June 06, 2019
Wireless earbuds are smaller and cheaper than ever, yet it’s tough to know what you’ll get from these tiny devices before you buy. To help you make the right choice, our editors tested 35 pairs for at least two weeks of running, cross-training, and commuting. These 20 models passed our tests, but some rose above the rest. Here’s what we looked for in excellent wireless earbuds for runners.
For the sake of making useful comparisons, we segmented our test pool into three categories: truly wireless; truly wireless with a hook over the ear; and wire-connected, which means there’s a wire or band connecting the two earbuds to each other. We also added a fourth category of cheap earbuds—under $50. Here’s what to expect from each type (click the links to skip to the reviews).
These buds have neither connecting wires nor hooks that extend around your ear; you just push them in and go. Being compact makes them lightweight, but their small batteries means shorter runtimes, although all of our test models came with charging cases that allow you to juice them up on-the-go. They also tend to be the most expensive. Examples include the Bose Soundsport Free and Jabra Elite Active 65t.
Adding a hook can improve an earbud’s fit, since there’s a second point of contact to hold the bud in place. The hook can also store antennae or a battery, helping these buds play longer than their truly wireless counterparts. They’re generally marginally cheaper than truly wireless models, but some cost more than $200 anyway. Examples include the Beats Powerbeats Pro, JBL Endurance Peak, and Plantronics BackBeat Fit 3100.
These earbuds are still untethered from your phone, but they use a connecting wire or band to connect the buds and store batteries, microphones, or an antenna. If you can get past the connecting wire, you’ll enjoy better battery life (8 or more hours, compared to 4 hours from truly wireless) and a significantly lower price.
To keep the playing field level, we asked for the same feedback from all of our testers, thinking about which qualities were important to us as runners who use these devices. Here’s how we evaluated:
Our staffers are not audiophiles, so evaluating sound quality is largely subjective. Still, we’ve all used earbuds before, so we asked our testers to compare to other earbuds they’ve tried and provide specific feedback on the way their test ’buds made their favorite songs and podcasts sound.
How an earbud fits affects how much outside sound it lets in, and there’s no ideal balance for everyone. Some runners like buds that fit deep in their ears and block all outside noise, allowing them to focus on the tunes, while others prefer lots of environmental sound from a looser fit. (The latter fit is safer for running outside and among other people.) So although we didn’t rank the earbuds by ambient sound, we did rank them based on whether they stayed in our testers’ ears.
And because isolating you from the outside world should lend a clearer sound, we expected better sound quality from earbuds that fit snug in the ear than we did from earbuds that let in a lot of noise. For the best of both worlds, some of the pricier models offer an ambient sound mode, which uses the device’s microphone to bring in outside noise while maintaining a tight fit.
We also asked testers to evaluate how quickly and easily the buds connected to their phones, and how far they were able to get from their phones before the signal cut out. And we recorded any mid-run connectivity issues.
In two weeks of testing, we encountered few quality issues, but we also asked our testers to discuss how the earbuds felt—you’d expect a $200 set of buds to feel premium compared to a $40 pair. For long-term quality assessment, we checked user reviews from Amazon and other retailers looking for persistent issues, and we’ll update our findings if any issues crop up as we continue to run with these models.
None of our testers had issues with water or sweat ruining their buds, but in a longer test scenario, moisture can and will destroy earbuds that aren’t capable of repelling it. So we factored in each device’s IP, or Ingress Protection, rating. The rating consists of two numbers. The first indicates dust protection, the second is for water protection. “X” in place of either number means there’s no data (so an “IPX” rating means dust protection wasn’t evaluated). The second number, for liquid ingress, is the one that matters most to runners.
A score of 1 or 2 means an earbud can withstand dripping water; Scores of 3 to 6 mean the buds will survive increasing amounts rainfall for longer periods of time. The gold standard is a score of 7 to 9, meaning the earbud can be submerged in varying depths of water without failing. Most earbuds in this test have an IP rating, and most ratings were IPX4 or above.
We checked manufacturer’s claims against our testers’ experience and noted discrepancies where they occurred.
We’ll continually update this roundup with our test impressions of the latest wireless earbuds for runners, and tell us what you think about your buds in the comments. For more of the best new gear for runners, see our Best New Running Tech Center.
These compact buds are more durable than ever
Jaybird’s new set of buds has two extra hours of run time over the popular Run XT. The Vista lasts six hours on a single charge, long enough to get you to the finish line of your next 26.2. They’ve also beefed up the durability, completely sealing the buds from moisture and dust—go ahead, try to kill these with sweat; we haven’t been able to. Jaybird also built its own Bluetooth chip, improving the connection with your phone. They’ve stuttered a little in the most challenging environments in NYC, but stay interruption-free far more regularly than the earlier Run XT. Bonus: They’re smaller than all but AirPods and have a pocketable case that stays closed in your gym bag.
