If you need a new pair of exercise headphones that’ll perform well in the gym or jogging, I’d suggest Sennheiser’s OCX 685i Sports headphones.They’re a pair of earloop earbuds that provide great sound, excellent situational awareness, a microphone and inline iOS controls in a lightweight, sweat-resistant package.Some people like to bring buddies along to the gym with them for motivation. I’m not one of them. When I work out, I like to do it with a skull full of music. It helps me to forget that I’m a sweaty, panting mess. But most headphones can’t take the abuse of a solid workout. What you want is a set of exercise headphones designed to take the sweat, vibration and abuse that comes from workouts and sports. But how do you pick a good pair?Ask an Expert
Brent Rose is a veteran tech journalist who has tested dozens of sports and exercise-centric On Ear Workout Headphones for Gizmodo and writes their weekly Fitmodo fitness column. Brent works out regularly. He runs. He surfs. He even completed the NYC Triathlon. He’s in better shape than I’ll ever be, moonlights as a superhero and most importantly, he’s picky when it comes to what hardware he uses. So I trust his opinion. He told me that one of the first things you should consider consider when you’re looking for a pair of exercise headphones is how much they cost.“I’ve tested a bunch of them over the last year for Giz,” explained Rose. “I think we pretty much limited the ones we tested to the under range. We were of the opinion that these things break a lot, get banged around in the gym bag and stuff like that, so it seemed like was the upper limit for spending on these kinds of things.”As Rose points out, sports headphones typically end up getting the crap beaten out of them, so you’ll want to find a set that’s durable enough to take a reasonable amount of punishment.
You’ll also want them to be resistant to sweat so that you don’t short them out with your perspiration, and water resistant so you can wash your funk off of them after you’re done working out.Because of the fact that you’ll be using these things to keep you company while you run, flex and generally move around more than you might during the rest of your life, you’ll want to make sure that your exercise headphones are going to stay where they belong: in your ears. But a secure fit shouldn’t come at the price of your comfort. I’m typically in the gym for a few hours at a time. Having my headphones becoming uncomfortable to wear before I’m ready to hit the shower is a deal breaker.Situational awareness is keyIt’s a given that you’ll want them to sound good too–but not too good. No matter whether you’re doing road work or working your upper body in the gym, situational awareness is key. Being able to hear sounds aside from your music will help to keep you from getting run down by oncoming traffic, or hear someone ask if they can work in a set in while you rest between sets on the machine you’re using.Velodyne’s excellent vPulse In-Ear Headphones so finding a great pair of great sports headphones for should be doable too.All of this seems like a lot to ask for in a set of headphones, but when you consider the fact that we’ve already shown that it’s possible to find a great set of headphones for, or a decent pair for as low as, it becomes a lot more reasonable. Still, you’re not made of money, and Rose admits that, or even half that is more than a lot of people are willing to spend on a set of headphones. Because of this, if you don’t already own a set of earbuds or cans that you’re attached to, it’s worth taking the time to find a set of exercise headphones that’ll serve you well both in and outside of the gym.A lot of exercise-centric headphones come in fluorescent colours to make them more visible at night, and while that might work for some people, most probably want something a little more subdued. Our last pick for Best Exercise Headphones, the Sennheiser PMX 680i, were reasonably priced, sounded great and were tough as nails, but their bright yellow and black color scheme made them look like a pair of clown shoes for your skull.
What Should You Buy?
To figure this out, I tracked down as many reputable online roundups of exercise headphones as I could find that were more or less current and written by reviewers who tested their headphones by working out with them, or alternatively, have scads of experience reviewing headphones in general and know what they’re talking about.Brent went through the trouble of doing a comparative test of exercise headphones in April of last year, and PC Magazine published Meredith Popolo’s roundup of sports headphones last fall. I also found roundups that I felt were trustworthy by Men’s Fitness, The Guardian UK, CNET and TechHive.The few roundups I trusted mentioned a number of brands including Sony, Bower & Wilkins, Polk Audio, Bose, Sennheiser, Monster, Plantronics, Phiaton, Klipsch, Philips, Yurbuds, Panasonic and Jaybird. Unfortunately, none of the roundups I found were willing to declare a winner except for the one that Brent wrote for Gizmodo. So I felt that I needed to call what appeared to be the best exercise headphones currently available in for testing to see what’s what.back to menu ↑
What Did I Look At?
