Not everyone uses headphones while riding, but for those of us who do, finding that perfect pair of ear buds that stay in place, allow for appropriate ambient noise to filter through and remain comfortable throughout the ride can be a long search. Here are five sets from brands big and small that had a pleasant tune while offering distinct pros and cons, making it likely there’s something here that’ll work for you whether you’re a roadie, a mountain biker or general fitness enthusiast that mixes cycling in with weights, Crossfit, running and more.
Along with the three wireless Bluetooth sets and two wired sets, I’m giving some kudos to Bud Straps, shown at bottom right in the pic above. They’re a simple, soft elasticized strap that clips on to wired ear buds so they dangle close at hand when not in use. I didn’t use them so much while riding, but at the gym or even at work, they keep the cord much more manageable. Honestly, when they first came in I thought they were silly, but now I use them all the time.
Dial past the break to hear about ear buds from Etymotic, Audio Technica, Qak, BlueAnt and Scosche…
My general likes, dislikes and basic features are shown with images for each. At bottom is a comparative ranking of key features like noise blocking, sound quality, comfort, etc. All are shown worn with a Kali Maraka helmet, which tends to sit a little low in the back and has a larger cranium retention mechanism than most.
BLUEANT PUMP HD
Of all the sets here, I’ve had these in the longest -more than a year- and they’re still going to strong. They also come with the largest array of ear bud tips and fitment pieces. I used the foam noise blocking ones, but the others are soft silicone in numerous sizes. They also have small in-ear loops, but those seemed completely pointless considering the around-the-ear design that makes them virtually impossible to come loose no matter how rambunctious you’re getting.
The two sides are larger than most, but since the weight is at your ears, they don’t jostle around. I didn’t have any issues with helmet fit, but sunglasses were an issue depending on the helmet and how the ends of the arms interact with the retention mech. Overall comfort is good for about an hour. Longer than that and the tips starting putting a bit of pressure on the front of my ears. If they were angle or position adjustable, that would go a long way to making a very good set of earphones great.
The payoff for the larger size is a long 8-hour battery life. They also have an IP67 waterproof rating, meaning heavy sweaters aren’t likely to destroy them, nor is getting caught in a downpour.
Like most Bluetooth sets, these have a built-in mic for hands free calls. They seemed to pick up my voice well enough in my office, it was hit or miss in a car, and not great in a noisy environment. Controls include: Play/Pause/Call, Volume.
I’ll keep this one short because it appears as though the brand’s out of business (they’re website’s gone missing), but if you’re the gambling type you can probably still find a pair online. Or, it’s worth reading if you’re looking at similarly designed units from Motorola or Plantronics. QAK Thump Blu is a one-piece wireless headset that wraps around the head. It’s a one size fits all proposition, so really small or really big heads may not like it. I think I’m normally proportioned, and it fit fine.
Despite a bulkier wrap-around than a wire would be to connect the two sides, it fit well with multiple helmets and stayed put while riding.
The downside to having the battery and electronics packed into the backside is that it bounces around a lot during any running or jumping activity, and when looking upward it tends to push itself into an uncomfortable position.
Controls include Play/Pause, Phone, FFWD/RWD, and Volume. The design is comfortable over the long haul, but creates a LOT of wind noise over 12 mph.
Lights indicate battery level and pairing, and the USB charging port is covered by a rubber flap.
SCOSCHE SPORTCLIP AIR
What started out as my least favorite set quickly became my top choice despite several shortcomings that make their off-bike performance somewhat lackluster. What I don’t like about the Scosche ones are that they’re worthless as a handsfree headset for phone calls, and the Bluetooth range is pretty bad. But none of that matters on the bike (just put your phone on the same side as the control box…seriously).
What I really like about them is that they weigh virtually nothing, stay put during crazy jumping around and rough riding, and the battery lasts quite a while (claimed 7 hours!) for being so small.
The tiny ear loops can be bent and shaped to keep them in place. I wasn’t nearly aggressive enough with them at first and got frustrated with them coming loose on my ear. But, once I really started bending and twisting, they stayed put and all but disappeared.
The cable loop has two small clips to pull up excess during sport, the idea being to let it dangle a little more for calls and put the mic closer to your mouth. It didn’t matter, no one could hear me on phone calls unless I physically held it close to my mouth, which defeats the purpose of “hands free”.
