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Best workout headphones in 2021: Apple, Beats, Sony, Bose and more compared

An assortment of the best headphones for working out and running.

After trying out plenty of sports headphones and wireless headphones over the years, I've found that some models are far better suited for workouts than others. The best workout headphones should be wireless -- and ideally, true wireless earbuds -- to avoid wired headphones getting in the way of your stride.

More importantly, they should give you a secure and comfortable fit, whether they're over-ear headphones with a squishy earcup or wireless in-earbuds. After all, losing one earbud during your run is the worst. Decent sound quality is also essential, as are durability, reliable performance (with minimal dropouts), battery life and noise cancellation (as well as hear-through or transparency modes). And lastly, they need to be sweat-resistant, if not fully waterproof, for obvious reasons. While Apple doesn't claim water resistance for its standard AirPods, those particular earbuds do make the list because we've found them to handle sweat reasonably well.

After many outdoor runs and gym sessions, I've formed strong opinions on which are the best workout headphones. To share my hard-earned knowledge of headphones with great sound, I've put together a selection of wireless gym headphones I've tested that I think are well-suited to become your go-to exercise headphones. I've included all kinds of headphones on this list, so if you're partial to earbuds with an ear hook or a bone conduction headphone that allows ambient noise to come through, there are options. After all, the best workout earphone is the earphone that motivates you to get out and get moving. I'll update this list as I review more of them.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

Both Bose's QuietComfort Earbuds and Sport Earbuds make good workout headphones, thanks to their StayHear Max tips and secure fit, but the Sport Earbuds are more compact and lighter and also more affordable (the QuietComfort Earbuds do have excellent active noise canceling, however).

They have the same IPX4 splash-resistant rating as the QuietComfort Earbuds, are equipped with Bluetooth 5.1 (my connection was rock solid) and share a similar design aesthetic, with three color options available. Unlike their step-up sibling, they have no active noise canceling and an hour less of battery life -- five hours instead of six -- as well as no wireless charging. While they do stick out from your ears, they're noticeably smaller and lighter than the QuietComfort Earbuds and their case is about 30% to 40% smaller. The case still isn't as small as the cases for such competitors as the AirPods Pro, Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus, Galaxy Buds Live and Jabra Elite 75t. But it feels reasonably compact.

Read our Bose Sport Earbuds review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX7 rating -- fully waterproof and sweat-proof).

One of our top picks for runners, the Jaybird Vista is a good set of true wireless sports earbuds that lock in your ears and are fully waterproof. It's been out a while, so it's due for an upgrade and frequently is discounted (so look for it on sale). Read our Jaybird Vista review

Read our Jaybird Vista review.

 

Angela Lang/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

While they're not advertised as sports earbuds, the AirPods Pro are very good truly wireless headphones for running. That's largely due to their winning lightweight design and fit, improved bass performance, effective noise cancellation and excellent call quality. While I can't run with the standard AirPods (those in-ear headphones don't fit my ears securely), I had no trouble running with the AirPods Pro, which have a noise-isolating design with a silicone tip that sits snugly in your ear. That said, I got an even more secure fit by using a pair of Comply foam ear tips ($25).

For runners, it's worth noting that there's a transparency mode that allows sound to leak in. You'll still have to lower the volume of your music to hear the sound of traffic noise. The AirPods Pro are also officially rated as being sweat-resistant.

Read our Apple AirPods Pro review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX8 rating -- fully waterproof).

The E90 earbuds have stems like the AirPods but they're truncated, nipped a little closer to the bud, so to speak, giving them a different look. For around $25 to $30, depending on what instant discount coupon Amazon is offering, you'll be hard-pressed to do better for sound quality. The E90 model sounds quite decent for the money, with plenty of bass and reasonably good detail. The sound profile leans to the warmer side, meaning they're more bass-heavy. The 'buds fit my ears comfortable and securely -- I had no trouble running with them -- and they have an IPX8 water-resistance rating, making them fully waterproof. Battery life is rated at 8 hours if you play them at 50% volume.

