Best workout headphones in 2020: Apple, Beats, Sony, Bose and more compared

3 Nov, 2020 John Mendoza No Comments


After testing plenty of sports headphones and wireless headphones over the years, some models have emerged as far better suited for workouts than others. The best workout headphones should be wireless — and ideally, true wireless earbuds — to avoid wired headphones getting in the way of your stride.

Secondly, and more importantly, they should give you a comfortable and secure fit, whether they’re over-ear headphones with a squishy ear cup or wireless in-earbuds. This is especially important because losing one earbud on your run would be the worst. Decent sound quality is also a necessity, as are battery life, durability, reliable performance (with minimal dropouts), and noise cancellation (as well as hear-through or transparency modes). And lastly, they need to be sweat resistant, if not fully waterproof headphones, for obvious reasons. That’s why the otherwise awesome Sony WF-1000XM3
isn’t on this list of best running headphones. While Apple does not claim water resistance for the standard AirPods, that particular earbud makes the list because we’ve found them to handle sweat reasonably well.

After many outdoor runs and gym sessions, I’ve formed strong opinions on which are the best workout headphones. To share my hard-earned knowledge of headphones with great sound, I’ve put together a selection of wireless gym headphones I’ve tested that I think are well-suited to become your go-to exercise headphones. I’ll update this list as I review more of them.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Both Bose’s new QuietComfort Earbuds and Sport Earbuds make good workout headphones, thanks to their StayHear Max tips and secure fit, but the Sport Earbuds are more compact and lighter and also more affordable (the QuietComfort Earbuds do have excellent active noise-canceling, however).

They have the same IPX4 splash-resistant rating as the QuietComfort Earbuds, are equipped with Bluetooth 5.1 (my connection was rock solid) and share a similar design aesthetic, with three color options available. Unlike their step-up sibling, they have no active noise canceling and an hour less of battery life — five hours instead of six — as well as no wireless charging. While they do stick out from your ears, they’re noticeably smaller and lighter than the QuietComfort Earbuds and their case is about 30% to 40% smaller. The case still isn’t as small as the cases for such competitors as the AirPods ProSamsung Galaxy Buds PlusGalaxy Buds Live and Jabra Elite 75t. But it feels reasonably compact.

Read our Bose Sport Earbuds review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof and sweat-proof).

Jaybird got off to a bumpy start in the world of true wireless — that’s “AirPods-style headphones” — when it released its Jaybird Run wireless workout headphones back in October 2017. That model, updated to the wireless in-ear Jaybird Run XT in early 2019, was well-designed but had some small sound performance issues that held the wireless earbuds back from being great. But its wireless earphones successor, the Jaybird Vista (cue the Windows Vista jokes), includes design, battery life and audio quality performance improvements that make it the product I’d hoped the Jaybird Run would be. This wireless earbud set will appeal to those looking for a more discreet set of totally wireless running headphones that are fully water-resistant. It’s recently been on sale for as low as $100 and is due for an upgrade, so look to get it at a discount.

Read our Jaybird Vista review.

Angela Lang/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

While they’re not advertised as sports earbuds, the AirPods Pro are very good truly wireless headphones for running. That’s largely due to their winning lightweight design and fit, improved bass performance, effective noise cancellation and excellent call quality. While I can’t run with the standard AirPods (those in-ear headphones don’t fit my ears securely), I had no trouble running with the AirPods Pro, which have a noise-isolating design with a silicone tip that sits snugly in your ear. That said, I got an even more secure fit by using a pair of Comply foam ear tips ($25).

For runners, it’s worth noting that there’s a transparency mode that allows sound to leak in. You’ll still have to lower the volume of your music to hear the sound of traffic noise. The AirPods Pro are also officially rated as being sweat-resistant.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

Water-resistantYes (IPX2 rating — sweat-resistant and protects against light splashes).

Say what you will about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live’s bean-shaped design, but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Like the standard AirPods, they have an open design — you don’t jam an ear tip into your ear — and they’re quite comfortable to wear and fit my ears more securely than the AirPods. These wireless buds are discreet and basically sit flush with your ear, which reduces wind-noise while biking. I regularly use them for running and biking, and they’re great for sporting activities if they fit your ears well, but one warning: some users won’t get a secure fit (so buy them from a retailer that has a good return policy).

They deliver good sound and work well as a headset for making calls, with good background noise reduction so callers can hear you clearly even when you’re in noisier environments. While they feature active noise canceling, it’s mild compared to the noise canceling in earbuds that have a noise-isolating design. In other words, buy them for their design and sound, not their noise-canceling features.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating — fully waterproof).

