Review: The Best Sport Headphones of 2012

We take a closer look at some the year's best headphones designed for exercise.

  @YannickLeJacq on December 19 2012 9:50 AM

If you’re anything like me, you need a lot of really loud music to get yourself off the couch and start working on last New Year’s resolutions. And if you’re reading this article, you’re also like me in that you haven’t been able to find a satisfactory pair of headphones despite years of searching through countless Runner’s World lists of the best exercise gear.

More than any other piece of fitness equipment, the search for a durable and decent-sounding pair of headphones has eluded me for most of my life. Dirt-cheap clip-on headphones got the job done for awhile, but they never sounded very good and would only last for a few months at most. Neckband headphones like Sennheiser’s Adidas line-up worked beautifully, but the cable connecting the headphones to the volume control broke for the third time in a single year, I decided to embark on a quest for the perfect pair of sport headphones rather than spend another $50 to $70.

I reached out to a number of companies to hear about their best units. Logitech, which recently came out with the stellar Ultimate Ears (UE) over the ear headphones, sent me a pair of the UE 400s since its line of impressive and exceedingly expensive in-ear headphones aren’t specifically designed for exercise. The UE 400s are great headphones, but they didn’t quite do the trick for exercise—on-ear headphones are too cumbersome, and became increasingly disgusting to behold as they absorbed torrents of sweat. And at a price-point of $100, there are countless other ways to stream music into your sweat-addled workout-fueled brain for a fraction of the price.

Ultimately, I settled on headphones that fall roughly into three separate categories: the relatively cheap ($30 to $60) Yurbuds Inspire line of in-ear headphones, the higher-end ($60 to $180) Monster iSport earbuds, and the downright experimental AfterShokz “open ear sports headphones” that use bone-conduction technology to steam the music through your jaw and run between $60 and $100.

I tested each pair for a week straight, revisiting the headphones periodically afterwards to see how well they stood up to repeated use. With the exception of the Yurbuds, I tested models that fell roughly in the middle of their price range -- the iSport Immersion In-Ear Headphones with a feature called “ControlTalk” that lets you take calls with the headphones plugged into your smartphone ($99.95 on Monster’s website, though much cheaper through a service like Amazon), and the AfterShokz Sportz M2 model ($79.95).

AfterShokz is one of the first consumer electronics companies to bring bone conducting technology out of its origins in military equipment, and arguably the only company that has done successfully enough to reach the average consumer. But any device using such a novel form of technology is an understandably different beast, so the Yurbuds and Monster headphones compare to one another much more easily.

Like Bose, Monster headphones are the sort of high-end headphones still designed with the non-audiophile consumer in mind—the headphones are expensive enough to fall into a higher price category than many may want to pay for headphones, but nice enough to justify the extra expense for those that know they will be put to frequent use. The iSport is no exception to this; the sound quality is incredibly crisp and rich for in-ear headphones, and the bass is particularly impressive considering how tiny and portable they are. They do run on the quieter side, especially when compared with the Yurbuds, but they don’t sacrifice as much in the way of sound fidelity when the volume is cranked up. If anything, they almost work too well if you’re exercising in a space where you need to be aware of your surroundings like traffic or pedestrians. When snugly fit, they’re all but noise cancelling given the way the ear tips fill up the outside of your ear canal.

Fit is the main problem for iSport, however. If the ear-tips or in-ear clips don’t fit perfectly, they can either create an uncomfortable amount of pressure (which, the instruction manual is quick to warn you, is very dangerous) or lose the tight seal that’s required to maintain the sound quality. The gummy, flexible material both of these are made out of can also make them slippery if you sweat a lot, and I found myself having to push them back into my ears several times during extended runs. Monster provides a handful of in-ear clips and ear tips to customize the headphones for your specific head dimensions to help find the perfect fit. And while I’m still tinkering to find my own Goldilocks balance, the iSport is a fair way to compromise between customization and cost.

The Yurbuds Inspire headphones didn’t come with as many peripherals to toy with. But they also remained securely in my ears every time I used them, which is something I can’t say about any other self-styled “sport” headphone I’ve ever used. The sound quality is not nearly as good as the iSport’s, but the fact that they don’t budge makes the sound more consistent throughout any workout.

My main complaint with the Yurbuds is comfort. Unlike many in-ear headphones like Monster’s that use any number of nub-shaped ear tips and crescent-like clips to keep the headphones in place without the support of a neckband or other external structure, the Inspire headphones took an approach akin to Apple’s iconic white earbuds—trying to unified device that simply stuck right outside your ear and refused to budge. As Apple’s success has shown, this type of unified design is not a bad idea. But the way that Yurbuds chose to approach it is peculiar. The Inspire headphones have a sort of finger-shaped protrusion that goes into your ear canal—a good way to stream music in at a lower volume and with less disruption or noise, but one that would make anyone grossed out by Q-Tips shudder. Having a headphone so deep in my ear definitely took some getting used to.

AfterShokz avoids these sorts of dilemmas that in-ear headphones face by making headphones that go nowhere near your ears. The device instead has two “transducer pads”—flat, orange surfaces that rest comfortably on your cheekbones and conduct sound through the bone itself. If that sounds like science fiction, it is: the idea is unique and surprisingly effective, but I’m not sure the technology behind it is quite there yet.

The motive behind developing the AfterShokz headphones was to allow safe and east listening for sporty, outdoors types. With your ears uncluttered, you can better bear oncoming trains or judgmental bikers screaming to get out of their way. Or better yet, you can be one of those bikers yourself and still be able to listen to “Call me Maybe” while shouting at pedestrians and passers-by.

The AfterShokz work well in this regard, but they pale in comparison to the other headphones I tested in almost every other way. For one, the pads need to be pressed tightly against your face for audio to sound very good, which is a hard position to keep your hands in when doing anything remotely athletic other than curling over in exhaustion and defeat. They also create a funny tingling sensation when played at high volumes.

But these problems are nothing compared to sound leakage, a problem I didn’t fully appreciate until I took my pair of AfterShokz to the gym. Any pair of headphones suffers from a degree of misdirected noise, particularly as their design becomes more open than a massive, airtight system like the UE 9000s. But the headphones basically sound like you have two tinny little speakers attached to your face. These headphones work well enough for a jog through the park, but aren’t meant for any use indoors if you have any regard for the people around you. I noticed this immediately after I started getting strange looks at the gym when a decidedly treble version of “Backseat Freestyle” was pouring out of my cheekbones.

AfterShokz would work well for people like seasoned bikers, long-distance runners, and maybe mountain climbers. But like the military personnel for which this technology was first developed, these athletes have different expectations than the average gym-goer or casual jogger. If you expect to be in any situation more enclosed than that, you should consider how publicly you want your music to be broadcast. Sticking to a tried and true concept, which Monster and Yurbuds both use with spectacular results, would be the best bet.

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