SMS Audio BioSport earbuds review: Heart-rate-monitoring headphones are more convenient than you think

I was skeptical when I first heard about SMS Audio's BioSport biometric heart-rate-monitoring earbuds. They measure your heart rate through your ears Assuming they do, is the traditional method of strapping a heart-rate monitor to your chest so inconvenient that adding that feature to a pair of fitness earbuds justifies a $150 price tag And finally, would the whole package sound like $150 headphones

Well, my questions were answered: Yes, yes, and not really. The BioSports's heart-rate monitor--developed in conjunction with Intel--is located on the underside of the right earbud, where it rests against your ear and shines a light through your skin to determine your heart rate. Weird science, right But it's very accurate. As for the convenience factor; well, I never wear my heart rate monitor at the gym because it's extra work to put on and I always forget to charge it. I'll get to the audio performance later.

Sporty, not sexy

The BioSports aren't anything special to look at. There are no physical clues to indicate that they're packing fancy biometric technology cooked up by Intel engineers; in fact, they look like typical sports headphones: Flat, tangle-proof cord; small built-in remote/microphone; and soft rubbery buds with a flexible "ear wing" fin that helps them stay put. The remote has just one button for play, pause, and skipping a track. You must use the controls on your device to control the volume, as the only other switch on the BioSports is for turning the heart-rate monitor on and off. The kit includes the usual accessories: Three different sizes of earbud covers, a detachable wire clip, and a color-coordinated zippered neoprene storage pouch.

The BioSports are bigger than your average earbuds, but they're still smaller than the wireless buds I've tested--that's probably because they don't have a built-in battery. The heart-rate monitor draws power from your phone's headphone jack (it's compatible with the Apple iPhone 4S and up; the Samsung Galaxy Note II, Galaxy Grand II Duos, Galaxy S4, and Galaxy S5; the LG Nexus 5; and the Motorola Moto X). The audio plug is a right-angle plug that's slightly wider than normal, so you may need to remove thick phone cases in order to plug these in. If you don't have a compatible device, the BioSports will still work as ordinary headphones (but why buy them if you can't use their signature feature)

Despite being bigger than average, the BioSports are lightweight and are some of the most comfortable earbuds I've worn. The "ear wing" fin fits snugly into the cymba conchae (the little pocket right above your ear canal), allowing the BioSports to stay put even through intense cardio workouts. The optional wire clip sort of helps to control excessive wire movement when you're working out; but it's a little too loose and tends to slide up and down the wire, catching and pulling at inopportune times.

You're paying for tech, not audio performance

Flipping a small switch on the BioSports' remote control activates its heart-rate monitor. Currently, the phones work exclusively with RunKeeper (Android or iOS), but SMS says compatibility with additional fitness apps is in the works (MapMyFitness support is promised for later this year). For now, you'll need to use Runkeeper if you want to track your workouts or see your heart rate at all.

The BioSports don't have active noise cancellation, but they do a great job of blocking outside noises.

To start tracking, open Runkeeper and start a workout in the app. Your heart rate, as well as your "activity zone," will appear at the bottom of the screen. You can use this for real-time monitoring throughout your workout. RunKeeper also stores the data in your log for reference. In my tests, I used a chest-strap heart rate monitor to determine the BioSports' accuracy, and the two monitors were never more than a couple beats off of each other.

The BioSports aren't terrible-sounding headphones, but it's clear you're paying more for the heart-rate monitoring feature than audio performance. Sennheiser's MX 686G sports earbuds sound considerably better at half the price ($70). Then again, top-drawer audio quality isn't the most important factor in sports headphones. Without a good comfortable fit, your earbuds won't stay in your ears long enough for you to enjoy the music anyway, so most people are willing to settle for "good enough" audio. The BioSports deliver muddy bass and flabby midrange, but surprisingly they're clear and detailed in the upper register. As a result, bass-heavy EDM tracks sound mushy and ill-defined on these headphones, but vocals sound excellent.

The BioSports don't have active noise cancellation, but they do a great job of blocking outside noises. That's great if you're exercising indoors in a controlled environment; not so much if you're running run outside. As I jogged through downtown Los Angeles, I could loud sounds such as horns and sirens, but subtler noises--ranging from bicycles to cars--were blocked. These are not the best headphones to wear if you need to be aware of your surroundings.

They won't make your heart pump

If heart-rate monitoring is important to you, SMS Audio's BioSport earbuds are more convenient than you might think. Not only do you not have to wear something on your wrist or around your chest, but you also don't have to worry about running out of batteries. If there's one thing that can totally kill your workout vibe, it's arriving at the gym only to realize that you forgot to charge your equipment. If heart-rate monitoring isn't a critical feature, or if you're already using another device for that and you're happy with its performance, there's little recommend to these earbuds.

This review was published as part of a roundup of fitness earbuds. Click here to read the accompanying buyers guide and find links to the other three products reviewed at the same time.


Sarah Jacobsson Purewal

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