To find the best earbuds for runners, we extensively tested 31 pairs of sport headphones that let you enjoy your music while also hearing the world around you. We’re positive that the Plantronics BackBeat Fit is the best set of running headphones for most people because it’s comfortable, easy to use, and durable, and it sounds better than any nonsealed headphones we’ve heard. The BackBeat Fit has a great toughness track record, and it comes with a one-year warranty.
The Plantronics BackBeat Fit has been our favorite set of running headphones for two years and 400 miles of runs now because of its impressive comfort, ergonomics, and resistance to sweat, rain, dust, and questionable techno music. The sound quality is better than that of just about any unsealed headphones we’ve ever tested. Most important, the BackBeat Fit’s unsealed earbud design allows you to hear your surroundings so you can stay safer when running outdoors. The rubberized surface grips your ears without chafing. The cable between the two earbuds is long enough to accommodate any head size yet short enough that the slack won’t snag or bounce noisily when you’re jogging. The BackBeat Fit has a battery life of eight-plus hours, so the pair will last for a week of training runs before you need to charge. And to protect you if something goes wrong, Plantronics offers a one-year warranty in the US.
If our top pick is sold out, or if you prefer a design with very simple controls, the Urbanears Stadion is a solid choice that sounds good and fits comfortably. Our entire test panel approached the unique design with trepidation but ended up pleasantly surprised at how comfortable the Stadion headphones were, and how much we liked them. Unless you have an exceptionally large or small head, the coiled cord between the earbuds eliminates any cable noise and keeps the Stadion securely in place. The controls are large and easy to use, despite being positioned behind your head. The seven-plus-hour battery life means you’ll need to charge only weekly. The fit issues for larger and smaller heads and the lack of a battery-life indicator kept this model from our top spot, but the Stadion is otherwise a nice pair of running headphones.
If you run only on occasion and don’t want to invest much money into running headphones, the Zagg iFrogz InTone Wireless set is a great choice. The InTone Wireless earbuds fit in your ear similarly to Apple EarPods and cost about the same, but unlike the EarPods, these earbuds are wireless and water resistant. The remote/Bluetooth transmitter clips to your shirt with a clever magnetic clasp that also doubles as cord management for storage. However, the IPX2 rating means these headphones aren’t designed for anyone who sweats heavily, and the five-plus-hour battery life means you’ll need to recharge this set more frequently than our top picks.
Why you should trust us
In addition to having tested literally hundreds of headphones as The Wirecutter’s headphones editor—and having done so for other publications such as Home Entertainment, Home Theater Magazine, and Sound & Vision—I’m a passionate runner in my free time. I’ve run races ranging from a marathon to a 5k, and I go for a quick 5-miler at least once a week even in the blazing Los Angeles summer, so I actually run with our picks on a regular basis.
My articles have been featured in Fast Company, Forbes, the Los Angeles Times, and Time, and on Good Morning America, the BBC World Service, and NBC Nightly News. In other words, I’ve got a pretty good handle on what’s out there and what’s worth your time and hard-earned money, and I am committed to finding gear that will make you happy.
For this guide, I also worked with our expert panel, which consisted of a mix of runners, experienced audio reviewers, and professional trained musicians with a wide variety of ear and head shapes.
Who should get this
Running headphones are for people who prefer to do their jogging outside and thus need to be able to hear their surroundings to stay safe. Whether you’re dodging traffic in a city or avoiding wildlife in rural areas, it’s important to know what’s going on around you. Women who run alone especially understand the relevance of this. If instead you do your running on a treadmill and need to seal out external gym noise.
We found that most runners prefer wireless headphones. With Bluetooth, you don’t have to put up with cable snags or tuck excess cord down your shirt to keep it from banging around. But you do need to remember to charge Bluetooth headphones. We list a few unsealed options that will work for runners perfectly well. Otherwise, we think our picks here will suit most people.
How we picked
First we sifted through the offerings of more than 100 headphone companies to see what new running headphones they’d released recently. Then we consulted a number of reviews on tech and audio sites such as CNET, Engadget, and PCMag, as well as on sports and lifestyle sites like Men’s Fitness, Runner’s World, and The Active Times to see what athletes liked. From there, we looked at customer reviews on Amazon, Best Buy, and other retailer sites to see what actual owners had to say. As we read, we looked for models that had the most important features of good running headphones.
- An unsealed design that allows you to hear some external noise is of utmost importance for safety when you’re running outside.
- Sweat and water resistance is a must for running headphones. Standard headphones aren’t built to withstand the beating that running headphones can take, so their warranties likely won’t cover moisture damage.
- Comfort is always important, but especially with running headphones. If they bang against your head, fall out, chafe, or snag, you won’t want to use them. The best running headphones are the ones that stay on and out of your way.
