I have secretly snickered at people in the gym that walk around with big headphones. It’s hard to take a man seriously when he is wearing big red headphones with the glistening “Beats” logo, even when he is pumping iron. All this was before I made the walk of shame to the store and bought myself a pair of the orange Urbanears Hellas.
Most of my music consumption happens when I work out and conventional wisdom dictates that one should buy light in-ear headphones for such purposes.
So I tried a fair few of them to find my ideal gym partner and they were all decent in their own right but none had the legs to last the distance, so to speak.
Amongst my earlier purchases, Plantronics Backbeat Fit have proven to be the most comfortable and least restrictive because of their design. But the sound quality can be pronounced average, at best.
You can pump up the volume for a song you like without feeling like someone is drilling into your eardrums.
The Samsung Level U, another decent device, has very aggressive ambient noise cancellation which works great in noisy gym environments. But the ear pieces refuse to stick in the ear when you run, or even turn your head to glance sideways.
The Jaybird X2 probably had the most clear sound and ticked most boxes. But they would hurt my ears till about half an hour after.
Ditto the Beats Powerbeats2 Wireless. They had the best bass (a must for gym if you ask me) but gave me a chronic ear-pain after wearing them for a while.
So I had to reluctantly accept that in-ear headphones and I weren’t meant to be. Thus began the search for on-ear headphones that would sound great, survive the abuse of my gym bag and of course be sweat-proof. I was surprised by how small that list was.
Enter the Urbanears Hellas.
Urbanears is a small Scandinavian company established in 2009. They don’t have big marketing budgets so they aren’t very popular but they seem to make smart, affordable products.
If you are an audiophile who uses the likes of Sennheiser HD 598 (or better) headphones on your desk, the Hellas will fail to thrill you. Their sound quality will probably be their weakest aspect you’ll choose to live with, just to enjoy other strengths.
But if your frame of reference is standard earphones that come with your phone or sub 150 dollar Bluetooth in-ear headphones, you’ll be pleasantly surprised by the Hellas performance. Over-ear headphones in general handle bass better. You can even pump up the volume for a song you like without feeling like someone is drilling into your eardrums.
I mostly listen to Hip-Hop, Rap, Pop, R&B or country music. All the in-ear headphones that I’ve used so far have had a tendency of sounding very “tinny”. The balance of sound for most of these genres on the Hellas though, is extremely good.
Touch interfaces seem very intuitive when you can see the surface you are interacting with. But when you are feeling the side of the headphones while wearing them, your fingers long for the tactile feel of a button.
I consistently get 11 to 12 hours of battery life although it’s advertised as 14 hours. I guess it boils down to the volume you listen to as well. It has very good standby battery too. On the weekends, my headphones stay connected with the phone almost through the day but it hardly impacts the playing time.
The frame of the Hellas is two metal wires with a mesh head cushion, so there isn’t an awful lot that can go wrong with it. It doesn’t have the faux leather earbuds or head cushion on it. So they won’t wear off with time, especially if they get wet.
In fact, the head cushion and earbuds can be pulled out entirely and washed in the nifty washing bag that comes with them. I found the bag so nice, I use it for the headphones storage. To me, this is one of it’s biggest strengths. You can use them for your workouts or running without the fear of spoiling them or living with the residual smell.
They sit very comfortably on my head without trying to squeeze it like a lemon. I’ve worn them for running (about 8 kms in Singapore’s humidity) and I didn’t have to readjust them even once. Even in the gym doing weights, planks or bench-press…they never moved from their place. I found them way more comfortable than the in-ear headphones that I’ve owned and tried.
Before and after my run
The cover of the right ear is completely touch sensitive. Vertical scrolling increases and decreases the volume and horizontal scrolling changes songs back and forth. Tapping it once pauses and plays music…or answer calls.
What’s notable though, albeit disappointingly so, is that quite like Beats and other top manufacturers, the headphone’s volume control do not have any bearing on that of your Android phone. What that translates into is that you can adjust volume from the touch interface but you’re required to have two completely separate volume controls to operate(one of the phone and the other of the headphones). That said, if you are a long time Android user, you are accustomed to such dual operative adjustments and wouldn’t break a sweat. Needless to say, the iPhone does not have this problem.
I scrutinized the touch controls quite a lot, including wet hands, but it holds up just fine.
If you are in constant fear of accidentally turning them on while they are in the bag, worry-not, they automatically turn off after 10 minutes if they can’t find a connection.
I still wish the design had stuck with tactile control keys. Touch interfaces seem very intuitive when you can see the surface you are interacting with. But when you are feeling the side of the headphones while wearing them, your fingers long for the tactile feel of a button.
Most people prefer in-ear headphones for their workouts and probably for good reason. They are easy to store, light to wear and offer reasonably good sound. If you are someone who doesn’t mind in-ear headphones… you should probably give the Hellas a miss. Some in-ear headphones in the same price range will win on all counts: storage, durability and sound quality.
But if you are like me and generally dislike in-ear headphones, the Hellas are probably your best bet.
They provide the benefits of on-ear headphones in sound quality and comfort, are snug around your head during intense workouts, are very light & comfortable, washable, durable and can take good abuse without shattering into pieces. I’ve dropped them a couple of times and thrown them in my gym bag without resulting in a scratch or any loss of sound quality.
They come in different color options to match your style as well. You can check out various options here.
If you are like me though and tend to sweat a lot from your head and temples (or live in very humid conditions), you might want to invest in a couple of bandannas. Else you’ll be washing the poor buggers more than you’d care to.