The Mpow X3 wireless earbuds sound shockingly good for their low price of $50 (a $10 instant discount coupon from Amazon is currently available), with good clarity and powerful bass, and they even have active noise cancellation that’s fairly effective.

Mpow seems to be regularly tweaking its earphones, and the X3 earbuds were briefly taken off Amazon, before returning with an update. “The new version upgraded the volume control and optimized its active noise-canceling function and call effect,” the company told me. “It also added the supersoft ear caps, which [are] more comfortable to wear for a long time.”

They did fit me comfortably and securely and I got a tight seal from one of the sets of XL ear tips. They’re fully waterproof (IPX7) and get up to seven hours of battery life at moderate volume levels with USB-C charging. (The charging case looks like a fat version of the standard AirPods case.) Call quality is good — they have a sidetone feature that lets you hear your voice in the earbuds — but I’ve used other earbuds with better noise reduction during calls. I noticed a touch of audio lag when I streamed a YouTube video but no problems when streaming iTunes movies.

The touch controls take some getting used to — they’re a little wonky — and it didn’t help that the instructions in the box seemed to be for the old X3 model. (I found the current instructions online, which helped me figure things out.) Aside from a few minor downsides, Mpow’s X3 earbuds are a great value. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP67 rating — can withstand immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes).

The AfterShokz bone conduction wireless headphone delivers sound to your ear through your cheekbones. The big benefit of this technology is that, thanks to its open design, you can hear what’s going on around you while listening to music or having a phone conversation through the wireless headphones. That openness allows runners to hear traffic sound, an important safety feature for sport headphones. Also, some race coordinators don’t allow runners to wear anything in their ears, which is where over-ear headphones like this come in handy, particularly for people who need to listen to music while they run.

Aeropex ($160) over-ear headphones, which AfterShokz describes as its “lightest, highest-quality headphones yet,” were released in 2019. From my initial testing, sound quality in this pair of headphones is definitely better than the company’s previous flagship model, the Trekz Air — or the Air, as it’s now called. It’s also slightly more comfortable to wear with a comfortable fit. However, while AfterShokz continues to make small improvements to performance with each new iteration of its wireless headphones, the sound quality still can’t match that of a traditional headphone.

Read our AfterShokz Aeropex first take.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 splashproof).

Sony’s WF-1000XM3 is considered one of the best sets of true wireless noise-canceling earbuds. But to the dismay of some people, it lacked any sort of water resistance, making it unsuitable for sports. It took a while, but now we finally have a new true wireless noise-canceling sports model from Sony: the WF-SP800N.

This isn’t quite the WF-1000XM3 with a water-resistant body. It’s missing Sony’s QN1e processor, but there’s still a lot to like about it, including very good sound, solid noise canceling and good call quality. It’s definitely a nice upgrade over the WF-SP700N, which came out in 2018, and its “arcs” (sports fins) lock the buds in your ears. Just make sure you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips or else both the sound and noise-canceling will be lackluster.

Read our Sony WF-SP800N review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Yes, the Beats Powerbeats Pro’s jumbo charging case is a notable drawback. But the combination of incorporating all the features that make Apple’s AirPods great while delivering richer sound quality and better battery life in a wireless workout earbuds design that won’t fall out of your ear (seriously, ear hooks for the win!) ultimately is a winning proposition for earbuds for running. Just make sure you buy these running earbuds somewhere that has a good return policy in case you’re in the small minority that has ears that aren’t quite a match for the buds. Note that these headphones are frequently reduced from $250 to $200 — don’t pay more than that if you’re buying them.

Read our Beats Powerbeats Pro review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water)

Some people, particularly weightlifters, like to work out in full-size headphones, and the BackBeat Fit 6100 over-the-ear wireless headphones are a very solid choice for both the gym and everyday use. The adjustable sport-fit headband has an IPX5-rated water-resistant and sweat-proof design, 40mm angled drivers and noise-isolating earcups with an “Awareness” mode. Battery life is rated at 24 hours. They sound quite good and really stay on your head securely (you can adjust the tension in the headband, which is innovative and ideal for exercise headphones). 

They’re expensive at their list price of $180, but Amazon has them for $99, which makes them a lot more attractive. They’re available in black, camo and gray.

