The Best Sport Headphone Review
We tested ten of the best available sport headphones, evaluating fit, features, and sound quality to help determine what will best meet an athlete's needs. What style of tunes fill your workout playlist? Do you like sparkly, happy pop music or profanity-laced rap with a thumping rhythm? Do you prefer twangy bluegrass or fast, intense rock music? Everyone has a style of music that motivates them to get moving and breathing hard. Many people can't stand the idea of exercising without music. So what makes the experience even better than simply working up a sweat and getting the endorphins flowing? Having the perfect set headphones that produce beautiful sound while staying securely in place with no fuss. Read on to learn our findings.
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Test Results and Ratings
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Analysis and Award Winners
Best Overall Headphones
Best Bang for the Buck
ME Electronics Sport-Fi M6
Top Pick for Best Sound Quality
Top Pick for Model with a Microphone
Monster iSport Intensity
Selecting the Right Product
Sport headphones are designed to meet the specific needs of an athlete. In regular headphones, people look for crisp sound with deep bass, complete noise isolation, and comfort. But models designed for athletic use have even more requirements, the most important being that they securely stay in place during vigorous activity and they remain comfortable for a long period of time while being small and unobtrusive. They need to be sweat and water resistant and they should also let in ambient noise so the runner or biker can hear cars on roads or others coming up behind them on multi-use trails. This is a safety feature that many athletes find necessary.
Another feature that is typically reconsidered is the cord. Sometimes a shorter cord provides less hassle or chance of it getting tangled and in the way during exercise. These styles usually also come with an extension cord. The addition of a swivel can prevent tangles, or sometimes the shape and material are altered to prevent tangling, like on flat cords or cloth cords.
We discuss types of headphones in further detail in our Buying Advice, but here are some of the big picture categories and features to consider when selecting a pair of head phones for athletic use:
Noise-Isolating, Semi Noise-Isolating, or Ambient Noise Allowed:
Most models make a point of allowing for ambient noise to be heard, but there are a few products that are completely noise-isolating. This affects sound quality and how well you can hear what is going on around you. Noise-isolating are best for a loud, busy gym, while semi-noise isolating models are the safest for outdoor athletes.
The only complete noise-isolating models we tested were both versions from ME Electronics, the Klipsch X7i, and the Sennheiser CX 685. All the rest allow ambient noise to be heard to varying degrees.
In-Ear or Ear Hanger:
Tangle-Free or Tangle-Resistant Cords:
Cables, memory wires, swivels, flattened, shortened, or cloth covered cords are all different methods used to prevent cord tangles. In our experience, the shortened cords and flat cords are the best at resisting frustrating tangles.
Inline Microphone and Controller or None:
Strava, Fitocracy, or Runkeeper? Do you listen to podcasts and internet radio while you run, walk, or ride? Are you always exercising with your smart phone close by? If so, you may like the added benefit of being able to answer an incoming call with a click of a button on your cord, eliminating the need to dig it out of your pocket. Models with inline mics also have controllers that can change the volume, skip, pause, and play music on your device. Some testers found this feature annoying because some of the remotes on our testers could be triggered by the jostling motion of running, but other people find inline mics and remotes to be mandatory on their headphones.
The versions with microphones that we tested are the Monster iSport Intensity, ME Electronics Sport-Fi S6P, Skullcandy Chops In-Ear Buds, Klipsch X7i, and the Beats by Dre Powerbeats.
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Analysis and Test Results
Sound quality is crucial: no one wants their workout accompanied by tinny, unbalanced music. We found that often the companies regarded as heavy hitters in the electronics industry also make sport headphones with the highest quality sound. Our top scorer was far and away the Klipsch X7i with a multi-layered and clear sound. The runners up were the Sennheiser CX 685 and the YurBuds Inspire Duro. Both of these carry deep, reverberating bass and crisp high tones. Out of these sound quality winners, only the Yurbuds let in ambient noise. The Beats by Dre Powerbeats are unique in that each ear piece has two speakers, theoretically allowing for high definition sound, but we found it to sound muddy and flat.
Keep in mind that if you spend a lot of your exercise time on busy roads or crowded trails, you will most likely want an option that allows ambient noise for your own safety. It's important to to hear cars coming up behind your road bike a little too fast or a mountain biker mobbing down the trail towards you when you're on a leisurely trail run. If you only work out in gyms, you may prefer the completely noise-isolating models.
Ear comfort and a secure fit are the main factors that distinguish sport models from other ear buds, and we think this is one of the most important considerations. Models with soft ear pieces or tips are usually more comfortable than ones that use hard plastic pieces. Hard parts push agains the flexible tissue of the outer ear and make them achy after time.
The Bose SIE2 have soft ear tips that fit with a feature that actually hooks into your ear, making them secure and by far the most comfortable for a long period of time. They almost disappear inside your ears. The Yurbuds Inspire Duro, with their unique twistlock fit and silicone ear pieces, also score high for ear comfort and stability. Out of the models with ear hangers, the most comfortable are the Skullcandy Chops In-Ear Buds. They have the same kind of soft and comfortable ear tips a well as soft, adjustable ear hangers to secure them on the outside and prevent them from falling out.
Both the Sony MDR-AS200 and Powerbeats by Dr. Dre scored low for comfort. The main reason? Hard plastic on the ear hangers. While ear hangers can help keep the headphones on one's ears, if the ear hangers are made of hard plastic, they become very uncomfortable after hours of use. The Sennheiser CX 685 actually have hard plastic that slides into your ears, which we also found very uncomfortable after time, though they are stable. The ME Electronics M6 and S6P, with adjustable memory wire ear hangers, scored right in the middle. They are not the most comfortable, but they can definitely still be worn for many hours and they stay in place in the ear.