While they don't have active noise canceling, they do have noise reduction for voice calling. They're not quite there with the AirPods Pro in the voice-calling department, but callers said I sounded pretty clear and the earbuds did reduce background noise, so they get a thumbs-up for voice-calling capabilities. The touch controls were fairly responsive -- you can raise and lower volume with a tap and hold gesture.

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating -- can withstand a sustained spray of water).

We had the cheaper EarFun Free on this list, but the newer and more feature-rich EarFun Free Pro buds are the ones I'm using more for sporting activity these days. They have active noise cancellation with a transparency mode, wireless charging and Bluetooth 5.2. Rated for 7 hours of battery life without the noise-canceling function on, or about 6 hours with it on, they're IPX5 water-resistant, which means they can withstand a sustained spray of water.

They sound good for the money, with relatively clean, balanced sound and bass that has some kick to it -- they're pretty open-sounding. Lightweight and comfortable to wear, they have little fins that help keep them securely in your ears, and they look fairly discreet.

Don't expect them to cancel noise as well as the AirPods Pro, but they do provide some decent muffling. It's worth noting that you can use either the left or right earbud independently and there's a low-latency mode for video watching (and presumably gaming). Call quality was decent, too: Callers said they heard some background noise but it wasn't intrusive and they could hear my voice well. The touch controls were responsive. 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP67 rating -- can withstand immersion in 1 meter of water for 30 minutes).

The AfterShokz bone conduction wireless headphones deliver sound to your ear through your cheekbones. The big benefit of this technology is that, thanks to its open design, you can hear what's going on around you while listening to music or having a phone conversation through the wireless headphones. That openness allows runners to hear traffic sound, an important safety feature for sport headphones. Also, some race coordinators don't allow runners to wear anything in their ears, which is where over-ear headphones like this come in handy, particularly for people who need to listen to music while they run.

Aeropex ($160) over-ear headphones, which AfterShokz describes as its "lightest, highest-quality headphones yet," were released in 2019. From my initial testing, sound quality in this pair of headphones is definitely better than the company's previous flagship model, the Trekz Air -- or the Air, as it's now called. It's also slightly more comfortable to wear with a comfortable fit. However, while AfterShokz continues to make small improvements to performance with each new iteration of its wireless headphones, the sound quality still can't match that of traditional headphones.

Read our AfterShokz Aeropex first take.

 

Water-resistantYes (IPX2 rating -- sweat-resistant and protects against light splashes).

Say what you will about the Samsung Galaxy Buds Live's bean-shaped design, but they might just be the most innovative new true wireless earbuds of the year. Like the standard AirPods, they have an open design -- you don't jam an ear tip into your ear -- and they're quite comfortable to wear and fit my ears more securely than the AirPods. These wireless buds are discreet and basically sit flush with your ear, which reduces wind-noise while biking. I regularly use them for running and biking, and they're great for sporting activities if they fit your ears well, but one warning: Some people won't get a secure fit, so buy them from a retailer that has a good return policy.

They deliver good sound and work well as a headset for making calls, with good background noise reduction so callers can hear you clearly even when you're in noisier environments. While they feature active noise canceling, it's mild compared to the noise canceling in earbuds that have a noise-isolating design. In other words, buy them for their design and sound, not their noise-canceling features.

Read our Samsung Galaxy Buds Live review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

Yes, the Beats Powerbeats Pro's jumbo charging case is a notable drawback. But the combination of incorporating all the features that make Apple's AirPods great while delivering richer sound quality and better battery life in a wireless workout earbuds design that won't fall out of your ear (seriously, ear hooks for the win!) ultimately is a winning proposition for earbuds for running. Just make sure you buy these running earbuds somewhere that has a good return policy in case you're in the small minority that has ears that aren't quite a match for the buds. Note that these headphones are frequently reduced from $250 to $170 (and sometimes less for certain colors) -- don't pay more than that if you're buying them.

