Headphones of Last Resort: How Low Will You Go?

We all have our standards; that bar under which we shall never limbo. Some will eat at fast-casual restaurants, but never fast food. Some are fine flying coach on Delta, but won’t ever fly Spirit. Some can Uber all day long, but would never ever consider the bus. Starbucks, yes. Folgers, never. Mayo yes, but never Miracle Whip. But, there are times when you have to bend your own rules. Times when a tuna sandwich out of a vending machine is just fine. With your headphones, is there ever that time?

I’m probably a bit of an audio snob. I refused to ride in cars with the Sirius chipset for satellite radio. I’ve turned down concert tickets when I know the sound will suck. I tremor at the thought of listening to anything in mono. But recently, my convictions were tested. I showed up at the gym without my favorite Audio-Technica earbuds. Oh, the horror.

Anyone who goes to the gym knows that a long cardio session is only possible with the highest levels of distraction. A pounding music track to get you through sprint intervals, epic progressive rock songs to get through an enduro session on the bike. A long guilty-pleasure movie to hammer away the hours on a stair climber. That was me, a week ago. In preparation for a hiking trip to Yosemite (and living in the flatlands of Florida) I had scheduled a 2-hour, 300-flight workout on the stair-climber torture device at the local gym. Music and movies were the only thing that would get me through, and the moment I walked into the gym, I realized that I had left my earphones at home. Needless to say, panic ensued.

I checked my bag, I checked the car. I checked my bag again. And again. See, I’m the sort of person who carries around not one, not two, but three pairs of earphones, just in case. I’ve been caught on a cross-country flight without them and never want to do that again. I usually have one or two wired, and one wireless, but somehow, on this day, I had none in my gym bag.

So there I was, staring at a pair of gym-branded earbuds hanging next to the water bottles and headbands. For a mere $6.50, I could purchase a brand new pair of generic earbuds, guaranteed to sound exactly like a pair of $6.50 earphones. I checked the car one more time, and then handed over my credit card, workout saved, my audio-snob title in doubt. To make it all the more pathetic, I usually have at least 25 pairs of headphones in my home at any given time.

If you’ve never auditioned a pair of gym earphones, let me share my opinion. They are horrible. Truly abominable. When I first plugged them into my phone, I had to check to make sure they were plugged in properly. How could they possibly sound so bad? Thin, harsh, shrill, tinny — just a few of the choice words that came to mind. And can we talk about distortion? Total harmonic distortion indeed! Oh my, could I ever get through my workout with these atrocities on my ears?

Oddly enough, I started my workout, and tuned into a movie, and over time, I gradually ignored the horrible sound quality. I focused on the dialogue, my heart rate, pace, and steps climbed. In the end, it didn’t matter. While I was tempted to go home and skip the workout because I had forgotten my earphones, I got the same amount of exercise, crappy sound or not.

Workout was done. On the way home, I stopped at a gas station for a cup of coffee and a prepackaged tuna sandwich. How bad could it be?