- Ease of use matters more than usual in this category. You don’t want to have to stop jogging just to skip a track or adjust the volume. A good pair of sport earbuds has an intuitive remote that you can use without much thought.
- Brand reliability is key, because if something goes wrong, you want to know that the company involved will be around to stand behind its product.
- A warranty of at least a year against sweat damage is critical. Workout headphones are designed to get a little moist on occasion, and a good company backs up their build with support and replacement if something goes awry.
- The sound quality should be solid and not distracting. Running headphones are a piece of sporting equipment, so in this category we’re a little more forgiving of sonic flaws. Additionally, the unsealed design that makes running headphones safer also can make bass notes more difficult to hear. Some companies try to compensate by applying EQ to unsealed headphones accordingly. Ideally, you’d have both great fit and great sound, but when in doubt, comfort comes first.
- Call quality is only a minor concern. You should be able to take a quick call and get back to your run. Although wind noise, traffic noise, and sweat in the mic can cause difficulties for any headphone mic, problems are far more likely in running headphones. But we don’t recommend taking important calls while knocking out 5k anyway, so in our research and tests, when it came to calls, we looked for intelligibility rather than perfection.
We called in every model that met these criteria (and either had positive reviews or was too new to have any feedback) for our expert panel to evaluate.
How we tested
Half a mile is just the beginning. We put our contenders through sweat, sound, and strength testing.
First, we put all of our contenders under the scrutiny of our expert panel. We asked the panelists to consider the fit, comfort, ease of use, and sound quality of each model and to rank their top picks. This step eliminated a lot of poorly designed headphones and allowed us to focus our endurance tests on earbuds we’d actually want to use.
Our panel favorites moved on to our fitness and stress tests. On a sunny Los Angeles day, we took to the track and ran half a mile with each pair. I took a lot of notes, paying attention to tugging, chafing, and which headphones, if any, fell out. I considered wind noise, cable noise, and the ability to hear external noises, too. I wore sunglasses to see how well each pair fit for glasses wearers. We sweated a lot. This step reduced the field further, but we weren’t finished testing yet.
To check durability, I held each set by the earpieces and tugged sharply a few dozen times to simulate snagging and pulling off the head. Then I tested water resistance by powering the headphones on, spraying every headphone pair thoroughly using a water-filled utility misting bottle, and pressing the remote buttons to see if any water would leak in. I repeated this process every 10 minutes for an hour, and then I listened to each pair for any negative effects. (Yes, I endured numerous wet-willies for you.)
And finally—because all of that wasn’t enough—I tested sweat resistance. To simulate performance under very sweaty conditions, we used data from a scientific study of marathon runners to calculate the average salt content of sweat and made a saltwater mixture corresponding to the study’s highest recorded levels. I then powered all the headphones back on and used our misting bottle to spray them with our sweat proxy. After making sure to wet the remotes thoroughly, I mashed all the buttons again. Because sweat damage is largely due to the accumulation of salt (rather than moisture) affecting the electronics, for this test I sprayed every 15 minutes or waited until the headphones were fully dry before spraying again. I did this four times, and then checked the performance. The headphones all had that salty, coated feeling like your skin after you’ve been in the ocean, but we got some definitive results.
Endurance trials complete, I considered the price, tested for basic call quality, and took each of our potential top picks on a 5-mile run to see if any hidden issues surfaced. Finally, we were ready to declare our winners. Whew!
A word on fit
Fit is an important part of purchasing any in-ear headphones, but when you’re logging miles of runs, fit becomes even more critical. Manufacturers have come up with all kinds of solutions to make their earbuds stay put, and the success of those innovations varies widely. What works perfectly for one person’s ears may feel like torture to another person’s. As a result, in our panel testing, finding a consensus on fit was particularly difficult in this category. Sometimes the fit affected only comfort, but other times the fit altered the sound, too.
Our panelists range widely in ear shape, head shape, and ear-canal size. Our goal was to find options that would work well for the most people possible, so if one set of headphones felt good to all of our panelists, we knew we were on to something. That said, since no two people have precisely the same anatomy, no single pair of running headphones will work perfectly for everyone.
We highly recommend trying on headphones before you commit. Look for retailers (such as Amazon) that allow you to return or exchange, and save the packaging until you’ve had a chance to test your new earbuds out. Shake your head around, jump a few times, and give your running headphones the same sort of trial run that you would a new pair of sneakers. Size up your headphones with the same care you would take for any other piece of sporting equipment, and you’ll reap the benefits of a seamless transition into your routine.
Our pick: Plantronics BackBeat Fit
The Plantronics BackBeat Fit has been our favorite pair of running headphones for several years now because it’s very durable, it fits comfortably, it’s easy to use, and it sounds great. These headphones feel lightweight and stable—you can just pop them onto your head and go. A hook over your ear and a small wing just inside your outer ear keep each earbud in place. The hook is slender enough that glasses wearers should be able to run with both the BackBeat Fit and their specs on without issue, and the wing is flexible enough that it should be comfortable for most ear shapes.
