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 Engadget wanted to round up the best wireless workout headphones, I raised my hand.
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 over-complicated 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 some fell short in key areas.
How we tested
Even if earbuds aren’t marketed specifically as workout headphones, a durable, water-resistant design will, by default, make them suitable for exercise. To avoid repeating myself throughout this guide, I’ll drop a quick primer here on durability, or ingression protection (IP), ratings. The first digit you’ll see after the “IP” refers to protection from dust and other potential intrusions. That spec is measured on a scale of 1 to 6. The second refers to water resistance or even waterproofing, in the best cases. Higher numbers mean more protection, while the letter “X” means the device is not rated for protection in that regard. The ratings for water resistance are ranked on a scale of 1 to 9.
All but one of the models we tested for this guide is rated IPX4. That means there’s no dust protection, and the buds can withstand splashes from any direction but probably shouldn't be submerged. The most durable set of earbuds we tested, Jabra’s Elite Active 4, is rated IP57, which means a high level of both dust and water protection. Whereas the IPX 4 models can handle splashes, the Elite Active 4 can be immersed for up to 30 minutes in up to a meter (or about 3.2 feet) of water.
For a detailed breakdown of all the possible permutations, I recommend checking out this guide published by a supplier called The Enclosure Company.
Earbuds we tested
Beats Powerbeats Pro
Beats Fit Pro
Jabra Elite Active 4
Anker Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro
Active noise cancelation
For the 2022 update to this guide, I decided to add a note up top about active noise cancelation (ANC), simply because most of the available models now offer it. And since the user experience is actually pretty similar across different brands, I thought it would be easier to share what they have in common, rather than repeat myself.
First of all, no noise cancellation is perfect. If you’re looking for earbuds that you can continue wearing even after you’re done working out, you might still hear some background noise, whether it be your robot vacuum or cars honking. The difference in quality with ANC enabled is undeniable; just don’t take these companies’ marketing claims too literally. Besides, I don’t recommend active noise cancellation while exercising outdoors; it’s not safe. And even if you are working out indoors, I still think a noise cancellation horse race is probably beside the point for the purpose of this guide.
The best all-purpose option: Jabra Elite 4 Active
What you get: A stylish, compact pair of wireless earbuds with a lightweight charging case to match.
Pros: Reasonably priced for the feature set; sleek, compact design; one of the lightest charging cases we tested (and some of the longest battery life); more durable than most; active noise cancelation, a transparency mode and customizable equalizer; works with Spotify Tap on Android.
Cons: Onboard controls aren’t intuitive, but Jabra offers helpful instructions in its app; less comfortable after prolonged use than other brands.
Much like the Elite Active 75t we tested in 2020, the newer Elite Active 4 earbuds ($120) make a strong first impression, with a compact, stylish design and a lightweight charging case to match. Available in three colors, the earbuds aren’t just small and light, but they look especially sleek given that they don’t have any wingtips. Though they felt comfortable when I first put them in, my ears did feel a little sore by the end of a run.
Meanwhile, the 37.5-gram case is also among the lightest we tested, but still offers some of the longest battery life, promising a total of 28 hours. (Each individual earbud on its own is rated for seven hours. Jabra says you can return to an hour’s worth of juice after a 10-minute charge.)
In my testing, the earbuds were easy to insert and pair. Less easy is learning how to use the things. As you might expect, you press the right earbud once to stop and resume playback. You can also double-press the right bud to skip a track, and triple press it to play it again. But some of the other onboard controls are less obvious. To increase the volume, hold down the right earbud for a second; to lower it, long press the left earbud. Meanwhile, single-pressing the left earbud allows you to toggle between active noise cancelation, HearThrough mode, or neither. Lastly, double press the left bud to use a voice assistant.
The good news is, you don’t have to commit all those finger gestures to memory: Jabra’s Sound+ App for iOS and Android contains a helpful illustrated tutorial, which I recommend keeping open on your phone as you get settled in with your new earbuds.
I mastered the controls quickly enough, but the physical buttons on the earbuds require a little more pressure and coordination to get an accurate press in. I found myself waiting until I had slowed to a walk before I started fiddling with the tracks. Even then, I needed to be very deliberate to make sure I got it right. And usually I did. That said, given there’s no physical volume rocker, I did wish there were an aural cue confirming I had moved the volume up or down a notch; the progression from louder to softer (or vice versa) is very subtle.
