Best smart headphones and hearables for fitness 2018

Hearables may be one of the stupidest tech terms ever, but you’re going to be hearing it a lot more in 2018. It’s an audio development of wearables. 

The fact is, the singularity is coming where man and machine become one and  first wearables, and now, hearables, are easing us towards that. 

These are the new wave of wearables that live on our heads, largely in our ears although some are worn on our faces. ‘Faceables’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it though, does it? They are largely fitness focussed, and do the usual wearable-style tracking of metrics such as distance, pace, speed and heart rate while exercising. The difference is, the information is relayed audibly, rather than on a screen. 

  1. Best fitness trackers for beginners

Hmm, interesting. What else can hearables do?

As well as tracking your efforts much as a wrist-worn wearable would, hearables  can also monitor your heart-rate via the blood vessels in your ear. That’s significant because when done right, in-ear pulse monitoring is more accurate than on-wrist. I was absolutely knocked out by how well Jabra’s Elite Sport, for instance, worked when I first tried it. Unlike wrist HR, it doesn’t seem to struggle when you up the intensity and/or get particularly sweaty.

Many hearables also also offer live ‘bespoke’ coaching for a truly next-gen experience that will actually help you improve. This can be everything from telling you to increase and reduce the intensity of your run or workout so as to gain more benefit from it, to advice on your running cadence. After-exercise analysis, using apps on a connected phone, then helps you plan how to further carve out a better you. 

Obviously, hearables can also play music, and many have the ability to store music onboard, rather than sucking it from your phone, meaning you can leave your mobile in the gym locker and still enjoy your Pumping Workout Choons playlist. 

Hearables are in their early adopter phase, so they can be pricey and feel like not quite the finished article. That also makes them exciting to use, however, and the cost has to be balanced against the fact that personal trainers can cost per hour what these hearables cost to buy outright. Personal trainers don’t have your biometric data in their memory banks, either. 

So, come and join us in the hearable future. You have nothing to fear, except becoming a cyborg and losing your humanity, like the Cybermen in Dr Who.  

  1. Please note, because these hearables are all quite different from each other, unusually, the following list is NOT in our order of preference

Our favourite hearables (not in any particular order)

When we think of hearable, head-worn tech, we think of futuristic fighter pilot images. Vi obviously did the same. As a result this company has taken military grade fighter pilot tech and adapted it to fit into a set of super smart earphones. That means the Vi AI headphones have some of the most advanced tracking systems on any wearable. All that and they’re run by an artificial intelligence too.

Primarily Vi is a pair of earphones with Harman Kardon audio meaning high quality sound for music and voice feedback, which bring us to role number two. 

Vi is also an artificially intelligent personal trainer that can coach you through running, cycling and more. This is done thanks to feature number three, smart tracking. This uses “aerospace grade” in-ear heart rate tracking, GPS, motion detection, elevation, proximity and touch measurements. So a runner can be told to speed up, tighten cadence, take a break and more to make sure they get the best possible results from the effort they put in – suited to them personally. But it works both ways so the wearer can also ask for updates on things like pace and Vi will respond. That means there’s no need for the distraction of looking at a phone or wrist wearable. These functions will also be extended for cardio, HIIT and mindfulness exercises in a forthcoming update.

The Vi AI headphones are water and sweat resistant, last up to six hours on a charge and work with iOS and Android for phone calls and music streaming. They also fit really well thanks to all the weight of the unit resting around the neck while the earphones sit on a loose cable to the ears. 

You get a lot for your money with the Vi, but it would benefit from the addition of proper training plans rather than just offering advice in-run. You have to control it with your voice, and that is quite hit and miss at present as well. Lifebeam is promising regular software updates, so hopefully these issues will get fixed.

These AirPod style true-wireless earbuds aren’t just for music and saying ‘Hey Siri’ – The Bragi Dash Pro does it all. 

These good looking ear huggers have both AI and a range of sensors, so they can measure metrics aplenty. That includes reasonably accurate in-ear heart rate tracking, motion sensors for exercise and microphones for noise reduction and voice features. 