The reflective coating on the sturdy rubberized cable that passes behind your neck adds to your visibility on evening jaunts. As for the controls, the big play/pause button and the call-answer button are easy to use while you’re in motion. The volume and power/pair buttons are more like nubbins next to the other two controls, but once you have your finger on one, it’s simple to use without looking.
The BackBeat Fit excels at sweat resistance. I’ve worn these headphones on at least 400 miles of runs in hot Los Angeles weather, on rainy days, and for long, sweaty training runs over the past two years, and they are still just as great as the day we first tested them. Despite being lightweight, they feel sturdy and substantial. If anything does go wrong, Plantronics backs this pair with a one-year warranty in the US. (The company has different warranty durations in other countries, so check what the packaging says if you are buying overseas.)
As for the sound, this is one of the only pairs of unsealed earbuds that our panel actually liked. Plantronics clearly took the open design into account when tuning the BackBeat Fit. In our tests, nothing blared or pierced, and it produced some actual audible bass notes, not just overtones. This is very rarely the case with unsealed earbuds. While you won’t be able to rattle your jaw with super-low thumping notes on this pair, it’s probably best that you listen at a moderate level anyway, because you want to be sure that you can still hear your surroundings over your music. The BackBeat Fit is designed perfectly to direct music to your ear but also to allow environmental sounds to reach you, which helps keep you both motivated and safe.
Flaws but not dealbreakers
For the most part, the BackBeat Fit is fantastic, but we have a few minor quibbles. The thick, rubberized cable that connects the earbuds may occasionally brush against your shirt, but we never felt as though it tugged or that our earbuds were at risk of falling out. If you run with a scarf in cold weather or have a high collar on your jacket, however, it may bother you more frequently.
Also, generally speaking, in-ear headphones that don’t seal tend to sacrifice some sound quality, specifically in the lower frequencies, and this set is no exception. While the BackBeat Fit does offer more low frequencies than most other unsealed earbuds, none of the headphones in this test group can compete with sealed earbuds in terms of the lows they can produce.
The hook that sits over your ear to hold each earbud in place is mildly flexible but could pose a problem for people with very large outer ears. None of our panelists had any issue, but if you know you’re an outlier, you should take note prior to ordering the BackBeat Fit.
Runner-up: Urbanears Stadion
If our pick is sold out, or if you hate the cable bounce that occurs with most headphones, the Urbanears Stadion offers a unique alternative with easy-to-use controls. While it may look a bit odd at first, the Stadion’s coiled-cable design hugs your head and largely eliminates the all-too-common and annoying cable bounce. It’s surprisingly comfortable, and the coils have a reflective material that will help you stay visible at night.
The hooks that thread over your ears are flexible and narrow enough that you can wear the Stadion with sunglasses. Plus, the silicone stabilizing wings grip without irritating, even on longer jogs. A battery life of seven-plus hours should get you through a week of running on a single charge, and the controls are large, intuitive, and easy to reach, despite being positioned behind your head.
The coiled cable on the Stadion looks strange at first but is surprisingly adept at avoiding cable bounce.
The Stadion sounds quite good, though in an attempt to compensate for the unsealed earbuds, Urbanears may have boosted the bass frequencies too much: In our tests, these headphones sounded a bit muddy in the bass-guitar range and lacked sharp definition in hip-hop basslines. That’s a trivial complaint, however, especially considering the Stadion’s sound versus much of the competition. The earbud design allows in a significant amount of external sound, so provided that you keep your volume levels reasonable, you’ll have no trouble hearing what is happening around you. Finally, a one-year warranty from Urbanears protects you if you encounter any problems.
Two minor issues kept the Stadion from claiming our top spot. First is the way this pair can fit for people on the far ends of the hat-size spectrum. For larger heads, the cable can stretch too far and gently but consistently pull on the earbuds. We aren’t sure if over time the coils would relax, but you likely don’t want to have to wait that out. As for people on the smaller-headed side, the cable may have too much slack, and the remote can bounce annoyingly. I have a tiny noggin, and I found that by resting the remote on top of my ponytail, I could resolve the issue. But for anyone with short hair and a small head, the remote can jounce up and down like it’s on a Slinky attached to your skull. Not so nice.
The Urbanears Stadion’s controls remain easily accessible despite their location on the back of the headband.
The other bummer is that you don’t get a precise battery indicator, either on the headphones themselves or on your phone. The single LED on the Stadion can flash white or red to signify whether the battery is over or under 40 percent capacity, but how far under or over that 40 percent is a mystery. In other words, if the light flashes red, you should probably give the headphones a few minutes to charge before heading out the door. It’s a little annoying for people who don’t like having to remember to plug in their headphones after just a few jogs. For everyone else, however, the Stadion is a fantastic choice.
