Sensors are everywhere—in our phones, watches, and shoes. And now our earphones, too. The SMS BioSport heart rate-sensing earbuds aim to be the audio companion of choice for all you marathon runners, mountain bikers, and other hardcore athlete types who need to know your beats per minute on a daily basis.
But jamming health sensors into a convenient package, like earbuds, doesn't immediately make them a must-have. Even if your brand is repped by 50 Cent, your product needs to provide tangible benefits. If we're talking about a $150 pair of headphones, they should sound pretty damn great and feel good too.
Earbuds that use embedded optical sensors to measure your heart rate while you listen to tunes. The commercial version of a technology that Intel showed off a while ago. Wired earbuds with an inline mic, which come in neon yellow, pink, gray, or blue.
Not a dedicated fitness tracker, because they don't count steps or track your route. They're merely a companion for the RunKeeper app on your phone. For passive data throughout the day, you're still better off with a normal fitness tracker. But for intense workouts, you can shed bulky chest sensors or other wearables and just go with BioSport.
Fitness fanatics obsessed with obtaining every last little bit of information about their workouts. People who probably already own a dedicated fitness tracker, but want to supplement whatever data their Fitbit, Jawbone Up24, or Basis Peak pumps out. People who'd rather wear earbuds than a chest-strap heart rate monitor.
Because of some hardware limitations, only certain smartphones are supported. So, you know, it would help to have one of those.
The BioSport earbuds adopt the same aesthetic as other SMS Audio hardware. That is to say, predominantly black with gray, yellow, or blue highlights. Each earpod is emblazoned with the familiar "S" logo and the cord is also two-tone: one side black, the other colorful. The cord is made of sturdy rubber and is pretty hard to get tangled. Occasionally I would pull out the headphones from my coat pocket or messenger bag and be greeted with a messy cat's cradle of wires, but they're easy to pull apart.
Stretched out and measured from the golden 3.5mm jack to the tip of the earbud, the cord stretches a little over four feet. It's actually the perfect size because you don't want too much cord draping from your ears when you're running and, in effect, slowly tugging your earbuds out with every step.
Out of the box, my biggest concern were the earbuds themselves. They looked positively massive. I wasn't sure how they Could possibly fit in my ear canal. They're much bigger than SMS's Street by 50 earbuds, which I've coincidentally been using as my daily drivers for the past month or so. After rummaging around the packaging, I came across two additional gel covers (three total: small, medium, and large sizes) that you can stretch over the ear piece to help fit your either gargantuan or pequeño ears. I settled with small, plugged into my Nexus 5, and fired up the RunKeeper app.
For Android and iOS, set up is a little different. The Android version of RunKeeper will automatically recognize the earbuds as a heartrate monitor and a small red heart will pop up near your workout info on the start screen. For iOS, you'll need to dig around in the app's devices settings and pick the headphone option. Then you're ready for some running.
Using the BioSport earbuds was a polarizing experience. On the one hand, SMS does some things really well. Like comfort. I'm traditionally anti-earbud, to the point where I'll wear over-the-ear headphones on the train or while walking around NYC. But these guys are incredibly comfortable. I even reached for them at work, instead of my regular Audio Technica headphones lying close by. Compared to the vice-like grip of those cans, the BioSport felt like I wasn't wearing anything.
And they're even better when you go running. SMS included what they call "secure fit ear gels" that slip right under the antihelix, or inner ridge of your ear, so when you're jogging, running, rowing, sprinting, and swimming about, the earbuds stay right where you want them. I've gone on several runs with the BioSport buds and not once did they pop out of my ear. SMS also includes a clip to help redistribute some of the cord's weight.
Aside from being somewhat anti-tangle, the cord and earbuds also come with an IPX4 rating, meaning the should stand up to sweat and water. I haven't had the earbuds long enough to see how well they hold up to my body's salty tears over time, but I did take a few runs during a moderate rainstorm and the earbuds performed without a hitch. I was more concerned for my phone than the earphones.
As for the actual sound (which is pretty important, right?), I'd give the BioSports a passing grade. I'm a bass hound and the SMS buds do an admirable job of trying to pump out Run the Jewels' bass-heavy tracks, but it's nothing close to what headphones or even just bass-focused earbud alternatives from Sony or Sennheiser can do. SMS does also deliver a well-mixed sample of lows, mids, and highs that doesn't play one genre exceptionally but manages all genres well.