In order to figure out what I should test, I started by looking at what hardware was highlighted in the roundups I found. Unfortunately, as they all were written last year, a lot of the headphones profiled are either no longer being offered, or have been replaced by newer iterations. Obsolete models were immediately removed from consideration. I also checked with PR of each company to see if they had anything new in the category coming up in the near future.Unfortunately, many of the headphones that were mentioned in the roundups cost more than the limit that Brent felt was a reasonable maximum price. So, for the time being, I elected to keep the pricier picks in my pool of potential test candidates.I expanded my search by looking for exercise headphones on Amazon, making sure to search under as many terms as I could think of on the site, like running headphones, exercise headphones, work out earbuds…well, you get the idea.In the end I was left with over 100 different sets of headphones to consider, and like 90 pairs too many for me to be able to test in anything close to a reasonable amount of time.back to menu ↑
Thinning The Herd
A lot of companies claim that their headphones are designed with exercise in mind, but there’s nothing in their design to back that up. If a set of headphones wasn’t water and sweat resistant or washable, I removed them from the list. If multiple reviews mentioned that a pair of headphones didn’t last a user for more than a few months, I took them out of the running. Muddy sound? Weak bass? No situational awareness or if it came with a cord long enough to wrap twice around your body before you plugged it into your smartphone or MP3 player? Kicked to the curb. Any headphones that users reported to fall out too easily during a working out, or that became painful after wearing them for only a little while, were also struck from the list. Then, I eliminated anything that didn’t have a warranty as well as those that I couldn’t confirm as still being in production.Through this process of elimination, I ended up with a list of nine sets of headphones to test: Philips’ ActionFit, Klipsch’s A5i In-Ear Headphones, Yurbuds Focus Pro, Bose’s SiE 2 Sport Headphones, Sennheiser’s PMX 685i Sports, Monster’s iSport Intensity, Jaybird’s BlueBud X, Sony’s Active Sport In-Ear XBA-S65, and as a yardstick for excellence, our last pick for Best Exercise Headphones, Sennheiser’s PMX 680i Sports.In addition to these nine, I added one more set of headphones into the mix that I was able to get my hands on after the fact: a set of of Sennheiser’s OCX 685i Sports. Which have the same speaker drivers and features as the PMX 685i, but are secured to your noggin with a set of ear loops instead of a neckloop. Brent had mentioned that he’d been curious about them, and while he hadn’t had a chance to test them himself, he felt that they should sound perform just as well the PMX series headphones, which he’d chosen as Gizmodo’s new favorite pick late last year. While I wasn’t able to find any reviews online for the OCX other than a few mentions on Apple’s website and Amazon, I chose to trust Brent’s judgment, and ordered a pair to test.back to menu ↑
What Tests Did You Do?
I’m no expert. I’m just a guy that wants to find the best set of exercise headphones for the smallest amount of money possible. So I didn’t look at things that most people don’t care about like frequency response, total harmonic distortion or impedance (although Geoff Morrison tells me that the latter can be useful in measuring how loud a set of headphones is.) Instead, I stuck to the things that Brent and I felt were important.For quantifiable measurements like price, Whether the headphones used used bluetooth or a wired connection, how long a cord they came equipped with, their weight or whether or not they had a set of inline controls or not was noted on a comparative spreadsheet.I also looked at how well each set fit, how durable they were, how much they weighed, if they sounded good, if I could wear them and still hear what was going on around me while I jogged or worked out at the gym while listening to music at a reasonable volume (I decided that 60% of my iPhone 5’s maximum volume was ‘reasonable’,) and call quality (if the headphones came with a built in mic.) For each of these subjective traits, I awarded a score of between one and ten points, with one being terrible and ten being amazing.Once this was done, I subjected each set of headphones to a durability test and checked to see if they were water resistant.How Did You Test Durability and Waterproofing?As I’m not an testing expert, I turned to someone who is: our own Richard Baguley, who’s been working as a hardware reviewer and tech journalist since 1983. Richard help to set up Reviewed.com’s hardware testing lab, so it’s safe to say that he knows a thing or two about testing gear.I also spoke with The Wirecutter’s Brian Lam and Geoffrey Morrison, who in addition to working for this site, also cranks out audio and video hardware reviews for CNET and Sound and Vision Magazine. The problem we had to get past was that according to Brian and Geoffrey, a lot of publications test headphones using a machine that torques their cords and connections at a consistent rate. This allows for uniform, accurate measurements of how durable a set of headphones are. Unfortunately, I don’t have access to that kind of hardware. But between the three of us, we came up with what we agreed was a decent substitute.In order to test the durability of the headphones, I started by testing the sound, inline controls and microphone of each set of headphones to get an understanding of how they should sound when they’re in tiptop shape.Next, I connected my long dead first generation iPod touch to each set of headphones, stuck the earbuds in my ears and then dropped the iPod from waist level with the headphones attached to them 30 times in a row. I did this to simulate the kind of periodical abuse most of us subject our headphones to.