Features & Accessories
Sport headphones can come with a long list of features to make life easier for the active individual. Often they come with included accessories such as armbands, carrying cases, shirt clips, different sized ear pieces, extension cables and, in the case of the Sennhiser CX 685, even a cleaning tool. When it comes to having the most features, the ME Electronics Sport-Fi S6P scores really high. They come with six different sets of ear pieces, an armband, an inline mic and controller, two shirt clips, and a hard case for carrying.
Other features found specifically on this product category are tangle-resistant cords and water resistance or waterproofness. The only pairs we reviewed that did not offer some type of sweat and weather resistance are the Skullcany Chops and the Klipsch X7i. Some like the Monster iSport Intensity advertise that they are washable and have UV protection, making them ideal for extended outdoor use. In addition, the Intensity offers remote and hands-free phone answering through Apple ControlTalk. The cord on the Intensity is flat, a shape prevents it from tangling during exercise. The Klipsch X7i also has this same cord design.
Other unique cord configurations are the cloth cord on the YurBuds Inspire Duro, which doesn't do much to prevent tangles and is also loud when moving, and the shortened swivel cord on the Bose SIE2. The Bose SIE2 has one of the best feature combinations of any of the models we tested, though they do not have a mic and controller. (But the SIE2i version does!) They come with different sized, replaceable ear pieces, an armband with a slot for a key, a shirt clip, and an extension cable in case you find you need a longer cord.
The most basic and least featured set is also the least expensive: the Sony MDR-AS200. If you are looking for a budget pair and value simplicity over flair, try these.
Weatherproof models are usually more durable since they can withstand a wider variety of conditions and a full sweat-drenching from those mid-summer workouts. Most of the competitors scored close to one another on durability since almost all have some type of water resistance. We also found that higher quality speakers or sound quality means they are more likely to last a long time. The lowest score goes to the Sony MDR-AS200, which lacks quality construction. The weakest part of many headphones is the mic and controller, which is usually the first thing to break, and we already had some issues with the Powerbeats by Dre controller. The only set that we actually broke during our tests was the Bose SIE2 — we snapped off the little plastic piece that holds the silicone ear tip in place. This was admittedly user carelessness and not necessarily the fault of the product design. (Having a carrying case would have prevented this — and the SIE2 is one of only two sets that did not come with a case.) To Bose's credit, they replaced the broken pair with little hassle since they had been owned less than a year.
Buying Advice article.
History of Headphones
- by Andy Wellman
The story begins with the development of two other products without which they wouldn't exist–headphones and portable music. While portable music is something we take for granted, it is still a relatively recent invention that came about within during the time of many of our lives. On the contrary, the first headphones were invented over 130 years ago.
The technology that eventually morphed into modern headphones was originally used by telephone operators during the 1880's. The operators actually only used a single earpiece that rested on their shoulder and weighed 10 pounds. Another early version of headphones, and radio, was a subscription service to the London opera that pumped the music into your house and ear-can like contraption through the phone lines in 1895. The first modern headphones were invented in 1910 by Nathaniel Baldwin at his kitchen table and sold to the U.S. Navy for communications use. Following that was the invention of the first dynamic headphones in 1937 by the German company Beyerdynamic. While all of these models looked similar to headphones of today, or at least to the ones you used in your elementary school library, they were designed for communications use, and it wasn't until 1958 that a headphone designed for the purpose of listening to music first appeared.
The first stereo headphones, created by jazz musician John Koss, were essentially two miniature speakers, one for each ear. The idea was instantly popular, as the 1960's and the beginning of rock and roll was just around the corner. Koss was also the first to introduce a common element with the headphones of today–celebrity endorsement. The Koss Beatlephones of 1966 were a huge hit.
While headphones may have already been a great way to listen to your own music without subjecting others to your noise, it took the invention of portable music for their cultural power to become revealed. In 1979 Sony released the Walkman–perhaps the most influential invention in the history of listening to music. With it came the first sport headphones–the MDR-3 supra-aural (meaning pads that press against the ears instead of go around them). These headphones were light and cheap and sold by the millions. They not only allowed one to listen to Michael Jackson on the subway or bus, but also while jogging in the park or working out at the gym.
In 1983, Sony came out with the MDR-W30L, which were earbud-style headphones that rested inside the ear, but still used the thin metal connector band over the head. These came in different colors and were the preferred choice for active use as they stayed put better. Soon headphones were being made with plastic loops that wrapped around the ear to keep them more securely in place, a feature still seen today. But the 1990's were a transitional decade, paving the way for the future with such stop-gaps as the personal MP3 player.
Noise-canceling technology, conceived of by Dr. Amar Bose while on a trans-oceanic flight in the late 80's, hit the streets in the year 2000, thus supplying the technology which would allow everyone to close themselves off into their own little world. One year later Apple released the iPod, changing music forever. With it came a pair of the easily recognizable white earbuds, which sounded poor, but became trendy as the iPod took off. As the decade progressed, so did the cultural norm, and listening to your own music, no matter where you were or what you were doing, became more common than not. One of the most common uses of portable music is while working out. Sport headphones of today generally incorporate some combination of in-ear fit, noise-cancelation, and a securing earpiece.
— McKenzie Long and Lauren Jimison
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