Whether you’re a professional athlete or of the couch-to-5K variety, it’s important to invest in a dedicated pair of workout earbuds. When you listen to music during a workout, motivation skyrockets — the right beat can even increase your pain tolerance too. Sure, you might already own a great pair of earbuds but if your sweat manages to seep through the casings and onto the internals, it could be game over for your favorite buds. It’s not worth the risk, especially as workout earbuds are only becoming more affordable.
Let’s go over all of the features you need in your next pair of workout earbuds.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on March 8, 2021, to include more information about true wireless workout earbuds.
What are workout earbuds? How are they different from regular earbuds?
Workout earbuds differ from standard earbuds, be it wired or wireless, because they’re built with a specific use case in mind. When a company brands a particular headset with the “workout” moniker, it usually indicates a certain level of durability and a secure fit. Some workout earbuds even have features like specifically designed ear tips to keep you aware of your surroundings, or reflective strips to keep you visible in the dark.
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You can still use a pair of workout headphones or earbuds in normal settings like your daily commute or in the library, but they might look a bit out of place or be uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time. Most workout earbuds don’t have the best sound quality, because your money goes elsewhere: again, toward a durable build and safety features. This is fine though, as many of us generally prefer amplified bass notes.
What is an IP rating?
An Ingress Protection (IP) rating denotes a product’s dust- or water-resistance level. The standard water-resistant rating is IPX4, and the X is a placeholder for a dust-resistance rating. Dust-resistance is a less common feature, but an important one if you’re a rock climber or gymnast who likes to train with music. Products rated anywhere between IPX1-IPX6, the earbuds are water-resistant but can’t be submerged. Any grade IPX7 means you can submerge the headset under certain conditions and for a limited stretch of time.
How should a good pair of workout earbuds fit?
A pair of running earbuds may fit differently than a pair of more broadly used workout earbuds. Some running earbuds feature open-fit nozzles that don’t seal to the ear. This intentional design is to keep you aware of your surroundings, and safe from oncoming traffic. If you typically exercise at the gym, you may prefer a pair of traditional earbuds that seal to your ear.
Neither design is inherently better than the other, but both kinds of fits should feel stable when you put the earbuds on. Typically open-fit earbuds use ear hooks to keep the ear pieces in place, and sealed earbuds usually feature a rubberized underside or interchangeable wing tips. The silicone wing tips are great because they keep the earbuds compact, but they can create too much friction against your concha or tragus, which may cause pain.
What should workout earbuds look like?
And as nice as it is to, well, have nice things it isn’t always appropriate. Sure, leather looks luxurious, but the material will quickly deteriorate when exposed to sweat. Many companies opt for plastic construction as it’s more affordable and durable. If you’re partial to memory foam ear tips, we suggest leaving them off of your favorite workout earbuds: those too degrade quickly when exposed to moisture.
Another question you have to ask yourself is, does the cable material matter to you? Some cables are Kevlar-reinforced, while others are tangle-resistant, and others still are just standard cables. Jaybird uses a cable cinch mechanism to manage the extra length, while the Beats Powerbeats cable relies on just the right amount of pliability to make it comfortable without being unwieldy.
Fast charging is more important than battery life
If you’re using these earbuds predominantly for exercise, then standalone battery life doesn’t matter too much. Although true wireless earbuds may struggle to perform beyond three hours, many traditional wireless earbuds provide at least six hours of playback before they need a charge. In fact, what matters more than battery duration is quick charge efficiency.
Headed to the gym? How long do you typically listen to music while exercising?
— Sound Guys (@realsoundguys) September 11, 2018
Quick charging typically allows you to charge a device quickly when its battery level is low. For instance, the Beats Flex uses “Fast Fuel.” This allows the earbuds to provide 90 minutes of playback from a 10-minute charging period. Most of our training sessions don’t exceed an hour, so nearly any headset’s standalone battery life will suffice. But there will be times when you forget to charge the earbuds, and instead of trudging through a silent work out, you can just push it back a few minutes.
Now that you know what to look for, should you buy true wireless or wireless workout earbuds?
Wired earbuds no longer have a horse in the wireless workout earbuds race, but you still have to choose between true wireless workout earbuds and traditional wireless workout earbuds. True wireless technology has made huge advancements over the past few years, with plenty of passable options that cost $50 or less, and even more totally wireless picks under $100. Even still, you’ll get the better bang for your buck with a pair of traditional wireless earbuds like the Jabra Elite 45e.
Both true wireless and wireless workout earbuds, though, provide an array of features that you want to look out for including water-resistance, a variety of ear and wing tips, durable materials, and high-quality codec support. How you prioritize those is up to you; although, we suggest that water-resistance is a top priority to save your buds from short-circuiting.