Roundup Review: Wired & wireless sport earphones from Etymotic, Audio Technica, BlueAnt, QAK and Scosche

wired and bluetooth wireless sport headphones for athletes reviews

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

When these hit the market in 2014, they had a $129.99 MSRP, but the link from BlueAnt’s website to Amazon shows them branded as JAM for much, much less than that.

QAK THUMPBLU

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Lights indicate battery level and pairing, and the USB charging port is covered by a rubber flap.

SCOSCHE SPORTCLIP AIR

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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).

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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The wings help keep them stuck inside the ear, letting you run a smaller tip if you want more ambient noise coming through.

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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.

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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.

ETYMOTIC RESEARCH

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

COMPARATIVE RANKINGS

BlueAnt QAK Scosche Audio Technica Etymotic
Wind Noise norm lots min norm norm
Noise Blocking med. med. good mod mod
Wireless Range exclnt exclnt bad
Battery exclnt OK good
Battery Data yes no yes
Comfort 7/10 8/10 10/10 7/10 8/10
Retention 10/10 10/10 8/10 7/10 8/10
Sound Quality 10/10 10/10 9/10 10/10 6/10
Bass 10/10 10/10 7/10 10/10 5/10

TESTING NOTES

  • 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.

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21 Comments
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Dan E.
Dan E.
6 years ago

Wearing dual earbuds on a trail = inconsiderate at best. Illegal in California, and in many places will get you shoulder-blocked or ‘eased’ out of the way so you can continue in your own little world. If you’re going to go that route and ignore the sounds around you, be prepared to get treated likewise.

bikeman
bikeman
6 years ago
Reply to  Dan E.

Amen to that. Some of my rides (Northern California) take me through multi use trails. I slow down, ring my bell and call out “on your left”, but some of the walkers / joggers can’t hear because they have tunes cranked up – quite inconsiderate.

And on roads it it is not only illegal here, but downright dangerous. The human ability to be able to identify and localize sound (is that motorcycle or a big rig? is it coming up behind me?) is crucial for survival, especially when being vulnerable on a bicycle. I can see earbuds while biking might be ok is more isolated situations, but it is not advisable in most situations. Just my 2c.

Brian
Brian
6 years ago
Reply to  bikeman

I know there have been many comments how earbuds are dangerous but I just don’t get it. I wear open ear earbuds on the trail and can hear just fine. I can hear my own tires on the trail or someone coming up behind me. On the road, I wear silicon ear buds because they block out wind noise. The wind noise can be louder than the actual music. With the silicon earbuds, it is much quieter and I can still hear other riders and car tires coming up from behind.

Myke
Myke
6 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Just yesterday I was riding behind a runner on the trail that probably thought the samething! For nearly 1.5 minutes I was yelling on your left while coasting. I couldn’t take it any longer and finally passed in the safest way possible which was still pretty close. The guy looked at me like I was some ahole rider carelessly riding fast on the trail. There apples ear buds which he was wearing don’t isolate sound very well. He should of been able to hear me yelling at him. These featured headphones add more isolation but will do nothing for wind noise because that is caused from wind blowing over the body of the headphones. Those vibrations are transmitted into the headphone structure. Meaning your not getting rid of wind noise, your only masking it. Regardless they are a clear danger on the trail! Mountain Loins, Bobcats, snakes, cars and urban sounds etc all make warning signs for our ears. What makes riding with headphones a good idea?

mtnbikej
mtnbikej
6 years ago
Reply to  Brian

Because for every one rider like you, that states that they can hear others on the trail, there are handfulls of other riders that have the tunes turned up so loud, they can’t. Have experienced it in races, and riding my local trails alike. Seems to be more of an issue on heavy traffic trails. Out in less traveled trails, it doesn’t bother me so much, but is still highly highly inconsiderate to other trail users.

codevader
codevader
6 years ago

Are any of these waterproof? I’m looking for a pair to use while paddleboarding, where there’s a small chance they might get wet.

Andy
Andy
6 years ago

I really wish that someone would make a quality mono single earbud for cycling and running. It sure would make sense. As for tunes on trails, I don’t get it, but at least be aware that there are others on the trail.

