I’m a long-time music lover, but even before making the switch from MTB to cycle touring, I realized that cycling with headphones just isn’t for me. Whether they are in-ear buds or simply cover the ear, I was never able to find that happy medium where I could hear my music while still picking up on normal audio queues. I’ve learned over the years that out in the world, on the road or off, such sounds can be critical to one’s ability to remain alive and uninjured. Safety-wise, I just can’t justify deafening myself to such stimuli. I’m also not the type of person who blasts music over regular speakers while out on the trail. Call me old-fashioned, but I consider it bad form to inflict my musical tastes on others without their consent. I also listen to a wide range of music, including some with language which is altogether inappropriate for children.
Until recently, all that has meant no music for me while in the saddle. I’d considered the issue settled for years. Then one day, I logged into my favorite cycling forum and noticed an ad for O-tus Safe Sounds Helmet Speakers. I went to their site. They get it. Earbuds and bicycles are not a safe combination. O-tus helmet speakers are not earbuds. They are external speakers, but so small and mounted so close to the ear that they may be used without risk of sharing one’s music with every passer-by. It’s bad enough when people in cars do that. My interest spiked, but I saw potential problems.
I ride a touring bike, which is currently outfitted with Nokian studded tires claimed to be equal to any frozen conditions short of outright singletrack. They mount 240 carbide studs per tire, thus making a good bit of noise on dry pavement, especially when aired-down for traction on compacted snow and ice. Better yet, the tread pattern is quite aggressive for better traction in inclement conditions. That means a significant hum on dry pavement at any speed over 10-12 mph. Finally, when it’s colder, I wear an insulated beanie under my helmet, over my ears. When temps drop further, I add a balaclava under the beanie. While neither cuts ambient sound a lot, both do make a noticeable difference. With all this, I frankly didn’t have high hopes for O-tus’ helmet speakers during the cold season. Between the noise of my tire’s studs and aggressive tread, and the muffling effect of my cozy headgear, I figured the speakers might end up being a summertime-only item. Happily, I was completely mistaken.
The O-tus’ speakers are designed to mount to one’s helmet using an innovative successor to hook-and-loop fasteners. O-tus calls them ‘lock rectangles’ or ‘dual lock’. Unlike hook-and-loop fasteners, these don’t require two dissimilar materials to work – the fasteners are all the same and snap easily and securely together while remaining easy to separate when desired. A powerful adhesive on the reverse enables easy mounting. The speakers themselves come with the dual lock material already attached. The kit includes enough additional adhesive patches to mount the speakers and an MP3 player on two different helmets. Additional installation kits and other accessories are available from O-tus if needed.
In order to mount my speakers, I had to trim my helmet using a razor blade. Very minor surgery to re-shape a small area in order to provide a patch for the ‘dual lock’ material to stick. The speakers need to be mounted just above and in front of the ears, such that they face the ear canal as much as possible. This step is critical because the speakers’ output is highly directional. If they are not oriented correctly, sound quality falls off quickly. This sounds like a down-side, but it’s not: it’s the reason why I am confident that I’m not sharing my music with everyone I pass when I ride multi-use trails with pedestrians. When I take my helmet off, my music goes away. It’s great.
The best way to understand this is to plug the speakers into a sound source, put on your helmet and hold them roughly in place above your ears. Twist them around a bit, and you’ll notice dramatic changes in volume and sound quality. The trick is to make a note of the angles involved with the best sound before taking a knife to your helmet. I found an assistant/observer to be highly valuable here.
A bit of trimming with a razor and the dual lock material went right on, followed by the speakers.
The speakers connect to your MP3 player via a short piece of cable, which I threaded through air vents in my helmet to take up the little bit of slack and guide the jack to the back of my helmet, where 2 more lock rectangles are used to attach an MP3 player. As you can see in the pic, my helmet is getting… heavy. The O-tus helmet speakers and MP3 player joined a taillight and pair of headlights. The orange reflective strip isn’t so bad.
The end-result is a simple and easy to modify setup. Though additional accessories are available through O-tus’ website, I completed my installation using the system as-delivered. I added nothing but my MP3 player and a razor blade for helmet-trimming. Out on the trail, I’m thrilled: in spite of my winter clothes and noisy tires, these speakers are great. I hear the clatter of the tire’s studs and hum of the tread. I also hear my music. More importantly, I hear the rest: birds singing, critters crashing through the brush. Oncoming traffic. Pedestrian’s responses to my overtake warnings. Even minor rattles from my trunk bag. Traffic on a distant road.
In short, I hear everything I am used to hearing on the well-known routes I’ve ridden – plus my music. While I’m mainly a MUP-cyclist at the moment, I have also put in some miles on public roads, and have experienced the addition of music without the drowning-out of potentially all-important traffic sound.
Indeed, I can hear the sound of traffic on a local 6-lane 55mph thoroughfare from nearly a mile away. Better yet, I continue to hear my music even when cycling alongside the same road, with only a few yard’s separation from moderately heavy traffic.
Overall sound quality is good, so long as one understands that these are external speakers, not earbuds. They aren’t intended to be blasted like a teenager’s home stereo. Don’t expect to catch every last note of every single song in perfect clarity – unless you’re cycling in total silence. Other sounds impinge on the music. Sometimes, if rarely, these ‘exterior’ noises will block it out entirely. So far as I’m concerned, that’s kind of the point. If I wanted to hear nothing but the music, I’d use earbuds.
I’ve found well-known music with an energetic beat works better for me than does less familiar or more intricate material. The speaker’s sound fades a bit as speed rises, but I’ve still enjoyed my tunes at 25+mph. I’ve also been largely washed out on one side by a ~15mph crosswind from just the ‘right’ angle. It has to be ‘right’, though. I fully expect that when the time comes to ditch the winter hats and swap back to my mostly-slick summer tires, I’ll enjoy a bump in sound quality and volume. Until then, I still get to enjoy my tunes safely.
A note on volume: these are external speakers which require higher volume levels out of the player than I’d ever want for earbuds. O-tus’ instructions point this out and offer a way to bypass the iPod’s volume limitations. I happen to use a SanDisk player, which the instructions don’t apply to. Nevertheless, they alerted me to the need, and sure enough, my player’s maximum volume was not initially loud enough. I was able to fix it by cranking the pre-amp setting from zero into its middle range. This is all about the trade-off between enjoying one’s music without losing the ability to hear everything else.
O-tus Safe Sounds helmet speakers have changed my cycling life for the better by allowing me to safely enjoy music while in the saddle. They have been a part of every ride I’ve taken since I received them, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon. Come summer, I intend to buy another set for my wife. I’d do it sooner, but she isn’t as deranged as I am and doesn’t cycle in the middle of winter 😉
The self-portrait was taken at about 5 degrees. I can’t really say how thrilled I am to be able to safely enjoy music while cycling. It’s just wonderful. Thank you, O-tus Safe Sounds!
– Matt C.
*Matt’s a guest contributor on this site, and a member on the Twospoke.com cycling forums, where he won the O-tus Safe Sounds helmet speakers in a contest.