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What makes a great pair of running headphones?

We runners endure, so why shouldn't our earbuds?
By
April 20, 2022
Pexel stock image of a running man who's outside in a desert with a bright blue, clear sky.
Running may be less of a chore if you're listening to music.

We runners are built to endure. Sore calves, strained lungs, and misshapen toenails—we wear it all as a badge of pride. While it’s true that many of us can find pleasure in this pain, many more of us like to keep our minds off of the mid-run aches with music. Hence why it’s important to know what to look for when buying your next pair of running headphones or earbuds.

Editor’s note: this guide was updated on April 20, 2022, to include a table of contents, in-line FAQs, and to add information on bone conduction headphones.

Why should you get a pair of running headphones?

Running earbuds and headphones need to fit well, be water-resistant, and if you’re running outside: they must have integrated safety features, which is where bone conduction headphones shine. While you can still go wired, it’s easier to listen through wireless headphones. Plus, it ensures that your headphones will work with your phone, seeing as many OEMs have ditched the headphone jack.

At the end of the day, we need one thing for our running headphones to be: stable.

Running earbuds and headphones should fit securely

A woman wears the Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100 workout headphones against an off-white wall.
A stretchy cord can be moved from the edge of the Plantronics BackBeat FIT 6100 headband to a prong on top of it for a more secure fit.

A stable fit means something different depending on if you’re going for on/over-ear headphones or their in-ear counterparts. Either way, the audio product of choice should remain in or on your ears as your head bobs up and down during a run. Unfortunately, this can result in headphones that aren’t comfortable to wear for extended periods of time but comfort should be sufficient for one-hour runs.

How do you know if running earbuds fit well?

When it comes to earbuds for running, you want them to create a seal with your ear canals. This design minimizes the effect of repeated jostles and improves audio quality. If you own a pair of Apple AirPods, you may have a hard time executing vigorous workouts with them.

The Bose Sport Earbuds true wireless workout earbuds outside of the open charging case; the earbuds are facing belly-up so the StayHear Max ear tips are in full view.
The Bose Sport Earbuds‘ StayHear Max ear tips may not look the most comfortable, but they most certainly are.

For some, the Beats Powerbeats‘ ear hook design may be the most comfortable while for others, the hybrid ear and wing tips of the Bose Sport Earbuds may be best. This is wholly dependent on your ear shape and what’s familiar to you.

There’s another layer to a stable fit with running earbuds: you may need to account for third-party ear tips. Frankly, most sports earbuds include a plethora of ear and wing tips. In case your earbuds don’t include a bunch of tips to choose from, make sure to find the right earbuds for you. Generally speaking, silicone is the best material for exercise, as it won’t degrade as quickly as memory foam. Then again, you can always buy a variety pack and swap them out accordingly.

A stable fit requires a clamping force that’s strong enough to keep the headset atop your head during jogs and sprints. Sure, the Sony WH-1000XM4 is more comfortable and sounds better than the Plantronics BackBeat 500 Fit, but Bose’s headset places very little pressure on the head relative to Plantronics’. This is good for casual listening but means that you will constantly adjust the headset during a run. Not only is this annoying, but it distracts you from your workout.

If you want a pair of durable noise cancelling headphones, save up for the Bose Noise Cancelling Headphones 700. Bose’s flagship AirPods Max competitor features an IPX4 water-resistance rating and fits well. Sound quality is very good and you can customize the sound profile in the Bose Music app.

Do headphones for running need to be water-resistant?

If you’re engaging in cardio of any kind, you’re going to sweat. While exposure to liquid may cause non-IP certified products to short circuit, others with an official IP certification or liquid-repellent coating should fare just fine.

Typically, sports earbuds will brazenly list a product’s IP rating on the front of the box. If that isn’t the case, though, check the back for a brief rundown of specs. A rating of IPX4 seems to be the gold standard for workout earbuds, but even IPX2 is better than nothing.

Water-resistantWaterproofCan withstand
IPX0
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Not water-resistant
IPX1
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Dripping water (1 mm/min)
Limit: vertical drips only
IPX2
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Dripping water (3 mm/min)
Limit: Device max tilt of 15° from drips
IPX3
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Sprays
Limit: Device max tilt of 60° from sprays
IPX4
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Splashes, omnidirectional
IPX5
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Water jets (12.5 L/min)
Example: Squirt guns
IPX6
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Strong water jets (100 L/min)
Example: Powerful water guns
IPX7
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Complete submersion
Limit: 1 m. for 30 min
IPX8
Water-resistant

Waterproof

Can withstand
Complete submersion
Limit: 3 m. for 30 min

Safety features for outdoor running

The UA True Wireless FLASH X by JBL on a Google Pixel 3 smartphone, next to the open charging case and a Leatherman Wave+ on a white surface.
The UA True Wireless FLASH X by JBL supports ambient aware mode.

While this only applies to those of us who need headphones for outdoor running, it’s important to keep an eye out for products with integrated safety features like ambient aware mode or a reflective strip on the back of your wireless neckband earbuds. While safety isn’t guaranteed, there are plenty of preventative measures that manufacturers take for our safety.

You may also want to look for running headphones that don’t isolate you from your environment. Yes, we mentioned the importance of a good fit, but you can enjoy a secure headset that lets external noise in. Take the popular Jabra Elite Active 45e that uses proprietary ear tips to let background noise in and ear hooks to secure it to your head. Alternatively, Bose breaks the mold with the Bose Sport Open Earbuds. These earphones fall somewhere between bone conduction headphones and standard workout earbuds. The design leaves your ears unoccluded so you can hear everything around you. Why get these earbuds instead of bone conduction headphones? The sound quality is much better from Bose’s headset and the earpieces are completely separate from one another.

Are bone conduction headphones good for running?

A woman wears the Aftershokz Aeropex bone conduction headphones as she begins to rock climb in a gym.
The Aeropex is a great option for athletes of all stripes.

Yes, bone conduction headphones can be great for running so long as you know what you’re getting into. See, bone conduction headphones don’t cover your ears at all and, instead, rest on your cheekbones. This technology transmits audio through the bones in your skull, bypassing your outer ear.

We like bone conduction headphones for outdoor exercises like running because you remain completely aware of your surroundings while wearing them. The downside to this: auditory masking. Since a pair of bone conduction headphones like the AfterShokz Aeropex doesn’t seal to your ears, it cannot block out external noise. This means that your environment (e.g., loud wind, honking cars) will make it harder for you to hear your music than traditional workout earbuds.

Do software features matter when picking out workout headphones?

The Jabra MySound+ app on a Samsung Galaxy S10e for the Jabra Elite Active 75t true wireless workout earbuds (navy).
The Sound+ app lets you take a hearing test and create a custom sound profile.

Most all wireless headphones and earbuds come with a complimentary companion app. Mobile headphone apps are standard because they facilitate the most basic requirement for any wireless product: access to firmware and software updates. Other headphone app features may include a multi-band EQ module, customizable controls, ambient passthrough toggles, and so on.

Few dedicated headphone apps include workout-specific features, but some workout headphones (e.g., UA True Wireless FLASH X by JBL) include a 12-month MapMyRun Premium membership. In this instance, the act of purchasing the headset gives you access to a separate app and website to use its features for a limited time.

Headphone apps can be sticky territory though because there’s a recorded history of unsavory data collection practices in this segment of the tech world. We encourage you to read the respective headset app’s terms of service and end-user license agreement before you hit “agree.” Most agreements are innocuous enough at a glance, but a handful happily share your data with third-party services, not all of which seem wholly necessary.

Frequently asked questions about running headphones