Headphones for cyclists

Headphones for cyclists

If you think the idea of cyclists wearing headphones is one of the stupidest things you’ve ever heard then that would make two of us. It’s why when I was approached by Chilli Technology to review their Bone Conduction Headphones my interest was piqued.

The headphones claim to allow you to keep awareness of your external surroundings as they don’t rely on the traditional method of sound transmissions. Instead, the sound is transmitted through your cheekbones and the headphones are placed in a position that doesn’t block your hearing.

In practise, as you cycle around and you are approached by a vehicle from behind, the sound of your music is drowned out. Assuming you keep the volume at a sensible level.

I’ve ridden around with these headphones a few times in London and the experience is interesting.

Comfortable to wear

The Chilli Technology Bone Conduction Headphones are comfortable to wear. They keep their position well even when going through potholes thanks to the tight cheek bone position.

To keep them in place it’s a good idea to also clip the additional volume and power controller to your cycling jacket. Having the extra controller is a very useful feature for quick adjustments.

Sound quality

The headphones are a happy midway point between my high quality Shure Headphones and strapping a small radio to my handlebars. The Bone Conduction Headphone quality is adequate enough but don’t expect to hear the intricate beats of your favourite songs.

Why would you possibly want to wear headphones as a cyclist?

This is the first big question. I was actually surprised at how often I wanted to wear the Bone Conduction Headphones. On routes that I’ve travelled multiple times things can get a little dull. Listening to the radio or to a few of my playlists on Spotify was, it has to be said, enjoyable.

I can also imagine how as a road cyclist on a lengthy training or leisure route you’d definitely enjoy having music playing in the background or catching up with your favourite podcasts. It would certainly take the edge of some of the tougher climbs.

Although, you could just as easily argue that cycling is one of the few times we are not multitasking and the headphones would detract from the simple pleasure of cycling itself.

Isn’t it dangerous?

The other big question surrounds the dangers of headphones for cyclists. It took a lot of testing before I could come to a conclusive answer. In the end I think it would be silly to wear these Bone Conduction headphones on a regular basis when cycling on busy streets. You need every single ounce of concentration to stay safe when cycling in London. Music, whichever way you frame it, is a distraction.

However, on longer rides in to the countryside I believe there is a place for these headphones. Car noises drown out the music nicely so you keep a strong enough awareness of your surroundings. Amongst road cyclists and for that matter mountain bikers I can see the appeal.

Ultimately, while I like the idea behind the headphones and I do believe they give you far more awareness than traditional headphones, I can’t see that many cyclists paying for the upgrade. Those who already cycle with headphones will probably continue to do so and keep just one of the earphones in and the volume low.

The Chilli Technology Bone Conduction Headphones can be found on Amazon for around £40 or on the Chilli Technology website (along with a cool Spy Pen!)

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35 Responses to Headphones for cyclists

  1. Matt 08/02/2012 at 3:37 pm #

    I laughed out loud a little as upon starting to read the review I have said to myself, they are surely no better than my Shure SE215s.. and then I clicked on your Shure link. Love moments like these.

    I myself always listen to music in one ear (the left one for obvious reasons) when riding the Boris bikes. I have not once had my earphones in when riding my commuting bike. As you said, music can be a distraction and as much as I love listening to music I cannot justify the risk.

    Good review either way, enjoyed it.

    • Matt 08/02/2012 at 3:47 pm #

      Told a lie..I had my earphones in during my three laps around Richmond park a month ago. And it was bloody awesome. Haven’t even noticed how an hour and a half went past. So I guess I agree with you that leisurely rides is a very nice addition and retracts the mind from the monotony that can arise on longer rides.

      • Andreas 08/02/2012 at 4:01 pm #

        Can’t beat the Shure headphones! It’s a fine line to tread when to wear headphones.

  2. Mark S 08/02/2012 at 4:21 pm #

    I get rather annoyed with people who moan about cyclists using headphones, whilst I agree you really do need all pretty much all 5 senses (and even a finally honed 6th sense….) when riding in town.

    I don’t see anyone bemoaning car drivers who listen to a stereo in their car? Inside a metal box you are already pretty shut off from traffic noise, combine this with music played at a reasonable level and it can easily drown out external noise and that’s without those wonderful systems that would put some nightclubs to shame and could knock down buildings with weak foundations :-)

    • Simon Wilcox 09/02/2012 at 10:16 am #

      The difference being, of course, that car drivers have a big tin box to shield them from the truck they didn’t hear whereas cyclists have nothing at all !