After a roughly 35-minute run the battery was still at 90 percent – a similar showing to what I saw on the Beats Fit Pro, also featured in this guide. Like the Elite Active 75t I tested previously, the Elite 4 Active uses Jabra’s HearThrough technology. With that enabled, I could hear cars along my running route, though on an especially windy day the gusts drowned out softer noises like footsteps behind me. That’s despite the earbuds having four built-in mics with what Jabra calls a “mesh covering” for added wind noise reduction.
Although I tested the Elite 4 Active on an iPhone 12, the earbuds have some additional features on Android, including support for Spotify Tap, which resumes where you last left off listening to your Spotify account on any device. Android users also get support for Alexa and Google’s Fast Pair tech.
While I recommend the Elite 4 Active for most people, it’s also worth quickly mentioning the $180 Elite 7 Active, which adds Jabra’s ShakeGrip technology for what the company claims is a more secure fit. You also get slightly better battery life – eight hours per bud, or 30 hours with the case – and even faster charging (an hour of playback after a five-minute charge). Lastly, choosing the Elite 7 Active over the Elite 4 Active gives you the option of either Google Assistant or Alexa, as well as voice guidance. However, you’d be giving up call controls, which you do get on the Elite 4 Active.
The most comfortable option: Beats Powerbeats Pro
What you get: A comfortable, behind-the-ear hook design that’s easy to use and is deeply integrated with iOS.
Pros: Comfortable, stable fit; pairs seamlessly with iOS devices; intuitive 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; relatively heavy charging case; no active noise cancelation, transparency mode or customizable EQ; speaking to an assistant is slightly less convenient if it’s not Siri.
For the purposes of this guide I tested two pairs of Beats headphones: the $200 Beats Fit Pro earbuds, and the $200 Powerbeats Pro, earbuds with an over-the-ear hook design. I’ll start with the Powerbeats Pro, which I like better for exercising.
Other than being slightly conspicuous, the Powerbeats Pro comes in four colors and fits comfortably, though it doesn’t play as nicely with glasses and face masks as more compact in-ear designs. Compared to the other earbuds I tested, though, I felt especially confident the Powerbeats Pro would stay put during workouts.
Like Apple’s newest AirPods, the Powerbeats Pro use Apple’s H1 chip, which allows for particularly deep integration when you pair the earbuds with an Apple-made device. In addition to a fast, seamless pairing process, you can activate Siri by saying “Hey Siri,” without having to press a button. You can also share audio with other AirPods or Beats headphones, and can enjoy automatic switching between Apple devices.
For better and worse, the integration is so complete, in fact, that there’s no companion app; instead you check the earbuds’ and cases’ battery via other methods, such as a homescreen widget or by asking Siri.
The earbuds themselves are rated for nine hours of use, which is 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 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 AirPods or Apple’s old-school 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 was also grateful for the mirroring of controls between the left and right earbuds — both left- and right-handed people should be happy.
Having tested other wireless earbuds that either lack onboard volume controls, or make it tedious, I have come to particularly appreciate the Powerbeats Pro’s onboard volume rockers – one for each earbud. I don’t know of any other workout earbuds that make it easier to adjust the volume, not even the Beats Fit Pro.
While it’s nice to have easier volume access, the audio experience is otherwise basic. There is no active noise cancellation or transparency mode. Not a dealbreaker for workouts, but something to consider if your goal is to get one pair of earbuds you can wear for everything.
Other features include support for voice assistants (yes, Google and Amazon too), but only Siri can be summoned by a voice command. 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 an ear open to what’s going on around you.
Honorable mention: Beats Fit Pro
What you get: Many of the benefits of the Powerbeats Pro, with a more discreet design, a lighter charging case and the addition of ANC.
Pros: Comfortable, stable fit; pairs easily with iOS devices; compact, lightweight charging case; adds ANC and transparency modes, which the Powerbeats Pro lacks.
Cons: A smaller design than the Powerbeats Pro means shorter battery life and the loss of a physical volume rocker; no customizable EQ.
One of my main complaints about the Powerbeats Pro is that they don’t fit as well if you’re wearing sunglasses (or, in pandemic times a mask). This is where the Beats Fit Pro have the advantage: Their discreet design that promises to stay out of the way and safe even during sweaty workouts.
Available in four colors, the buds are easy to insert and comfortable to wear – just twist the bud to fold the wingtip into your upper ear. And, because the earbuds are smaller than the Powerbeats Pro, the case is markedly lighter and more compact (55g versus 80g on the Pro). Between the lightweight case and the less dorky design, the Beats Fit Pro make a strong case for themselves as earbuds you can wear not just during workouts, but everywhere.
