Like many people, I have spent much of the pandemic rekindling my love of bike riding. When I’m out, I usually want to be able to listen to something as I’m riding so I don’t get too bored. The problem, of course, is that blocking noise from the outside world is a very bad idea when you’re on a bike. It’s incredibly dangerous when you’re riding in a city — especially a city with little to no bike infrastructure to protect you from cars.
So I have gone on a short quest to solve this problem with open-ear headphones. Open-ear headphones do exactly what you expect: let you listen to music or podcasts while keeping your ears open for traffic or whatever else is around you.
It turns out that when you’re testing open-ear headphones for riding a bike, your feature priorities are nearly inverted. Sound quality is nice but suddenly way less important than getting a secure fit on (or near) your ear. Noise cancellation is right out — it’s literally the opposite of what we’re going for here. Volume also ends up mattering a lot.
Of the five or six different options I’ve tried, those different priorities drove my decision-making. My top pick doesn’t have great sound, but it’s the least hassle to use while pedaling around.
The best open-ear headphones on a bike: AfterShokz Aeropex
The best headphones to use when you’re biking are the $159.95 AfterShokz Aeropex bone conduction headphones. They work by pressing two fully enclosed “speakers” up against your head right in front of your ears. The audio then travels (conduces) through your literal skull into your eardrums, leaving your actual ears completely open to the world.
There are many reasons not to love bone conduction headphones. While generally comfortable, it does eventually get tiring to have vibrating pods pressed into your head. It’s the sort of feeling you’re not really conscious of until you are, if that makes sense. They have a big band that swoops behind your neck, too, which can get caught on a collar.
I also don’t like that they use a proprietary charger, which I am guaranteed to lose.
Then there’s sound quality, which I’d place somewhere just above the original pack-in Apple wired earbuds and below every decent pair of Bluetooth headphones. The Aeropex headphones sound okay, but mainly that’s relative to other open headphone options.
But again: those priorities are inverted. The Aeropex do look a little silly, but they never interfere with my helmet strap or my glasses (sometimes they’ll get caught up in a mask strap, though). It turns out that the most complicated part of open-ear headphones is the method they use for physically placing the sound next to your ear — and the Aeropex do a great job of it.
You can get loud-ish stereo sound out of them, letting you make sense of podcasts in moderate traffic. Bone conduction isn’t magic, though: when your environment gets truly loud, they’ll be drowned out just like anything else.
If you want to save a little money, AfterShokz makes a few less expensive models (which I haven’t tested). They come in multiple sizes as well, so you may need to try and return one to get a proper fit.
Use the buds you already have in just one ear: Samsung Galaxy Buds Plus
If you aren’t biking a ton or just don’t feel the need to spend the extra money, there’s a decent chance the wireless earbuds you already own could be a good option for you.
Correction: earbud. It’s really not that safe to wear both earbuds while biking in the city, especially when they either seal up your ear or have some sort of noise cancellation. I personally wouldn’t even recommend using two headphones with a passthrough mode — those features have gone wonky on me too many times.
Your state may even have a law against using two headphones (or headphones at all) while on your bike.
In any case, the move is to just put one earbud into the ear that faces away from where traffic will be — in the US, that’d be your right ear. It leaves your left ear open to hear (and react to) the world around you.
There are lots of pros to this method. You don’t have to spend more money. You can just keep using the buds you already have. And if it’s an ear-sealing style of bud, it should mean that you don’t need to turn the volume up super loud to be able to hear it.
The cons should be obvious: when it comes to sound quality, you’re getting half of stereo (or, if your phone is smart enough to realize it’s connected to only one bud, proper mono). That’s good enough for podcasts, but might be frustrating for music. There’s also the fact that you’re using one earbud much more than the other, which could mean it has a shorter overall life span.
If you’re wondering which earbud is best for this method, my advice is to go for the Galaxy Buds Plus. They secure into your ear with a solid seal and they have a long battery life. Most importantly, though: no stem. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had an AirPod go skittering across the pavement because I wasn’t careful enough with my helmet strap. The Buds Plus offer the best balance of price, sound quality, battery life, a secure fit, and most importantly: not sticking out of your ear, ready to be knocked out.
There are lots of other earbuds you could use, but again the most important thing here is that they fit securely to your ear even when there’s other stuff taking up space behind it: mask straps, helmet straps, or glasses.