  3. Chris Bolton 08/02/2012 at 6:33 pm #

    I bought one of these http://onegoodearbud.com/ with the flexible hook for use whilst cycling and can highly recommend it. The fidelity is pretty good whilst allowing a good awareness of other sounds around you.

  4. katy 08/02/2012 at 7:46 pm #

    I ride with one earphone in (usually my left ear too) and I keep the volume low enough that I do know whats going on around me….

    (but then again, I ride more for leisure and less commuter..ing so I tend to stick to roads/cycle paths that I’m really familiar with).

    Headphones, loud, both ears is another story.

    Not sure I would want to spend money on cycling specific earbuds…

  5. Levente 08/02/2012 at 7:55 pm #

    This can be especially useful when using a navigation app on an unfamiliar route; you don’t have to keep an eye on the screen.

    • Andreas 09/02/2012 at 9:29 am #

      True – that’s one of the first things I tried using Bike Hub but the GPS were too slow to be transmitted in time to be able to make the turn.

  6. Big Softy 08/02/2012 at 8:57 pm #

    I definitely like the idea of listening to music whilst riding, especially on some of the long slogs, but I value my life too much.
    Even the single earbud approach doesn’t work, as I find I lose the directionality of potential dangers. We have 2 ears for a reason.
    I’m certainly not bemoaning anyone that wishes to wear headphones, it’s your choice, and your life. But cycling in London is dangerous enough at the best of times, and I want to give myself every advantage I can to stay safe.
    As far as I’m concerned, the only safe way is to tape a transistor radio to your handlebars like we did in the sixties before these new-fangled MP3 players were invented.

  7. Kim 09/02/2012 at 10:42 am #

    I am always confused by the attitude to cyclists wearing headphone, it is assumed that cyclists all have perfect hearing and are expected to keep out of the way of drivers approaching from behind them. This ignores several things: it assumes that everyone has perfect hearing and that people with hearing impairments can not ride bicycles. It also assumes that drivers can’t be expected to look where they are going and that they have no responsibility to avoid people riding bicycles on the road ahead of them.

    There is a real issue around responsibility here, there is a tendency to place all the responsibly for “safety” on the most vulnerable, rather than those most capable of causing harm. This is totally upside down, there is a reason we restrict who can drive. We don’t require pedestrians and cyclist to have licenses, because they generally unlikely to cause harm to other. Drivers on the other hand had a great capacity to cause harm to others, so we make them take a test and only allow them to drive under license.

    Sadly far too few drivers recognise that the driving licence is not a right and that it comes with responsibilities. Currently it is seen as not only acceptable but normal, for driver to drive with loud sound system which distract their attention. This is because if they hit someone, the victim is considered to be at fault. If we really want to make our streets safe for everyone, we must first reduce the risk from those with the greatest capacity to cause harm to others. Only once we have done that do we need to worry about the minor issues.

    • Andreas 09/02/2012 at 2:07 pm #

      Completely agree with this – you see the blame the victim culture so often. Another example is the posters you see saying “Don’t let your friendships die on the road” – blaming the child for stepping out in front of the car.

  8. Bruce 09/02/2012 at 2:06 pm #

    Cyclists with earphones are a danger to other cyclists. Yes, they may be able to hear cars and buses etc but they often have no sense of other cycles around them. A number of times I’ve had to swerve suddenly to avoid a cyclist I was passing who changed direction without notice and clearly without knowing what was coming up quietly from behind. Luckily no disasters yet but nearly always wearing earphones. As if there weren’t enough hazards out there. OK for the park I guess, but not on London streets.

    • Tim 09/02/2012 at 4:57 pm #

      You were approaching quietly behind them? What difference, compared to all the other sounds of a normal road, would headphones have made? Probably none. I’m hard of hearing so I can’t hear other cyclists approach me from behind – if you’re approaching a bike from behind, you should offer them the same courtesy you expect from cars – enough space to not think they’re in a bloody peloton.

      • Mark 10/02/2012 at 1:26 pm #

        you were approaching from behind and started an overtake manouever and had to swerve?

        the reason you had to swerve is probably because you were too close when overtaking!

        obviously the cyclist didnt check over their shoulder before they changed position, but its 50% your fault for not allowing them enough space too

  9. Tim 09/02/2012 at 4:55 pm #

    I suspect that, like helmets, no-one has any meaningfully useful data about how many cyclists have been killed or injured because they’ve been wearing headphones, rather than because some idiot ran them down.