Because the Beats Fit Pro were released more recently than the Powerbeats Pro, they have active noise cancellation, a feature older Powerbeats and AirPods products are lacking. At the same time, Apple built in a transparency mode – ideal for runners like me who would feel safer if they could still hear ambient cues like footsteps and car horns. Lastly, it supports Apple’s Spatial Audio format for a more immersive sound and will automatically kick in if you’re playing a compatible track.
For working out, the audio is fine. But if you can only afford one pair of earbuds, my colleague Billy Steele indicated in his review that the sound quality is mediocre. He found calls could be patchy and, as he notes, Beats is one of the few brands that doesn’t offer users a customizable EQ.
Out of the box, the earbuds are set to active noise cancellation. There are two ways to adjust this: You can hold down the physical button on either earbud to cycle through audio profiles. Or, you can find the earbuds in your Bluetooth settings menu and click further to see a more detailed menu of options. Not only can you adjust the mode there, but you can also change what those physical buttons do. By default, they’re for toggling audio profiles, but you can also set them up so that one earbud controls volume up, and the other volume down. Personally, I preferred having the option of adjusting the volume from my earbuds mid-workout; it’s easy to just pick an audio mode before your run and stick with it.
Other than the slightly limited volume controls, the Beats Fit Pro works much like other Beats- and Apple-branded headphones. Press the physical button once to play or pause tracks; double press to skip forward; and triple press to replay a track. For anyone upgrading from an older pair of Beats or Apple earbuds, the transition should be easy. My only word of caution is that I found the physical button on the Beats Fit Pro harder to find by feel, as it’s smaller and less indented than the button on the Powerbeats Pro.
Apple rates the Beats Fit Pro for six hours of listening time per earbud, plus an additional 18 hours from the USB-C charging case. You can also wear just one bud if you like, to squeeze out even more runtime. In my testing, the battery on the buds dropped down to 89 percent after a 35-minute run. Extrapolate that, and the math comes close to Apple’s six-hours-per-bud claim. If you’ve managed to completely exhaust both the earbud and case, Apple says its “Fast Fuel” feature will get you back to one hour of use after five minutes of charging, the same claim Jabra makes for the comparably priced Elite Active 7. (Note: Apple’s one-hour estimate assumes you won’t be using ANC.)
Under the hood, the earbuds have the same Apple-made H1 chip as the Powerbeats Pro and Apple’s newer AirPods, allowing for hands-free “Hey Siri,” audio sharing with other AirPods or Beats headphones, and automatic switching between devices. The headphones also work with the Find My app, even on Android.
The best budget workout earbuds: Sony WF-C500
What you get: Reasonably priced earbuds that prioritize a light design and good audio quality.
Pros: Lightweight; reasonably priced; support for Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format; the earbuds themselves claim relatively long battery life; customizable EQ; supports Google Fast Pair.
Cons: No ANC or transparency mode; slightly trickier to pair on iOS than other earbuds we tested; the charging case has lower capacity than competing models; they have a larger, more bulbous design than others we tested (but are no less comfortable).
With the $100 WF-C500 earbuds, Sony is really emphasizing the small design: The earbuds themselves weigh 5.46 grams, while the charging case is 35g. That would be the lightest case we tested, and nearly the lightest pair of earbuds, barring the much pricier Elite Active 7. It’s worth noting that a lighter charging case means shorter case battery life (a relatively low 20 hours). Even then, the earbuds themselves offer some of the longest battery life of the bunch: 10 hours per bud. If you do run low on charge, you can get back up to an hour’s worth of capacity in 10 minutes, Sony says.
The earbuds, available in four colors, were larger than I was expecting given their light weight, but they’re easy to insert and fit comfortably. They are slightly trickier to pair on iOS than other buds I tested for this guide, though Android users will benefit from support for Google Fast Pair.
By default, a robotic voice will tell you the earbuds’ battery charge as you’re putting them in. I found this useful, though it meant that there was a delay in getting to hear whatever I had been listening to. You can always disable voice guidance in Sony’s Headphones app if that bothers you.
The truth is, I rarely had range anxiety with these headphones anyway: Unlike other earbuds, which took a roughly 10 percent hit after my usual 35-minute run, these were still at 100 percent. It’s unlikely I’ll ever wear out both the buds and charging case before getting to a wall charger.
