By Adrienne So
When you test workout headphones, you donâ€™t get to try over-ear ones very often. Over-ear headphones might be more comfortable, but theyâ€™re harder to stuff in a pocket when youâ€™re on the go. Theyâ€™re heavier, and they can get pushed off your head. Theyâ€™re also completely useless if your workout routine involves headstands. Just sayinâ€™.
So when I got the JLab Audio Flex Sport, I was skeptical. But over the course of two weeks, they converted me. Theyâ€™re extremely lightâ€”just 6.3 ouncesâ€”and you can adjust the tensioning on the headband. They stayed on securely while trail running, hiking, lifting weights, and climbing, and they kept my ears warm and wicked away sweat.
The Flex Sport has its inconveniences. Even with a tight fit, they still slipped around underneath a rain jacket hood. I have a hard enough time keeping my workout clothes washed, so adding washable earpads and a washable headband is even more of a pain.
But I found myself forgetting all about those troubles when I stopped, mid-run, to cock my head and realize that I was hearing low heartbeats under a voice track on a podcast. Or to start pumping my fist when I realized that the downbeat on a Lenny Kravitz song was whooshing in from my right ear when the intro was building tension on the left. And all for only $99! These are a steal.
Fit and Flex
Upon opening the box, you can opt to choose between a loose fit without a tension band; a normal one, with JLabâ€™s Flex Fit band; or a tight one, with the Firm Fit band. Without a tension band, the headband is perforated for greater breathability and comfort. Thereâ€™s also an optional soft headband pad to wick away sweat.
I opted for the tight fit while working out, and for the normal one while walking my dogs and around my house. Each part, including the soft, washable ear cups, pops in and out easily.
The soft ear pads are cushioned with polyurethane foam and covered with a soft, absorbent polyester-cotton blend. To wash them, pop them out and into the travel bag, and run them on a gentle cycle. You can tumble dry them on low heat.
I thought putting a padded device on a not-insignificant proportion of my headâ€™s surface area would be sweaty and uncomfortable. Oddly enough, it wasnâ€™t. I really dislike the sensation of in-ear workout headphones getting sweaty inside my ear canals, and the Flex Sport eliminated that problem entirely.
The Flex Sport also solved my problem of how to keep my ears warm while running outside on chilly fall mornings, although they did have a tendency to shift around when I was wearing a hood. My ears did get a little hot when working out in a gym, but it wasnâ€™t uncomfortable.
When the headphones warned me that the battery was getting low, I found that it took around two hours of charging for the light to indicate a full battery. However, it took only five or ten minutes to top up long enough for an hour-long run or dog walk. JLab notes that it has a full 20 hours of battery life. In two weeks of wearing for multiple hours a day to walk, run, and do chores around my house, I only had to charge it fully once.
The buttons are easy to find, and versatile. It was easy to switch the Flex Sportâ€™s connection from my phone to different music player devices (JLab also advises you to use their app to burn in the headphones, but I skipped that). You can also use the volume buttons to skip or go back to different tracks, or use the power button to activate Siri.
The right logo button also activates the Flex Sportâ€™s ambient noise feature, which JLab calls Be Aware Audio. As an outdoor runner or walker, itâ€™s extremely important for me to be able to hear outside noise. Rather than just letting in ambient noise, the headphones will use the microphone to pick up outside noise and play it for you, in real time. It’s tuned to mimic the volume of the sound in real life.
When you first turn on Be Aware, you hear a constant hush of white noise. When you’re wearing over-ear headphones, you intuitively expect that the sounds of cars driving by, or your dog scratching at some dirt, will be muffled for a bit. The sounds weren’t louder in the headphones than they were without them, but it still made me jump out of my skin a little bit to hear ambient noise so clearly.
I appreciated this feature’s inclusion, and if I regularly worked out in an area where I might be mown down by a car, I would be grateful for it. As it is, however, I decided Iâ€™d rather be beaned in the head with a Frisbee in the park by my house than listen to hissing in between songs, so I turned it off and just turned the volume down low when I was outside.
You can also use the right logo button to switch in between JLabâ€™s signature sound, with amped up vocals and bass; a balanced sound; and a big bass boost, for when you need to pump up â€œPaint It Blackâ€� and keep your pace to 160 steps per minute. Unsurprisingly, I liked JLabâ€™s signature sound the best.
When testing headphones, Iâ€™ve found that I like listening to gritty, scrappy, grunge, and punk rather than shimmering instrumentals. Itâ€™s a lot harder to make growls and shrieks sound enjoyable (a relative term) instead of muddy. I was surprised by how clear the guitars were on L7â€™s classic album, Bricks Are Heavy.
I know that sound in stereo is not an unusual characteristic in over-ear headphones. But as I said, workout headphones usually arenâ€™t over-ear ones. To me, enjoying music on multiple channels while running in the woods is like going on a picnic and finding out that your dining companion has packed real china. In an unusual context, ordinary things can seem extraordinary.
While outside, I often stopped in wonder to listen to the guitar intro to â€œDaughterâ€� on my left, while Eddie Vedder started crooning on my right. You just donâ€™t expect to enjoy the depth of a well-designed stereo mix when you’re miles away from home, running singletrack. Iâ€™m just lucky that no one but my dogs was there to listen to me belt out â€œHighway to the Danger Zoneâ€�.
I Can’t Stand the Rain
A couple of things about the Flex Sport give me pause. Itâ€™s annoying to keep track of the different tension bands and the travel, a.k.a. wash, bag. Also, I hate washing…anything, really. So the ear pads will probably stay on until they’re disgusting, and crusty with salt.
Theyâ€™re rated IPX4, which protects against splashes in every direction. Still, as someone who regularly runs outside in pouring rain, there are tough, durable headphones available that have much higher waterproof ratings.
Still, when it came time to go outside, I found myself overlooking these inconveniences and reaching for the Flex Sport time and time again. They were so comfortable, and the sound was so good. And it definitely does not pain me to recommend a pair of headphones that come in for under $100.