Bose

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

The Bose Frames is one of those products you have to try to fully appreciate — or dismiss. The concept is you’re getting a decent pair of sunglasses with a pair of headphones that don’t actually go in your ears. Rather, integrated micro speakers in each arm direct a beam of sound to your ears. That design could be appealing to people who don’t like having headphones in or on their ears and also offers a degree of safety for runners and bikers who want their ears open to the world.

Bose has updated its line of audio sunglasses with three new models, including the Tempo sports model, which offers better sound and battery life than the more traditional-looking Tenor and Soprano. The Tempo has better specs all-around, with USB-C charging and larger 22mm drivers. It also delivers up to eight hours of battery life.

Their sound is definitely improved from the original Frames. Bose says the Tempo plays “deeper and louder — loud enough for cycling at 25 mph — while still able to hear traffic and your training partners.” They’re sweat-, weather-, scratch- and shatter-resistant, according to Bose and fit under most protective helmets. (I had no problem using them with a couple of bike helmets.) They also work really well for making calls, thanks to a new dual-microphone system. Optional lenses are available for $39 and you can order prescription lenses through Lensabl. Read our Bose Frames review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

While the Elite 75t has been out a while, it’s still one of the best true wireless earbuds out there and recently added noise canceling via a firmware upgrade. Earlier firmware updates improved voice-calling performance. 

The Elite 75t aren’t quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro, but they do sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass audio quality definition, so long as you get a tight seal.

The slightly more rugged Elite Active 75t is also available for about $20 more, but with the new Elite 85t’s arrival we are seeing some sales on the Elite 75t. 

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

If you don’t want to shell out $160 for AfterShokz’s new Aeropex bone-conduction wireless headphone, the Trekz Air — or Air, as it’s now called — retails for about $50 less. This pair of around-the-neck headphones does have some design and performance upgrades, but the sound from the AfterShokz Trekz Air is still good for a bone-conduction headphone (again, beware that the sound doesn’t measure up to that of a traditional headphone). 

Read our AfterShokz Trekz Air review.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating — can withstand heavy sprays of water).

The EarFun Air distinguishes itself with a comfortable fit, decent noise canceling (though not great) and nicely balanced sound with good clarity and well-defined bass. They’re smooth-sounding earbuds.

Voice calling is also above average — noise reduction outdoors was decent and callers said they had no trouble hearing me (there’s a light sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the buds as you talk). Battery life is rated at up to seven hours with noise canceling on and these have an IPX5 rating, which means they’re splashproof and I was able to run with them without a problem (they do fit fairly securely).

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating — splashproof).

Companies like Under Armour (with the help of JBL) have released sporty on-ear models designed for people who want that type of secure-fit workout headphone that covers their ears. I personally prefer the over-ear Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100 and this Adidas RPT-01, which I think looks and fits better than the Under Armour headphones. 

I found them comfortable for on-ear headphones (which tend not to be as comfortable as over-ear headphones), but those with larger heads may feel they clamp down a little too snugly on both your head and your ears. This set of headphones is sweat-resistant with an IPX4 certification. Also, the ear cushions and inner headband are removable and washable (there are instructions for how-to do this, but Adidas should do a how-to video). As far as I’m concerned, the more ways to combat sweat smells, the better, when it comes to exercise headphones.

These were designed by the same Swedish company that makes Urbanears headphones, and they sound quite decent, with well-balanced sound that doesn’t push the bass too much. They’re a little expensive at $170, but the UA headphones cost the same or more.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantNo (Apple does not claim water resistance, but they handle sweat reasonably well)

If they fit your ears securely, Apple’s AirPods are actually great workout headphones because the earbuds are so light and also have an open design, which allows you to hear the sound of traffic noise. Alas, I can’t run with the standard AirPods (they fall out of my ears), only the more expensive AirPods Pro, but many people can. You can buy third-party wings (ear hooks) to make them fit securely, but you have to take the wings off every time you put the buds back in their charging case. That’s a pain.

Note that Apple does not offer a water-resistance rating for the standard AirPods. They seem to withstand light sweat just fine — and plenty of people use them at the gym and for running — but it’s unclear how much moisture they can withstand. 

You can pay extra for the model with the wireless charging case, but it’s not really worth it — spend up for the Pro models instead. Otherwise, the baseline 2019 model lists for $159, but it’s often sold for as low as $129. Don’t pay more than $144, which is the normal street price.

Read our AirPods (2019) review.

Further reading for headphone enthusiasts

More workout essentials

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.



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