As some of you might know, I’m a runner. On occasion I review sports watches, and outside of work I’m a certified marathon coach. So when it became clear Engadget wanted to round up the best wireless workout headphones, I raised my hand. And the timing feels particularly appropriate. Until now I was still using wired buds (old habits die hard), and it happened that every pair I owned was on the fritz. But beyond that, there’s still a global pandemic going on, which means when I run through the streets of Brooklyn I wear a mask. Turns out, pulling a mask down to take a sip of water is kind of annoying when I’m using a wired set. Not something Engadget had to consider when it first started reviewing headphones.
Anyway, here I am, embracing wireless workout earbuds, learning to trust that they’ll stay put and that their batteries will last. In addition to fit and battery life, I considered factors such as style; ease of use; the charging case; the strength of the Bluetooth connection; support for assistants such as Siri and Alexa; water resistance ratings; and audio features such as noise cancelation and ambient sound modes. You’ll notice I don’t have much if anything to say about audio quality. Engadget’s resident expert Billy Steele has written about this plenty in his standalone reviews, which I’ve linked throughout, but for my purposes the differences were too subtle to make or break a purchasing decision.
In the end, I never quite mastered some of the complicated or overly sensitive touch controls, but at no point did an earbud fall out while I was exercising. I also never came close to running out of juice. So, participation trophies for everyone? Ha: The companies wish. I do indeed have some favorites, while one model failed to clear the bar. Here’s how my testing went. (And by the way, if you need a sports mask, this style from Athleta is my favorite, and on laundry day I resort to these.)
The best wireless workout earbuds: Jabra Active Elite 75t
What you get: Compact true wireless earbuds with a lightweight charging case to match.
Pros: Compact, stylish design; easy to pair; a compact case that offers some of the longest battery life; HearThrough tech does a good job balancing music with ambient sound; works with Siri, Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa.
Cons: Occasional interference over Bluetooth; controls are less intuitive (but the app offers a great tutorial).
Jabra’s Active Elite 75t makes a strong first impression, with a small, lightweight design, six color options, and one of the lightest, most compact charging cases I encountered despite my testing. As it happens, that case promises up to 28 hours, making it one of the longest-rated cases. If you somehow run out of juice, a quick-charge features get you an hour of use after 15 minutes of charging.
This was not only one of the most discreet styles I tried, but also one of the most comfortable. The 75t were easy to pair with my iPhone. As our own Billy Steele said in his review last year, the touch-sensitive onboard controls take some training, though to Jabra’s credit it offers a helpful visual tutorial in its Sound+ companion app. (As a bonus, the app also makes it easy to check on the earbuds’ and case’s battery life.) Though I mostly used the earbuds for controlling music playback and volume, you can also use it with Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa. You can also wear one earbud (the right one) if you’d rather keep an ear free.
During my runs, I found myself missing the sort of physical volume controls I enjoyed on Apple’s Powerbeats Pro. I also missed having a mirrored control layout; controlling music on the left side only can be cumbersome for right-handed people like me, especially while in motion. (Is this how lefties feel going through life?) On occasion, I also noticed some interference, even after installing a firmware update.
On the plus side, I appreciated Jabra’s HearThrough mode, which balances music with ambient sound. During runs through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, for instance, I could hear skateboarders rolling up behind me, even with a song playing. Sony offers a similar feature on its WF-SP800N earbuds, but I found Jabra’s version of the tech allowed me to hear goings-on at slightly farther distances, which made me feel safer. Billy was also generally a fan of the 75t’s sound, praising it in his review for its “much improved audio.”
As it happens, Jabra announced while this story was in progress that it will be updating the 75t next month with active noise cancelation. This is mostly a welcome upgrade, though you can expect a hit to battery life and Jabra says its most advanced noise canceling is still reserved for its upcoming headset, the Elite 85t.
Speaking of battery life, without the help of the case the earbuds are rated for seven and a half hours of use. That’s not as long as some other models like the Powerbeats Pro or Sony WF-SP800N, but it should be plenty for most shoppers. For reference, after one 35-minute run, the battery capacity was still at 100 percent.
