We runners are built to endure. Sore calves, strained lungs, and misshapen toenails, we wear it all as a badge of pride, and while it’s true that many of us can find pleasure in this pain, many more of us like to keep our mind 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 February 20, 2019, to include information regarding fit, Bluetooth codecs, and wireless connectivity.
What should running headphones do?
Running headphones and earbuds 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 are ditching the headphone jack.
At the end of the day, we need one thing for our running headphones to be: stable.
A stable fit means something different depending on if you’re going for on/over-ear headphones or their in-ear counterparts. That said, 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 sub-one-hour runs.
What do I mean by stable fit? Well, it means that the clamping force is strong enough to stay on your head during jogs and sprints. While this may not be ideal for day-to-day use, it’s required for running headphones. Sure, the Bose SoundLink On-Ear Wireless outpace the Plantronics BackBeat 500 Fit, no contest—but if I’m exercising with the Bose option: I’m going to be making constant adjustments to the headphones while running. Not only is this annoying, but it also worsens your runs.
In the case of earbuds, you want them to stay in your ears for the sake of usability and sound quality. Whether comfort means an ear-hook design like the PowerBeats3 or an angled nozzle like the Jaybird X4<, is wholly dependent on what’s comfortable for you. There’s another layer to a stable fit with running earbuds, however; you may also need to account for third-party ear tips. Frankly, most sports earbuds include a plethora of ear and wing tips, but in case yours don’t make sure to learn how to find the right earbuds for you.
Running headphones and earbuds need to be water-resistant
If you’re engaging in cardio of any kind, it’s inevitable; 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.
|IPX1||✓||Dripping water (1 mm/min)
Limit: vertical drips only
|IPX2||✓||Dripping water (3 mm/min)
Limit: Device max tilt of 15° from drips
Limit: Device max tilt of 60° from sprays
|IPX5||✓||Water jets (12.5 L/min)
Example: Squirt guns
|IPX6||✓||Strong water jets (100 L/min)
Example: Powerful water guns
Limit: 1 m. for 30 min
Limit: 3 m. for 30 min
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.
Safety features for outdoor running
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. You may be thinking, “How are my earbuds going to keep me safe?” While safety isn’t guaranteed, there are plenty of preventative measures that manufacturers take for our safety.
For one, there are plenty of earbuds like the Under Armour Sport Wireless Flex by JBL and the Plantronics BackBeat Fit that feature reflective coatings on the back of the unit. The Sport Wireless Flex takes this a step further by including a flashing LED on the back of the neckband.
Outdoor runners should invest in headphones with safety features like Ambient Aware mode or a pair of bone conduction headphones.
You may also want to look for running headphones that avoid isolating you from your surroundings altogether. There are two ways for headphones to do this: bone conduction, and passthrough technologies. The poster child for bone conduction headphones is the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium, while the Sony WF-SP700N true wireless earbuds include passthrough functionality, amplifying your surroundings while playing music.
Although most of us favor true wireless or wireless earbuds, running headphones are just as effective. While I prefer to use wireless earbuds for running, the other two options make equally as much sense. In the end, each audio product has its pros and cons, and deciding what to prioritize with running headphones is up to you.
Related: Best true wireless earbuds
Before lacing up your shoes, check out these best lists: