The portable audio market has blown up in the last decade, and even in just the last few years has seen significant improvement with product durability, usability, charge length, weather resistance, and sound quality. And all that for much more affordable prices.
There’s also more choices and product turn over than ever before, with products coming (and going) in all kinds of different styles with all kinds of different features – it can easily become overwhelming to make a choice, which is what this article is written to help you do.
Are headphones or earbuds better for hiking and other extended active use?
We think earbuds are the better choice for most people, but there are some decent active-use headphones that some people might like and prefer.
Headphones are somewhat weighty and prone to move/slide around. They can also get kind of hot, sweaty, and gross. They’re also more prone to degradation (which includes diminished battery capacity) over time because they’re more exposed to sunlight and other elements.
Earbuds these days can typically hold a longer charge than wireless headphones, and are easier to achieve a comfortable fit for extended use.
Factors that are specifically important for extended active use of headphones and earbuds
There are several things you want to have with headphones and earbuds that are specifically important in the context of extended outdoor use that aren’t so pertinent with conventional indoor/at-home audio equipment, and thus easy to overlook.
You want your headphones/earbuds to last the few hours or full day you want to use them. Obviously. But there are more details/specifics to consider here.
Be wary of claimed charge lengths on product sales pages, and they’re often exaggerated and/or based on theoretically perfect conditions that will never be realistic. Things like listening volume, outdoor temperature, specific Bluetooth/wireless version, and other things can significantly impact charge length. Not just of the headphones themselves but of your phone or whatever other source you’re using as well.
Definitely opt for a product that has the last version of Bluetooth, v5.3 at the time of this writing/update, as it significantly improves signal distance, stability/reliability, and power efficiency. (But no, not sound quality)
Aggregate user reviews on sites like Amazon have limited use to be honest, but one thing they are good for is seeing how specific factors like charge duration compared with people’s experiences and how they specifically used the product. Consulting third party reviews from reputable sources that actually test/verify charge length is also a good idea.
Another new-ish feature that’s particularly appealing here are charge cases:
These are carrying cases, for wireless earbuds usually, that can hold a charge of their own and recharge earbuds wirelessly. So instead of getting, say, one 8 hour charge, you can charge them back up with the case one or two times to double or triple that total charge time before needing to actually plug back in.
Comfort and Fit:
This becomes all the more important when you’re wearing earbuds/headphones for extended periods while constantly moving around.
Good comfort/fit depends on the person to some degree, and that unfortunately means that there’s some unavoidable trial and error to find the “best” product for you, but there are some guidelines we think are generally true that are worth abiding by:
Firstly, with earbuds, long nozzles (the tube part that holds the tips) with smaller and/or contoured buds will typically fit better. Meaning something that looks like this:
as opposed to this:
Secondly, silicone tips are generally the best choice over rubber or foam for extended outdoor use. These are usually what earbuds come with by default.
Fit is not just important for comfort (which is obvious), a good fit is very important for headphones and earbuds in particular to function properly.
With earbuds, you want for the seal to maintain when you move your head and jaw around. If the default tips don’t feel “right,” definitely try swapping them with any of the included replacement tips – earbuds almost always come with a least a few in different sizes.
You can also always opt for separate replacement tips, and another reason to opt for earbuds with long and circular nozzles is they’re much more likely to fit with any given set of replacement tips.
Further reading: How to Stop Earbuds From Falling Out When Running Or Working Out
There are now many wireless headphones/earbuds that are completely water and debris proof, so there’s probably no reason at this point to get a pair that isn’t.
Look for something that has an IP code, which is the current international standard for levels of protection of portable electronics. If a product has one it will almost certainty be prominently stated in the sales copy.
Not being able to easily pause, track, etc. will quickly annoy anyone, and is a little more restrictive in the context of a hike or other such outdoor use.
Many headphones/earbuds have simple touch and/or finger-tap controls which are a lot easier and more reliable if you’re phone or other source device is zipped away in a waterproof pocket/pouch for example.
Using a pair of headphones or earbuds when you’re actively moving around rather than mostly sitting still brings about a host of additional issues that certain products are specifically designed to deal with.
Wire microphonics, the noise caused by the cable rubbing against other objects, is a big one, and is something that’s exacerbated greatly when you’re moving. Wireless earbuds can circumvent the issue, but add the risk of one falling out and/or getting lost. Other wireless earbuds are connected with a band, but even that can cause some noticeable microphonics. Ear hooks are a good added measure of fit/security and are something we definitely recommend for earbuds in general.
We have a hot take that might rustle some jimmies – there is no point in paying upwards of $100 or even more for “premium” active/all-weather headphones in the context of hiking or other such extended use. $20-$30 is probably ideal for most people in fact. Why?
Firstly, the best way to eke out the most charge/juice is to use a more efficient audio file type and Bluetooth codec (which your headphones and source will likely default to anyway), and odds are that expensive headphones are not going to actually do anything to make this sound better, especially so in the context of someone moving/walking around and only partially paying attention to what they’re listening to.
Secondly, [excrement] happens – buds get lost in a bush or the bottom of a river, headbands and wires snap, a headphone gets crushed in a pack, and on and on. There’s no point in stressing over that happening over a $200 pair of headphones/earbuds when a $20 pair will be and sound just as good for a lot of people.
Thirdly, there’s a lot to choose from now that you can get all of the important features and utility with for under $30, which actually might not have been true just a few years ago.
Now that you have an idea of what to look for, we’ll recommend some products that we currently think are good options:
TOZO Wireless Earbuds
TOZO is a relatively new company, founded circa 2015, and their products have become very popular in recent years. We reviewed one of their current top-sellers, the T10s, very favorably and think they hit all the important factors discussed in this article.
TOZO makes a wide variety of similar wireless earbuds in different styles with different specs, features, and degrees of ruggedness (with IP code certifications) at very competitive prices, and are likely a great option for a lot of people.
iJoy Logo On-Ear Headphones
We reviewed these a few years ago and they are surprisingly comfortable and performant for being about as cheap as headphones get, and they still lurk on Amazon’s best-sellers list.
If you’re adamant about having a traditional headband/over-ear design these might be a decent choice. They are not weatherproof nor do they have any kind of IP code certification, but they should be fine for temperate climates, and they’re so cheap that you’re probably not going to stress if they break or get lost.