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By Lauren Dragan
If I were looking for a pair of headphones to use in my workout, I’d want the Relays by Sol Republic. They are hands down the most comfortable headphones to wear while being active. They sound good, stay put without chafing or tugging, are light and resistant to sweat, and have a lifetime of free tips (because you know those lil’ buggers love to get lost in a gym bag).
I base this conclusion after extensively testing 38 models. Our tests involved a professional listening panel, three stress tests, and real workout tests. After all that, I’m confident the Sol Republic are the best fit for your fitness routine.
Who’s this for / should I upgrade?
Exercise headphones are for people who want to run, hike, bike, or hit the gym while listening to music, podcasts, or other media. That means they should be able to withstand a variety of stressors like sweat, rain, strain from dropping media players, and abuse from being thrown in a bag. The headphones should also sound decent, feel good, stay put, and stay out of the way when you’re being active.
The Sol Republic Relays won because they were, hands down, the most comfortable headphones to wear while being active. What really solidified our choice was the run test. Where other headphones had cable noise, the Sol Relays were quiet. Where other headphones tugged and chafed our ears, the Relays were comfy and so light that one could easily forget they were being worn. Where other headphones took a while to get into the correct position, the Relays popped immediately into place. And after our punishing drop, crumple, and moisture tests, the Sol were still in perfect shape. You can trust that they are up to the abuse that fitness headphones face on the daily.
Also they sounded great to our listening panel of audio experts; and although there were other headphones that we liked the sound of better, not a single panelist disliked listening to the Relays.
Plus, Relays come with a fit-in-your-pocket small carrying case, have a one-year warranty, and if you register your Relays on Sol Republic’s website after purchase, Sol will send you free replacement tips whenever you ask. No more freaking out if one of your ear tips disappears in an errant roll across the gym floor. How handy is that?
Flaws but not dealbreakers
The Sol Relays are not the best sounding headphones in their price range and type. If you want the utmost best sound that $100 can buy, read our piece here on non-exercise headphones. But those headphones won’t take the brutal punishment that we dished out.
Wireless exercise headphones (for a price)
Why wireless headphones? Two words: No cord. But you knew that. What surprised me when I first started running with Bluetooth headphones was the way it affected my posture and stride. I never realized that I actually carried my head stiff and straight to avoid snagging the cord on my shirt or arm and popping the buds right out of my ears.
If you don’t mind charging your headphones once or twice a week, and spending $140 on headphones in exchange for cutting the cord (you get about 8 hours of use per charge), you can’t do better than the Jaybird Bluebud X.
They have fantastic bass, are light, stay put without chafing, and have a lifetime sweatproof warranty. I’ve personally recommended these to several people who have all have reported back that they are extremely happy. We like these a tiny bit better than the Sol Relays in terms of sound balance, but the need to charge, the extra cost, and the tricky setup meant they were just barely edged out as our top pick. Still, you can buy these with confidence.
Open ear and budget exercise headphones.
The SOL and Jaybirds are our picks, but if you want to spend a lot less, the Koss Fitclips go over your ears and cost about $16. They don’t sound anywhere as good as our main picks, but they’re also much, much less money. If you want to spend a little more and get a microphone for taking phone calls on your runs, the $42 Skullcandy Chops are our pick. Although you should be able to hear outside noise fine using these choices, for those who need a heightened sense of awareness of the outside world while they run, bike, or exercise, the inexpensive $20 Panasonic RP-HS34 headphones are our favorite budget-friendly unsealed set.
How did we test?
I started out by researching professional reviews from fitness journalists as well as pro audio writers, users, bloggers, and forums members. This eventually lead us to try out about 38 models, narrowed down from the original 75 models we considered.
I burned in every model and then turned them over to our expert panel for audio testing.
One of the tables full of sport headphones awaiting testing.
After I had the top-rated choices in those categories, I took to the track and ran half a mile with each pair of headphones. Then, to check durability, I connected each headphone to a portable speaker, held the headphones from where they would connect to your ear and dropped the speaker from a height several times to test the cord. Next, I put the headphones in their included cases or bags and shook, kicked, sat on, mashed, and smooshed the bag vigorously to simulate abuse in gym bags and workouts.
Because all of that wasn’t enough, I next tested water resistance. Each headphone was sprayed with a water-filled utility misting bottle, and then plugged in to see how they worked when sweated on. Yes, I endured 10 wet-willies for you.
After testing all those headphones in all the different ways that exercise headphones should be tested, it’s pretty clear to me that the SOL Republic Relays are the best headphones for most people. And for those who want wireless, open-ear, or budget picks, we have those recommendations covered as well.
This guide may have been updated. To see the current recommendation please go to The Wirecutter.com