What I learned about Headphones after a Year of UltraRunning; Likes and Dislikes and Personal Preferences when it comes to Audio Consumption on the Trail and in Training

Before we get into this, there’s a lot of layers to unpack when we reviewing and benchmarking like headphones and ear buds. For this particular review, my focus will be less on audio quality and more on performance. I also need to preface this by saying I did not use any over the ear headphones. There are a lot of concerns I have with headphones in general, let alone over the ear style muffs. There are a lot of factors when running and ultra running that make wearing large, bulky headphones not practical, which is why I avoided it.

Over the last 18 months, I have tested and used a variety of different earbud type devices, both wired and wireless. I’m not going to rank order these either because headphones/earbuds and music is all highly subjective…I will just stick to what I like and dislike about them and I will say which one I like best. Also, there are a few that I am reviewing that I have to use stock photos because I have lost them on the trail at random parts across the country.

So in no particular order, here we go…..

The first one that I’m going to discuss is the generic headphones that come with iPhones and iPods. Could lump most cheap headphones in with these as well.

Pros: It’s easy to make or answer calls while running. They also have pretty easy controls to use (once you’ve mastered them) for controlling volume, answering/declining calls, and switching between songs. You also don’t have to worry about losing them if you are only wearing one and they are relatively cheap to replace.

Cons: The cable can cause a variety of issues, depending on where you keep your phone. The cable also caused some snags when running past branches or climbing technical terrain and while using trekking poles.

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Overall: It’s not a bad option for the cost, but it can be limiting with range of motion restrictions. Also, if you are an iPhone user and you have a newer iPhone, you have to use an adapter to use these type of headphone inputs. Not a deal breaker for me and I usually carry a pair of these as a back-up just in case the other headphones that I’m using die or get damaged.

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We will look at the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium next. These are pretty cool in the fact that they aren’t like traditional headphones or earbuds in the fact that they use bone conduction which (basically) is sending sound waves through the skull to the inner. I used similar technology when I was in the Army. The thing I really like about these is that you don’t have anything physically in your ear and you can still (kindof) have conversations with people and still hear your music. It’s a nice thing to have on trails to help with situational awareness. These would’ve been nice to have during Ultra #6 because I thought I was being tracked by bears and moose, so I spent the majority of that affair listening solely to the sound of nature. I have also used the Aftershokz Trekz Air. Everything I didn’t like in the Titanium was remedied in the Air.

Pros: Non-intrusive design helped provide situational awareness. It was also easy to stop and start music/podcasts with the relatively large button on the outside.

Cons: They felt a little bulky and would flop around if I didn’t wear them on top of my hat. They were not very flexible and would feel uncomfortable after extended use. They, in essence, pinched my head, but I also have a very large melon (so that could just be a me thing). The volume control was difficult to use, especially when running. I found myself just taking them off or putting them around my neck when I wanted to talk or needed to turn them down. Phone calls were not easy to answer or the person on the other end could not hear when I was talking.

Instead of doing a whole other review for the AfterShokz Trek Air, I will just add onto the Titanium review. Everything that I liked with the Titanium, I liked better with the Trek Air and every issue I had with the Titanium, I did not have with the Air as well. They were lighter and less intrusive. They did not cause hot spots or issue with discomfort that comes from extended use and talking during phone conversations was much easier than with the Titanium.

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You might be wondering why I used a stock photo and that is because I lost my set of Trek Air’s on Mount Currahee. That was through my own error, so if you are in Toccoa Falls, Ga, head over to Camp Currahee and if you look around, you might find a set of AfterShokz Trek Air. You will love them, I promise.

Overall: I really like the idea of the bone conduction headphones, especially when running trails in the middle of nowhere where having situational awareness is at a premium. I also recommend spending the extra money on the Air. The Titanium’s are nice, but they just don’t work with my giant melon. (maybe I can do a giveaway with them, let me know if you’re interested!) I have also used these while strength training and they are a good option when doing more intense work, particularly if you are the kind of person who gets the sweat in your ear. Also, if you are looking at getting the Titanium’s make sure you try them on first and dance around to ensure that they are a good fit.

