The right music doesn't soothe the savage beast, it makes the beast more savage. When you're going for a long run, that's exactly what you want. The pulse of thumping beats can make you feel superhuman. It certainly beats the sound of your own labored breathing.
But all earbuds are not created equal. Some refuse to stay in your ears. Some have no dynamic range. Some are like small torture devices. So we took five of the best workout earbuds and put them to the test. Meet the new king of your sweaty ear canals.
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In order to be considered, the products had to be earbuds, not headphones. Sure, you can get better audio fidelity with larger, over-the-ear phones, but they're heavier, bulkier, hotter, and just not practical for working out. They also had to be tough. Sweat-proof, water-resistant, and build quality were taken into account. Last, they had to cost under $100. There are plenty of better, pricier earbuds out there, but these things are going to be banged around at the gym, soaked in sweat, dropped, lost, and maybe stolen.
Each earbud was worn on runs that covered park and street conditions. We also wore them doing pushups, sit-ups, jumping jacks, and using a punching bag. Then we just shook our heads around, trying to dislodge them. Each was also tested on a wide range of music in a quiet room—you know, for yoga poses. Comfort, stability, durability, volume, and sound isolation played key roles, in addition to straight-up sound quality.
The Sonys were the lightest of the headphones we tested and arguably the most comfortable. The cord loops back over your ears and then tightens to keep them from falling off. They are sweat-proof and water resistant—you can even rinse them off after each workout. They are designed to block external noise, which is nice for creating a little bubble of sound, but you lose some situational awareness, so there may be some safety issues.
Unfortunately, there is a fatal design flaw. While the looping design keeps the buds from falling off your ears altogether, they do nothing to help keep the bud actually in your earholes. While running, the buds would work their way out of the ears every minute or so and would have to be poked back in. Basically it's up to the little rubber nubbin to keep it in, but the cord actually seems to be pulling it out. Very frustrating. They sport Sony's new balanced armature drivers, and they have a pretty decent dynamic range, but they were quiet, pretty muddy, and the bass is thinner than we would like. $80
The AfterShokz use a different technology from the others: bone conduction. This means that your ears are left completely uncovered, and sound is actually pumped in through your cheekbones. This gives you a ton of situational awareness. Running down the street you can hear your music clearly while still being able to hear people talking at a normal volume (not to mention cars trying to run you over). The behind-the-neck design keeps the AfterShokz firmly in place no matter how much bouncing we did. Plus, they feel cool and futuristic.
The biggest downside is lack of audio fidelity, and this is more or less true for all headphones that use bone conduction. The sound really penetrates, but the treble is intense and at times grating, and there is almost zero bass to speak of. If you are trying to run to a beat, you want to be able to hear that beat. Another strike: these were the only headphones that have to be charged—bone conduction takes power, and that means they have a little onboard battery dangling on the wire. If you don't clip that wire (or if it comes unclipped), the battery's weight will pull them off your head. This makes them feel bulky. Also, the behind the neck design is great for running, but if you do anything lying on your back (crunches, bench press, etc.) they will get pushed out of place. Finally, after about 20 minutes they start to get uncomfortable on your cheekbones. $63
The yurbuds, with their Twistlock design, stay in your ears like nothing else. You could headbang your face off, but they won't fall out, and they're actually pretty comfortable. They're very lightweight, and their unique shape actually lets in a fair amount of ambient noise, which may help you avoid hazards. Sweat-proof and water resistant, and they feature a mic with three buttons for taking calls, skipping tracks, and adjusting audio, which is handy.
Unfortunately, the audio quality is not up to snuff. Not even a little. Sounds is just very muddy, almost staticky at times. They're louder than the Sonys, but there's still very little bass. Also, the mic setup adds some weight, so you'll really want to use the included clip to keep it from bouncing around. This one will be a non-starter for audiophiles. For runners who just want to hear the music, you could do a lot worse for the money. $48
The Shure SE215 has been the budget pick for many an audiophile. Indeed they have the highest quality, most balanced sound of any of the buds we tested. Highs and mids were clean and distinctive and there was an acceptable amount of bass for our hip-hop. Now, these aren't created to be sports earbuds, however, because of the unique shape of the drivers and the way the cables loop behind your ears, they stay in very securely. Most earbuds just have silicone tips, but these are silicone filled with foam, and they provide more sound isolation than any of the others (which is good for airplanes, but bad for street-running safely). If you're an athlete with a penchant for sonic fidelity, these are your pick.
That said, they're not perfect. First off, they're kind of a pain to get into your ears, and if one does fall out while you're running, you're going to have to stop. Because they're really not built for running, they're a bit on the heavy side. The cable is long and thick (don't say it) and it easily gets snagged on things. Very occasionally the cable would come off our ears, and it could be a nuisance. You can buy a replacement cable that will add a mic and iPhone/iPod controls, but that'll run you an additional $50. Also, there have been many reports of audio cutting out due to a connection problem with the replaceable cable, and the exposed metal there certainly isn't sweat or water proof, which could lead to shorts. It's the best overall headphone here, but this is for workout music, and you very well may want more bass than these provide. Plus, these are they may be more than you want to spend on something that's going to get tossed in your gym bag. $100
The 680 Sports series from Sennheiser/Adidas simply give you the most boom for your buck, and by boom I mean bass. These pack some of the heaviest bass I've heard on earbuds, and they're loud, too. I was able to turn the volume down several notches compared to the others. The neckband design means that they didn't budge even slightly when running or doing jumping jacks. They're light and they have a built-in mic with start/stop and volume controls. They're sweat-proof, water-resistant, and rinsable. They let in a bit of ambient noise, but because they can go so loud it's easy to overwhelm it. While it isn't the cleanest sound, the 14mm drivers have enough bass to give it a full sound. If you're trying to run to a beat, these are the ones.
On the downside, the highs and mids are definitely a bit muddy, muffled even. Audio purists will probably be happier with the Shures. While the neckband gives them great stability, it also makes them unadjustable and makes them no good for crunches or anything where your back is on a bench. If you do a lot of that kind of stuff, you should probably go with the OMX 680i Sports, which have the same killer drivers and look very stable, but lose the behind the neck thing and are a bit more versatile. The other major problem with these is wind. When you're running outdoors on you can really hear the wind rushing in, and it's enough to be distracting. Other than that, though, these are very solid, and considering you can get them for just over fifty bucks, we've gotta call these your winner. $53