Hobbanero
Hobbanero
6 years ago

I agree with bikeman and will just pile on the “headphones are not safe” message with a special bashing for hybrid cars, which, in my experience, are more dangerous than most. I can just barely hear the whine of the electric motor when they are behind me, and I know to be extra careful. Knowing what is coming up behind you is an important safety element in urban areas. And no, I will not wear a mirror on my glasses. On trails, you can hear bikes approaching in many cases (brake squeal, rider noises) before you see them.

notthatbrad
notthatbrad
6 years ago

You forgot to review the Plantronics BackBeat FIT. The BEST bluetooth buds on the market, I love mine. They fit like a dream, let in ambient sounds from traffic and the like, and are waterproof. Yes, waterproof! You can also easily wear them with the left bud hooked to your ear, but not in your ear….allowing for even more environmental sounds to be heard. Far better than any of these headsets you’ve reviewed here.

lensbiketravels
6 years ago

I tour all over the world by bike. I used to use earbuds when riding in remote rural areas but stopped when a pack of dogs came up on me from behind and I didn’t hear them. It was all I could do to outrun those dogs. Recently when I was at Interbike in Las Vegas this past Sept, I saw a small cylindrical speaker, bluetooth, SD card compatible, waterproof, that a Chinese company was promoting. Listened to it and bought it on the spot. It mounts by a nice rubber band that runs from one side under the handlebars and slides over the top of the other end of the speaker. Great volume, has track advance, stop, volume up/down buttons which are enlarged so that you can just feel them for speaker controls. Love it and will never use earbuds again.

Ben
Ben
6 years ago

I used to use a small Satechi brand speaker with an SD card as well, until it gave up the ghost after years of service. Unfortunately, they don’t manufacture it anymore. However, mine wasn’t waterproof, care to share the brand of your speaker?

As long as you don’t crank the music too loud, portable speakers seem like a good solution for having tunes on a ride while still being aware of one’s surroundings. I never used it on group rides though, mostly when I was on a long solo climb.

Mike
Mike
6 years ago

Could someone point out the research that links bike accidents with earphones? It anecdotally logical that here could be a connection, just wondering. Like how do the experts factor the headphones contribute to the causes of 75-80% of bike accidents?

Fred Barton
Fred Barton
6 years ago
Reply to  Mike

The Etymotic buds require a seal between earbud flange and ear canal, and without that seal will have no bass response. If you need earphones that give you ambient noise in measure equal to the music source into which the earphones are plugged, the Etymotic isn’t going to work for you. Their product information should have made this clear, the need to have a solid seal between bud and ear canal. Etymotic offers many different adaptors. Some are multi-flange units, some are pillow foam units, but the key is getting a good fit.

Loose fitting headphones/earphones that present an active bass note are fooling you with noise. Bass notes are more about vibration perception than they are about heard sound. An open-ear-canal phone can’t transmit those vibrations.

As to earphones causing accidents, it might be useful to understand what actually is causation. There’s a logical maxim in rhetoric, known as “Correlation is not causation.”

Petr Ugrovatov
6 years ago

Wired are all bullsh*t guys. It is very inconvenient when you try to look behind. And helmet straps on your photos making it even worse.
Best solution I’ve got is Sony SBH60, you may use anything similar.

Tim Watson
6 years ago

Pleased to see this review but I feel the new Jaybird X2 should have been included as anyone who googles best bluetooth headphones can see they feature prominently in the top independent review results.
I am however pleased the ridiculous Beats headphones were omitted.
How Dr Dre can get a seat at the Apple table after creating such a lacklustre product is beyond me.
Cyclists need over the ear designs and any headphone which doesn’t have a cable only designed to be used thus are pointless.
Say no neck dangling!
It’s unfortunate the author didn’t write any sound quality observations & I echo the view of others that headphones on the trail are wrong.
Mr Benedict is a top bloke nonetheless.

chasejj
chasejj
6 years ago

When I ride alone I ride with my Jaybird X2’s. I have never had an issue and enjoy the MTB trails and music mix.
You guys must be on super busy trails. It is just me and my dog out there for miles . Once in a while near the trailhead I cross paths with others and it just hasn’t been an issue.

AlaskaNeedsSnow
AlaskaNeedsSnow
6 years ago

The best (by design) headphones were called Air Drives. They actually sat in front of your ear on the tragus, not in the canal. They were the only head phone I would even consider wearing while biking. When used at appropriate volume levels, yes you can hear traffic and other cyclist coming up behind you. So far they have lasted 4 years, unfortunately I have not been able to find another pair. Not sure if they were bought out by another company or just stopped production.

JonB
JonB
6 years ago

If you didn’t have crazy good noise isolation with the etymotics, and bad sound quality, then the tips you chose don’t fit your ear canals. They’ll sound like crap without a proper seal.

That said, those three flange bastards can be a problem when they get a bit old. I had one come off, DEEP in my ear canal, at the beginning of a flight from the USA to Hong Kong. Literally had to call for a doctor on the plane over the intercom. Yup.

J_A
J_A
6 years ago

Aftershokz bone conduction headsets let you hear music and outside sounds since they don’t go in your ear. I’ve carried on normal conversations with people and they can’t even tell I’m listening to music. love mine for comutting too. http://www.aftershokz.com

Dom
Dom
6 years ago

The evolution gave us 360° hearing system to prevent attack from mammouth. The mammouth today have 4 wheels and many more some times…