Custom open-ear headphones: Bose Sport Open Earbuds
The headphones that actually inspired me to go find something I could use while riding were the recently announced $199.95 Bose Sport Open Earbuds. In theory, these would have been perfect. In practice, they were a big disappointment.
Good stuff first: the Bose Open Earbuds sound great. Bose, it turns out, appears to know a thing or two about acoustics. These work differently than bone conduction headsets or traditional earbuds. There’s a large ear hook that floats the speaker module directly above your ear hole, pointing sound waves right at it.
The combination of the speaker’s proximity and its relative size means that Bose can get great sound despite leaving your ears open to the world. They do a very good job of overcoming ambient traffic noise, too.
Unfortunately, they did an absolutely awful job of staying on my ear. I admit that everybody’s ears are different so they might work for you — but for me they were hard to fit on and went flying off all the time.
They also suffer from a problem I’ve mentioned before: we’ve got more stuff hitting our ears now than ever. Eyeglass or sunglass temples and these earbuds do not mix. Neither do mask straps or bike helmet straps.
Even so, I hung on to the Bose Open Earbuds with the idea that I might use them at home or in the office. I really do like wearing open earbuds around the house. It’s much less fatiguing that sticking an earbud into your ear canal or wearing a heavy set of cans. It’s also easier to just pause it and talk to people.
Alas, the Bose Open Earbuds are terrible for office or working from home because they utterly fail to support multiple devices. They do the thing where if they’re connected to your computer and you want to switch them to your phone, you have to manually disconnect them from the computer first.
There may be people who don’t care about any of those problems and who have the right ear shape for these headphones — and I will admit I am jealous of them. These sound better than they have any right to, but when I’m on a bike, sound quality simply isn’t at the top of the priority list.
Headphones in your glasses: Bose Frames Tempo
When I reviewed the Echo Frames from Amazon, I realized that simply having little always-available and unobtrusive Bluetooth headphones is great. It sounds dumb, but not having to put in or take out headphones changes your relationship to audio — it’s just always available, always there when you want it.
Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find a set of glasses with Bluetooth speakers that don’t have some kind of significant compromise. With the Echo Frames, it was battery life (and, well, looks).
With the Bose Frames, it’s a much simpler problem: I’d like to use headphones in situations where sunglasses don’t make sense.
I’m not against “single-tasker” tech solutions to problems, but the $249.95 Bose Frames take it too far. You can get different lenses for them, but they’re really not the sort of thing you’ll want to use outside of some specific contexts. Bose has other styles, but all of them are very much techie speaker eyeglasses instead of subtle.
Speakers in your bike helmet: Sena R1 Evo
The $159 Sena R1 Evo smart helmet is one of the gadgetiest gadgets you can gadget on your bike. It’s a bike helmet that includes:
- A local, nine-channel mesh intercom system
- Bluetooth “headphones”
- An FM Radio
- A blinky tail light
- A voice-driven interface (for some reason)
- A companion smartphone app
I own and use the Sena R1 Evo as my bike helmet and I’m here to tell you that the first feature I mentioned, the mesh intercom, is great. The rest? Not so much.
The mesh intercom just uses local radio to keep an open channel with other, compatible Sena systems. When you’re riding along, you can simply talk and hear other people you’re riding with as long as you’re relatively close (I’d say less than a third of a mile with line of sight, less without line of sight). It’s so much more convenient than needing to get within talking or shouting distance to have a conversation.
The rest of the features are less impressive. The problem with the Sena system is that the speakers are simply too far away from your ears and too quiet to be audible when there’s ambient noise. Out on a quiet trail: awesome. In a city: nope.
The smartphone app doesn’t look very modern, but it does the job of configuring the helmet with your FM stations and preferred mesh intercom channels. The built-in smart assistant (“Hey Sena”) is sadly a mess. I triggered it accidentally more often than intentionally and when I did want it to work, it had a difficult time recognizing my voice commands.
I can’t speak to its safety specs, but it’s not MIPS if that matters to you. The taillight on the helmet is also fairly dim, I wouldn’t consider it a replacement for a proper taillight on your bike or back. I should also note that you can’t have music and the mesh intercom on at the same time, you have to switch modes manually.
Despite all that, I like this helmet and will keep using it — especially since my partner and I often go riding together.
Using a Bluetooth speaker strapped to your bike
I mean if you want to annoy everybody else around on you, it’s a choice.