The 75t meets IP57 waterproofing standards — one of the higher classifications of the earbuds featured in this story. Jabra is so confident in the 75t’s durability, in fact, that it’s offering a two-year warranty against dust and sweat.
The best option for iOS users: Powerbeats Pro
What you get: A comfortable, behind-the-ear hook design that’s easy to use and is deeply integrated with iOS devices.
Pros: Comfortable, stable fit; pairs easily with iOS devices; easy-to-use controls with mirrored access on the left and right sides; tied with Sony for the longest earbud battery life.
Cons: Ear-hook design isn’t the most discreet, and doesn’t fit so well with sunglasses; one of the heavier charging cases I encountered in my testing; speaking to an assistant is slightly less convenient if it’s not Siri.
For the purposes of this story I tested the $250 Powerbeats Pro, which takes the form of two discrete earbuds, each with an over-the-ear hook. (Apple also sells the $150 Powerbeats, which are connected by a cord that wraps around the back of your neck.) If you want a more discreet style, you’ll need to look elsewhere or take a chance with Apple’s less sporty AirPods.
Other than being slightly conspicuous, the Powerbeats Pro comes in a range of seven colors and fits comfortably. More than any of the other earbuds I tested for this story, I felt confident that the Powerbeats Pro would stay put during workouts. Like the other headphones featured here, these are water resistant — in this case, rated IPX4. That basically means they can withstand splashes from any direction, but don’t attempt to submerge them. For my purposes, that level of water resistance was enough for all of my sweaty summer runs.
Being an Apple product, the Powerbeats Pro sync particularly seamlessly with iOS devices. Just take them out of the included charging case and they automatically pair with your device. There’s no companion app for these; you can instead check the earbuds’ and cases’ battery percentage various other methods, such as a homescreen widget or by asking Siri.
The earbuds themselves are rated for nine hours of usage, which among the highest we’ve seen. The case is rated for a total of 24 hours of use, which isn’t bad, but given that it's not best in class you have to wonder why the case is quite as heavy as it is. (Heavy enough that my purse feels a little lighter without it.) iOS users won’t mind that the case charges via a Lightning cable and not USB-C, but others might be slightly put out.
If you’ve ever used Apple’s pack-in wired headphones, these should be pretty easy to master. Double-press the physical button on the earbud to skip tracks and triple-press it to go backward. I quickly came to love the physical key; it’s less finicky than a touch surface, I found. I also appreciated the mirroring of controls between the left and right earbuds — both left- and right-handed people should be happy.
Other features include support for voice assistants (yes, Google and Amazon too), but only Siri responds to voice commands (e.g., “Hey Siri”). You can also wear just one bud if you like (the right one) if all you need to do is talk on the phone, or if you want to keep one ear fully open to hear what’s going on around you.
The best option with active noise cancelation: Sony WF-SP800N
What you get: Sleek noise-canceling workout earbuds with advanced audio features that are fashionable enough to wear the rest of the day, too.
Pros: Compact design; tied with Beats for the longest earbud battery life; noise cancelation
Cons: Awkward fit; overly sensitive touch controls are especially tough to use mid-workout; volume controls not enabled by default; charging case feels bulky given how much battery life it offers versus the competition.
Sony’s WF-SP800N are as stylish as you’d expect a Sony product to be, with a compact design, glossy black finish and contoured edges. Unfortunately, the fit is as awkward as Billy Steele described them in his review earlier this year — this was the only earbud I dropped to the ground at any time. (It wasn’t while I was running.) At least the earbuds are comfortable once you can figure out how to get them in. In my experience, I had to be looking in a mirror to do it correctly.
The included case is also more compact than what Apple ships with the Powerbeats Pro, though there are no charging indicators. Jabra also still wins for smallest and lightest case. Given that the case “only” gets the headphones up to 18 hours (versus nine hours on the earbuds alone), I’m surprised it’s not even lighter. As for waterproofing, Sony says the WF-SP800N meet the IPI55 standard, which is similar to what competing models offer.
