7 Tips When Picking Sport Headphones for Exercise

BlueAnt Pump HD
BlueAnt

Exercising can be a lonely affair sometimes. Unless you’ve got the discipline and self-motivation of a bodhisattva, or at least Mr. Miyagi, it can be hard to stay focused while exercising, especially if you’re running on a boring old treadmill or elliptical machine. If only you can have Taylor Swift motivating you in the background as she croons about one of her backstabbing buddies or terrible ex-boyfriends — to a sick beat, of course.

Fortunately, this is where headphones come into play. Then again, picking headphones for exercise is a bit different than just choosing one for your regular listening pleasure. Here are a few things to ponder when looking for a sport headphone for sweatin’ it out.

Full-size or Buds?

When it comes to headphone design, your choice typically boils down to full-size headphones with a band that wraps around your noggin or more compact earphones that feature earbuds instead. Each has its advantages and disadvantages. Full-size headphones, for example, feature a secure fit right off the bat and more layered, natural sound, but can be bulky. Earbuds, on the other hand, are lighter but are a bit more persnickety when it comes to fit. As with relationships, both styles involve compromise so you’ll want to weigh the pros and cons for these two options based on your preferences and needs.

This Bud’s for You

If you opt for earbuds, there are a few details you’ll want to think about. No. 1, No. 2 and No. 3 on the list are fit, fit and fit. I cannot stress enough how important fit is when choosing bud-based earphones, especially for exercise. There is nothing worse than running, biking, juggling or doing whatever it is that you do to stay fit and having to stop every few seconds to adjust your earbuds or pick them up because they keep falling off. It’s like the fitness equivalent of Chinese water torture. Some folks might be able to get away with just using regular buds with no problem as long as they’re sized right. Others with mutant ears such as myself might need earbuds with special contraptions to stay put. Some add physical hooks or let the cables loop around your ears but they can be admittedly uncomfortable. A better option, usually, involves earphones with uniquely shaped buds. Yurbuds, for example, use special covers that fit like hearing aids. The Soul Electronics Pulse Fitness and the Audio Technica ATH-CKX5iS SonicFuel, on the other hand, use either a nub or inner extension to lodge into the crevices of your outer ear.

Running With the Big Boys

If you decide to pick full-size headphones, you’ll want to mull over a few things, too. At the top of the list is whether to go over-ear or on-ear. By providing a nifty space for your outer ear and its lobes, over-the-ear headphones are usually more comfortable. All things being equal, earcups that go over the ear will also typically sound better by virtue of being larger. That size, however, comes with a price in the form of extra bulk, which can weigh you down the longer your exercise or activity goes. Conversely, full-size, on-ear headphones will be lighter, offering a solid compromise between over-the-ear cans and earbuds. In most case, however, they won’t sound as good as their larger brethren. They also press up on your outer ears, which can hurt after extended periods.

Cut the Cord, or Not

Although a direct connection with a physical cable usually produces the best sound, there are times when you want to just go wireless for both comfort and practicality. As someone who used to bike almost daily back in college, for example, there were times when my headphone cord would get caught on my knees and just cause all sorts of problems. That’s not to say that wired headphones won't work. If you do use them, however, you might want to make sure and try out whichever headphones you’re getting to see how they respond to friction. As much as we love the sound of the RHA MA150, given its price, for example, its wiring would transmit this annoying sound every time it rubbed against clothes.

Gonna Make You Sweat

While you can pretty much use any headphone for exercise, some can deal with the rigors of fitness better than others. The regular ear padding for many full-size headphones, for example, can quickly wear down after being exposed repeatedly to your glistening, Olympic deity-caliber sweat. Fitness-geared headphones like the Soul Combat+, meanwhile, not only resist that sweat but also come with removable cushions that can be washed and swapped. Some buds are also sweat resistant, making them less prone to slippage from your royal oiliness.

It’s Elemental

Speaking of resisting sweat, certain activities might require even more sturdiness. If you love to swim, for example, simply being able to resist the sweat threshold of a Turkish wrestler ain’t gonna cut it. These are the times when you would want to consider something like the BlueAnt Pump HD, which can survive an underwater dunking. If you’re afraid of going out of range of your regular player or don’t want to deal with the bulk of putting your music device or smartphone in a waterproof case, you also can look for audio options that double as built-in MP3 players such as the player. For winter, add-ons such as the Exolite Groove Ear Warmer are worth a look as well.

All You Do Is Talk, Talk

If you’re a busy person or love to indulge in the gift of gab, you might want the option to be able to take calls easily while exercising. For such scenarios, pick headphones that can sync with your smartphone and also come with built-in controls for answering calls. Such controls usually are built into the cables for wired headphones or the earphone area for wireless buds and cans, allowing you to continue with your activities without skipping a beat.

Jason Hidalgo is About.com’s Portable Electronics expert. Yes, he is easily amused. Follow him on Twitter @jasonhidalgo and be amused, too.