Running in big, chunky headphones gets a bad rap.
There’s no shortage of wireless earbuds on the market these days with some variant of “sport” or “fit” or “active” in the name that suggests durability and a high IPX rating, but for reasons unknown their over-ear brethren just don’t get the same consideration from manufacturers. Even in the process of requesting loaner headphones to write this guide, one press person confessed that my email “might be the first request for over-ear running headphones we’ve ever received.”
In fact, only one of the headphones I tested out for this guide was designed and marketed specifically for working out (and, getting ahead of myself, it was also one of the worst).
My preferred form of fitness (boxing) was closed down along with every other indoor gym for a good chunk of this year, and that got me pounding the pavement along with everyone else in Brooklyn. Across all fitness levels, what a sizable portion of the people also circling Prospect Park had in common was big, chunky over-ear headphones.
We, the big-headphone joggers of the world, exist. Whether it’s the pandemic minting new runners out of the homebound and bored or audio companies dropping the ball on a legitimate market, I can’t know for sure. But consider the myriad benefits of joining the Non-Denominational Church of the Over-Ear:
- Vastly superior sound quality
- A snug fit
- Rarely having to care about battery life
- Usually a little cheaper
- You can’t lose half of it down a storm drain
Wow, what unbeatable value™!!! Besides, my experience with earbuds so far has involved the little shits not fitting in my ears right, or else a drop of sweat gets between the rubber tip and my eardrum, a sensation I wish only on my enemies.
You are not my enemies. Perhaps soon you’ll even be fresh converts. Let’s get after it.
As mentioned, I reached out to a slew of manufacturers for this guide, with full disclosure that I’d be putting what were ostensibly non-fitness headphones through a torture test of distance runs. Some, understandably, declined. What I ended up with were the following models:
- Skullcandy Crusher Evo ($260)
- Audeze Mobius ($598)
- JVC HA-S35BT-B ($70)
- Jabra Elite 85h ($299)
- Sennheiser HD 450BT ($212)
- Edifier W860NB ($190)
- Harman Sport Wireless Train ($300)
I gave each of these a week to test for sound, fit, durability, and functionality. A few unexpected and unfortunate motifs also presented themselves, like nonsense button layouts, unnecessary attempts to integrate digital assistants, and nags to download a standalone app. Please stop doing this. It sucks.
While primarily I tested these for running, they would likely fare just as well for light aerobic activity, calisthenics, or weightlifting. Sprints or other explosive workouts are something of a crapshoot with headphones of any kind (in my experience anyway).
The Best-Sounding Over-Ear Headphones
One of the great joys of running in full-sized headphones is being able to immerse yourself in a great playlist. A groove kicks in and without realising it you’ve finished your loop, or the big chorus punches through and gives you that burst of energy to beat your PR.
Without a doubt, Audeze’s $598 Mobius cans take the cake for sound quality. I really cannot stress that, despite being eight (8!!) times as expensive as JVC’s $70 offering, the clarity they provide is at least eight times better — that particular matchup being more than a little unfair though. The Mobius’s planar magnetic drivers have such incredible definition that for some songs I was hearing parts of the arrangement I’d never noticed before. Call me crazy, but compared not only to the other headphones in this bunch, but to all others I’ve used in my life thus far, the Mobius seemed to have a wider stereo image (how this was achieved I have no idea). They sound beautiful, and putting them on was like hearing some of my favourite songs for the first time all over again.
That said, it should not be surprising that the Mobius is pretty damn far from what you’d consider a runner’s headphone. They’re designed primarily for gaming, and lean heavily in their marketing copy on their ability to reproduce 3D space when plugged into a computer via USB. They come with a (thankfully) detachable microphone. The ear cups, which will see a lot more wear on the road than in a round of CoD, can be replaced without having to disassemble or junk these expensive cans.
They’re also, if it matters to you, the biggest and chunkiest of the big, chunky headphones, at around 350 grams. Mobius also clocks in with the worst battery life and the highest price tag. Unfortunately, for the vast majority of people — i.e. those not in the middle of the “runners/gamers” Venn diagram — these simply aren’t a sensible pick.
While Audeze came way ahead in sound quality and JVC lagged far, far behind, Jabra, Sennheiser, and Skullcandy were roughly comparable. (I found JBL and Edifier’s offerings a bit papery and thin, sonically speaking.)
Winner: Audeze Mobius
The Most Comfortable Over-Ear Headphones
For the most part, a pair of ear cups and an adjustable band is a hard design premise to mess up, though it’s worth mentioning that while the majority of these can fold up for easier travel, Audeze and JVC’s offerings don’t.
I found the ear cups on the Sennheiser rubbed against my temples. I spent some time wearing them around the house and walking to buy groceries to confirm it wasn’t something weird about my running cadence and, sadly, no. I’ll admit that might just be a personal issue and they may be a perfect fit for someone else.
