Music is the ideal accompaniment to exercise, but you don’t want to just stick any old pair of headphones in your ears before heading to the gym. If you’re planning to work up a sweat, you want to make sure you’re using a pair that can handle a soaking. That’s where we come in. We test scores of headphones each year, from noise-cancelling models designed to block out the world around you, to exercise-friendly pairs that can handle exposure to sweat and other forms of liquid and keep on pumping out the tunes that motivate you through your workout. We have tips on what to look for when shopping for waterproof headphones, along with the finest pairs we’ve tested.
Let’s start here: Waterproof is a flexible term, and water resistant is even more so. To be called either, a product has ostensibly been through standardized testing to determine what its level of protection against liquids is, and the resulting score is called an ingress protection (or IP) rating. We have an entire article dedicated to the IP rating system, and if you want a detailed version of what it entails, it’s a good read.
The short version goes like this: Manufacturers thoroughly (we hope) test their products under a rigid system of guidelines, and the resulting level of water resistance gets a numbered rating. The IP system also includes dust protection, which can make things a little confusing.
For instance, let’s say one pair of headphones has an IP57 rating and another has an IPX7 rating: Which pair is more waterproof, and what’s with the X? First off, they’re actually the same level of waterproof—only the second digit in an IP rating corresponds to water resistance, so in this case, they both earn a 7 rating. The first digit corresponds to dust resistance, so the IP57 model has level 5 dust resistance. The IPX7 model wasn’t sufficiently tested for dust protection, and thus it is given an X. The X is used as a placeholder rather than a 0, as it is unlikely that the product has absolutely no dust protection. More often than not, the IP ratings we see for headphones have an X in them—manufacturers tend to test more for liquid protection than dust.
The truth is, most people probably don’t need the highest level of water resistance from their headphones, and perhaps a pair that has a modest IP rating. but is loaded with other useful features like—say active noise cancellation or adjustable EQ—will be a better overall fit for your needs.
So now that you understand what the numbers represent, what kind of IP ratings should you be looking for? To keep things simple, we’re just going to refer to everything as an IPX rating. It’s rare for a manufacturer to even advertise a rating below IPX3, which weak for water resistance. Once you get to IPX4 status, it means the product can withstand water sprayed from any direction, and that’s the bare minimum rating you’ll find on the headphones we’ve chosen here.
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IPX5 means a product can withstand water jetting from a 6.3mm nozzle, and IPX6 means it can handle water jets from a 12.5mm nozzle. Both of these levels should be good enough for a sweaty workout or exercising/walking in light rain. These headphones probably shouldn’t be exposed to heavy faucet pressure, however, and they definitely shouldn’t be submerged.
IPX7 gear can be submerged, up to a meter, for up to 30 minutes. An IPX7 rating is where a product makes the leap from water resistant to waterproof. IPX8 devices exist, but they tend to be more for pro-level gear and less for everyday consumer use.
Generally speaking, a Bluetooth signal doesn’t do well underwater. So while a wireless pair of IPX7 in-ears might be enticing, if you’re planning on swimming laps, it’s possible that the Bluetooth signal may not be steady or work at all.
Because of this, there are companies that specialize in Bluetooth products for swimming, like H2O Audio. These products are subject to the same limitations of Bluetooth signal underwater, but they’re designed to keep the streaming element of the headphones above water, whereas traditional headphones will be dunked underwater every time you turn your head to breathe.
Another possible issue in using headphones for swimming is range. Your Bluetooth audio source needs to be kept nearby in order to maintain a strong streaming signal. So while it’s totally possible to listen to streaming audio while swimming, the bulk of the products we mention in this story aren’t designed for it.
For a variety of reasons, there are far more exercise-focused earphones than there are over-ear or on-ear headphone options. Within the in-ear world, you have true wireless earphones, as well as more traditional wireless models, which have cables connecting the earpieces, but still stream wireless audio.
As true wireless earphones become more and more of the norm, it’s worth mentioning they all come with charging cases, and that most manufacturers are loath to point out that the IP rating you see on the box refers only to the earphones themselves—charging cases typically aren’t waterproof. Some cases have waterproof exteriors, but we’ve yet to test a model with a waterproof interior. So if you put earpieces into the charging case while they’re wet, you run the risk of damaging the product.
This is an issue that cabled wireless models don’t have, but often these pairs will have covered charging ports and the fine print will explain that their waterproof rating disappears when that port’s cover is open.
In other words, there are water resistant and waterproof headphones aplenty, but some common sense is still required during charging. A simpler way to think of it is: When charging, your headphones basically aren’t water resistant, so make sure everything is dry before attaching a cable or docking earpieces in a case.
A solid IP rating doesn’t seem to have a huge impact on price these days. That said, if water resistance is important to you, the best pairs we’ve tested generally start around $100. Often the more expensive pairs are priced higher not because of their water rating, but because they offer noise cancellation or another expensive feature.
If you’re looking for something more affordable, you can head over to the best headphones we’ve tested under $50, but keep in mind they may not be waterproof. And when you find the right pair, make sure to check out our five easy tips to extend the life of your headphones.Source