    If you think cyclists should have to move around without any form of headphones / personal entertainment, ask yourself what you’d tell a deaf or hearing impaired cyclist to do.

    • Bruce 09/02/2012 at 6:37 pm #

      Tim – I do give other cyclists plenty of width and that’s probably why I’ve avoided a collision, but I’ve still had to take quick evasive action on occasion.

      I wouldn’t be so patronising as to give a hearing impaired person advice on something like this, but if forced to I’d say to be extra careful because they (you) do carry an extra layer of vulnerability. Indeed, I suspect you are rather more carefui about looking over your shoulder when changing direction than many.

      My ears are a useful secondary sense when cycling and rather more useful to me (and other road users) in that capacity than as a source of personal entertainment/distraction.

      • Andreas 10/02/2012 at 10:24 am #

        I guess the important distinction is that a hearing impaired person would have developed their other senses. The story of the visually impaired cyclist springs to mind – wish I had the link handy to the news article.

        In personal experience – where I’ve risked it with headphones in (my shure headphones) I’ve had a lot of difficulty predicting traffic – within 20 seconds of setting off on my route I’d pulled out in front of a car which normally I would have heard.

  10. Simon 10/02/2012 at 10:51 am #

    Might change my strategy after reading your post and these comments. I have a 12 mile commute through central london and couldn’t face it without music. Aware of the dangers but have been doing it for so long it’s going to be a hard habit to break.

  11. Denis 10/02/2012 at 12:01 pm #

    http://farm7.staticflickr.com/6157/6256473061_87e55e783b.jpg

    A £15 X-mini speaker mounted on the carry strap on my backpack – also allows my iPhone great GPS reception for Cyclemeter – complete awareness of surroundings with a soundtrack!

    • Jozudave 10/02/2012 at 4:27 pm #

      Thanks for this Denis. I have some X-mini speakers and had considered this, but the fact you’ve made it work shows me I should give it a go. As it happens I need a new bag anyway so I’ll look for one with good pocket position for my phone/ipod. What did you tie the X-mini onto the strap with?

      Any weird looks from other cyclists or pedestrians? Suppose it probably depends on what you listen to! ;-)

  12. Mark 10/02/2012 at 1:25 pm #

    i wear a pair of airdrives, bought on ebay, sent from usa.
    i think they were around £23, which i thought was expensive, but it was a price i was willing to pay to be able to listen to music during my 10 mile commute to london.
    its great, its kind of like in a film when a soundtrack comes on in the background but you still hear sounds in the film,,,, some days it is sooo perfect, like a summers evening and the right track comes on at the right time, i feel like i am living the dream. makes me remeber how good life is :-D

    i have been using them for almost a year now and they havent effected my safety at all, i highly recommend them -

    http://www.amazon.com/AIRDRIVES-INA099100-Airdrives-Interactive-Earphones/dp/B000YHWVRE

    i would also like to add that they have the added ability to be used as handsfree with a phone as they have a built in mic.
    obviously when a big noisy london bus pulls alongside you cant hear a thing, but if im going to have a long conversation with a friend, my 45 minute commute is a great time to do it. not advised for inexperienced cyclist though as obviously you need to be able to keep safe on the road, which i like to think is now second nature to me…. (touch wood!)

    • Jozudave 10/02/2012 at 4:29 pm #

      Interesting! Will check them out thanks!

  13. philcycle 10/02/2012 at 3:12 pm #

    Reading “The Winter of Our Disconnect” I learn that the human brain does not multi-task, but actually sequences through all the tasks we believe we are ‘multi-tasking’. To add the task of listening to music could be the ‘straw that broke the camel’s back’ and overload the neural pathways. I think there is enough to think about without adding music.

    • Mark 10/02/2012 at 3:22 pm #

      each to their own i guess.

      Personally – I’d rather spend one and a half hours of my day riding with music than without because it makes the ride much more enjoyable, so it is a calculated risk im willing to take :-)

    • Phil Russell 11/02/2012 at 4:02 pm #

      [[[[[[[[[[ Right on, Philcycle-----and I suspect that a great many collisions are caused by distractions such as en-route "entertainment", whether in-car, or on-bike, or on-foot. I'll never be Transport Minister, but if I were, I'd ban all music and computers in cars and lorries (leaving speech-radio channels for traffic/weather reports), fine distracted pedestrians for stepping into the path of cyclists, fine ANY road-user caught wearing headphones when we should all be concentrating 100% on the job in hand----which is to avoid causing injury to those around us. Phew! I feel better now.
      P.R.