The controls were also easy to master without having to consult Sony’s companion app. On the right earbud, press once to play or pause audio playback, or to answer or end a call. Double press to skip tracks, and triple press to go to the previous song. Long-pressing the right earbud launches or cancels a voice assistant. You can also long press to decline a call. On the left earbud, some of the controls are mirrored: you can press once to receive/end a call, and long-press to reject it. The left bud is also where the volume controls live: press once to raise it, and hold the button down to lower it.
As one of the cheaper options in this guide, the WF-C500 are the only ones without active noise cancellation. Which to me, isn’t a dealbreaker. The eartips already do a good enough job passively blocking noise, to the point where I was startled when a group of runners ran up from behind in the park and passed me. If anything, I wished the earbuds had a transparency mode that would allow more ambient noise through. Fortunately I could still hear louder noises like nearby traffic.
The lack of ANC aside, the audio quality is quite good – which makes sense, given Sony’s heritage in audio and home theater gear. Like other models listed here (barring Beats, anyway), you can adjust the EQ in the companion app. And, as you might expect, the earbuds support Sony’s 360 Reality Audio format, which is similar to Apple’s spatial tech, which in turn is built on the Dolby Atmos format.
The most customizable: Anker Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro
What you get: Comfortable ANC earbuds with long battery life and customizable controls.
Pros: The only buds we tested with wireless charging; long battery life, especially on the charging case; active noise cancelation, a transparency mode and customizable equalizer; lots of options for setting up the controls to your liking.
Cons: Larger and a little harder to insert than competing models; touch-sensitive controls can be finicky; worse sound quality than the competition; in-app battery indicator doesn’t give you a percentage.
The $170 Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro earbuds are available in four colors, and carry a big emphasis on ergonomic fit. That includes air-filled wings, silicone ear tips (similar to other brands) and a promise of air-pressure relief, per Anker. The earbuds don’t come with the eartips or wingtips attached, which adds some friction to the setup process but, on the plus side, you get a choice of four ear tip sizes, compared with three from most other headphone makers. Inside the Soundcore app you’ll find a fit test, but I actually ended up with a more comfortable fit by just following my gut. But it’s certainly worth playing around with.
The Liberty 3 Pro is right up there with the Sony CF-500 in terms of being some of the larger earbuds I tested for this guide. That said, they fit comfortably and stay put. I will say, however, that these were consistently harder to insert than some other brands I tested, even after I’d had a bit of practice.
When I originally published this guide, in September 2020, I ruled out Anker’s $55 Soundcore Spirit Dot 2 earbuds on account of their fussy touch controls and the fact that you couldn’t adjust the volume from the buds themselves. I’m happy to report that the situation has improved – mostly. First, the bad news: The controls are still finicky, and especially difficult to get right while moving. But, they do offer volume control. (Thank goodness.) The controls are also programmable inside the Soundcore app. So you can at least customize the long press and single, double and triple taps in a way that feels intuitive. In addition to music and volume playback, you can also use the controls to toggle audio modes or to activate a voice assistant (Google or Alexa).
Just as you can modify the earbud controls, you have options as far as sound quality, too. There are ANC and transparency modes, along with a “normal” setting in between. Also, like Sony and Jabra, Anker allows you to customize the EQ from within the app. Interestingly, wind reduction is a feature you have to actively opt into. Anker says this is because the wind reducing mode dings ANC performance, and since it’s unlikely people will often find themselves in strong winds, it may as well not be turned on by default. Later this year, Anker will push out a software update that will add “enhanced vocal mode,” which promises to increase vocal pickup in the area around you, according to an Anker spokesperson.
Additionally, Anker touts three mics per earbud, along with AI noise reduction. I can’t prove that there’s a connection here, but I did notice they sounded a little tinnier compared with other headphones. Sometimes, some random buzz even crept in. It’s hard to know if that slight distortion is a result of the AI doing its work, but I wonder.
As for battery life, the Soundcore Liberty 3 Pro has the distinction of being the only earbuds we tested for this guide with a case that can charge wirelessly. The buds themselves are rated for eight hours apiece, or 32 hours with the case, making this the longest-lasting charging case we tested for this story. Anker also says that you can return to three hours of capacity after 15 minutes of charging. After a 35-minute run, the battery indicator in the app showed a mostly full charge, though unfortunately Anker doesn’t give you a percentage.