This is Sony we’re talking about, which means if nothing else, you can expect strong sound quality. Indeed, the WF-SP800N is one of the few with active noise cancellation. Sony in particular outdoes the competition with a smart feature called Adaptive Sound Control, which automatically adjusts the level of noise cancelation to match your activity (your options are Staying, Walking, Running or Transport). It can also switch based on location (if you give the app permission to track you).
Like other workout headphones, there’s also basically the opposite noise cancelling: what Sony calls “Ambient Sound Mode” for letting in surrounding noise. This feature worked just fine though as I said earlier, I found Jabra’s equivalent let me hear things happening slightly farther away. It’s harder to react to, say, a reckless cyclist if they’re already pretty close to me. If you mostly want to take calls, you can use just one earbud and, unlike other brands, Sony lets you use the right or left bud.
As much as Billy and I recommend the WF-SP800N as all-around good wireless earbuds at a decent price, their finicky touch controls stop them from being my favorite for running. The touch panel is overly sensitive with no option to adjust the sensitivity. Even more frustrating, there are no onboard volume controls out of the box; you can configure them, but you’ll be sacrificing other features, like Google Assistant, Alexa or Siri access.
The best budget option: JLab JBuds Air Sport
What you get: Affordable hooked-around-the-ear headphones offering competitive battery life and water resistance ratings for the price.
Pros: Extremely affordable; long battery life with the charging case; convenient LED indicators on the case; better water resistance than some pricer models.
Cons: Uglier than the competition; slightly harder to pair; touch-sensitive controls can be frustrating; limited Alexa support
The Air Sport has a chunky plastic over-the-ear design. It’s one of the less attractive options I tested, and also slightly less comfortable. To its credit, at least, it did stay put while I was running. If the fit isn’t to your liking, the headphones come with a mix of gel and foam tips.
The headphones come with a relatively large, heavy carrying case promising long battery life to match: up to 34 hours in total. (The earbuds themselves are rated for six hours, which is at the shorter end of the spectrum.) The case has a pop-out cable which is convenient, except for being a bit short, and there are also LED indicators on board to help you get a sense of how much battery life you have left.
In exchange for the lower price, you get a slightly more challenging setup experience. The Air Sport was the hardest to pair of the bunch. The onboard controls aren’t obvious how to use either, though the instructions on the packaging are impossible to miss. I never did get the hang of those controls, though, I have to say. It was too easy to activate an assistant when you’re just trying to lower the volume. Similarly, my attempts to pause tracks often resulted in me raising the volume instead. Though the Spirit Dot 2 works with all three major assistants — Siri, Google Assistant and Alexa — you can’t use Alexa until you activate the assistant through the Alexa app on your phone.
What the Air Sport lacks in design and user experience, it makes up for with the features you get for the money. The headset meets IP66 standards for waterproofing and offers a “Be Aware” feature that allows in ambient sound. Here too, you can use one earbud if you like. As with the other headsets, it’s going to be the right bud.
We also considered:
Anker Soundcore Spirit Dot 2
Anker’s lightweight Spirit Dot 2 earbuds fit comfortably and were easy to pair with my iPhone. They’re so compact, in fact, that I was initially worried they’d fall out, but they never did. Though the buds fit snugly out of the box, the package includes five ear tips and three pairs of “AirWings” for those who need to make adjustments. Additionally, the headphones meet IP7 water resistance standards and fared just fine during my sweaty runs. You can use the headphones to activate Siri and Google Assistant (but not Amazon Alexa).
The included charging case promises to boost the battery earbuds’ battery life from 5.5 hours to 16. Anker also promises the case can rebound to one hour’s worth of juice after just 10 minutes of charging. I appreciate that the case has LED indicator lights to help give you an idea at a glance as to how much juice you have left. The design critic in me, however, was less enthused about the case’s rubber pop-out charging door.
So far, so good — mostly. The dealbreaker for me is that you can’t adjust volume on the earbuds or go backward on audio tracks. Every other set of earbuds I tried could do these things, including our other budget option, the JLab JBuds Airsport. To the extent that you can skip tracks, I found that maneuver a little difficult to pull off mid-run.