A small package with high-end sound that stays put
Jabra’s Elite Active 65t is everything you want in truly wireless sport earbuds. Both of our testers found a secure fit with the three included sizes of silicone inserts, and Special Products Editor Kit Fox, a regular AirPods user, said the Jabra’s had the best sound quality of any wireless headphones he’d tried. The earbuds also topped BestProducts.com’s list of quality workout headphones. The bass isn’t as impressive as offerings from Bose and Sennheiser, but the buds still thump when you’ve established a tight seal and deliver a balanced sound across hip-hop, rock, folk (Fox’s second-favorite) and podcasts (his favorite). The lightweight buds didn’t move once our runs began, and the buds’ hear-through mode brings in ambient sound when necessary. However, the ambient sound quality still isn’t great when they’re sealed properly in your ears. Test Editor Dan Roe said he went down an insert size, losing some of the in-ear sound quality to gain ambient noise for outdoor running. The 5-hour battery life is enough for most runs, and the small charging case packs an additional 10 hours. Sound investment: Jabra’s warranty covers the earbuds for two years of dust and sweat damage.
Great fit and sound in a small package
These truly wireless buds are among the smallest and lightest we’ve tried. Slotted silicone ear fins compliment the ear tips to keep the buds in your ears (being lightweight also helps). After trying a few different sizes of ear tips and fins, our tester arrived at a fit that needed adjustment once a mile or so—better than we can say for many truly wireless buds. The volume and pause/play buttons on the buds are convenient, but are easily pressed by accident while perfecting the fit. Also, the case has a cloth cover that feels cheap. Those minor gripes aside, we enjoyed these buds during testing: The claimed 10-hour battery life seems to check out (we ran for a week between charges) and the sound quality is above average—not Bose quality, but balanced and powerful.
Reliable but won’t stay put without being jammed in ears
These truly wireless earbuds have all of the features you’d expect from competitors that cost $50 more: six hours of battery life (plus another 18 in the charging case), a Bluetooth 5.0 connection, and an IPX5 water resistance rating. But despite the four sizes of ear tips, our tester couldn’t find a comfortable fit that worked on the run. Making the buds fit snugly enough to stay put formed a seal that created a thud at every footstrike. The sound quality is average; usually, buds that seal in your ears sound full and bassy, but these sounded a bit hollow by comparison. The Be Free6 didn’t fit our tester well, but might work for different ear shapes—at $80, it’s decent value for the money.
Secure fit and clear sound
The most impressive thing about the TrueConnect is its long-lasting battery life. RHA says the buds last 5 hours and promise another 20 from the charging case. Over the course of our month-long testing, we used them on several runs, at home, walking around town, and even on a few 2-hour airplane rides, and we’ve yet to reach for the charging cable. The buds come with silicone and foam ear tips in sizes small, medium, and large. We found a very secure fit with the foam tips, unlike the silicone ones, which had a tendency to fall out. Unfortunately, the foam didn’t provide as much ambient road noise on our outdoor runs. Syncing the TrueConnect to our phone wasn’t always instantaneous; once connected, the audio never faltered, even when we were a couple rooms away from our phone. There was a thumping sound with each step when we walked but that largely disappeared when we picked up the pace. Aside from that, the sound was clear as we listened to a wide variety of genres, podcasts, and on phone calls (and people on the other end of the line had no issues hearing us).
Buy them if you prioritize sound above all else
The Momentum True Wireless is the most expensive option in our test. The sound lives up to the price: Of the three truly wireless earbuds he tested, Test Editor Dan Roe said the Momentum True Wireless beats out the Apple AirPods and Jabra Elite 65t in pure sound quality. Powerful 7mm drivers highlight thumping bass lines by 2Chainz and Young Thug while keeping the vocals crisp, and, for non-workout music, they tune out the world and unravel Esmé Patterson’s folksy guitar riffs like you’re at a live show. However, they don’t sound quite as good once they’ve wiggled slightly out of your ears—they don’t fall out easily, but you quickly lose the seal that makes the premium sound worthwhile. That means continuous adjustment if you care about excellent mid-run audio, and you’ll likely tap the touch controls in the process. We got less than 4 hours of battery life per charge, so they’re not ideal for marathoners. The IPX4 waterproof rating means they should withstand your training (as long as they don’t go through the wash), so the Momentum True Wireless is a reasonable investment for runners who care most about great sound.
Exceptional sound but inconsistent connectivity
If you’re going to pay $200 for anything Bose, it should first sound very good. The Soundsport Free delivers. “The sound quality is amazing,” said Video Producer Pat Heine. “Deep bass and crisp high tones. I mean, it’s Bose, not just a bass boost.” At 60 percent of his device’s highest volume setting, he could still hear nearby cars, so there’s a decent amount of ambient sound as long as you’re not blasting your tunes. However, the buds required continuous adjustment during runs, and the biggest mid-run gripe was connectivity for one tester. Heine said the earbuds would cut out when he moved his hand between his iPhone 6 and his ears, even with his phone in a pocket on his chest. Runner-in-Chief Jeff Dengate had no problems, however, when using a pair with his iPhone XS.