Read our Beats Powerbeats Pro review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 splashproof).

Sony's WF-1000XM3 is considered one of the best sets of true wireless noise-canceling earbuds (it's soon be replaced by the WF-1000XM4). But to the dismay of some people, it lacked any sort of water resistance, making it unsuitable for sports. It took a while, but now we finally have a new true wireless noise-canceling sports model from Sony: the WF-SP800N. It often sells for less for $100 in certain colors.

This isn't quite the WF-1000XM3 with a water-resistant body. It's missing Sony's QN1e processor, but there's still a lot to like about it, including very good sound, solid noise canceling and good call quality. It's definitely a nice upgrade over the WF-SP700N, which came out in 2018, and its "arcs" (sports fins) lock the buds in your ears. Just make sure you get a tight seal from one of the included ear tips, or else both the sound and noise canceling will be lackluster.

Read our Sony WF-SP800N review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

Anker's Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro ($130), the company's first earbuds to feature active noise canceling, are mostly an excellent set of true-wireless earbuds that measure up pretty well against Apple's AirPods Pro for significantly less money.

While I had an issue with the included ear tips and had to use some other tips (it's crucial to get a tight seal or both noise canceling and sound quality will suffer), they should fit most people comfortably. Sound quality is better than Anker's earlier Liberty Air 2 and the noise canceling is effective. These also work well as a headset for making calls and are available in multiple color options. Read our Anker Soundcore Liberty Air 2 Pro review.

Bose

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

The Bose Frames is one of those products you have to try to fully appreciate -- or dismiss. The concept is you're getting a decent pair of sunglasses with a pair of headphones that don't actually go in your ears. Rather, integrated micro speakers in each arm direct a beam of sound to your ears. That design could be appealing to people who don't like having headphones in or on their ears and also offers a degree of safety for runners and bikers who want their ears open to the world.

Bose has updated its line of audio sunglasses with three new models, including the Tempo sports model, which offers better sound and battery life than the more traditional-looking Tenor and Soprano. The Tempo has better specs all-around, with USB-C charging and larger 22mm drivers. It also delivers up to eight hours of battery life.

Their sound is definitely improved from the original Frames. Bose says the Tempo plays "deeper and louder -- loud enough for cycling at 25 mph -- while still able to hear traffic and your training partners." They're sweat-, weather-, scratch- and shatter-resistant, according to Bose and fit under most protective helmets. (I had no problem using them with a couple of bike helmets.) They also work really well for making calls, thanks to a new dual-microphone system. Optional lenses are available for $39 and you can order prescription lenses through Lensabl. Read our Bose Frames review.

Read our Bose Frames review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

As far as headphones go, Bose's Sport Open Earbuds are pretty funky. Not to be confused with the company's more traditional in-ear Sport Earbuds and QuietComfort Earbuds, they feature an open design without a tip, meaning the earpiece sits on top of your ear and doesn't penetrate your ear canal. 

Geared toward runners and bikers who want their ears open to the world for safety reasons -- or to people who don't like to have any sort of bud in their ears -- they sound surprisingly good. I ended up liking them, but their design isn't for everybody, and how comfortable you find them will determine how much you like them. 

Read our Bose Sport Open Earbuds review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX55 rating -- can withstand heavy sprays of water)

Some people, particularly weightlifters, like to work out in full-size headphones, and the BackBeat Fit 6100 over-the-ear wireless headphones are a solid choice for both the gym and everyday use. The adjustable sport-fit headband has an IPX5-rated water-resistant and sweat-proof design, 40mm angled drivers and noise-isolating earcups with an Awareness mode. Battery life is rated at 24 hours. They sound quite good and really stay on your head securely (you can adjust the tension in the headband, which is innovative and ideal for exercise headphones).

