Guidemaster: Finding good wireless headphones in a sea of compromises


Even as Bluetooth headphones continue to skyrocket in popularity, the state of wireless exercise headphones remains a bit hairy. Though the benefits of Bluetooth seem perfectly suited for the gym, and while there’s no shortage of demand for an uncompromised set of wireless workout headphones, the ideal pair always appears to be just out of reach.

Further Reading

If you kill the headphone jack, you need to replace it with something betterI say this because I’ve spent the past few weeks searching for one pair of workout headphones I could unequivocally recommend to anyone. I called in 18 separate pairs for testing. I then put each one through a variety of workouts, from jogs to burpees to basketball games, to ensure they’d stay in place and not short-circuit when I sweat all over them.

And because most people probably don’t want to buy a second pair of headphones just for working out, I tested each pair’s sound quality and battery life, cycling them through a set playlist of songs designed to evaluate how well they’d handle certain audio qualities. I used both an iPhone SE and a Galaxy S8 to do all of this.

When it was all over, no one pair stood out as an obvious winner. Instead, I wound up with a few pairs that did certain things better than others but still had at least one or two glaring flaws. You can find those below, along with a few other options that have good things going for them but carry an even heavier set of caveats.

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Jaybird X3: A decent all-rounder with strong audio quality

Specs at a glance: Jaybird X3TypeIn-EarWeight0.63oz (with fins and tips)Bluetooth Version4.1Waterproof RatingNot specifiedDriver Size6mmImpedance16 ohmsSpeaker Sensitivity 96 +-3dB At 1KHz Output 5mW nominal, 10mW max

Of all the pairs I brought in for testing, the Jaybird X3s walk the line between “good workout earphone” and “good everyday earphone” the best. At their list price of $130, they aren’t cheap, but, for the money, you get a pair that’s built to last and pleasant to listen to. I had little trouble getting them in my ears, but Jaybird throws several rubber and Comply foam ear tips in the box, along with a number of fit-tightening ear fins, for those who need help.

Once I found the right combo, the X3s did not budge no matter which workout I threw at them. They came out no worse for wear after repeatedly getting doused with sweat, either, though it’s worth noting that Jaybird offers a one-year warranty for sweat-related damage, just in case.

The earpieces themselves are big and could stand to be more comfortable after a few hours of continuous use, but they didn’t feel particularly heavy or unbalanced in my ears. The cable connecting the earpieces isn’t noisy, and the control module attached to it is light enough to not be a nuisance. It’s all very well-crafted. And beyond the expected blips that come with most Bluetooth headphones, the X3’s connection quality wasn’t an issue.

What makes the X3 worth singling out is its audio quality. This is a smooth, pleasing sound signature with powerful, slightly boosted bass and more fine detail than most sports headphones (which isn’t the highest bar to clear, but still). It can get a bit too boomy with the wrong track, and you can sometimes get a little sibilance with “ess” sounds, but in general it has a deeper, more dynamic sound than its peers.

The only thing the X3 gets really, really wrong is its charging system. On its own, the X3 gets about six to seven hours of battery life, which isn’t great but isn’t totally anemic. The real problem is that Jaybird uses a proprietary, easy-to-misplace charging clip to refill the battery. You can’t just plug a microUSB cord into the X3 and charge it—you have to charge the clip, remember to carry it with you, then attach it to the headphone when needed.

I can see how that would look like a good idea in theory: it removes any ports that could get wrecked by sweat damage, and it lets you charge and listen at once. But attaching the clip throws off the weight distribution of the device, and again, the clip itself is too easy to lose. It costs another $10 for a replacement. If you can be responsible, though, the X3’s secure fit and sharp sound should make up for that annoyance.

The good:

  • Smooth, lively sound signature in rugged design

The bad:

  • Proprietary battery system forces you to keep track of minuscule charger

Jaybird X3

Price: $99.99 (on sale) at Amazon

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Plantronics BackBeat Fit 300: A solid, more affordable alternative

Specs at a glance: Plantronics BackBeat Fit 300TypeIn-EarWeight0.49ozBluetooth Version4.1Waterproof RatingIPx5Driver Size6mmImpedance16 ohmsSpeaker Sensitivity 96 +-3dB At 1KHz Output 5mW nominal, 10mW max

Aside from not using a proprietary charging system, the recently released Plantronics BackBeat Fit 300 don’t have any major advantages over the Jaybird X3s. However, they get reasonably close for $50 less. The earbuds are light and easy to keep in place. They create a tight seal that does well to block outside noise. Sweat and moisture buildup wasn’t an issue. (Plantronics says they’re IPX5-rated.)

The BackBeat Fit 300’s sound signature isn’t on the X3’s level, but it’s above average for a workout headphone at this price. It doesn’t have the widest soundstage, as expected, so busy tracks can sound a bit jumbled together, and there’s a bit more sibilance to cymbal hits and “ess” sounds. But the whole thing is balanced, the bass has a good amount of body, and the vocals and instrumentation don’t sound overly veiled.

The caveat here is that you’ll probably want to use the included shirt clip. The BackBeat Fit 300 has a thick, well-sized cable that can make a little bit of noise if it ruffles against your shirt, and the control module attached to it is just thick enough to throw off the weight balance. It shouldn’t be a killer either way, but stabilizing the cable seems like it would make things easier. The other issue is battery life: it gets about five to six hours at moderate volumes, which is middling. Still, as a mid-range option, you can definitely do worse than this.