Budget pick: Zagg iFrogz InTone Wireless
If you run only short distances, want to play music during your walk-jogs but still hear your surroundings, or don’t run frequently enough to want to invest much money into running headphones, the Zagg iFrogz InTone Wireless pair is for you. These headphones are easy to use, designed to handle some sweat, and especially cheap. Just be prepared to charge them frequently—five hours of battery life go by quickly.
The earbud design on this set looks really familiar: If the Apple EarPods were water resistant and connected to a little Bluetooth transmitter, they’d pretty much be the InTone Wireless. Not only is the fit similar, but the sound and price are as well. In other words, if you’ve been running with the EarPods that come with your iPhone, and you need to replace them with something wireless and inexpensive, go for the InTone Wireless.
The remote/transmitter clips to a shirt or a sports bra via a magnetic loop. It’s surprisingly unobtrusive, and in our tests it didn’t bounce around too much. The controls are large and easy to use, and the ingenious magnetic loop can work for handy cable storage too. The cords from the remote to the earbuds are light and thin enough that they don’t make much noise, and the earbuds let in a great deal of external sound, so you’ll always hear your surroundings. Plus, a one-year warranty will cover you if anything breaks.
The InTone Wireless offers a five-hour battery life in actual use but can stay in standby for 10 hours, and the set goes into standby mode pretty quickly. If you pause your jog or forget to turn the headphones off for whatever reason, you likely won’t lose much of your remaining battery life. You still need to charge the set relatively frequently, but if you tend to run for 30 minutes two or three times a week, that shouldn’t be too much of a hassle.
We found some notable flaws to the InTone Wireless. First, if you run without a shirt, you won’t have a place to clip the remote, because the cord isn’t long enough to clip to your shorts. Second, the sound quality lacks bass frequencies: Very deep bass notes won’t sound as good as on our top picks, as you’ll hear only their overtones. Anyone familiar with the EarPod sound can expect to hear something similar. Speaking of EarPods, if you have larger ear canals in which the EarPod design doesn’t stay put, neither will these earbuds. And the IPX2 rating means that you can drip sweat on these but not drench them. That said, all of those flaws are forgivable considering the price.
AfterShokz Bluez 2: We have never been able to get bone-conduction headphones to sound any better than a tiny, tinny pair of speakers hanging in front of our ears. We’ve positioned, repositioned, pressed the conductors to our heads, and had PR people show us how to wear them, and they have never impressed anyone on our panel.
With the Bluez 2, our panelist Phil commented on how the bass notes tickled his face, and despite cranking the volume, he and another panelist, Brent, both remarked that they would hear songs better if they ran with music playing from the speakers on their iPhones. Bone conduction is an interesting concept, and the Bluez 2 is built sturdily, but we sure couldn’t get this pair to sound good enough to make us happy.
AfterShokz Trekz Titanium: This set had a weird fit that tickled our faces as we ran, and it sounded worse than the speaker on an iPhone. We love the idea, but none of us on the panel have ever been able to get a bone-conduction design to be a satisfying experience.
Avantree Jogger Pro: Our first time around, this was the only set of unsealed Bluetooth headphones in the category, and it was rather disappointing. Although these headphones were indeed very light, they felt as flimsy and breakable as a Happy Meal toy. They didn’t produce much volume to speak of, and the bass was nonexistent. As with the AfterShokz models, the sound wasn’t too far from music coming through the speakers on an iPhone. We say to save your money.
Bose SoundSport: Not quite sealed enough to block out sound but not quite unsealed enough to give you a sense of your environment, the SoundSport wireless headphones ended up being a bit of a letdown for us. Although the sound was okay, with slightly blobby bass but decent mids and highs, it was the fit and design that really kept this pair out of the running.
In our tests, the cable had a grippy quality that snagged on my shoulder as I turned my head, occasionally tugging the earbuds and requiring repositioning. The buttons on the remote also had an odd wiggle when I pressed down; they felt like remote-control toggles as opposed to buttons. This tactile aspect meant that pressing the controls while I was running took more concentration. And the nonremovable wings irritated my ears—if you dislike the wings, you can’t modify the pieces to your taste. Overall, those minor flaws added up and prevented the SoundSport from making the cut.
Monster iSport Intensity: The downfall of the Intensity is the cable—it’s too long, and it thumps when it bounces. Not only that, but a remote on one side of the cable and a Bluetooth transmitter on the other side add weight. That weight, combined with the cable’s grippy texture, creates a situation in which the minute you turn your head, the cable snags and pulls the earbuds out of your ear canals. In our tests, the Intensity had a fun sound quality, but it worked well only when we were sitting still, and that’s not what we want out of running headphones.
(Photos by Kyle Fitzgerald.)
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