One particularly astounding feature is a team-up with iTranslate which translates foreign spoken words in real-time, like a universal translator from Star Trek. This does not work perfectly, costs £5 per month, and is a bit of a chore to setup. But come on, translation without needing a person to translate, with only a second or two delay? Even in its current, slightly beta state, it’s a frickin’ miracle!

Of course you can also make/take calls and listen to music on these – there’s storage space for up to 1000 tracks – but I would recommend Bragi Dash Pro more as a ‘gadget’ to explore than as a traditional pair of earbuds. 

Apart from anything else, although they come with lots of tips, getting the kind of perfect fit you need to enjoy music properly is quite tricky. You can have a mould of your inner ear done and get bespoke ear-tips made, which might well solve that issue. 

Fitness tracking is interesting but can’t really compete with a running watch at present. There’s no GPS, so distance accuracy is questionable, and the auto-detection of exercise (run, bike or swim – the Dash Pro is waterproof) is imperfect. Bragi keeps on updating its software so hopefully this will improve, but it’s only suitable for those who are pretty casual about tracking their exercise, as it stands.

The battery only lasts about five hours but to be fair, that is not bad for true wireless buds, and the case contains a battery that will top it up 5 times. Overall the Dash Pro is a fantastic, futuristic gadget that is possibly still in search of a killer app. A classic early adopter’s bit of tech.

These typically good sunglasses from Oakley mean you don’t need to worry about sun glare. They’re also most unlikely to fall off while you’re training and despite being a fair bit heavier than standard Oakley glasses, they’re very comfortable. 

But these are no ordinary sunnies, of course; the Radar Pace tracks your running and cycling too, with audible feedback via their built-in in-ear headphones, with real-time stats such as pace, heart rate, time and distance. A microphone means that you can also ask the Radar Pace how you’re doing.

The Radar Pace coaching is quite smart, and adapts to your efforts, in order to help you get better. It’ll also play nice with ANT+ and Bluetooth sensors, including bike power meters, and works with apps such as Strava and Runkeeper, as long as your phone is connected.

I would question why you’d want to be coached by a pair of sunglasses – why not just sell the headphones on their own? Even so, a nifty bit of tech. Battery life is about 4 hours.

The Moov Now came out way back in 2016 and is still going strong. Once paired with your phone and some headphones, it’s a first-rate hearable.

Of all the tech here, the Moov Now has the most useful voice coach. It doesn’t just tell you your speed, cadence, distance and so on, it actually offers genuinely useful coaching tips, particularly for running and HIIT.

With Moov Now you can get a really good workout, with your reps counted for you with remarkable accuracy, learn how to run better, and try out a range of other activities too. The quality does vary a bit – the cycling coaching is very disappointing compared to running – and the Moov Now’s robot voice is not the most soothing of tones. I’ve also encountered bugginess around syncing and connectivity, and the strap never quite feels secure. There are even a few  complaints on Amazon that the sensor fell out while running or cycling, which seems entirely plausible.

However, for the price, and with the supplied watch battery lasting up to 6 months, Moov Now is still a great little bit of kit.

Jabra started out as a hearing aid company, so it’s had plenty of practice at getting reliable connectivity and a perfect fit. 

Perhaps that’s why the true wireless Elite Sport are snug even while running and, thanks to a quality Bluetooth connection, they offer pretty decent audio, at least by true wireless standards. With four microphones to filter out background noise, they’re great for hands-free calls as well.

That’s not their main reason to exist though. The Elite Sport tracks everything from heart rate (reliably) to rep counts (not so reliably). The Jabra Sport app then serves up everything from estimates of your VO2 max estimate and aprés-workout recovery time to a race predictor. Although aimed primarily at runners, the Elite Sport is also a handy companion when cycling and gymming. I’m not entirely convinced by the training plans it comes up with – they never seem to take into account your fitness level to adjust difficulty – but it is very handy for tracking workouts of your own devising. 

While the Jabra Elite Sport earbuds last about 4.5 hours on a charge, they come with a charging case that offers up to 13.5 hours of power. Given all the sensors in play that is actually quite decent. 

These are also IP67 water resistant but if you should damage them they’re also covered by a three year warranty – worry-free training, then.

Audio Technica has a new headphone for everyone! Now, do you favour sporty, noise-cancelling, in-ear, or cheap?

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