―BEST TRULY WIRELESS―
Big battery, expansive sound, stays put—near perfect
The Powerbeats Pro is the complete package—both well-rounded as wireless sport headphones and literally a large box that contains the earbuds and an additional 15 hours of juice. Not that you’re likely to need it; the buds last for 9 hours on a single charge. “The sound you get from the Powerbeats Pro is really expansive,” said Runner-in-Chief Jeff Dengate in his full review. “Every song sounds like you’re listening in a larger room, with speakers positioned away from you.” Ambient noise starts out minimal but increases as sweat causes the earbuds to lose some of their seal. The music gets a little hollower, but the awareness means you’ll pick up loud environmental noises like sirens and horns. Bluetooth pairing is immediate with an iPhone, and a 5-minute quick charge delivers 90 minutes of playback. They’re rated IPX4 so they’ll withstand a rainstorm (but not submersion), and despite their large appearance, the buds keep a low enough profile to be comfortable with a hat and sunglasses.
Comfortable with quality sound, but don’t expect to hear much else
After six runs and some in-office use, Art Director Erin Benner said she’d buy JBL’s Endurance Peak with her own money. Music sounded clear and balanced. Using the smallest ear tips, the buds stayed in her ears and the ear hooks didn’t ruin the fit of her sunglasses. On anything but low volume settings, ambient sound was minimal. And despite being larger than many similar headphones and bearing the “Endurance” moniker, they delivered just four hours of battery life—they didn’t become uncomfortable after hours of wear.
A safe balance of ambient noise and great sound
Features Director Matt Allyn used the Plantronics BackBeat Fit 3100 in Midtown, Manhattan traffic and on a serene Pennsylvania rail trail, and found their sound and awareness to work well for both areas. “On the rail trail, I could still make out the sounds of bird flapping nearby,” Allyn said. He also felt aware enough to Citibike around New York City wearing them, although they struggled with interference from other devices (most wireless buds we’ve tested have this problem). The buds hover over the ear canal, rather than fitting within it, and use the hooks to stay in place—they didn’t require adjustment once running. However, the hooks do make them less comfortable to wear with sunglasses.
Secure fit but lackluster sound
These headphones feature a convenient trick: Separating the magnetic buds activates them and connects them to your phone, and snapping them back together turns them off. The wing-shaped ear tips provide a steady fit; we didn’t have to adjust them whatsoever mid-run. They’re IPX6 water-resistant, so they should withstand typical running conditions, and the buds are light enough to stay comfortable on a long run (the bouncing wire and control panel eventually fade into the background, although they might annoy some runners). This is all good news for a $60 set of earbuds, but with sound quality, you get what you pay for: Music playback sounds tinny and hollow, so audiophiles need not apply.
Lightweight with lots of ambient sound
The Plantronics BackBeat FIT 2100 has been around for a while, so the originally $100 earbuds can be had for $50 to $70 on Amazon. At 26 grams, they’re ultra-lightweight, and the rubberized connecting wire hovers above the neck, eliminating the bounce. The ear tips sit just outside your ear canal—that pumps up ambient sound and lets you hear traffic, but prevents the sound quality from being as good as it could be. We haven’t had any issues with our test pair, although a worrisome number of Amazon reviews chronicle a hissing noise that develops after a couple months.
Heart rate feature is novel, but finicky in real-world use
The Cleer Edge Pulse has a feature not seen on most wireless earbuds: Heart rate monitoring. An infrared sensor in the left earbud senses your heart rate, and touching the right earbud tells you your current heart rate. In practice, the system is cumbersome: Our tester couldn’t get the left bud to detect his heart rate without a few minutes of repositioning before each run, and the heart rate data consistently lagged 10-15 BPM below the heart rate indicated by a chest-mounted Wahoo sensor. Apart from the heart rate feature, the Edge Pulse buds are decent: Sound isn’t special but an in-ear fit delivers decent audio quality, and an IPX5 water-resistance rating means they’ll last for running and gym use.
The ultimate headphones for urban running awareness
For road runners who aren’t comfortable jamming an earbud into their ear as cars whiz past, there’s the Aftershokz Trekz Air. These headphones use bone conduction technology to transfer sound through your cheekbones, leaving your ears open to hear potential hazards before they sneak up on you. Compared to in-ear designs from Jaybird and Bose, the sound is “admittedly thinner and quieter, but I find it totally suitable for the occasion,” said Dengate in his full review. The headband is lighter and slimmer than the previous model, which allows you to wear sunglasses with the headphones. A 6-hour battery life and a sweat-resistant IP55 rating puts the Trekz Air on-par with truly wireless buds of a similar price—you’re losing an in-ear headphone’s full sound but gaining total awareness.
