear, go get yourself in gear! You can do it!
- Best Workout Headphones, Men's Fitness, 2015 ,
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