You can control music with an inline mic controller on the right earbud cord. Here's where things get weird: there's only two buttons. The one with the small heart slides up and down to turn on the heart rate sensor or to switch to "phone mode" while on a run. If you need to use phone mode for whatever reason, it will stop the heartrate sensor which sucks. You're best off quickly pausing your workout and taking the call so that your results doesn't get messed up.
The second button is a music controller. One press pauses (or plays) whatever track you're on and a double-press lets you skip forward to the next track. The SMS manual says that a triple press lets you go back, but on my Nexus 5, it simply just skipped ahead two songs. You can also summon Siri or Google Now by long-pressing on that button.
Conspicuously missing? Any volume control whatsoever. SMS suggests that you just set the volume to what you like, but when you have a Spotify playlist that features the dulcet tones of Sigur Ros and an ear-splitting plethora of death metal, the same volume might not cut it. Several times my ears were assaulted when the track changed to something much more intense, and I had to stop what I was doing or risk permanent hearing loss.
Does it keep good track of your ticker, though? It certainly seems so. I took digital measurements with the built-in heart rate sensor on a Pro Form treadmill and compared it to the BioSport data. Both data sets never varied more than 2-3 bpms from one another. On other runs I took manual measurements, stopping every five minutes to check RunKeeper and record my pulse the old-fashioned way, and the results were about the same.
So accuracy was by no means a problem, but now that I had this data—what the hell was I supposed to do with it? I mean, don't get me wrong, it's pretty neat that I can reliably get heart rate info from my earbuds, but RunKeeper just repackages it as a bpm chart next to data on how fast I was traveling and how much elevation I traversed—neither of which required the BioSport to get. I have no doubt that professional athletes or serious health-minded individuals would be able to glean some real insight from these readings, but those people also probably already have a reliable method of tracking their heart rate, whether through a dedicated chest strap or a wrist-mounted option.
I can only really think that these earbuds would be a perfect for someone who hates wearables of all sorts and still wants heart rate information, but that seems like a quite a niche. And while the audio coming out of the BioSports is good, it's not $150 good, so you're definitely paying a premium for the added health benefits. Since the BioSports get their power from your phone's headphone jack, at least it's one less device to charge.
The earbud design is incredibly comfortable and won't pop out of your ear easily. The cord also feels like it can handle some punishment, and its tangle-free inclination is another plus.
The golden 3.5mm jack makes it possible for the HR sensor in the earbuds to run without needing a charge. I vehemently hate charging things, and SMS and Intel save me the pain with this clever bit of engineering.
I do like that the BioSport earbuds work with an app that many people are using instead of some walled-off alternative that holds your health data hostage.
However, I don't like that RunKeeper is the only app that it currently works with. I spoke with SMS about future app integration, and they promised MapMyFitness would be the next compatible app in early 2015 with more being added on throughout the year, but right now it's RunKeeper or bust—and that's a bummer.
The BioSport earbuds only work with certain phones. Currently, the only devices that can support the earphone's heart rate superpowers are the Apple iPhone 4S, Apple iPhone 5, Apple iPhone 5S, Apple iPhone 5C, Apple iPhone 6, Apple iPhone 6 Plus, Samsung Galaxy Note II, Samsung Galaxy Grand II Duos, Samsung Galaxy S4, Samsung Galaxy S5, LG Nexus 5, and Motorola Moto X (2013).
There are waaaaaay too many great Android handsets missing on that list. I actually had to switch SIMs on my OnePlus One to my old Nexus 5 so that I could even use them.
Update: SMS Audio says the main issue is that many smartphones don't allow energy to be harvested from the audio jack, which would make powering the optical sensor in the earbud impossible. SMS mentions that they're working on bringing more devices into the fold, but for now, these smartphones are all you have to work with.
There are a lot of celestial bodies that would need aligning for me to ever suggest these to anyone. If you're really into fitness, and you know how to interpret and apply raw heart rate data to your workout, and you don't already have a fitness tracker that already does all of this, and you obviously have a phone that it works with it, and you're willing to part with $150... Then yeah, maybe. But damn, that's a lot of ifs. For $150 dollars, you can get some really, really, really nice alternatives with noise isolation and all kinds of other cool features.
That doesn't mean that reading your heart rate with headphones is a bad idea, though. It works! Maybe SMS Audio's next set of buds will be an easier sell.
Photos by Nicholas Stango