Objectively, though, Harman’s Wireless Sport Train fails to deliver what it promises. The ear cups, rather than aligning with the band and parallel to one another, are canted forward at around a 10-degree angle. What this is intended to accomplish I’m not sure, but it makes for a poor and uncomfortable fit. It gets worse though. The Wireless Sport Train — which I’ll remind you is the only headphone on this list specifically marketed for fitness — boasts a “fast-drying fabric” designed by Under Armour for its ear cups. Six hours after coming home from running a 5K, the Wireless Sport Train’s cups were still noticeably wet. (Every other pair of headphones tested had cups lined with some form of faux leather which dried almost instantly.)
In any case, I found the other headphones all quite comfortable and capable of withstanding a workout — even the JVC’s, which despite sounding bad, looking bad, and feeling cheap, managed to stay on my head without causing discomfort.
Skullcandy’s Crusher Evo edged this one out slightly for me, but it may honestly come down to your own preference. Mileage may vary, but I didn’t find that they chafed or slipped, and they dried quickly enough that I could go straight from a workout to everyday use without issue.
Winner: Skullcandy Crusher Evo
The Best Designed Over-Ear Headphones
Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art
Graphic: Joanna Nelius/Gizmodo, In-House Art
We’ve repeatedly established that the headphones in this review are physically larger than most typical audio running products, which theoretically gives manufacturers more space to cram in features and doodads. I hope they had fun over-engineering their way into a worse product!
The fact is, wireless headphones need to only do a handful of things: turn on and off, increase or decrease their volume, pause whatever’s playing, and maybe, maybe skip tracks forward or backward. Anything else is not only extraneous but, during a demanding task (running comes to mind), results in confusion. I can feel six buttons…third from the bottom is volume, I think? No. Have exactly as many buttons as necessary. Make them ergonomically sensible. That’s all you need. Headphones were invented 110 years ago, how are we still struggling with this?
Jabra, a brand I generally love, loses points for slipping up on two fronts. First, there is no on/off switch. At all. According to the documentation (which you have to seek out on the Jabra website and isn’t anywhere in or on the packaging) the 85h turns on by rotating the earcups inward. Fussy, but not deal-breaking. Worse though, a pause button is supplanted by a sensor in the band which detects when you remove the 85hs from your head. Typically, I turn my volume down and slide one ear cup off if I need to hear something during a run — which, in many instances, triggered the band sensor anyway. (After which I had to artificially yank on the band to trick it into thinking I was putting the headphones back on, even though they’d never left my skull.)
Edifier also took a stab at overcomplicating things by combining volume, track-seeking, and play/pause into a wonky touch control surface on the side of the right earphone. Most actions requires the wearer to tap their finger at the centre of the right earcup and then slide it in a given direction (play/pause is a slideless double tap.) Sliding “upwards slowly” increases the volume, according to the manual, while sliding “left rapidly” skips to the previous track. There’s no separate function for rapid gestures up and down, or slow ones side to side. Half the time it seemed to not register at all.
Skullcandy managed to get it right. One ear has a power button, which stands a few millimetres proud of the outer case, is bright orange to help orient left/right when putting the headphones on, and is located exactly where a human thumb might land when gripped from below. Thoughtful design, imagine that! The other ear has just volume up and down (long-pressing either serves to seek forward or back), and a play/pause right in the middle of them. I never wasted a second wondering what I was pressing during a run, or if I had successfully turned my headphones off afterward.
Winner: Skullcandy Crusher Evo
I can’t believe it either, but it’s going to Skullcandy. I associated the brand with the gimmicky earbuds of the early 2000s, but hell, the Crusher Evo is a well-designed headphone that lands right in the middle of the price spectrum, and sports an impressive 40-hour battery life. It does not integrate with Siri. It does not require a fucking app (although, god help me, one exists). It simply produces very decent sound, at a very decent price, for a very long time.
They aren’t designed for running, but much like the Mobius, easily replaceable ear cups should extend the life of these guys if you’re sweating on them daily and (cleaning them less often than that).
Admittedly the “sensory bass” function is ridiculous — less of a bass boost and more of a rumble pack for your grey matter — but it’s also entirely optional. And dammit, the slider switch for it has a wonderfully smooth feel. I never consistently went above what its documentation describes as a “mellow” setting, and even then only for certain kinds of music that benefit from a subwoofery kick. Unlike other bass boosts, this one doesn’t seem to add an unbearable amount of distortion either.
Crusher Evo’s marketing doesn’t make any claims of water resistance that I could find, so a rain or snow jog might not be ideal if you’re into that sort of thing. I’m not, but can confirm they survive on the treadmill just fine.