The Best Headphones For Cycling

By Tom Martin

June 24, 2021

 

Editor’s Note: We recently asked two of our editors, one from Winding Road magazine and one from our sister publication The Absolute Sound, to try a variety of headphones for road cycling to see what worked the best.

 

We are cyclists, racers and audiophiles. We often find that our niche activities are not fully understood in product categories where our use case is not the standard one. Cycling headphones are an example. There are lots of “fitness” or “athletic” models on the market, but the use case pretty typically seems to be the gym. Cycling can be quite different. Let us explain.

 

In road cycling, the rider is most commonly on the road (pretty insightful, eh?). The rider would like to hear cars, sirens and horns for the sake of safety. The rider would also like to hear the audio content he or she is trying to listen to. And the rider would like to be easily able to talk to other riders, without seriously distracting from the operation of the bike (steering, braking, shifting). These competing demands are tough to satisfy. More on that in a minute.

 

But that’s not all. The rider is bouncing around, so needs headphones that will stay on the head and not distract. The rider would like to be able to pause/play content easily. The rider might want to answer phone calls. And the rider would like clear audio output at a minimum and high fidelity if possible (so-called ‘good sound quality’).

 

There are hundreds of headphones on the market and we make no pretense that we’ve tried them all. We picked a sample of different types that seemed suited to riding, in part to see if the underlying technology matters (it does), and in part to see if we could find some recommendable models (we did).

 

Our test headphones and our results:

 

Jabra Elite Active 75t True Wireless Earbuds ($179)

 

Purely as earbuds, these work well enough. That said, we found these to be less than ideal for our cycling-specific needs. As with most earbuds, you jam these in your ear canal and some amount of passive isolation occurs. That’s good for hearing music or podcasts, but not for hearing ambient sounds. With the 75t, active noise cancellation ads almost nothing to the isolation, though for cycling that might be okay. The whole package would work except that Jabra’s “Hear Through mode” is so ineffective. Hear Through does very little to overcome the passive isolation.  And you have to activate it, which almost defeats the purpose. The 75ts do have audio EQ if you want to try to tailor the sound to your ears (individual earbud fit has a huge impact on audio). Fit seemed moderately secure, although once a good seal is acheived these seem to stay in place on normal roads. Soft touch controls are fiddly.

 

Klipsch T5 II True Wireless Sport McLaren Edition ($249)

 

These have much nicer packaging and some of our testers thought they were unusually comfortable for earbuds and more comfortable than the Jabras. The Klipschs have better baseline audio quality than the Jabras, and for music these seem a solid choice. Still, the Jabra cycling-specific problems carry over to the Klipsch: potentially dangerous passive isolation accompanied by essentially useless pass-through mode. The comfy fit seemed slightly more secure than with the Jabras, but the comfy ear tips still caused concern that the T5 IIs might fall out with heavy road vibration. Soft touch controls that are fiddly, though not especially so, it's just that real buttons are better.

 

 

 

Powerbeats Pro Totally Wireless Earphones ($169)

 

More secure fit than either Jabra or Klipsch because of an over-the-ear hook, but the same conceptual problem of isolation which can’t easily be overcome. And there is no pass-through mode. Realistically, you’d probably need some moderately fancy AI to do pass-through for cycling that was more than just bypassing the passive isolation. In $150-250 earbuds, we’re probably not going to get that any time soon, but technology sometimes moves in unexpected leaps. If we are going to skip passive isolation, see the Aftershokz and and Bose.

Editor's Note: Beats have recently released a new earbud, the Beats Studio Buds. We wil test those as soon as they are available.

 

Aftershokz OpenMove Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones ($79)

 

The Aftershokz OpenMoves work quite well for cycling, if your concern is first and foremost being able to hear ambient sounds for safety reasons. The impressive thing is that bone conduction works very well, with clear audio and no fiddly placement on the head. You just put them on and they work. In fact, the ambient sounds and the audio almost seem to be on different channels to your brain which is ideal for the road bike use case. In the ‘not so ideal’ category, we have audio volume, which can only go so high. While we caution against cranking any headphones up at the risk of hearing damage, this is different. Bone conduction can only vibrate so much without being weird and Aftershokz has capped output so that there are times when the audio track gets a bit buried especially as the wind going over your ear gets noisiers. Not a huge deal or a big deal depending on your average speed and listening preferences.  Also, the Aftershokz go over the ear and compete for that space with your cycling goggles. Workable, but a bit clunky. The controls are a mix of soft-touch and real buttons, but some are a bit hard to differentiate without looking (e.g. while you are on the bike).

 

Bose Frames Tempo Audio Sunglasses ($249)

 

These did almost everything well. Ambient noise awareness is excellent, as with the Aftershokz, because your ear is completely unobstructed (the speakers are in the frames forward of your ear). Yet the audio was clear and the volume level was more than adequate below 20 mph. Wind noise at 25-35 mph will eventually surpass the audio, though. Audio quality is good in the sense that it is clear and articulate, but bass fanatics will not be happy. Bose had the wisdom to come up with a really simple control scheme in which the pause/play button is an actual electro-mechanical button that is easy to find with fingerless gloves. The same button answers calls. Very easy to use while riding. The volume control isn’t as nice, since it is a capacitive touch area on the upper edge of the frames. You kind of get used to it, but like all capacitive touch buttons it is sensitive to skin dryness. The headphones stay on your head well, but the tension might be considered a bit tight, which is the desirable side. We've worn them for 5-6 hour rides and they didn't bother us. They also look either futuristic or weird depending on your stylistic sensibilities.

 

A few notes on pricing. While we are quoting MSRP, often these products have promotional pricing. Also, we should note that the Bose headphone pricing includes goggles with replaceable lenses. We’ve spent $100-$200 just for cycling goggles, so the Bose could be considered the lowest priced headphones here if you squint just right.