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Denon AH-W150 Exercise Freak review: Wireless headphones for workouts

While in design they may resemble jumbo hearing aids and they're a little pricey, the $150 Denon Exercise Freak wireless headphones are among the better wireless sports headphones available.

David Carnoy Executive Editor / Reviews
Executive Editor David Carnoy has been a leading member of CNET's Reviews team since 2000. He covers the gamut of gadgets and is a notable reviewer of mobile accessories and portable audio products, including headphones and speakers. He's also an e-reader and e-publishing expert as well as the author of the novels Knife Music, The Big Exit and Lucidity. All the titles are available as Kindle, iBooks, Kobo e-books and audiobooks.
Expertise Headphones, Bluetooth speakers, mobile accessories, Apple, Sony, Bose, e-readers, Amazon, glasses, ski gear, iPhone cases, gaming accessories, sports tech, portable audio, interviews, audiophile gear, PC speakers Credentials
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David Carnoy
5 min read

I'm not sure when a company will truly perfect a pair of wireless sports headphones, but Denon's $149 Exercise Freak in-ear Bluetooth headphones get you about 80 percent of the way there. I found them comfortable to wear and, just as importantly, they fit securely and I had no trouble getting them in my ears. They also sound good for Bluetooth headphones, though just how good they sound will depend on how tight a seal you get.


Denon AH-W150 Exercise Freak

The Good

The <b>Denon AH-W150 Exercise Freak</b> in-ear Bluetooth headphones support wireless audio streaming from Bluetooth-enabled devices. They're sweatproof and relatively comfortable to wear, and offer decent sound for wireless headphones. They have a built-in microphone for cell phone calls, as well as transport and volume controls. The included carrying case is nice.

The Bad

They're fairly pricey and they won't fit everyone equally well (which can affect sound quality).

The Bottom Line

While in design they may resemble a pair of jumbo hearing aids, the Denon AH-W150 Exercise Freaks are among the better wireless sports headphones available.

The Exercise Freaks come in blue, yellow, and black, and as you might expect from sports headphones, Denon says they're sweatproof. I liked them, though they do have a few small drawbacks. First, they're a bit pricey (compared with some of their direct competitors, at least) at $149. Secondly, not everybody will like their design, which can come off looking a little too much like a pair of oversize hearing aids. But if you can live with those issues, the Freaks are some of the better wireless sports headphones I've tested.

Design and features
To put the Exercise Freaks on properly takes a bit longer than it takes to put on your typical pair of in-ear headphones. First, you have to hook each earpiece onto each ear, after which you guide the articulating ear pieces into your ear canal. It's a little bit of a process, but once you get everything lined up, the earphones fit very securely and really don't move at all now matter how much you shake your head.

The Exercise Freaks are designed to hook over the tops of your ears. Sarah Tew/CNET

As part of the design mix, there's also a patent-pending air cushion that the company says both mitigates "the centrifugal force of pressing a button to control music while jogging" and provides "ventilation in between the earpiece and your head." I'm not sure that it merits a patent, but hey, it serves as a dime-size bit of padding that seems to work as advertised.

According to Petro Shimonishi, Denon's senior global product manager for headphones, the company's designers paid special attention to the fit of the Freaks, recruiting close to 100 "frequent exercisers" to test early prototypes so that the final design would deliver the "most secure and lightweight fit."

The headphones in yellow. David Carnoy/CNET

The Plantronics BackBeat 903 sports Bluetooth headphones have a similar design, but the Denons are a little more comfortable to wear, sound better, and seem a little sturdier. That said, the BackBeat 903s are available online for just less than $50.

The Plantronics aren't considered noise-isolating headphones because the eartips' design allows some sound leakage. In contrast, you can go either way with the Exercise Freaks. If you want to maximize sound quality, you can jam the eartips into your ears and attempt to get a tight seal for better bass response. However, Denon reps said the Freaks weren't necessarily designed to have a tight seal because a lot of runners and bikers want to be able to hear ambient noise, namely traffic, for safety reasons. So you can wear them a little looser, with the eartips sitting in your ear canal but not jammed into it.

The reflective piece on the back of the cord.

Like virtually all stereo Bluetooth headphones, this one also has the requisite built-in microphone for making calls from virtually any Bluetooth-enabled smartphone. You can pause or play your music by pressing down on pressing the Pause/Play button on the right earpiece, where the volume control buttons also reside (they're a little small but you can operate them by feel without taking the headphones off). Press that Pause/Play button twice quickly, and you'll skip a track forward. Press it three times and you'll skip a track back.

To accept an incoming call, you press the Call/End answer button on the left earpiece. It worked just fine in my tests.

The included carrying case is well-designed. David Carnoy/CNET

As for other specs worth highlighting, this is a Bluetooth 3.0 device that has a built-in rechargeable battery rated to deliver up to 7 hours' use.

Like a lot of companies, Denon is touting a set of free companion apps, including the Denon Sport app, that allow you to track your workouts. I should also point out that the headphones ship with a very nice carrying case that's equipped with a detachable carabiner. To protect your investment, you'll want to keep the headphones in that case when you're not using them.

The sound quality of wireless Bluetooth headphones has improved over the years, but Bluetooth compression schemes often make your music sound less dynamic and clear. I can't say I was blown away by the sound quality of the Exercise Freaks, but I thought they sounded good for Bluetooth headphones, offering decent clarity and bass response so long as I got a tight seal. From a performance standpoint they were neck and neck with or even slightly better than the JayBird BlueBuds X, which cost around the same price, and overall I preferred their fit slightly more.

Bluetooth has a range of about 33 feet, so it's possible to stream audio from a Bluetooth-enabled device to the headphones at up to that distance (and sometimes even a little farther). But Bluetooth headphones are prone to the occasional dropout, and from time to time my music would very briefly cut out.

Using the Freaks as a phone headset, call quality was decent, though not great. I could hear fine, but in polling a few callers, the verdict was that my voice sounded slightly muffled.

The inner parts of the headphones each have a dime-size cushion. Sarah Tew/CNET

When judging sports headphones, one of the biggest things I look for is a comfortable, secure fit. Sound quality comes second, followed closely by durability, which is much harder to judge because I'm posting this review after using the headphones for only a couple of weeks. They held up fine after my handful of workouts on a treadmill, in which I varied my pace between 6- and 10-minute miles, working up a good sweat. However, I can't tell you how well they'll hold up after months of use.

As I said, the Exercise Freaks sound good for Bluetooth headphones. There are other competing models that cost less -- the aforementioned Plantronics BackBeat 903+, as well as certain JayBird models and the Arriva Leo. For people on a budget, those may be better choices.

The risk you run with these is that they're not the type of headphones that will offer a universally excellent fit and experience for everyone. And when you're spending $150 for a pair of headphones, you tend to have fairly high expectations. For some people, the Exercise Freaks will live up those expectations. But for others, they won't. So your safest bet is to buy them from a retailer or e-tailer that offers a good return policy, for these are headphones that you should ideally try out before totally committing to them.

Editor's note: This review was updated on 2/11/2014 to reflect new entries in the wireless sports headphones market. The design and features ratings dropped a point. The value rating remained the same despite a drop in price (you can now get these online for closer to $100).


Denon AH-W150 Exercise Freak

Score Breakdown

Design 8Features 8Sound 7Value 7