Clear sound and a secure fit for less than competitors’ buds
The JBL Reflect Mini 2 has been around for a while, but a price drop to $70 (down from $100) makes them an attractive value proposition. But there’s a lot more to like than the reasonable price: The buds form a tight seal in your ears and don’t move after you’ve started to trot. The downside for outdoor runners is the lack of ambient sound, which also isolates your tunes from the outside world. Image Editor Jimmy Cavalieri also used them while mowing his lawn. “Although I could still hear my lawnmower, the earbuds blocked out enough engine noise that the quality of the audio still sounded good without having to max-out the volume,” he said. “The sound quality was clear enough that if you concentrate and really listen to the music, you can identify each instrument.” The connecting wire between the buds is lightweight and hardly noticeable mid-run, and the Reflect Mini 2 connected via Bluetooth fast and, outdoors, stayed connected up to 100 feet away. The earbuds also sport reflective cables for nighttime visibility, an IPX5 water-resistant rating, and an impressive 10 hours of battery life.
A comfortable, in-ear fit with excellent sound
The Bose Soundsport Wireless Headphones are among the best in this test because of their superior fit and impressive sound quality. Test Editor Bobby Lea quickly dialed in a comfortable fit so the buds didn’t come out mid-workout, despite the big speaker housing. The sound quality was as crisp and dynamic as you’d expect from Bose. The earbuds quickly connected to Lea’s iPhone 7 and stayed connected more than 100 feet away from it. The buds don’t let in much ambient sound. “They make you largely oblivious to the world around you, even at half volume,” Lea said. The Soundsport will give you a quality audio experience, just don’t let it ruin your awareness.
The ultrarunner’s choice for all-day audio
The Tarah Pro’s biggest selling point is its claimed 14-hour battery life. We got 12 to 14 hours during testing, but there’s more to like about these ultra-optimized earbuds. Our music sounded clear and crisp, with an even balance of bass and treble. After Gear & News Editor Drew Dawson mixed and matched insert sizes, he found a fit that didn’t irritate his ear canal. Ambient noise was minimal because of the in-ear fit—you might hear a diesel truck, but a Prius could sneak up on you if you’re not aware. He appreciated small, overlooked details like the cinch that keeps excess cord from bouncing around and the magnetic earbud backs, which snap the buds together when they’re around your neck so you don’t lose them on the trail.
Superb sound while stationary, but tough to maintain a perfect fit while running
Similar to their big brother, the Momentum True Wireless, the Sennheiser CX Sport sounds excellent when the fit is tight. “I’ve tested dozens of sport earphones and these are the best sounding ones I’ve used,” said Creative Director Jesse Southerland. “Slightly heavy on the bass, but not in a way that throws off the colorization of the mids and highs.” However, Southerland found the fit tough to dial in, and the sound quality suffered once the buds slipped loose. “They tended to not stay in when any minor tension was put on the cord,” he said. And unlike the Momentum, there’s no hear-through mode to artificially bring in outside noise, so you’ll want to keep a low volume to stay aware of your surroundings.
Get these handy budget buds while you still can
The Ink’d Wireless has recently been replaced by the Ink’d+, which introduces rapid charging and active voice assistant functions. We’ve yet to try the Ink’d+, but after seven months of testing its predecessor, Roe found the original worth a recommendation (especially considering the $35 sale price on Amazon). The 8-hour battery means they don’t require charging after every other run, and they’ve stood up to all the times he’s pulled them by the earbud from the depths of his gym bag. The sound and fit are decent, featuring Skullcandy’s characteristic, noise-blocking, in-ear fit and deep (if slightly muddy) bass. The tips at the ends of the band tend to bounce around on your collarbones if you don’t tuck them beneath your shirt collar, so the band will eventually fall off your neck if you’re not wearing a shirt—Roe used a string to tie the ends of the band together, fashioning a necklace that stayed in place while running. For that, they’re not perfect, but they’ve still shown us great quality and value.
Serviceable wireless buds for less than $40
The Anker Spirit SweatGuard didn’t excel at any one thing, but it did everything Assistant Digital Editor Jessica Coulon asked of it—for $33, that’s not bad. She liked the sound quality better than her wired Skullcandy earbuds, although Coulon said the Anker buds could have benefited from more bass. Once positioned in her ears, the buds mostly stayed in place, although the connecting cord would occasionally snag on her hair or clothing. At a third of total volume, ambient noise was minimal, so outdoor runners should be cautious while using them. An IPX7 waterproof rating and 8 hours of battery life round out the best budget buds we could find.
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