  14. Big Softy 11/02/2012 at 12:30 am #

    I fully agree that drivers should be not only be taught responsibility, but also held responsible for the privilege of operating a 2 ton piece of metal.
    But unfortunately for riders and pedestrians, knowing you had the right of way doesn’t mean much when you have a lorry parked on your chest.
    Because we are among the most vulnerable of road users it serves us to take responsibility for our own safety in every way possible, with every facility we possess.
    It certainly ain’t fair, but it makes sense.

  15. Claire 13/02/2012 at 5:54 pm #

    I get a lot of negativity for wearing headphones, but i think if you’re a good cyclist then you’re a good cyclist with or without headphones and if you’re a bad cyclist, then the same applies. I wear headphones and i can still concentrate perfectly well. I’m always conentrating and if a tricky situation arises then i just blank out the music. I can still hear the traffic and there’s alwasy traffic behind you in London anyway so you should always look before manoevering. You can’t hear cars indicating or going to open a door, you always have to be on the ball anyway. but if you’re someone who gets distracted with headphones in then don’t use them. And they keep my ears warm in winter…….

  16. David 15/02/2012 at 9:32 am #

    When I used to motorcycle I couldn’t afford to depend on my ears because of wind noise and wearing a full face helmet. I was taught to compensate by regularly checking what’s going on around me. Especially important to do a shoulder check before changing direction. The same discipline translates well to cycling. I often wear ear buds while cycling in town and never get taken by surprise.

    What amazes me is the number of cyclists I see changing direction without looking over their shoulder. They’re clearly depending on their ears. Presumably they assume the only kind of vehicle they need to worry about is the motorised sort.

    • Andreas 15/02/2012 at 12:13 pm #

      True David – it’s easy to become complacent. I catch myself doing it occasionally and try to remind myself to always check. What is the visibility like from motorbike mirrors?

      • David 15/02/2012 at 1:47 pm #

        Motorbike mirrors are a help towards maintaining awareness while going along not changing your road position; you wouldn’t want to rely on them.

  17. shaumik 18/02/2012 at 10:12 pm #

    well, why the double standard – you can listen to the radio while you drive, and it’s a good deal harder to hear the outside world from inside a car than it is on a bike.

    I personally listen to podcasts (so spoken word, not music) which allows me to hear traffic over it.

    I use the etymotic earphones / mic combination which come with an iPhone app that puts loud external noise over the tracks that you’re listening to which is a neat trick.

    • Phil Russell 20/02/2012 at 3:58 am #

      [[[[[[[[[[[[ Hello Shaumik....no "double standards" from me. Yes, we can listen to loud (DEAFENING) music in our cars---I don't---but how can a driver hear the tinkle of a biker's bell if the biker finds himself (or herself) trapped perilously close to the kerb by one of these SMIDSY'S (sorry-mate-I-didn't -see-you), busy fiddling with a satnav, or a CD, or any music-device, or a cell-phone, or any other in-car toy seemingly fitted as standard now?
      You're right---it is indeed "a good deal harder" for drivers to hear what's going on around them, and when you throw into the mix the apparent inability of some motorists to actually SEE cyclists, I for one am not going to distract myself with the mental pictures which music conjures up when I listen to it....and the same goes for the pictures generated by recordings of speech.
      Here endeth the rant!
      PR.

  18. polycosm 06/08/2012 at 9:38 pm #

    I love cycling with headphones, and have done for many years. I have probably adapted to cycling with limited hearing. I always check over my shoulder and never assume that the road is clear behind me, something that a lot of open-eared cyclists seem to forget to do.I totally believe that i am a safer rider with music playing, i need to compensate for the lack of hearing by increasing my visual checks. I tend to only listen to the radio while cycling and never my own music, as i feel more absorbed in my favourite tracks. As someone above said, not wearing headphones will not make you into a safer rider…

    only last week i found myself in a mini panic, as i thought i had forgotten my headphones at work, and was wondering how i would get home with all that distracting noise on the road.

    I feel that some people think that just because they cannot cycle with headphones, that it must be dangerous for all, i suppose the same could be said for being clipped in, or on a fixed wheel, or on slicks, etc etc….

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