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Music on your Commute: Abstinence or Safe Sounds?

by Samuel Hagler

This is a review of speakers, but I feel like a Sex Ed teacher getting ready to talk to high school students about condoms.

Here’s the deal: Maybe we shouldn’t cycle while listening to music. Maybe we would all be better citizens of the world if we could center ourselves in our zen place, clear our minds, and appreciate the sounds of everything from the birds chirping to the confused driver yelling at us to get on the sidewalk. But that’s about as likely as doping disappearing from professional cycling, and much less controversial.

 O-tus Mini-speakers for Bike Helmets

O-tus Mini-speakers for Bike Helmets

Sometimes you just want Rusted Root’s sweet, sweet melodies to send you on your way as you mount your steed and hit another epic trail. So here you go. As long as you’re going to do it, these cond— I mean, speakers are probably your safest option.

You don’t stick these in like you do with traditionally invasive ear buds. In fact, these little guys aren’t ear buds at all. They look like ear buds, but they are best described as micro-speakers, and they fasten to the underside of your helmet an inch or two above each ear hole.

Not only does this design allow for potentially life-saving traffic noise to reach your ears, but it could also prevent injury if anything were to collide with the side of your head like, say, a pumpkin (hey, happened to me), or Ron Burgundy’s half-eaten burrito.

Let’s get serious for a minute and state the obvious: Cycling day-to-day is a relatively safe activity. So you may be wondering if there are any other benefits to these air buds besides safety. Definitely.

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been stuck behind Headphony Tony one too many times on a bike path. “On your left!” But he doesn’t hear you. O-tus allows you to listen to music without being that guy.

As for me, I don’t usually ride with headphones, but now that I know these exist I am a lot more likely to ride while listening to music.

See what happened there? These speakers influenced me not to abstain. Sure, my music is quiet when I use these speakers, but they’re certainly safer than ear buds, more comfortable than headphones, and lighter weight than any other speakers I know of.

Summary:

  • I used a Philips GoGear Raga mp3 player.
  • Installation and setup time: About 1 hour.
  • Major benefit: Safe way to listen to music.
  • Major problem: Volume too low.
Philips GoGear Raga mp3 player with O-Tus Safe Sounds Speakers

Philips GoGear Raga mp3 player with O-Tus Safe Sounds Speakers

Detailed Pros:

  • COMFORTABLE: More comfortable than earbuds/headphones. I would never know they were on my helmet.
  • LIGHTWEIGHT: Lighter weight than more distant speakers (i.e. handlebar/backpack speakers)
  • MINIMAL SOUND POLLUTION: Less sound pollution than more distant speakers that would require higher volume to reach your ears. You can listen to Nicki Minaj without your riding buddies knowing.
Adam: O-Tus Senior Technical Advisor

Adam: O-Tus Senior Technical Advisor

  • EXTRAS: Plenty of extra installation pieces and adhesive to try try again in case at first you don’t succeed.
  • FREE MOUNTS: If you have one of the rare, extra thin helmets, special mounts are available at no extra cost by contacting Otus.
  • QUICK INSTALLATION: The installation of the device, itself, is quick and easy (not including music formatting/setup)
  • INSTRUCTIONS: Helpful instructions and videos on the website. URL included in instructions.
  • AFFORDABLE: About $42.00 US
  • INSTALL ONCE: After you install the speakers, they’re ready for a ride. You never have to remove them and reattach them.
  • ADAM: In the installation video on Otus’s website, Adam plays the part of “Senior Technical Advisor with Otus.” He’s a friendly little chap and the point is clear: Even a small child can install the speakers in just a few minutes.

Detailed Cons:

  • SPEAKER VOLUME: Very low volume. Otus, please turn it up. Explanation below.
  • SETUP TIME: Relatively long (1 hour) setup just to attempt to increase volume and retransfer music, which did not work for me in the end.
  • PREPARE TO CUT: You may need to cut some Styrofoam at the edge of your helmet. Instructions say to shave a paper thin area of Styrofoam. My helmet (Giro Indicator) required me to cut about quarter inch of Styrofoam away due to the rounded edges.
  • INSTRUCTIONAL VIDEO VOLUME: Poor guy. It’s difficult to understand everything little Adam says in the instructional video. Maybe now that he is older (the video was recorded in 2011) Otus can record another video whereby the cameraman doesn’t film from behind Adam’s voice direction, and he gets the opportunity to speak up a bit more.
  • SUNGLASS CLEARANCE: Installed speakers caused minor sunglass clearance issues. It takes a few seconds to make sure the arms of the glasses get tucked toward the inside of the speakers without knocking them loose.
  • FASTENERS: Speakers fall off when shoving gloves etc. into helmet after a ride. (Pro: They easily reattach by clicking into place.)