The good:

  • Lightweight design and above-average sound signature at an affordable price

The bad:

  • Bulky control module has potential to unbalance weight while on the move
  • Unremarkable battery life

Plantronics BackBeat Fit 300

Price: $79.99 at Amazon

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Bose SoundSport Wireless: For those who prioritize comfort

Specs at a glance: Bose SoundSport WirelessTypeIn-EarWeight0.8ozBluetooth Version4.2Waterproof RatingIPx4Driver SizeNot specifiedImpedanceNot specifiedSpeaker Sensitivity Not specified

Bose’s SoundSport Wireless don’t sound quite as nice as the X3s, and at $150, they’re even pricier. They still get a mention, however, because they’re supremely comfortable to wear for hours at a time. They don’t look like they would be at first blush—the earpieces here are big and bulky, protruding from your ears like small satellites.

But they aren’t heavy, and their soft, oval-shaped ear tips slide without any fuss. They sit loosely in the ear, not putting too much pressure on the ear canal, using light fins to stay in place while on the move. The trade-off is that they don’t entirely seal off outside noise, but they’re more closed than not, and those who run outdoors might see that slight lack of isolation as a positive.

The sound signature here is typical Bose: pleasant and balanced but in need of a little more detail. The bass gets a small bump but could stand to have more definition; the mids and treble are smooth but lack that added edge. It’s not $150 good, but it’s good enough for plenty.

The six to seven hours of battery life is just okay, though, and the plastic design feels cheaper to the touch than either the Plantronics or Jaybirds. The mushy control module is particularly underwhelming. But even if they’re not as well-rounded as those other options, the SoundSport are worth a look for being so easy to wear.

The good:

  • Supremely comfortable pick-up-and-go design

The bad:

  • Mushy control module
  • Sound quality not as sharp as more affordable earphones

Bose SoundSport Wireless

Price: $149 at Amazon

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Urbanears Hellas: If you just can’t stand in-ear headphones

Specs at a glance: Urbanears HellasTypeOn-EarWeight4.59ozBluetooth VersionNot specifiedWaterproof RatingNot specifiedDriver Size40mmImpedance60 ohmsSpeaker Sensitivity 98 dB

The Urbanears Hellas is an on-ear headphone for that handful of buyers who want something for the gym but can’t get comfortable with the idea of sticking earbuds in their ear canals. By default, the Hellas aren’t as portable as something like the Jaybird X3, nor do they stay as rigidly in place during the most intense workouts. But they get far better battery life (about 15 to 16 hours) than every earphone here, and their sound is naturally more spacious and well-defined, even if it doesn’t get quite as juicy in the bass.

The plastic design doesn’t scream premium, but it’s hard to call this sort of minimalist look ugly. Neatly, the detachable mesh earpads and headband are safe to put in a washing machine; I don’t know who would want to do that, but their washability does get around the issue of sweat buildup on a larger device. The touch controls on the side of the right earcup take a few moments to get used to, but they worked fine for me in testing.

If there’s an issue here, it’s that the mesh material on those earpads can feel a bit itchy. That’s offputting at first, but it became less of an issue after breaking the material in for about 40 minutes. Either way, the earpads are decently soft. At $120, the Hellas wouldn’t be too competitive if they didn’t have the workout angle attached to them, but, next to a bunch of earphones that each have flaws, they make a little more sense.

The good:

  • Longer battery life and more spacious sound than most in-ear exercise headphones
  • Machine washable design

The bad:

  • Scratchy ear cups take time to get used to
  • Sound quality is just decent compared to non-sports on-ear headphones

Urbanears Hellas

Price: $106.99 at Amazon

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Anker SoundBuds Slim: One for the cheapskates, but know the risks

Specs at a glance: Anker SoundBuds SlimTypeIn-EarWeight0.56ozBluetooth Version4.1Waterproof RatingIPx4Driver Size6mmImpedance16 ohmsSpeaker Sensitivity Not specified

The Anker SoundBuds Slim are one of what feels like dozens of hyper-affordable, near-identical exercise earbuds coming out of China. They cost $24, and they work. The Bluetooth connection doesn’t go haywire if you run around town; the design is bland but unobtrusive and lightweight; they stay in place well enough (there are fins in the box); and they didn’t show any damage after a few sweaty jogs. (Just don’t submerge them in too much liquid.)

I can’t call the audio quality good—the bass is blobby, the mids aren’t as present as you’d like, and the whole thing is a bit boomy. But for $24, it’s fine, especially if you’re not a big stickler for sound quality to begin with. I think this is one market where it’s worth paying for higher quality—you just can’t trust a $24 earphone to last forever if you’re putting it through regular abuse. But Anker is about as trustworthy as these small accessory makers get, and the SoundBuds Slim are at least competent.

The good:

  • Tightly put together and highly affordable

The bad:

  • Mediocre sound quality

Anker SoundBuds Slim

Price: $25.99 at Amazon

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Battery life tests

I tested the battery life of my main picks by continuously streaming music to each headphone over Wi-Fi at two-thirds volume, going from full charge to zero charge. Testing was done on a Samsung Galaxy S8. As you can see, the on-ear design of the Hellas gives them a massive battery boost, but you do sacrifice size. The rest ranged from average to underwhelming.

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