I then checked to see if they were still working afterwards, making note of whether or not there was any change in sound quality, call quality or the ability of the headset’s inline controls to, well, control things. All ten sets of headphones passed this test with no noticeable in operation. This test was graded with a passing or failing mark.Because exercise headphones should be sweat resistant and washable so that you can hose them down after a workout, I passed each set back and forth under a running tap for ten seconds, dried them off and then checked them to see if they were all still operating as they should. This dunk test was also a pass/fail scenario. Only one headset failed to pass muster: Philips’ ActionFit.Having talked it over with Richard, Geoffrey and Brian, it was agreed that one of the points most likely to fail on any set of headphones was the the set’s cord attaches to the headphone’s male connector jack. So, to simulate the abuse that the headphone jack takes over time, I took the nine remaining sets of headphones one-by-one and tied them by their earbuds to the drawer of my desk, pulled the cord taut, and then, holding the headphone jack, proceeded to twist the cord 50 times clockwise and 50 times counter clockwise. Six of the nine sets of headphones survived the test, no worse for wear.
The Bose SIE2i sports headphones sounded great, but failed to pass our stress test.
Unfortunately, while Bose’s SIE 2 Sport Headphones continued to sound and function as they did before my twist-test, the rubber casing on the headphone’s cord became irreparably kinked up to the point where the cable could no longer be straightened out and I could feel the casing moving freely over top of the metal wire underneath. Because of this issue, I removed the Bose headphones from the competition.back to menu ↑
This left me with eight sets to test.
I figured that while the headphones I had on hand were all sweat resistant and washable, the tugging and torture I had just put them through with my stress tests might have opened them up to water damage. I was right. In a final attempt to kill the hardware I had on hand, I subjected the remaining sets of headphones to another dunk test and dried them off. This time around, Sony’s XBA-S65 proved to be the weakest set of headphones in the pack, as I when I plugged them in to use them, I found that the set’s left earbud no longer offered any sound.That left me with seven sets of functioning headphones that still worked after two different stress tests and a dunk test. Of the surviving seven, the Sennheiser PMX 685i Sport and their OCX 685i variant received the highest total scores from my subjective test–32 out of 40 possible points (for the sake of disclosure, Monster’s iSport Intensity scored 30, Klipsch a5i Sport got a 24, the Bose SIE2i received a 27, the YurBuds Focus Pro and Sony’s XBA-S65 both earned 19 points, Jaybird’s BlueBud X were given a score of 23, the Philips ActionFit came in with a score of 12 points and Sennheiser’s PMX 680i garnered a total of 30 points.)Our PickThe PMX and OCX variants of the Sennheiser’s 685i sports series tied for first place in my subjective comparison and stress tests, but the OCX 685i is the better of two greats. Not only are they cheaper at the time of this writing), their earloop design is more versatile than the neckband on the PMX.
Sennheiser’s OCX 685i headphones are cheaper than the company’s PMX 685i variant, but have the same technical specs.
Same guts, less versatile designSennheiser PMX 685iThese have the same good sound and situational awareness as the OCX, but the neckband design can cause the buds to pop out when lying down. We prefer the around the ear loop design of the OCX.