Speaker Volume Details:

Very low. Too low.

If I were a typical consumer, I might have written this off as a disappointing reality and gone on using quiet speakers, but because I am reviewing the product I made sure to read and follow every instruction included in the package, on the website, and in their videos.

O-Tus Safe Sounds Speakers

NOT an earbud, but… can’t.. resist… urge…

The third instructional video on their website explains how to edit the volume of every song in your iTunes library. It took about 30 minutes. After spending an hour installing the speakers, editing song volumes, and transferring songs from my new, supposedly louder iTunes library, I barely noticed a difference, if at all. To be sure, I left some of my older, regular volume songs on the mp3 player and imported new songs whose volume I had just increased. Only by a placebic stretch of my imagination did I notice a difference.

Even if there were a noticeable increase in volume, the time-consuming process begs the question, If the speakers can handle a louder volume, why do I have to change my music to make it happen? Why don’t O-tus’s factory settings allow for a sufficient volume?

Toward the end of the setup page on their website, O-tus says, “Warning – These are speakers not earbuds – Do not put directly in ears,” an ostensibly important warning considering the speakers look like ear buds. The warning gave me an idea. I turned the volume all the way up, (Oh, it already is), ignored the warning, and put the speakers in my ears.

They were loud, but definitely not too loud. In fact, I compared two other pairs of ear buds to these speakers and they sounded nearly the same. I certainly have headphones louder than these speakers even when the entire speaker is in my ear.

Oh well, safety first? The quieter the speakers are, after all, the safer you are, and the more birds you’ll hear chirping in the trees.

As for the confused drivers, you can react however you want to their outbursts… but I must admit it has been nice to have a good soundtrack (albeit a quiet one) helping me try to react non-aggressively to the inevitable road rage of misguided drivers.


Samuel HaglerSamuel Hagler is a returned Peace Corps volunteer and founder of the Ride for Good Foundation. He is a master’s candidate studying Bicycle Activism in the M.A. Sustainable Communities program at Northern Arizona University, and enjoys mountain biking, commuting, and traveling the world by bicycle.

 
Burley nomad 229

24 Responses to “Music on your Commute: Abstinence or Safe Sounds?”

  1. BluesCat says:

    My problem is that I cannot listen to “background music.” Not even when I’m driving the car.

    Maybe it’s because I don’t multitask well, or perhaps because I used to play in a rock band, but if there’s ANY music on — that I’m remotely interested in — I will concentrate on listening to the music to the exclusion of anything else.

    This can lead to drifting across lanes, running through stop signs, missing the street I needed to turn onto, etc.

    So these O-tus speakers would be flat DANGEROUS to me if they were mounted on my helmet.

  2. Joel says:

    I guess I am with BluesCat. As a cyclist, I really stay tuned to nature and road noise. This is starting down the slippery slope of distraction. One will have to adjust the volume occasionally, possibly switch music, and eventually have a bluetooth phone in the ear.

    We can then be just as distracted as many of the drivers on the road. There is one big difference, they are surrounded by 2,500 lb steel cages.

  3. Kwin says:

    You gotta be able to hear — speakers of some sort are undoubtedly safer than earbuds (or, heaven forbid, noise-canceling headphones) and probably better for your hearing, too.

    When I first started riding, I listened to music, but found that the music cut out too much of the world around me. Now, I listen to podcasts and audio books almost every day. The spoken word is not nearly as sonically dense as music and allows me to hear traffic — plus it’s not the same tracks all the time.

  4. Casper says:

    Considering that many people listen to the music while riding that is someting that my help other then distrub. Just do not pump the volume unless U wanna end being hit by bus or sth.. :)

  5. mwmike says:

    Try listening to news on NPR. I can’t ride without it.

  6. Graham says:

    I’ll be the dissenting voice here. Assuming that they fix the volume problem (sometimes you need to listen to a favorite sound loudly), this product has terrific potential.

