Running Headphones: The Ultimate Buying Guide

Running headphones come in a wide variety of styles and prices. With so many choices out there, it can be difficult to decide which ones suit your needs. The goal of this article is to help you understand the four most important things to consider when evaluating running headphones:

  1. What style is best for you? Headphones fall into four major categories: circumaural (over the ear), supra-aural (on top of the ear), ear buds (like the ones that came with your iPod), and in-ear monitors (like an earplug.) Before jumping into specific choices, think about which general style of headphones will work best for you.
    • Circumaural headphones are the type that completely surround the ear and are typically too big and heavy to be used while running. We’ll eliminate those from consideration right from the start.
    • The ear-buds that likely came with your player are generally not ideal for running. They fall out easily and the sound quality is usually poor. A better choice would be in-ear earphones specifically designed for athletic activity. These are similar to ear-buds but they have a behind-the-neck or over-the-ear band or clip to secure them. The quality and durability of this style varies greatly, so be sure to read the reviews.
    • Another good option is the in-ear variety of headphones often called “in-ear monitors” or IEMs. A good pair of IEMs will fit snugly and comfortably in your ear and also block out distracting ambient noise. Because they create a tight seal in your ear canal, the bass response of IEMs can be excellent.
    • Finally, we have the supra-aural or “on top of the ear” variety. (Although quality has improved over the years, these are the same basic style that came with your 1980s Walkman.) These headphones have a soft pad that goes over the ear, not in it. Many people find that supra-aural headphones are the most comfortable, but they may slip around while exercising. Also, the foam pads will get soaked with sweat. Still, there are some models that are great for running.
  2. What about sound quality? Sound quality can vary dramatically between different headphones, even if they are the same style. For some people, they are happy just to hear music and don’t focus much on the sound quality. However, if you take the time to try a good pair of headphones, you’ll find it difficult to go back to low-quality sound. If you’re like me, you’ll end up buying many sets of headphones seeking that perfect sound. While sound quality is important, if you mainly plan to use your headphones while running, you’ll obviously be focusing more on your running than on the details of the sound you are hearing. There are, however, some headphones that are great for exercise yet also wonderful to hear when you’re just relaxing at home. The bass response of the headphones is something you’ll want to pay particular attention to. For those who like rock, techno, hip-hop, or other bass-heavy music, good bass response is the difference between dynamic, exciting music that gets the blood pumping and boring, lifeless noise.
  3. Are they durable? Durability and build quality are big concerns if you are looking at headphones to wear while running or doing other exercises. Sweat, rubbing against your clothes, and being dumped in your gym bag all take a toll on your headphones. Check the reviews to see which headphones can take the abuse. Spending your hard earned money on a nice set of headphones is not worth it if they break after a month.
  4. What additional features do you need? More and more headphones are incorporating an in-line remote control and microphone for Apple iPhones, iPods, and other devices. These remotes can be great for changing the track and volume, or even taking a call without removing your device from your pocket. This can be a great convenience. On the other hand, if you are the type that prefers to start your playlist at the beginning of a run and not mess with it, this feature may be unnecessary.

Of course, some people will value comfort over sound quality, while others are willing to deal with a little discomfort if they’ve found a sound they really enjoy. Compromises have to be made in life, and headphones are no exception, so you’re unlikely to find a pair of headphones that is perfect in every category. By focusing on these four factors, however, you should be able to find something you really like in your price range.

A final word on running headphones: be cautious if you run in or near traffic. While headphones can be great for blocking out distractions, they may block out the sound of oncoming vehicles as well. If you are going to be running outside where there is traffic, I recommend opting for over the ear headphones with an open design that allows ambient sound to come through, rather than the in-ear IEM style that can block a substantial amount of outside sound. Good luck in your search!

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