For many there's probably the temptation to use whichever headphones you happen to have lying around for your workouts, but that's really not the best strategy. Picking a pair that are designed to cope with getting sweaty and rained on, to take the abuse of being out on a run, in the gym, or in your bag, will lead to a much better experience.
Sennheiser has been in the sports headphones business for a long time, as one of the early brands to recognise that you need something a little different for sports. As an anecdotal aside, we reviewed a pair of Sennheiser Sport headphones way back in 2006 and we subsequently used them for about six years before they fell apart. That sounds like a sound investment to us.
Bringing things more up to date is the Sennheiser 686 series. These come in a number of styles - CX, MX, PMX and OCX - with the OCX being cabled in-ears with ear hooks, designed for the abuse they'll get during sport. Are they a sound investment for 2017?
Sennheiser OCX 686 review: Design
- In-line remote and mic
- Over ear hook with in-ear buds
- Flattened tangle-free cable
Sticking to bright colours, the OCX 686 come with a neon green and grey finish, befitting their sporty stance. Sennheiser has been using these colours for over 10 years and we like that exuberance for sports headphones.
The main focus of the OCX 686 is the ear hook, which provides essential support for the headphones while you're being active, so they are much less likely to fall out as a result of cable swing. These ear hooks are soft and flexible, so make the headphones comfortable to wear and there's no rubbing. Once you've picked the right tip for the size of your ear, the hooks then sit over the top of your ears, positioning the cables away around the back of your lobes.
The OCX 686 has a flattened cable - designed to reduce the chance of tangling - which is soft enough to move with your body as you run, so it doesn't suffer the same sort of problems that we encountered with the Monster Adidas Sport Supernova.
The only thing we don't really like is that these Sennheisers are designed to route the cable around the back of your neck, with a short section of cable running from the inline controller to the right ear piece and a longer cable that heads to the left ear piece. That's ok in principle but it does mean that the weight isn't balanced, as it's biased to the right side where the in-line mic and controls then sit, meaning it pulls to the right a little more. There's a cable clip that you'll need to use to counter this; clipping it onto a t-shirt seam on the right-hand shoulder helps to minimalise the pull.
We've been running in these headphones for long periods and found them to cause no problems, come rain or shine. In the sunshine we've worn them along with a hat and found no problems; however, if you wear glasses or want to run in sunglasses, then that's a problem for fitting. Given the water-resistant design no degree of sweat or water has caused an issue either, even after about a month of use everything is still fully operational.
There are two different versions of these headphones, both equipped with a 3.5mm headphone plug. One version is designed for iPhone and the other for Android and the rest. Obviously in this age of Lightning and USB-C headphones, you need to pick what works for the device to which you'll be connecting.
The ascent of Bluetooth headphones does cast something of a shadow over wired headphones, but there's still a good argument to go old school. For starters, you don't have the charge the headphones as well as the player. We paired the OCX 686 with an old iPod nano 6-gen, which makes a great workout combination.
Sennheiser OCX 686 review: Sound and performance
- High output drivers
- Plenty of bass
These headphones use their in-ear fit for isolation of sound, aiming to block out external noise through the use of the correct size of earbud. There's no active noise-cancellation or anything fancy like that.
The audio demands from sports headphones don't set the bar as high as we'd want from other headphones, but even so these Sennheisers don't disappoint.
Get that fit spot-on and you'll be rewarded with a meaty soundtrack and pumping bass levels. The low-end delivery is important, especially when you're exercising, as it's often such low frequencies that get lost, leaving you with a wispy unsubstantial sound. Not so here.
There's plenty of detail and plenty of volume on offer, so when you're pounding the pavement listening to Running Trax you'll get that full-bodied music that fits workouts so well. So long as the fit is right, things sound great for the asking price.
If you're after a pair of wired headphones with a 3.5mm plug for sport, then the Sennheiser OCX 686 is certainly worth a look. With an affordable price, rain- and sweat-resistance, and comfortable-to-wear over-ear hook design, these in-ears are a perfect match for sport.
The main downside is the way the cable goes around the neck, meaning an off-balance bias to one side. It's possible to counter any pull by using a clip onto clothing, but a wireless pair of earphones wouldn't suffer this problem.
Alternatives to consider
Bose SoundSport Pulse
Bose is a big name in audio and the SoundSport are proving incredibly popular, both in the Pulse model that adds heart rate sensing, but also in the regular model that's just a pair of Bluetooth sports headphones. They look great, wear well and sound fantastic. For those looking for more metrics the heart rate function is supported by apps like Strava and Runkeeper.
Read the full review: Bose SoundSport Pulse
The Jaybird X3 are an accomplished pair of sports headphones, coming with a range of fins and tips to help you get a snug fit. They are Bluetooth again so there's no worry about plugging them in, but the real boost comes from the app that will let you manage them and tailor the sound to suit your style.
Read the full review: Jaybird X3