Naenka Runner Pro: sports to the bone
Hi-tech quality wireless headphones with a twist... or three
It's fair to say that true wireless headphones are not just a subcategory to a decades-old category anymore, but a separate product class in their own right, already featuring several different kinds of models for different use cases. One technology that not many of those models have taken advantage of, though, is bone conduction, a somewhat strange but futuristic and certainly effective way of listening. Having tested dozens of headphones over the years but never a pair based on this tech, I thought I'd give Naenka's Runner Pro headphones, that make use of it, a try... and came away more impressed than I ever thought I'd be - especially for the particular use case they are intended for.
Unboxing the Runner Pro quickly makes one thing clear: these are not your typical headphones. Yes, the band goes around the back of the neck and they fit behind the ears, so they are obviously made with sports in mind, but... where are the headphone pads? The two small surfaces at the band's opposite ends do not feature in-ear drivers either, so what gives?
It has to do with the bone conduction tech these are based on. Simply put: there is no "traditional" speaker driver directing sound waves into the listener's ear in these two small surfaces. What happens instead is that the sound travels as vibrations to the ear's cochlea through the head's bones, so in a more effective way than through air (the impulses that reach the brain through the auditory nerves are exactly the same). This tech was initially developed to help people with hearing problems but it was obvious that there were other ways it could be used by any consumer in use cases where traditional headphones cannot.
First impressions: decidedly positive
The Naenka Runner Pro come in a nice enough package containing the product itself, a product manual, the necessary magnetic USB charging cable - consumers will have to use their own chargers as but this is exceedingly common these days - and a pair of orange foam earplugs (their use is not by any means mandatory but they help bone conduction be more effective when the product is used in e.g. pools or in the sea).
The Runner Pro themselves are well-built from sturdy, black matte plastic that can take a lot of bending without breaking or getting deformed. They are extremely light (less than 35 grams) and easy enough to wear, but their band can end up on different heights at the back of one's head depending on that head's size and the exact placement of the small conduction surfaces (the best place for them is next to the small soft bone near the ear's canal called the "tragus"). As a result of this design, fit will vary between different people.
Yours truly did not feel any uncomfortable pressure on the bone where the conductor surfaces were resting, but after four or more hours of use, the plastic part that goes behind the ear did start to bite into the skin, often requiring some repositioning. Others may not have that issue at all and, in any case, listening to music with headphones for four hours straight is not something many people do outside of review sessions.
During normal sessions and surely in the context of their intended use, though - that is, while walking, running and working out - the Runner Pro never slipped, even on sweat on the skin, never tilted or dropped out of place as other sports headphones sometimes do. Again: this may not be the case for everyone, but this reviewer had no fit-related problems with this particular set of headphones.
Hands-on use and extra functions: unexpected delight
The Runner Pro are controlled by three small physical buttons on the right side of the headphones, which might not sound like many but are actually enough to perform every action necessary (each also recognizes a long press while two at a time can be pressed together for combination actions). They have a nice, tactile feel and apart from music control they also answer or terminate calls and call up a voice assistant (working with a smartphone obviously). Somewhat basic compared to other headphones but, with the Runner Pro being focused on sports, Naenka made the right choice here.
Pairing these headphones with Bluetooth devices is a breeze - and the wireless connection between them, when done over Bluetooth 5.0 (the review was conducted with the help of an iPhone 12 Pro Max), proved to be amazingly stable and problem-free even at a range greater than the "advertised" of 10 meters. Consumers choosing the Runner Pro, though, are not obliged to use a second device via Bluetooth in order to listen to music while working out, because the headphones incorporate 8GB of storage and the necessary software to play music files themselves.
All one has to do in order to take advantage of that feature is connect the Runner Pro to a computer via the accompanying USB charging cable - PCs, as well as Macs, are supported - and just transfer music files across to it as he/she would do with an external drive of any kind. The device supports MP3, WMA, WAV and even APE or FLAC file types, so chances are that consumers into digital music will be able to listen to it in this way with no trouble at all.
Through this second "offline" mode of operation, the Runner Pro do hit the advertised 6 hours of operation on a single charge, which is not market-leading but more than enough for most workouts. Consumers preferring the Bluetooth and second device option can expect 5 hours of operation or even a bit less depending on the volume level the Runner Pro are adjusted at (it's worth reminding that these headphones work by producing microvibrations).
Last but not least: Naenka's headphones are totally waterproof. No, not just water-resistant, truly waterproof as in "IP68-rated" and as in "worn in the pool or in the sea" waterproof. It's to be expected since they do not incorporate traditional speaker drivers, but it's noteworthy because not many headphones out there can offer music playback while... diving!
Sound quality: not perfect, but close enough for the use intended
So, what does music transferred to the brain via bone conduction sound like? It actually sounds quite good, very good in most cases, somewhat depending on the type of music consumers prefer listening to with the Runner Pro.
It's kind of a weird feeling at first, having the sound heard without actually going through the ear canals as we are all used to with traditional headphones or earphones, but after a few hours, it stops being noticeable. The feeling of microvibrations going through bone is not in any way uncomfortable or unpleasant, just... different. There is definitely something futuristic about the whole thing, easily convincing anyone that bone conduction is the kind of tech that deserves a place in mainstream consumer electronics.
Given that this tech works so differently from the one traditional headphones or earphones are based on, it might be almost unfair to compare the quality of sound offered by those products to the quality of sound offered by the Runner Pro. What becomes easily apparent, for instance, is that Naenka's solution goes easy on the low frequencies - maybe because the microvibrations of that kind would be much more felt by the listener's head bones. So these headphones, probably intentionally, render bass-heavy sound in a way that is more gentle and controlled than one expects from most closed headphones, for example.
Other than that, though, the Runner Pro perform more or less as open headphones do. Mids and highs are fully formed, vocals in songs are clear and correctly separated, acoustic instruments are detailed and textured, non-bass heavy beat is effective and well-balanced. Listening to podcasts is also as enjoyable as with traditional headphones. People who like to turn up the volume should keep in mind that the Runner Pro do encourage that, as distortion is minimal, even if the material being played is heard by others when reproduced at the highest volume levels.
Should I go for them, then?
The short answer is: yes. The Naenka Runner Pro are not absolutely flawless, but they work extremely well in the context of the specific use cases they were designed for. People who are into sports and need a quality pair of headphones that can carry them through their workout, even with no smartphone nearby to stream music from, will love them. They are light, they are sturdy, their sound quality is very good and their 5-to-6-hours of continuous operation is more than enough for almost any type of sport one can think of.
It's true that consumers e.g. looking for headphones to use for many hours at a time indoors have better options - as far as sound quality and overall comfort are concerned - but the Runner Pro were never intended for this scenario anyway. If it's outdoors and sports (and not just running...), then Naenka's solution is practically ideal.
This does bring the price of the product into sharp focus, meaning that $129 - discounted from $169 at Naenka's online store - may not be an inconsiderable amount of money to spend on an audio product used mostly in specific situations. It is not much for a pair of quality true wireless headphones either, though, with a built-in music player and 8 GB of storage to boot.
People actually into sports will enjoy countless workouts with the Runner Pro and, for them, $129 is a perfectly reasonable amount of money to spend in order to have their favorite music out there available to them at any given time. Runners some of us might not be, Naenka, but these headphones we absolutely intend to take to the beach!
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