The Best Sports Headphones

By Chris Mills on at

Summer is well and truly here, which means it's time to drag your body off the couch, away from Wotsits, and into those trainers stuffed down the back of your wardrobe. To help motivate, you'll probably want some music, so here's our pick for the very best sports headphones money will buy.

The Headphones

Our top-five shortlist all cost between £20-£50, as we reckon that's the Goldilocks amount of money to spend on sports headphones – enough that they don't sound rubbish and don't fall apart on the first sit-up, but sufficiently cheap that you won't think twice about chucking them in your gym bag.

They're also all earloop headphones, rather than neckband. Most companies make both earloop and neckloop versions of their sports headphones range, but after asking around athletes from a couple of different gyms and clubs, earloop versions seemed a lot more in demand. They're more versatile, don't get in the way when you're doing sit-ups or using a gym machine with a back-rest, and also look slightly better, meaning you can use earloop headphones for commuting, without getting too many weird looks.

Testing Methodology

There's a few key areas we focused on when testing: fit, sound quality, durability, and overall design. Testing the fit was just a matter of giving each pair to a couple of different gym-bunnies, and seeing what they liked best/stayed in after a vigorous head-shake.

Sound quality testing was a combination of personal listening on each set over the course of weeks, combined with a blind-listening test.

Durability testing was more fun. Sports headphones really need to be 'splash-proof', at the very least, so each pair got a full minute of being worn in the shower, with music being played. (Note: apologies to my house-mates for any bad sing-a-longs that may have occurred.)

Thanks to the wonders of a British spring, all of the headphones got at least one soaking in the great outdoors, as well. To check the build quality, I also stress-tested the headphone jack, by loading weights onto the end of a plugged-in cable, since the most common point of failure in headphones seems to be the jack.

Ultimately, though, the most important test is real-world use, so all the pairs got some hard use cycling, running, climbing, and a host of other sports, from myself and other, more athletic types.

Bestmodo: Sennheiser OCX 685

The best all-round pair of headphones, hands-down, are the Sennheisers. The design is pretty much the simplest of all the pairs on display, but it's still secure, and doesn't fall out involuntarily. More importantly, they're also hella comfortable, thanks to the simple fit; there's no annoying bits of plastic poking you, just the single rubber strand looping around the back. They're also simple to take on and off, which is more than can be said for some of the other pairs in the review.

The sound is good, if not amazing. They're more of a neutral, balanced headphone, whereas the consensus from everyone I loaned them to is that they could do with a little bit more bass. This probably has something to do with the kind of music that most people listen to when they're working out, namely something with a beat. Slight bass-weakness aside, though, the Sennheiser's sound is distortion-free and crisp in the highs and mids, with only a touch of muddiness in the bass.

Other plus points: the design looks pretty good. It's not an obnoxious hi-vis LOOK AT ME I DO SPORTS yellow, so you don't feel embarrassed to wear them on a commute, or in the office. They're also one of the few pairs of cheaper exercise headphones that has an in-line remote, which is a big plus point for switching songs on your run. And, the Sennheisers are durable: not only did they pass the stress-test and shower experience just fine, but also came out of an accidental swim in a washing machine just fine.

The only minor annoyances are the price -- £50, as of writing -- and the symmetrical cabling, which is less useful than the asymmetric cables that are becoming more and more common nowadays. [£50 from Amazon]

Cheapmodo: Philips SHQ3200

If £50 is a bit much for you, these stonking £17 Philips headphones offer about 90 per cent of the performance for a third of the price. They fit a lot like the Sennheisers, with just a single loop that goes around the back of your ear. Sadly, the loop is mostly plastic in the Philips, so they're not quite as comfy, but I still had no problem wearing them for hours on end, and none of my testers reported any complaints.

Sound-wise, the Philips are great for the price. Clarity and soundstage aren't amazing, but if you can get past the ever-so-slightly-muddy sound, they offer good response across the whole range, with enough bass for your thumping dubstep workout tracks.

One major difference to the Sennheisers is the noise isolation. Whereas the Sennheisers block out outside noise pretty well, the Philips let a lot of street sound in. That can be good or bad, depending on what you're doing. If you want to block out that testosterone-fuelled grunting in the gym, the Sennheisers are best. If, however, you're cycling to work, and you still want to be able to hear cars passing, the Philips win hands-down.

Durability and waterproofing didn't seem to be an issue, passing the stress-test and a particularly violent rainstorm without issue. The only major problem is that while the review pair that I had came in a rather fetching white, the pair that Philips sell in the UK are a slightly loud orange/black colour combo, which is about as subtle as a fluorescent mankini. [£16.50 from Amazon]

Bronze Medal: Sony MDR-AS400

Another decent pair at a decent price are the Sonys, which cost just shy of twenty quid, but out-perform most of the more expensive pairs in the review. They use a slightly more complicated fit system: the end of the cable going to the earbud forms an adjustable-sized loop, that you can put over your ear, then pull to tighten. It works great the first few times, but I found that after a month of heavy use, the loop would slip when it got sweaty, leading the headphones to fall out on occasion.

Again, the sound is good, if not great. There's a decent amount of bass, but overall the sound is more or less what you'd expect from earbuds that cost about a tenner: a bit tinny, with distortion at the high end and slightly muddy bass. That said, it does just fine for workout music; I just wouldn't use them on my commute.

The other features are all good. The design is a fairly classy all-black affair, with a remote, and a superb clip for attaching the headphones onto your clothing. If the sound and fit were just a little better, these could've snaffled second place.

Fourth Place: Pioneer SE-E721-K

On the plus side, the Pioneers are the best-sounding pair on test, with fantastic isolation and a good, all-round sound with deep bass and crisp mids.

On the downside, the fit is pretty terrible. The earloops are a fairly rigid plastic that means that if your ears don't conform exactly to how Pioneer thinks ears should be shaped like, you'll have a hell of a time getting these on. Inexplicably, the earbud also swivels, making fitting these a two-handed, two-minute job and no chance of shoving it back in if it falls out half-way round a run. They're also not particularly comfortable, thanks to a bit of plastic on the side of the earbud. [£37 from Amazon]

Fifth Place: Audio-Technica ATH-CKP200

The Audio Technicas fit a little better than the Pioneers, but what they gain there, they lose through the fairly terrible sound. They're tinny and distorted at the high end, and have no bass at all to speak of. Suffice to say, they actually got scored worse than Apple earbuds in our blind listening test, which I didn't realise was possible.

It's a shame, since most of the other features are actually pretty good: they've got an asymmetrical cable, which is good if you want to take one earbud out for a sec, and they're also the only pair to come with an adjustable-length cable: you can either have a short cable, which is perfect to run down to a phone in an armband, or you can tack the foot-long extension on if you need something a bit longer. [£30 from Amazon]