The PMX and OCX headphones have identical technical specifications when it comes to their speaker drivers, inline controls (play/pause and volume for iPhone but not Android), and microphone, the OCX version of the headphones are kept in place with a set of flexible rubber loops that rest on your ears as opposed to the neckband on the PMX version. These loops are just as effective at keeping the earbuds in your ears when you’re working out or running and can be worn with a bike helmet. However, unlike the neck band, these will stay put when you’re doing bench work or laying down to listen to music because the ear loops wrap around your ears as opposed resting on the back of your neck.I found the earloops to be just as comfortable to wear as the neck band had been, and didn’t have a problem wearing them with my prescription glasses or sunglasses. It’s worth mentioning though, that while the loops will let you do some bench work at the gym and listen to music at the same time, I found that the OCX 685i Sports offered a little less situational awareness than the PMX 685i Sports did–but not so much that I felt concerned for my safety while I was out for a ride on my bike or jogging.They sound great. I listen to a wide range of music–paddy punk, balkan brass, rockabilly, Irish traditional, classical, you name it–and wasn’t once dissatisfied during testing with how the tunes being pumped into my ears sounded. The 685i Sports produced, clear, crisp audio, with excellent highs and mid-range sound as well as the deep thumping bass you’ll want to keep your cadence up while doing road work or sweating yourself thin on a treadmill. Brent Rose noted that the sound quality of the 685i was a definite improvement over what the 680i series offered, saying, “The highs and mids have cleaned up in a major way, and it still retains that juicy thump you need to keep your legs moving. Extremely well balanced, and not quite as loud as the 680s, but still way louder than just about any other earbud.” Sennheiser fully discloses the tech specifications of their headphones on their website, if you’re into that sort of thing.Not only do they sound great, the OCX 685i also offer a great amount of situational awareness so you can avoid getting run over by traffic. With the volume on my iPhone 5 set to approximately 60%, I was still able to hear cars coming up behind me from about a half block away. I was also able to carry on a conversation with my personal trainer while she tried to kill me with some time on the recumbent bike at the gym.To increase the longevity of the headphones, Sennheiser gave the 685i Sports a right angle jack as opposed to the straight jack that the 680i Sports had. A right angle jack is less likely to get snagged on objects than a straight jack will, and if it does, the shape of the jack provides some tension relief on the headphone cord. This means that the 685i Sports have a better chance of surviving the multiple tugs and other abuses most of us pile on our headphones on a daily basis, making them a good investment.They’re lightweight. The OCX 685i only weigh 4.2 ounces.
When I was testing them, the only thing that reminded me that they were on my head was the fact that I could feel the earloops. Given how durable these things turned out to be, the fact that they weigh next to nothing is a great bonus. By comparison, Bose’s SIE2i, the Yurbuds Focus Pro and JayBird’s BlurBud X weigh six ounces, 8.3 ounces and eight ounces respectively.But They’re Not PerfectWhile I was able to wear them for 90 minutes at a time without any discomfort, they might not work as well for you depending on the shape and size of your ears. But you can say the same for just about any set of headphones out there. For example, while I didn’t have an issue testing Sennheiser’s PMX 685i Sports, Brent Rose found that they became uncomfortable for him to wear after about 30 minutes of use. Sennheiser includes a number of different sized silicone ear pieces to foam make for a better fit, but they might not work for you. I don’t think anyone can blame Sennheiser for this though. If they don’t fit you well, it’s necessarily a design fault. It’s just a consequence of each of us being a unique and special snowflake.
