Finding the right workout headphones can be difficult—everyone’s fit, type, and sound preferences can differ wildly, and what works for one person may not work for someone else. So for our SELF product reviews, where we rigorously test and evaluate all kinds of wellness products to help you decide what’s worth buying, we wanted to know: what do fitness experts actually think are the criteria you should look for when shopping for workout headphones? “Obviously the best way [to test workout headphones] is if you can actually try them on, but in these quarantine times, that is generally not possible,” says Shauna Harrison, creator of Muscle + Flow and adjunct associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health. With this shopping and testing guide, we aim to give you a comprehensive overview of each product, detailing everything from the types of workouts we tested them in, the fit, function, sound quality, and more, in order to help you figure out whether these headphones will be right for you no matter what the circumstances. Here are the criteria we use when testing and evaluating workout headphones, which may be helpful if you’re shopping for workout headphones yourself.
Workout Headphones Evaluation Criteria
Comfort and fit
Workout headphones should feel good both when you’re doing nothing and when you’re active. To evaluate comfort, we note how to wear the headphones (whether they’re in-ear, over-ear, wired, or wireless), and then wear our headphones during at least four types of activities: a long workout, walk, or run (at least an hour); a HIIT workout; a stretching/yoga workout; and during our normal daily activities. We note when/if they started feeling uncomfortable, if they slip after a while, if our ears start to feel sore, and so on. We also note whether the headphones come with customizable ear molds so you can find a good fit.
Ease of use
No one wants to spend a lot of time at the beginning of their workout figuring out how to sync their headphones—or realize that their wireless headphones need a charge before you can use them out of the box. When testing workout headphones, we pay attention to what the set up process is like, from unpacking to syncing to your phone’s Bluetooth during set up. We also note whether the syncing process is complicated or easy after initial set up, and whether it’s possible (and/or how complicated it is) to sync headphones with other workout devices, like a running watch.
Function and sound
For our experts, the best workout headphones are ones that feel great (and stay on!) during a workout, have good sound quality, and work well for other activities. “Regardless of whichever modality of fitness or yoga you’re engaging in, they need to stay on,” Harrison notes. “If you’re running, jumping rope or doing any kind of plyometric where there’s a lot of bouncing or if you’re doing yoga with downward facing dog or any inversion, there is a high chance some headphones may fall out of your ears.” To test workout function, we wear headphones through at least three types of workouts—a run, a HIIT workout, and a yoga workout with inversions. We also test function by doing the following (all on a non-carpeted surface, as our experts instructed): Jogging in place, shaking your head, and jumping rope. We note sound quality and function during each workout and activity, observing how the headphones function overall and specifically checking for whether the headphones create a “thud” sound, which our experts say is a common occurrence in many types of headphones. To further test sound, we play a diverse set of music during our workouts and activities, and note the sound quality for each. Finally, we observe whether or not headphones have noise reduction and microphone capability and test the sound and function of both during a workout and during regular daily activities/phone calls.
Cost is an important factor for workout headphones, our experts say, especially since they can be so easy to lose. “The most expensive headphones are worthless if you lose them on a run, while a more economic option might have audio quality and functionality that will surprise you—without the sticker shock,” says Knox Robinson, running coach and cofounder of Black Roses NYC. To evaluate cost, we note the headphone’s retail price and determine whether the headphones seem to be a good value for your money, considering their durability, whether they slip out easily, whether they include a case so you can easily pack them and find them in your bag, and so on.
Our experts affirm that battery life is an important feature for wireless headphones, especially if you’re going to be using them on a run. To test battery life, we fully charge our headphones and then test them in three different ways: During one hourlong workout, during a typical week of working out, and during one full work day of regular activities that includes a workout. We observe whether they hold their charge during a long workout, how long it takes for the headphones to lose their batteries over the course of the daylong test, and how long it takes to have to recharge during a typical week of workouts.
Our experts also say that waterproofing or sweat resistance are important features to look for in workout headphones. We note whether workout headphones are waterproof, water resistant, or sweat resistant, and test them in the shower and/or during a cardio workout depending on the level of moisture resistance (eg, if headphones are sweat resistant but not waterproof, we only test during a workout, not submerged in water).
Our experts flagged that workout headphones must not be noise canceling, so that you’re able to still hear what’s happening in your surroundings and react as needed. “Check for models that have a ‘hear-through’ mode or feature that allows ambient sound to be heard, but above all making sure the headphones are easily removable when you need instant awareness of your surroundings,” Robinson says. Trainer Rozalynn Frazier, CPT, says that this is important even when you’re in the gym: “If you are working out outdoors, you want to make sure that you aren’t wearing noise cancelling headphones because you need to be aware of your surroundings and be able to hear what’s going on around you,” she says. “The same thing can be said for in the gym where people might be flinging around equipment (think kettlebells).” To evaluate safety, we keep an eye on whether the headphones allow hear-through, how easily they are to quickly remove, and how easy it is to control the volume during a workout.
How SELF Tests Workout Headphones for Review
- One hourlong+ workout (can be a run, walk, or other)
- One run (if your hourlong workout isn’t a run)
- One HIIT workout
- One stretching or yoga session that includes inversions like downward dog
- One session of jogging in place, shaking your head, and jump roping/jumping (must be on non-carpeted surface)
- A full workday of meetings/listening to music/workouts/etc. starting with a fully charged pair (to test sound, comfort, and battery life)
- One full week of normal workouts/daily activities starting with a fully charged pair (to test battery life; can include the above except for the full workday)
Experts Consulted for These Guidelines
- Rozalynn Frazier, CPT and avid marathoner
- Shauna Harrison, creator of Muscle + Flow and adjunct associate professor at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health
- Knox Robinson, running coach and cofounder of Black Roses NYC
Product Reviews Using These Guidelines
This is a buying and testing guide for SELF product reviews. See all our reviews here.