Wire-free earphones are the best thing to happen to running since rubber soles. Hit the track free of cables with the best true wireless earbuds for exercise.
It’s easy to see the allure of completely cable-free earphones for runners—it’s one less thing in the way, and especially on runs in hot weather, the absence of a neckband can be a blessing. But not all true wireless earbuds are made for running, and among the ones that are, some are better than others.
In such a young product category, it’s important to remember that the designs are improving at a rapid pace, but you’re still getting in early enough that some kinks are not yet totally ironed out. That said, there are already plenty of solid options we feel comfortable recommending.
We’ll walk through the various features and factors to consider when picking a truly wireless in-ear pair for running, and discuss some of our favorites here.
Withstanding Water and Sweat
If you’re going to wear true wireless in-ears for running or other exercise, some level of water resistance is crucial. IP ratings are becoming a more common inclusion on product spec pages and on the outside of boxes for headphones, so it’s important to understand what they actually mean.
Often, a product is listed as having a rating of, say, IPX7. That X is a placeholder, not something that stands for “extreme” or any other rugged superlatives. IP ratings follow a simple structure: The first number denotes the dust ingress rating on a scale of 0-6, and the second number denotes water protection on a scale of 0-8 (there are some higher degrees of IP protection for liquids, but they are rarely seen on consumer-level products).
So if a product is listed as IP56, it means that the dust ingress protection is rated at 5, and the water ingress protection is rated at 6. The X is a placeholder because, often, companies will simply not thoroughly test for dust ingress, but they know they’ve built a product sturdy enough to provide some basic level of protection from it. So rather than put a zero there, which would look bad, the X means the product likely has a degree of dust protection, but it wasn’t measured.
Furthermore, the numbers don’t necessarily correspond to some obvious system—a higher number does mean a higher level of protection, but each number is a new, very specific degree of protection. IPX5, for instance, means the product is protected from water projected from a certain-sized nozzle. IPX7 means the product can withstand being submerged up to a meter—this is typically the highest IP rating you’ll see.
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Most runners—except you ultra-marathoners doing desert runs—needn’t worry too much about dust protection ratings, but water and sweat resistance is crucial, so make sure you know the IP rating beforehand. Plenty of manufactures claim a product is “waterproof” when it actually has a low IP rating and can’t withstand any real water pressure.
Battery Life and Charging Cases
Battery life is definitely the glaring weakness of the true wireless category thus far. The best pairs can carry on for perhaps five to six hours on a full charge, and the worst last only three or even two hours. This is why charging cases, with docking areas and an internal battery that can carry several more full charges, is a critical part of true wireless design.
That said, I don’t see many runners carrying a charging case and docking earpieces for extra battery life on a long run. But this is also because—again, ultra-marathoners, this excludes you—most of these battery life ratings will be fine for runs. If you run a full marathon, there’s a chance your true wireless in-ears will last most of, if not the entire, race. If you run a half marathon, you almost certainly don’t need to worry about running out of juice. Of course, battery life relies heavily on volume levels, so one way to get a longer result is by listening at lower levels.
Let’s move on to something nearly all true wireless headphones are good at: staying in place. It’s critical that the earpieces are both lightweight and notably larger than earpieces for wired earphones. This larger contour will typically rest against various areas of the ear for added stability. Eartips that seal off the canal are also crucial for keeping the earpieces in place, and ensuring solid ear-to-ear audio balance and bass depth. That’s why models like Apple’s AirPods don’t make the cut for this list: They lack a secure in-ear fit.
Many sports-focused models include extra fit accessories like earfins, or even bands that wrap around the earpiece to increase its width slightly. Nearly all the materials involved are some form of rubber or silicone, which aids the secure fit.
Apps and Extra Features
This is the real wild card in this category. Some companion apps merely help you pair your earbuds with your phone, and some are loaded with extra features. The best app for our money is Jabra’s, which has excellent EQ and a host of features like an ambient Hear-Through mode, a pink noise option for concentration (which is perhaps less likely to be used while running, but still useful), and a motion sensor. The JayBird app also has a user-adjustable EQ, making its sound signature easy to take from bass-heavy to nearly flat response. It also features playlists from athletes, though the EQ is arguably the primary selling point.
There are also third party tie-ins in the app realm—the JBL UA True Wireless Flash earphones come with a year’s premium membership to MapMyRun, for instance. It’s also worth noting that this model has an ambient aware listening mode that is activated by tapping one of the on-ear controls, no app required. The Jabra Elite Sport, meanwhile, offer a built-in heart rate sensor and accelerometer to track fitness stats, which we found to be generally reliable in testing.
How Much Should You Pay?
Quality true wireless earphones aren’t cheap. While a solid pair of neckband-style Bluetooth headphones can be found for around $50 or so, the better true wireless options tend to cost anywhere from $100 to $200, with fewer pairs dipping below $100. We’ve tried to make this list as diverse as possible, so you can find a pair with a price and feature set that work for you.
Once you’ve found that perfect pair, make sure to check out our tips for taking care of your headphones and 8 ways you’re using your headphones wrong.