As new runners take to the streets with their iPod nanos and their Nike+iPod Sport Kits, one thing may become quickly apparent: Apple’s white ear buds, which have always been fine for listening on the go, may not be the best choice for such vigorous outdoor activity. As I experienced my own set of problems during my first run with an iPod, I set off on a mission to find the perfect running headphones and I think I’ve come pretty close.
I’m no audiophile. I had always been perfectly happy with my white iPod earbuds. They fit comfortably, produced reasonably nice sound, and they were convenient to wrap up and stick in my pocket. I had tried a few other brands over the years, including Apple’s own in-ear model, but always returned to my buds. So it never really occurred to me to use anything else when I suited up for my first run with an iPod.
The first ting I noticed on that first run, was that my normal mode of wearing the earbuds was not quite as secure as I had thought. After only a few minutes, I was aware of them shifting in my ears, with one even falling out. Re-inserting the earbuds a little more firmly than normal solved this problem, but after fifteen minutes or so, I began to notice a dull throbbing in my ear from the pressure of the plastic, which was firmly wedged in. I was also noticing that the wind noise was now so much louder, that I had to increase the volume of my music to higher levels than I would like. After thirty minutes, the throbbing had become a dull pain and was completely distracting me from everything else. I pulled out the buds and finished my run in silence.
When I returned home, I did what any reasonable person would do these days: I went to Google to find out if others were experiencing the same difficulties, and what they did about it. I found that I wasn’t alone. In addition to the issues that I was experiencing, there were repots of sweat getting into the earbuds and causing them to die. One runner said he was on his fifth set. What wasn’t easy to find, however, was a consensus on what the best alternative is. It was time to do a little research.
My first step toward finding the perfect running headphones was to make a list of the qualities I was looking for:
2) Stable and secure
3) Sweat resistant
4) Wind resistant
6) Good sound quality.
Next, I read practically every headphone and earbud review I could find. I ended up ruling out standard earbuds, due to the sweat and wind issues, and also because it’s harder to find a perfect fit than with a traditional over-the-ear model. I also ruled out the in-ear type of earbuds, as they tend to block outside noise (Safety Tip: Be sure you can hear traffic and pedestrians around you) and amplify any friction against the cord, which can’t really be avoided when running.
Traditional headphones are somewhat out of style these days, with most manufacturers focusing on the in-ear styles. Of the brands I could find, many featured a full ear cup, or padded vinyl doughnut, which doesn’t seem like it would be too comfortable on a hot, sweaty day. They also tended to be bulkier and heavier than I had wanted. When all was said and done, I ended up with only two models to test on the road: The Koss KSC75, and the Sennheiser PX-100. Both models have small round foam pads that lay over the ear.
My first test was the Koss KSC75 ($20). This model features a “Sportclip” design that eliminates the need for a headband. Each pad is attached to a glasses-like earpiece that fits over the ear, holding the pad in place. This set also includes a small volume control midway down the cord, which I thought would be more convenient than fiddling with the iPod. But as soon as I put these on, I knew there would be trouble. The ear pieces are very loose fitting. They may be comfortable when sitting still, but even walking with these on produced a noticeable bounce. Another problem is that the weight of the volume control is noticeable. It pulls down slightly on the phones and increases their bouncing. It also tends to swing and bounce itself while you’re running. There’s no clip attached to the volume control, so it’s not convenient to clip it to your sleeve or collar. I ended up using a binder clip, which helped ease the volume control issues, but raised my dork level by a factor of ten. Also, the plastic surrounding the plug is quite thick, and may not fit through the hole of many iPod cases. One last issue (and I haven’t even run yet) was that if you wear glasses or sunglasses, you will have two earpieces over each ear, which is awkward.
During my run, the sound quality from the phones was actually quite good, rich and full without being boomy, but the constant bouncing and jiggling of the phones on my ears was distracting and ultimately intolerable. After fifteen minutes, I gave up. I’m not sure what type of sport Koss expects you to do with their Sportclip headphones, and I’m guessing that no one at the company ever bothered to figure that out.
Next up was the Sennheiser PX-100 ($37). These phones feature a more traditional headband, which is foldable, and has padding of the top of the head. Unlike the Koss, the PX-100s fit was comfortable and secure. The headband is adjustable and fit easily over my Nike running hat. They seem especially solid for being as lightweight as they are. The casing around the plug is smaller than the Koss, but still larger than the standard iPod earbuds plug. It would not fit through the hole in my iPod shuffle hard case, but I had no trouble with my iSkins and armbands. And, though the PX-100s come with a hard plastic case, trying to fit them back in the case may be more trouble than it’s worth.
Running with The PX-100s was a joy. The sound quality is very good, with possibly a little more emphasis on the bass than I would normally like, but overall clean and warm. The phones didn’t bounce or shift while running, yet never felt tight on my head. The foam pads didn’t create wind noise in my ears, and actually helped to protect my ears from the wind blowing off of the San Francisco Bay. I was able to keep my music at a comfortable volume, while still being able to hear traffic sounds and pedestrians around me. The only problem that you might experience with the Sennheisers is that under very hot conditions, your ears can get quite warm under the pads. On hot days, I just take them off for a few minutes during my run to let my ears breathe. The PX-100s come in white as well as black, but to my eyes, rather than matching the iPod’s styling, the white version just looks strange.
That’s really all of the testing I needed to do. I found my perfect running headphones and have been using them happily ever since.
Before the comments start rolling in, I realize that many people have no problems running with the standard iPod earbuds — I see them out on the street every day. I also realize that headphones can be a very personal choice, and what’s perfect for one person may not be acceptable to someone else. And lastly, I realize that there are hundreds of other headphones and earphones that I didn’t test. ‘ve only described my process of finding the perfect headphones with the hope that it might save others the time and money of unnecessary trial-and-error during their own searches. If you’re currently happy with another model of headphones, feel free to post it in the comments and let us know what about them works so well for you.