    The ability to listen for traffic while also humming along to Rusted Root?! (Even though we’re both from the ‘Burgh I can’t understand half their lyrics so I have to hum) Yes, please!

  7. Matt H says:

    In Pennsylvania, driving a vehicle – bicycle or car – with headphones is illegal, yet it happens regularly. If someone kills themselves because s/he is rockin’ out in oblivious bliss, that’s tragic but self induced. Just don’t kill me or someone I love while you’re in your self-absorbed nirvana.

    I think that this is a nice compromise product. I like the non-invasive nature that allows other sounds into the ear – but for the rider with earbuds, pushing other sounds away so you get a “pure” experience may be the point. The $42 price point and installation hassle won’t take an appreciable number of people away from a set of earbuds that you can get just about anywhere for next to nothing and “install” in seconds.

  8. chunk says:

    Given my commute of 35 miles (round trip) I find myself trapped on my bike for two hours a day and would surely go insane without some catchy songs to sing along with (you’d be surprised the number of songs I now know the lyrics to). I want to be able the hear the traffic noises as well as my music, but the ear budds I use are susceptible to making wind noises that drownd out everything, traffic and music. I’m thinking those O-tus speakers may be the solution to the problem.

  9. burnhamish says:

    When I could still commute, I used an iHome iH85, which is an iPod speaker for a water bottle cage (http://www.ihomeaudio.com/iH85BX/). I can hear traffic over it, and traffic usually drowns out the sound, but the speaker also has the potential to annoy others if we’re all at a standstill. I would never ride with headphones of any type. I tried to ride with a bluetooth headset in one ear, and that even made me a little wary.

  10. norm says:

    Yeah. There’s no way could I listen to music on my commute. Plenty of corners that are blind to me but I can hear around, and know there’s a speeding car coming by.

  11. Shanna Ladd says:

    a time for hearing birds sing, a time for music & chocolate, a time for air horns. I like the idea of being able to listen to music and hear whats going on around me.

  12. Ted Johnson says:

    BTW: Sam, I have a Rusted Root CD that Bookmans’s doesn’t want. Do you?

    I played bass in a band the ’90s called “Jumping Genes” that some people compared to Rusted Root, but I didn’t quite hear it.

  13. Tim Sherman says:

    I listen to my bike and get a pace. Then a song comes to me(in my head). It comes to me like Professor Potts in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. I have a library of tunes in my head that always gets me there. What I really need is a helmet that will dry my hair when I am late leaving in the morning or maybe the stock market ticker could be displayed on my visor so I wouldn’t have to listen for it on my trip home. Is Otus heavier than a kickstand? Will it work in Seattle rain?
    This would be cool on a nice day when I’m riding a bike trail for recreation. I just don’t see it as something that would be a part of a trip to and from work. More stuff to monkey with when I should be going somewhere is just a distraction.

  14. Joel says:

    I whistle or hum many a tune while moving the pedals along. It can be a marching tune, Broadway theme, or modern melody. My mind creates it and my body pumps the rhythm. The absolute reality is the noise is generated by nature (in my head, body, or the sounds around me).

    When I was in 8th grade (circa 1973), we had no such opportunities to create bicycle accompaniments except for a transistor radio (which I could not afford). The wonderful feeling of wind whistling in my ears, causing my eyes to tear as I shifted and pedaled into the last gear on a Columbia 10 speed racer was more than adequate sound to take me to a special place in my life.

    Maybe that is the same sound I look forward to tomorrow morning when the temperature will be around 20 degrees. I will mount my bicycle, start pedaling, and feel like a fourteen year old listening to the tunes in my head as my eyes water. What a special place to look forward to going every day!

    Did I mention that I like to ride my bicycle?

  15. bg says:

    What works for me is talk-only podcasts, curbside earbud only. Just let the other one hang (or choose mono on your player if it has it, or get a mono-ing songle earbud). I read about it on the web just last year. I had tried two ears on and off for years but found it too isolating. And even with one ear, music is too distracting. Spoken word works remarkably well. I guess the abstract nature of musical sounds makes it too difficult to quickly discern environmental sounds from the music. Perhaps something evolutionary allows for spoken words to not interfere. I suggest NPR (except for politics) the BBC, Alec Baldwin’s radio show, Car Talk, The Nerdist, but not audio books…they require too much concentration.

    Also the back of the helmet is where I put a flasher for commuting at night.

