We set ourselves a challenge – to find the best cycling and hiking headphones – neat, comfortable, wireless and safe. Safe? Yep, we wanted headphones that let you hear a car behind you or the sounds of nature when you’re walking. Earphones or headphones that allow ambient sound.
We don’t often devote an article to one piece of kit, but we came up with four great choices – Aftershokz Trekz, the super-cheap JLab Retro, the in-ear wonders, Plantronics Backbeat Fit 3100, and the good-but-daft Apple Airpods.
Latest update: August 2019
Who makes the best headphones and earphones?
We waded through hundreds of recommendations, spent hours on internet research, visited all the hifi equipment shops in Manchester and Leeds…and we still didn’t find what we were looking for. Most people want headphones (or earphones) that block out the world. So, when you go into a shop and ask if they have headphones that allow you to hear outside noise, prepare for at least a raised eyebrow!
- Cycling – you need to be able to hear the bus about to overtake you, the car horn, the sound of kids just about to step out in front of you.
- Walking – you want to be able to hear nature, chat with friends and feel like you’re there in the countryside. So why would you be wearing headphones at all? For some, it’s because they need to answer phone calls; for others, it’s a chance to catch up on podcasts or study a language or listen to music.
- Work – if you use headphones for telephone interviews, the sound of your own voice is awful when your ears are blocked by headphones. In everyday work situations, you want to be able to hear when colleagues ask a question or you need to ask them something.
Shops will offer you earbuds, on-ear headphones and the like, but anything that blocks your ear – even if it doesn’t have active noise cancellation – will block out most ambient sound. What we realised we needed were headphones that didn’t cover the ears at all – daft, eh!
Aftershokz – conducting sound through your cheekbones
The Aftershokz are different in that the tiny Star Trek-like device, made of titanium, sits round the back of your head and two sound conductors sit close to, but not on, your ears. It’s called bone conduction.
The headphones connect by Bluetooth 4.1 or 4.2 (Air model), and can pair with two devices at once – a phone and a laptop, for example. There are three simple touch controls, a built-in assistant for prompts and confirmation and a microphone for making calls. There’s a £50 wired model(Sportz Titanium) too, by the way.
The whole thing weighs just 30g (Air) or 36g (Titanium model). You’ll get six hours of continuous music or calls and a 10-day standby (20 on the Air). Charging takes 1.5 hours (two hours on the Air).
It takes a bit of time to get the positioning of the conductors right, but the device is so flexible that it’s easy to play around till you hit the best spot for you.
- The device is tiny, so the controls are tiny too. The main function button is a decent size, but the switches for volume, power off and so on might be a problem for anyone with meaty fingers.
- While the sound is good, it’s not immersive, full hifi quality. The kit comes with earplugs if you do want to block out the world.
What we liked:
- Good, clear sound (after changing the equaliser setting).
- Superbly clear microphone – callers really don’t know you’re speaking into a mic.
- Easy to set up and reliable pairing/connection.
- Very comfortable – a single, flexible band that holds without feeling tight. The Titanium model comes in a mini size too, for children or those with a small head.
- No sound leakage so you won’t annoy your neighbour on the train.
- If you wear glasses, they sit perfectly over the headphone. Helmets and hats work too, but take some adjusting if they come down low at the back.
To buy or not to buy?
They’re not cheap (£90 to £149), but they’re excellent. It’s why they’re the official headphones for England Athletics and the only brand to be fully approved for use on road races in the UK. We loved them for their lightness, ease of set-up and great quality. An absolute best-buy, in our opinion, if hearing the world around you is as important as hearing music or phone calls.
An affordable alternative – the JLab on-ear headphones for £20!
These are by no means as high-tech as the Trekz, but look at the price! The JLab Audio Rewind are retro-styled, tiny, foam-cupped headphones that barely cover the ears, so you can hear what’s going on around you.
Bluetooth is excellent, controls are simple – a voice even gives you feedback when you turn on and off and for battery level. They paired perfectly, sound is decent and you can make calls using the built-in microphone. USB charging and a two-year warranty.
When my Trekz were stolen, I was more than happy to make do with these. They won’t work inside a cycle helmet, of course, but for walking (and running), they’re great. The one disadvantage I found was that your ears can get a bit hot.
Earbuds that tick all the boxes – Plantronics Backbeat 3100
If you prefer the neatest, smallest and most comfortable earphones, then these are the ones for you. Mind you, prepare to pay rather more than for the JLab. In return, you do get perfection.
Plantronics specialises in headphones and headsets, so they know a thing or two about sound quality and ease-of-use. These Backbeat Fit 3100 are two small earbuds that don’t wholly block the ear canal. They work by Bluetooth and let you take calls, shout at Siri and listen to music or podcasts. They come in a smart little zip-up charging case.
What we liked:
- Fits partially into the ear, so outside sound isn’t blocked. They stay in place thanks to soft and flexible ‘wings’ around the outside of the ear.
- Up to 5 hours of wireless listening and up to 10 additional hours with the included charge case. We like the fact putting the earbuds into the case automatically turns them off. They turn on again when you lift them out.
- Sweatproof and waterproof.
- Easy tap and touch controls.
- Voice information to let you know about battery life etc.
- Decent voice calls with a one-tap accept and end call.
- The left earbud is turned on separately. If you forget, you’ll hear in mono and won’t have volume controls.
- The tap customisation isn’t all that useful (to us anyway). A limited choice of what it can offer (time check, Siri and a few others), plus you can’t have both that and volume controls.
To buy or not to buy?
Buy! We absolutely love them. Faultless sound and you can’t tell you’re wearing them, even on a run. The neat case and easy charging is great. How fantastic not to have to scramble around for a cable, because the mini USB cable sits inside the case too.
Can we forget the Apple AirPods?
We hadn’t really considered these, partly because of the price and partly because they make you kook as if you’re wearing electric toothbrush heads in your ears. But, a few readers have recommended them.
For some, the fit is perfect and secure, but we’d advise buying them from somewhere you can try them on or, if you’re buying online, where returns are easy. John Lewis had a decent price at the time of writing and was offering a couple of add-on deals. Amazon was offering £30 off, but apologies if that’s changed since publishing!
Optical sensors and motion accelerometers engage the microphones for phone calls and Siri access, and enable the AirPods to play sound as soon as they’re in your ears. You can wear one or both AirPods, and you can play or skip forward with a double tap when listening to music. Charging is fast and, of course, they work seamlessly if you have an iPhone.
For those worried about them staying in your ears, there are lots of add-on ear hooks available for not much money.