If you keep your smartphone or MP3 player in an armband when you work out, you might find the OCX 685i’s 47” cable to be a little long. The headphones come with a clip to help you wrangle all of that extra cord though, and as many people run their headphone cords under their shirts when they work out, this is really a minor annoyance at best.Who else likes it?It’s worth noting that most publications only reviewed the PMX version, but that’s fine since they share the same internals and components so any reviews of the PMX easily apply to the OCX as well.Like I mentioned earlier, the PMX 685i Sports replace Sennheiser’s PMX 680i Sports, which we awarded the position of Best Exercise Headphones last year.“These are running headphones? I can’t believe how good these sound.”Gizmodo’s Brent Rose chose them as his new favorite pick over Sennheiser’s now discontinued PMX 680i Sports, saying that they offered a “noticeable improvement to already great sound quality. The highs and mids have cleaned up in a major way, and it still retains that juicy thump you need to keep your legs moving. Extremely well balanced, and not quite as loud as the 680s, but still way louder than just about any other earbud.” When Brent gave them to one of Mario Aguilar, one of Gizmodo’s “hardcore audio geeks,” He told Brent, “These are running headphones? I can’t believe how good these sound.”Pocket Lint’s Mike Lowe liked them as well and noted that “… they’re slim enough not to get in the way and at 16 grams, are air-light too. The headband design helps them stay in position when moving around – not the usual constant pushing the earbuds in and out as they pop out under movement.”As part of her sports headphone roundup for The Guardian’s The Running Blog, Jessica Aldred reviewed the 685i Sports and said that they offered great quality sound and safety while running, stating that “…the most impressive thing about these headphones is the sound quality – the best of all the headphones I tried. Powerful, with no distortion and a good, thumpy bass.”And while they haven’t been reviewed extensively online by regular folks looking for a good set of headphones to work out, what few posted reviews there are for them there are at Apple and Amazon both speak well of the headphones.
The CompetitionMonster’s iSport Intensity earbuds provided slightly better situational awareness than the OCX 685i Sports do, but they cost more, and sounded kind of muddy compared to the high quality sound that the Sennheiser headphones produced.Klipsch’s a5i Sport Headphones cost, which puts them over our limit. What’s more they couldn’t match the OCX 685i’s sound quality, situation awareness or comfort. I also found that they were difficult to put on, and while the headphones come with a clip to help you wrangle the headphone’s cord, it’s built onto the back of the a5i Sport’s inline controls. The clip position makes the controls feel kind of bulky, and if you don’t have anything to clip them to, they band around a lot.The Yurbuds Focus Pro cost less than the OCX 685i Sports do. They washable and sweat resistant and I didn’t have any problems with them staying in my head, no matter what activity I undertook.
Like the OCX 685i Sports, the Focus Pro come with inline controls and a microphone to use with a smartphone. But unlike the Sennheiser headphones, the Yurbuds offered some of the most disappointing audio quality of any of the headphones I tested. There was simply too much bass and not nearly enough of everything else. The situational awareness they offered troubled me as well. With my iPhone 5 blasting away at 60% volume, I couldn’t hear much of what was going on around me.Jaybird’s BlueBuds X headphones more than the OCX 685i Sports! But they’re Bluetooth headphones, that kind of a premium is to be expected. They sound great, and provided a rich listening experience. But I found that the signal being sent from my iPhone 5 was interrupted on an intermittent basis, no matter where I wore the phone on my body or what environment I used them in. Interruptions to my music annoy me more than crappy sound quality does.
What’s more, they provided almost no situational awareness, and despite the fact that they shipped with multiple earbuds sizes and a number of different rubber fins designed to keep the speakers in your ears, I couldn’t find any combination that offered me a satisfactory fit. I was adjusting them constantly as I ran.Too expensive, too flimsyBose SIE2i Sport HeadphonesThese sound great, but aren’t very durable and lack situational awareness. They’re also. Pass.Bose’s SIE2i Sport headphones, but you can get them without an inline microphone or MP3 player controls. No matter which of the two sets you opt to buy, you’ll get a bundled armband case sized to fit an iPhone 4s with it. So that’s cool (so long as you own an iPhone 4s.) The SIE2i’s had the best sound out of all of the headphones I tested, but their situational awareness was lackluster at best, and while they still worked after my dunk and stress tests, I was surprised at how poorly the rubber casing that covers the headphone’s wiring held up. So no thanks.