These use a soft rubbery ear tip that seals out most external noise, which brings with it this caveat: Even when using it only in my right ear for road riding, and at low volume levels, it hindered my ability to detect cars approaching from behind.
They’re IPX4 water-resistant, which means if you do run them in one ear and let the other end dangle inside the back of the jersey (as I often did), the sweat won’t affect them and they can be rinsed off afterward.
They retail for $99.99 at Scosche.com. Controls include Play/Pause/Call, and Volume/FFWD/RWD, and they come with a carrying bag and four different ear tip sizes.
AUDIO TECHNICA CXK5iS
This is the model we gave away in our reader survey (a new pair, not this exact pair!) and it’s a solid set of all-around ear phones. It comes with multiple sizes of both ear tips and ear wings to get the fit just right. With the cable running behind the helmet strap (or even looped around it once), they stayed in place well on both road and mountain. There were a few times they’d jostle loose, but certainly better than the stock earphones that come from Apple. And more comfortable, with good audio.
The wings help keep them stuck inside the ear, letting you run a smaller tip if you want more ambient noise coming through.
My biggest complaint with these is the mic is placed very low on the cord. When walking around talking, I had to hold it up near my mouth for people to hear me. If I left it dangling, they couldn’t hear me.
The big difference between these and the others is the volume is controlled by a slider rather than buttons. So, it’s easy to use with gloves on, but also easy over do in both directions. A single button handles Play/Pause/Call.
For cyclist, the fit was good. For running and jumping around, the weight and length of the cord kept pulling them out and whipping around too much. Time spent getting the right pairing of hooks and tips is time well spent to maximize comfort and retention.
Retail is $49.95 at AudioTechnica.com. They come in five colors and have a two-year warranty.
The Etymotic MK Isolators were offered up for review and I figured they’d make an interesting addition. Typically, we cyclists don’t want noise isolation so we can hear what’s going on around us. And, I kinda like having an inline mic so if I “need” to make or take a call, I can without digging out my phone. But these are ear phones only, there’s no mic. No volume adjust. No pause button. No controls of any kind. And you know what? That’s awfully refreshing.
Despite the name, the MK5’s didn’t completely block outside noise with these three-flange tips. With only the right side in use on the road, there’s still plenty of ambient noise. On the trail, where I usually ride with both sides in, I could still make out friendly greetings of passing cyclists. Conversations required removal or pausing the music, though. Foam tips are included for more noise isolation.
Despite no special shaping or design to hold them in the ears, they stayed in place even while mountain biking. Looping the cable behind the helmet straps helped, as did cinching up the slider on the left/right cables and using the shirt clip to give them a little slack on the back of the head. That prevented normal movement from slowly tugging the cable down and around, which otherwise did eventually pull them out of my ears.
They’re small, light and comfortable. The tradeoff is lack of depth to the music…even the latest Apple earbuds sound better. There’s virtually no bass. What makes them worth considering is that they stay in the ear much better and they’re more comfortable over the long term. And, honestly, when I’m out riding, I’m listening more for entertainment than sound quality.
The clip also comes in handy for managing the cable coming in and out of a hydration pack.
Retail is $59 at Etymotic.com, but use the code MK15TP and get 15% off in 2016.
- Comfort is long term, wearing for more than one hour at a time.
- Retention was tested on road and mountain bikes, and in the gym doing squats, lunges and 30″ box jumps.
- Wireless range was tested by leaving my phone in my house, walking through my courtyard and into the garage. Both the BlueAnt and QAK units carried the signal just inside the garage, but the Scosche dropped it halfway across the courtyard.
- Battery Data refers to the unit’s battery level appearing by the Bluetooth icon on the top of an iPhone’s screen when paired.
- Battery life was measured subjectively, with a good rating achieved if it lasted for a few workouts and a couple hours of use for calls or standby.
- Sound quality and bass are also measured subjectively. Frequency response is meaningless when competing against wind noise, ambient noise and your heart pounding, so this is simply my assessment of sound quality while in action. A good bass rating here is only in comparison to similarly athletic ear buds, not to a good set of over-the-ear cans.
As always, use common sense when wearing ear buds while riding, and check local laws. As of January 1, 2016, California limits use while riding to just one ear, and other states have their own rules.