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Next I will look at Bose Sound Sport (wired). These are nice earbuds, but there’s nothing really remarkable about them. It’s the same considerations and issues that I discussed with the Apple headphones, but with better sound quality.

Pros: Good sound quality, customized fit based on ear size, not issues with them falling out.

Cons: The wire provides the same challenges previously mentioned. The silicone ear flanges aren’t very durable and I had to replace them a few times.

Overall: These are really nice earbuds that function well with listening to music or talking on the phone. I had issues with the durability of the silicone flanges on the ear buds and the durability of the headphones overall. They were a victim of a wipe out that I had during a training run and are sadly no longer with us. It’s a nice everyday headphone with better sound quality than what comes shipped with your phone. Nice to have at the office, not so great for the trail.

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Staying with the Bose theme, the next pair I tested were the Bose Sound Sport Free Wireless. These are have a really nice sound quality and functionality. They feel pretty good in the ear and were never painful.

Pros: Great sound quality and fit, easy to use when answering calls while running. Battery life was not an issue, but I never used them for more than 3 hours at a time.

Cons: Even though these fit well, they are still big and I was always worried that I would lose one or both while running, especially when I was pushing the pace. The sound quality is too good in the fact that I generally could not hear anything else when I had these in, which can be problematic when there are environmental concerns on the trail. The cost…

Overall: These are really great wireless headphones, but you are going to pay for it. I personally feel that there are better, less cost prohibitive, wireless earbuds out there for trail running and training, but these are really nice for casual use.

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Ok…one last Bose item…It’s technically not headphones, but it’s a portable speaker. I won’t go into a full pro/con, but this is by far one of the coolest bluetooth speakers that you can get. I have used it on the trails while running and hiking. You can just use the strap on the back and loop it on your running vest or pack. If you go with an option like this, be respectful of others out on the trail…not everyone likes your music and this little speaker packs a big punch in terms of volume. I’ve used it when I was very secluded and didn’t think that it would impact anyone else’s experience. It has a couple of nice bonus features; first it’s waterproof and it can also work as a speaker phone, so you can also have a conversation without missing a beat…It’s also pretty inexpensive, I think right around $75 now. It’s by far the best deal in terms of what I’ve reviewed so far.

Lastly, we will look at my personal favorite headphone that I’ve had the best experience with while running and training so far…

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Apple Air Pods….I am being serious…when I first got these (almost) two years ago, I was very skeptical and I was confident that I would lose one or both of them. I can say confidently that I am wearing them both at this current moment. In terms of sound quality, they are not the best that I have or have used, but for practicality, functionality, and ease of use, they are by far the best.

Pros: Easy to use, great battery life (I’ve used them during a 12 hour race without issue), no functionality issue when using with phone or Apple Watch (it’s supposed to work like that, I know).

Cons: During intense workouts when I sweat a lot, I still get inner ear sweat pooling. Have to adjust volume on the phone (as far as I know).

Overall: Airpods are great for being what they are. I don’t use Android devices, but I have in the past and I have used Airpods with them and I didn’t have any issues. They aren’t too expensive, but they also aren’t cheap. The battery life is still outstanding and I use these daily for regular use and during training. All of the concerns that I had about losing them have eroded away because the only issues I have is if I misplace the case, which will happen at times because it is a small package. I do wish they were waterproof, but I have used them running in the rain and I haven’t had any issues during that.

Like anything else that you are going to invest money in, make sure you do your research and test drive your headphones. There’s a distinct difference in fit in the two pairs of AfterShokz that I used which resulted in two different experiences. Also, be mindful of the rules of the races, if you plan on using them during races…some races prohibit them. It’s also worth testing how they perform if you are only going to use one earbud at a time, which is advisable when running in secluded areas or high traffic areas.

If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to leave them in the comment section.