  16. paintbikedog says:

    I’ve done the mono thing with an earbud in just one ear only when I’m on a MUP / dedicated trail. Anytime I’m sharing the road with cars, it is ears clear.

    The fact that these little Otus critters look like earbuds and might use the same drivers, that has me wondering if I could get approximately the same effect with maybe modifying some cheapie earbuds. Experimentation time!

  17. Evan Maxey says:

    I am completely baffled by the intensity of opposition to wearing wearing earbuds while biking. Am I the only one but when I ride with open ears all I hear is hkchchchkchchckkkck (loud wind noise and that is on top of my tinitis which is a loud ringing in my ears)?

    I agree that not paying attention while riding is dangerous but that is different than hearing music. I say hearing music, not listening to music.

    I look for cars and objects (both moving and still)while I ride. I swivel my head to see who is encroaching from every direction. I analyze speed distance emotional content. I anticipate situations and perform risk management.

    What do open eared (non wind noise encumbered) riders do? Do they stare straight ahead analyzing the sounds around waiting to leap blindly off the bike opposite of the direction of loud noises?

    Should deaf people not ride bikes?

    I can’t account for some others listening habits but I don’t turn up music loud or “listen” to it. I don’t think about the music I think about riding.

  18. Evan Maxey says:

    Re previous post:

    I guess I should have mentioned that the earbuds block the wind from my inner ear and eliminate the wind noise. I used to wear ear plugs until I tried the earbuds. I would also like to mention that I can still hear encroaching motorized vehicles even with the music playing or with earplugs in. For me, open ears is the loudest and most distracting option.

  19. Surly Shawn says:

    I guess I am in the reckless minority here. Not only do I listen to music when I commute, it’s part of the reason I do commute.

    I went through several combinations of players and headphones and I believe my current set up is the best. Bluetooth headphones for my phone that have built in controls. I keep my music low enough to hear cars approaching from behind and no bulky (extra) mp3 player in my bag. One and done (phone)! I can also take calls with them if necessary. And should I get a song that’s louder than the others, I can turn it down with ease, if needed.

    I also avoid main roads as much as possible. By sticking to side streets, I can listen to my music a little louder than is probably recommended. It’s about being safe, no matter where or how you ride.

  20. tony says:

    ±80min roundtrip to work here, daily. I too would probably be less motivated if I had to cross the time & distance, if it weren’t for some good tunes or talks in my ears.

    I absolutely do not object to earbuds, as long as they don’t drown out street sounds. I adjust the volume to make SURE I can still hear what’s happening around me.

    Used to listen to new and favorite albums and DJ sets, later stumbled upon some fine podcasts, and since last summer, after a colleague lent me a collection of audiobooks, been listening to those.

    That was a revelation. Now I get from A to B, am able to work out AND still catch up on litera/culture, too :) I’ll easily recommend it to anyone, anytime.

    Still: bike safely, and don’t let anything playing in your ears draw your attention from the road. This allowed me to stay accident-free for over 14 years now (except for slips on icy roads).

    Best,

    Tony from Belgium

  21. I work nights so wear ear plugs all the time. My most effective ones were custom made from a kit, they’re far more comfortable than standard ear plugs and don’t seem to wear out. It’s much less expensive than having your ears custom made by an audiologist; I would suggest them to anybody who uses them often.

  22. Mr. Ed says:

    In Florida the law is specific regarding headsets and bicycles on public roadways where the law (Section 316.304, F.S.) says; “A bicyclist must not wear a headset, headphone, or other listening device other than a hearing aid when riding. Wearing a headset blocks out important audio clues needed to detect the presence of other traffic.”

    I like the small mechanical sounds of my bike and those of the environment around me. (I am in the minority today, preferring my music to come from Bose and vintage Sansui speakers on CDs and vinyl.) I’ve commuted by bike for a long time (11 miles one-way) and toured the east coast sans audio devices. Still, having a legal prohibition seems senseless.

  23. plh says:

    I’ve been using earbuds for years. Audio books and rehearsal recordings that I sing along with. I use a glasses mounted rear view mirror so I always know what is coming up. Note that I am still here after 9 years of commuting. Two count em two accidents of note neither had anything to do with earbuds. I don’t need the nanny state intruding in this regard. You can have my earbuds when you pry them for my cold, dead … never mind.

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