Alas, Plantronics has discontinued all their BackBeat headphones, but the good news is you can get them at a discount as they're being phased out.  

They list for $180, but Amazon currently has them for $79. They're available in black, camo and gray.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating -- can withstand heavy sprays of water).

While the Elite 75t has been out a while, it's still one of the best true wireless earbuds out there and recently added noise canceling via a firmware upgrade. Earlier firmware updates improved voice-calling performance. 

The Elite 75t earbuds aren't quite as comfortable to wear as the AirPods Pro, but they do sound better, with clearer overall sound and better bass audio quality definition, so long as you get a tight seal.

The slightly more rugged Elite Active 75t is also available for about $20 more, but with the new Elite 85t's arrival we are seeing some sales on the Elite 75t.

Read our Jabra Elite 75t review.

 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IP55 rating -- can withstand heavy sprays of water).

If you don't want to shell out $160 for AfterShokz's new Aeropex bone-conduction wireless headphones, the Trekz Air -- or Air, as it's now called -- retails for about $40 less. This pair of around-the-neck headphones does have some design and performance upgrades, but the sound from the AfterShokz Trekz Air is still good for bone-conduction headphones (again, beware that the sound doesn't measure up to that of traditional headphones).

Read our AfterShokz Trekz Air review.

 

David Carnoy/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX5 rating -- can withstand heavy sprays of water).

The EarFun Air distinguishes itself with a comfortable fit, decent noise canceling (though not great) and nicely balanced sound with good clarity and well-defined bass. They're smooth-sounding earbuds.

Voice calling is also above average -- noise reduction outdoors was decent and callers said they had no trouble hearing me (there's a light sidetone feature that allows you to hear your voice in the buds as you talk). Battery life is rated at up to seven hours with noise canceling on and these have an IPX5 rating, which means they're splashproof and I was able to run with them without a problem -- they do fit fairly securely.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantYes (IPX4 rating -- splashproof).

Companies like Under Armour (with the help of JBL) have released sporty on-ear models designed for people who want that type of secure-fit workout headphone that covers their ears. I personally prefer the over-ear Plantronics BackBeat Fit 6100 and this Adidas RPT-01, which I think looks and fits better than the Under Armour headphones. 

I found them comfortable for on-ear headphones (which tend not to be as comfortable as over-ear headphones), but those with larger heads may feel they clamp down a little too snugly on both your head and your ears. This set of headphones is sweat-resistant with an IPX4 certification. Also, the ear cushions and inner headband are removable and washable (there are instructions for how-to do this, but Adidas should do a how-to video). As far as I'm concerned, the more ways to combat sweat smells, the better, when it comes to exercise headphones.

These were designed by the same Swedish company that makes Urbanears headphones, and they sound quite decent, with well-balanced sound that doesn't push the bass too much. Although the UA headphones cost the same or more, they're expensive at $170. However, they've been on sale for as low as $100, so look for them at a discount. 

Sarah Tew/CNET

Water-resistantNo (Apple does not claim water resistance, but they handle sweat reasonably well)

If they fit your ears securely, Apple's AirPods are actually great workout headphones because the earbuds are so light and also have an open design, which allows you to hear the sound of traffic noise. Alas, I can't run with the standard AirPods (they fall out of my ears), only the more expensive AirPods Pro, but many people can. You can buy third-party wings (ear hooks) to make them fit securely, but you have to take the wings off every time you put the buds back in their charging case. That's a pain.

Note that Apple does not offer a water-resistance rating for the standard AirPods. They seem to withstand light sweat just fine -- and plenty of people use them at the gym and for running -- but it's unclear how much moisture they can withstand. 

You can pay extra for the model with the wireless charging case, but it's not really worth it -- spend up for the Pro models instead. Otherwise, the baseline 2019 model lists for $159, but it's often sold for $30-$40 less and has dipped to as low as $99. 

Read our AirPods (2019) review.

 

Further reading for headphone enthusiasts

More workout essentials