Philips’ ActionFit headphones only, making them by far the cheapest headphones I ended up testing, but they sounded awful, and failed to survive my stress and dunk tests. You could argue that you could almost buy four pairs of ActionFit headphones for the cost of one set of OCX 685i Sports. But I’d rather own a single, comfortable pair of durable headphones that sound great instead of four sets that’ll crap out on you and make my music sound like it’s being played through quicksand.The Same goes for Sony’s XBA-S65. They cost. And while I found their ear loops to be comfortable, they didn’t do a great job of keeping the earphones in my ears while I was working out, so what’s the point? Also, while cheaper than the OCX 685i are, they don’t come with inline controls, sounded almost as poorly as the Philips ActionFit did. Then again, as they failed to survive my dunk test, it doesn’t matter how good the XBA-S65 sounded.I really do think Sennheiser’s OCX 685i Sports headphones are your best bet when it comes to finding a set of headphones that’ll stand up to the abuse of your workout, and sound great doing it.An Alternative to HeadphonesWaterproof and compactSony 4GB Waterproof Walkman Sports MP3 PlayerThese Sony headphones have a built in MP3 player and are completely waterproof so you can use them while swimming. They can also get you a full hour’s worth of battery life from a quick 3 minute charge
Let’s say you don’t already own an MP3 player or maybe you’re not interested in taking your smartphone with you when you work out. You might want to take a look at Sony’s NWZ-W273PNK Sports MP3 Player. It’s not available to buy just yet, but Sony sent me one to try out after it made its debut at CES.When they’re available later this spring, they’ll cost you. Considering you’re getting an MP3 player and the means to listen to the music you put on it all in one package, that’s not a bad deal. By comparison, the a pair of OCX 685i Sports and a 2 GB iPod shuffle would cost around the same price, but you’d be getting less for your money.For starters, the Sports MP3 Player IPX8 rated, which means they’re waterproof up to a depth of six feet. That’s huge if you’re a swimmer and find your lap after lap work out to be getting a little monotonous. To test Sony’s waterproof claim out, I took them swimming for 30 minutes, and then to clean the chlorine-rich pool water off of them, left them playing music submerged in water in my bathroom sink for 30 minutes. They still worked perfectly once when I went to retrieve them. They’re great in the shower too!
The Sports MP3 Player incorporates an MP3 player, battery and earbuds into a set of two pods that, like the PMX 685i Sports, are held together by loop worn around the back of the neck. Unlike the PMX 685i, the loop on the Sony Sports MP3 Player is made from soft rubber, so having the earphones pop out on you isn’t an issue.The Sports MP3 Player has 4GB of internal memory that you can drag and drop audio files from any Mac or PC computer into. Track selection, song shuffling, pause, play and volume are all controlled by toggle switches on the headset. At first, I had a difficult time trying to figure out which button did what, but after a while, using the interface becomes second nature, and the buttons are easy to landmark. So that you’re not just blindly hitting buttons, Sony’s built in audio cues to go along with whatever action you’ve requested.Sony’s Sports MP3 Player will give you eight hours worth of use from a full charge, which takes about three and a half hours to achieve. But, thanks to a quick charge feature built into the MP3 player, It’ll also give you an hour’s worth of use from a short three minute quick charge–a nice feature for anyone that forgets to plug their hardware in at the end of the day as often as I do.When I was testing them, I found that they didn’t provide the best situational awareness, but they did offer some great audio, with rich, thumping bass and clearly defined high and mid-range sound.As cool as these things are, there were a few flaws in their design that bothered me. For starters, they use a proprietary USB dock to charge. But this is kind of unavoidable, as in order to make them waterproof, Sony had to make the headphones a closed system that charges through a set of metal contacts plates, instead of a much smaller micro or mini USB port that I’d rather see. I have to admit, that the look kind of dorky too. They stick out from the side of your head more than a set of regular headphones would, but given the fact that there’s a MP3 player, battery and headphones stuffed into the NWZ-W273PNK’s casing, that’s to be expected.Finally, while they’re waterproof and worked great for me in the pool, as soon as amount of water gets into the silicon earbud covers, the volume of audio that you get out of the Sports MP3 Player becomes greatly diminished, no matter how high you turn it up. I had to suck the water out of the earbuds before I could hear what I was listening to again. But after that, it was business as usual.Still, despite these flaws, I think they’re a decent alternative to using your headphones and a smartphone or buying an MP3 player and headphones to use in the gym, especially considering the price. I’ve been using mine on a regular basis for close to three months with no problems. But that might not be everyone’s experience. I’ll update this piece with links to a few reviews for the Sports MP3 Player as soon as they become available.