If you’d asked me three years ago which wireless earbuds to buy for the gym, I would’ve laughed and laughed and laughed. The entire category was so hilariously bad back then, how could I recommend anything? Well let me tell you friend: a lot has changed in the best of ways.
Historically, the problem with wireless earbuds hasn’t been sound quality. It’s been comfort and convenience. The truly minimal wireless earbuds tend to fall off your head or feel like you’re wearing heavy stones in your ear canals. Other styles required a clunky neckband that improved comfort and battery life but also made you look like a goon. Don’t even get me started on easy-to-lose proprietary chargers.
All together, these problems made wireless earbuds virtually useless for an active lifestyle—and it’s still a challenge. But after testing out some of the best reviewed wireless earbuds on the market right now, I was thrilled to learn that some of the newest models actually work really well for exercise and daily use alike. Dare I say, I’m suddenly loving this wireless earbud trend.
How we picked the finalists
Wireless earbuds are honestly everywhere now. (I can buy some knockoff Powerbeats in my local bodega.) To find the very best, however, my pals at Gizmodo and I dipped back into our own reviews as well as those from publications we respect. This narrowed things down to a handful of companies including Jaybird, Jabra, Bang & Olufsen, and, yes, Beats. We didn’t include the Apple AirPods—or any of the “truly wireless” gear out there—because the ultra minimal design falls out of your head pretty easily when doing activities.
The units we ended up testing needed strong marks in three categories: sound quality, comfort, and convenience. Because our main goal was to find the best wireless earbuds for an active lifestyle, we ruled out almost all of the neckband contenders as well as the completely wireless earbuds that tend to fall out very easily. Earbuds that required proprietary chargers were also considered with heavy skepticism. All things considered, we wanted to find the highest quality earbuds with the fewest inconveniences.
How we tested the best
Let me be honest: some of these wireless earbuds were eliminated right out of the box. Sure, I still set them up and ran through the songs on my headphone test and jump around my apartment, but a number of well-`reviewed models were dead on arrival. Let’s have a moment of silence for the too neckbandy V-Moda Forza Metallo Wireless, the too bulky and expensive BeoPlay H5 buds from Bang & Olufsen, the too ugly and uncomfortable Plantronics BackBeat Fit, and the too flimsy JLab Epic2 headset.
The remaining candidates—the Powerbeats3, the BeatsX, the Jabra Sport Coach, the Jabra Sport Pulse, the Jaybird X3, and the Jaybird Freedom—went through the ringer. I went on runs with them. I listened to them in the calm comfort of my own home. I took them on the subway. I did pretty much anything an active person would do with a set of wireless earbuds. In the end, it all came down to those three categories I mentioned earlier.
Sound quality test
Just because sound quality isn’t the biggest issue with wireless earbuds doesn’t mean it’s not an issue. Some of these earbuds, like the BeoPlay H5, sound great! Unfortunately, what’s surely some extra space to hold better drivers makes them a huge pain to wear. (That’s why those were already eliminated.) Others, like the Jaybird X3 and the Jaybird Freedom, sound tinny and flat. Considering the fact that those sets require a tiny proprietary charger that you will certainly lose, I had to cut the Jaybirds from the lineup pretty early as well.
The remaining four wireless earbuds all sound just fine. Each set is tuned a little different—the Beats are famously bass heavy, while the Jabras sound more balanced—but I enjoyed listening to all types of music and podcasts with both. That brings us to Category 2.
To me, comfort is the most important thing factor in choosing the right wireless earbuds. Everybody’s ears are shaped differently, and companies go to great lengths to provide 9,000 different attachments to make sure their set will work in your canal. So at the end of the day, what feels good for me might not feel perfect for you. But let me just admit that I found that the Jabra earbuds felt like they simply disappeared, when I got the fit configuration right. I found the Powerbeats, which hook around your ears and rest just outside your ear canal, to be the absolute worst. Eliminated.
There are other factors to comfort, too, though. Wireless earbuds need a little controller so that you can adjust the volume and stuff. That module might also contain a battery, adding weight that tends to be annoying, tugging the earbuds to one side. This is one of the reasons that I fell for the BeatsX and the minimal little neckband that keeps the heavy stuff from dangling about.
The final aspect of wireless earbuds I considered is a big more nuanced than the first. It’s also the most subjective. Convenience to me means that the Bluetooth connectivity aspect worked with minimal effort and the process of putting the earbuds into my dang ear didn’t take 20 minutes. (Seriously, some of these seem like puzzles when you’re trying to get them on correctly.)
If you’ve been following, you’ll know that we’re down to three finalists: the BeatsX, the Jabra Sport Pulse, and the Jabra Sport Coach. The BeatsX connect easily to Apple devices, which is a plus for some, but the extra bulk of the neckband can be slightly annoying. The Jabra earbuds are almost identical in terms of form factor, the major difference being that the Pulse has a heart rate monitor and the Coach works with a personal trainer app. However, both can be slightly tricky to squeeze into your ear. They’re all comfortable during various levels of activity, though, and they all sound damn impressive for their size.
So who wins?
Not to be anti-climactic about it or anything, but I think the BeatsX and the Jabra Sport Pulse both win. (The Jabra Sport Coach personal trainer thing never made sense to me, and the heart rate monitor in the Pulse is actually really cool.) It all comes down to your personal preferences—neckband or nah, iPhone or Android, etc. But this is where price might make a big difference.
The BeatsX retail for $150. The Jabra Sport Pulse retail for $160. But! Amazon has the Jabras on sale for $100 right now. Quite frankly, I think even neckband haters will like the BeatsX, and plenty of people will enjoy the Jabras.
I am concerned that a lot of people have complained that the Jabras don’t hold up well over several weeks of use, possibly because they’re not waterproof enough. We didn’t experience this issue but will update this post if it happens. If it happens to you, send them back and get the BeatsX. Everybody wins.