In the beginning taking your music mobile meant balancing a boom box and hoping for no rain. Now, with the right headphones, you can blast The Cure on backcountry slopes, feel Naughty by Nature flow in class IV rapids, and rock out to Ride of the Valkyries while grinding remote single-track. But not all headphones are made to handle the same conditions. Before you buy, read through this guide on how to choose the best headphones for your needs.
Determining which headphones are best for you comes down to three main factors: your sport, your demands for sound quality, and your sensitivity to price.
Bluetooth (also called wireless): These are the most versatile of active headphones since they can be used for calls, have good sound quality, are wireless, and are for the most part designed to be water resistant. Bluetooth has a (unnoticeable) split-second sound latency (delay) compared to wired headphones, which is a small price to pay to get rid of pesky wires. Bluetooth technology and protocols are always evolving so be sure to shop for the latest if you want to experience the newest performance advancements.
Over-ear/on-ear: Over ear (also called full-size) and on-ear (also called supraaura) headphones are designed for sound and not for activity. Practicality will be an issue, meaning they’ll be great to curl up with in your tent and okay for a short hike to camp, but definitely not ideal for biking, running, or any other strenuous outdoor activity.
Helmet compatible: While it’s entirely possible that paddle, skate and bike helmets will one day include sound compatibility, today’s helmet compatible headphones cater to the ski/snowboard market. These are typically on-ear headphones that are fitted into/over the helmet.
In-ear (also called earbuds): In-ear headphones are the most common type used for active sports. In-ear headphones have a wide range of quality (and price), depending on their specifications.
The back of each headphones box will display several numbers. Unless you’re in the headphone manufacturing business, you only need to worry about a few of them.
Decibel (measured as dB): The decibel rating refers to how loud the headphones get. Most headphones reach a high decibel range making this number rather unnecessary compared to tone.
Tone (also called Frequency Response, measured as Hz): Tone is probably the most important spec to pay attention to when buying headphones. It refers to the frequency that the headphones are capable of reaching. The human ear can hear bass tones down to 12 Hz and can feel bass even lower than that. The most expensive headphones will feature Hz frequencies down to 5hz (deep bass) up to 30,000hz (high treble). You’ll want a good balance of bass that’s strong enough to keep your head banging but not so overpowering that you can’t hear the mids (vocals, guitars, etc.). In the end, the right balance of tone comes down to personal preference based on your music tastes.
Impedance: Impedance refers to the resistance of the wires to the power source. Although these numbers are displayed on headphones boxes, it’s rather useless because headphones aren’t typically strung together, which is when impedance matters.
Battery Life: Wireless headphones and some over-ear headphones require battery juice to maintain their connection and strong sound. Look for both “talk time” and “idle time” or “standby time” to make sure the product will last as long out there as you will.
Cord length and shape: Whether it’s too long (pesky), too short (pesky) or just right (music to your ears!), the length of the cord will impact your engagement in your sport. The best impact, predictably, is none at all.
Controls: Many headphones include volume, pause/play/stop, and forward and backward controls. Some people like to play it simple but you’re not a control freak if you like to jump between songs. The choice again comes down to preference.
There are a lot of fancy features on the headphone market today. Here are some that cater to outdoors enthusiasts.
Waterproof: Waterproof headphones have flooded the market in the past year. Most are of the in-ear variety but there are some creative over-ear designs. With a waterproof case for your device, you can now listen to your favorite jams while taking a swim in the lake.
Water resistant/Sweat resistant: It’s nasty but true: sweat can short wires. Water/Sweat-resistant headphones feature ear openings that prevent dribble getting in and wreaking havoc. But water resistance is different than fully waterproof so you won’t want to take them on your next scuba trip.
Microphone: Made for voice calls, microphones are a very convenient way to avoid stopping while biking or running. Although there’s no real metric for sound/voice quality, look for “talk time” battery life for wireless headphones.
Noise cancelling: The noise-cancelling feature can be found on all types of headphones. The technology is the product of some pretty in-depth science involving sound waves but the gist of it is there is a separate microphone that emits an “entinoise” signal that cancels out ambient noise. Noise cancelling is good because you won’t have to crank the volume as high. Noise cancelling headphones tend to be more expensive and usually require batteries.