- by David Halfpenny
- Published: 19 December 2012
You need all of your senses, including common, when you’re riding a bike in traffic. Riding with earphones dramatically reduces the life saving effectiveness of one of your primary senses. While I can’t quote studies showing the negative effects earphones have on one’s ability to ride, I can say that you won’t catch me using them, nor will you catch me wearing sunglasses while riding at night. And yet, there are times when you would really like to have some non-traffic sounds on a long lonely ride. This is where O-tus mini-speakers might be a good solution.
O-tus mini-speakers are just that: mini speakers. They attach to your helmet near your ears and, while they look a lot like earphones, they definitely do NOT go into your ear canal; they’re surround sound speakers and they project sound powerfully. It’s the speaker’s ability to project sound that makes these speakers work – you need it to project because the speakers are away from your ears, and because they’re away from your ears, you can hear the traffic around you. A sensible solution indeed.
Of course, you also need something to play that music. If you have a light weight mp3 player, you can attach it to the back of your helmet and then connect it to your O-tus mini-speakers. If you have a smart phone, you can attach a bluetooth receiver to your helmet and then “beam” music to your O-tus mini-speakers via that, provided your phone has bluetooth, which most do. You can then leave your smart phone in your jersey pocket or mounted on your handlebars and still get music. So, in theory, O-tus have taken care of a problem for people who want that problem taken care of. The devil, of course, is always in the details.
I first became suspicious of this product when O-tus suggested I use a particular brand of mp3 player to test the mini-speakers. It was a brand I knew about, but one that I didn’t have (and no, it wasn’t a player from the orchard). I did a search for the mini-speakers online and discovered on the O-tus web site a video that showed you how to increase the volume of the songs on your iPod/iPhone so that you can listen to these devices properly on the mini-speakers. There was obviously a known issue with the mini-speakers, so now I definitely had to try using them with these devices. I don’t own any Apple products, but I do have a an ever increasing collection of cheap, but really good, mp3 players. I borrowed an iPod nano and an iPhone to test the speakers out, but I mainly tested them using the mp3 players I had in my possession.
The previous paragraph makes it sound like there is something wrong with the mini-speakers. To save you some time wondering about this, there ultimately isn’t, but they do have a weakness and that is that they’re not “out-of-the-box” easily usable. You have to spend a little bit of time setting them up properly to make them work correctly. That’s the price you pay to get safe music, I suppose. If you want good music quality, use noise cancelling in-ear buds. If you want safe music, you’re going to have to work to get it sounding good. Essentially you can choose any two of the following: good, safe, easy.
Let’s look at the mini-speakers straight out of the box. The speakers, as previously mentioned, look like earbuds with some sort of velcro on the back of them and with only a short cord. You also get some sticky patches with velcro like material on one surface. This isn’t your normal hook and loop tape, rather it looks, and operates, like the love child of velcro and Lego. You push the two surfaces together a lot like Lego blocks, but they hold together like velcro. It’s not really that complicated; you stick a patch to the bottom edge of your helmet on each side, just in front of your ears, and you stick a patch on the back of your helmet and on the back of your mp3 player. You attach the mini-speakers to the mounting patches near your ears, run the cable to the back of your helmet, attach the player to the helmet and connect the mp3 player. All relatively simple to do, but this is where the fun begins.
When I first set the mini-speakers up (quickly, but as described in the instructions supplied with the mini-speakers), the music was barely audible. I fiddled around with it and, finally, I managed to get some quite good volume sound. The trick was to angle the speakers so that they “shot” the sound into my ear. Let me explain that a bit further.
The mini-speakers are built with a lip on them, a sort of funnel, with the big end on the speakers and the small end coming away from them.The funnel seems to focus the sound into a beam. That beam has to be positioned and angled so that it goes into the bowl of your ear, not past it. Once I worked that out, the speaker set up became obvious, but even then it was quite a delicate job to maximise the sound.
Once I had it, I proceeded to remove the speakers and try it again – they’re meant to be removable, after all. It was much easier now that I knew what to listen for and how the speakers were delivering the sound. I just imagined beams of light coming from the mini-speakers and made them “shine” into my ears. Yeah, I know it sounds fanciful, but it worked for me and each subsequent removal and re-attachment was aligned in less time.
After the alignment issue, I had to deal with the volume issue; I didn’t seem to have one. I am an avid mp3 listener, but because I often lose or damage my players, and because I don’t have the desire for social acceptance among the young and trendy, I am comfortable buying cheaper mp3 players. The chipsets in these devices are the same as the chipsets in more expensive ones, at least for sound quality, and a quick search on google will show you which cheap no-name device is equivalent in sound quality to which expensive player. Provided you don’t mind horrible user interfaces, you’re set. The two cheap players I used delivered good quality sound at a good volume. They were a Dolphin brand player and a Dick Smith brand player.
The sound quality through the mini-speakers using the cheap players was the equivalent of what you’d get from simple headphones or from ear buds that sit on the edge of your ear rather than go into the canal. When riding in traffic, you can hear the music as you would with simple headphones, that is: reasonably well most of the time, but almost not at all when there is traffic around. That’s fine for music, though if you were listening to an audiobook or some stand-up comedy, you would miss a lot of detail.
When listening to music, I had to have the volume up near maximum to get it audible. I don’t consider that to be a real problem; these mini-speakers require a lot of power to drive them and the players can only deliver so much. I couldn’t ramp up the volume to the point where the traffic noise was blocked out. I don’t think this is a feature of the mini-speakers, rather it’s a limitation, but one that’s beneficial.
The sound from the mini-speakers is also very directional. If you don’t have them pointed towards your ears, you will find it hard to hear anything from even a small distance away. I doubt someone riding next to me would stand a chance of hearing anything, even if we were riding in absolute silence without traffic. They’re very personal mini-speakers.
Apart from fiddling with the set up, the only other issue I have with the system is that the player is mounted on the rear of the helmet. This means that you have to turn the music on before you put your helmet on and then you don’t touch it again until you take your helmet off. There are probably some mp3 players that you can operate easily behind your head while riding, but really, it’s not an option. You have to make sure you choose a play list that you like, because you are going to have to stop and remove you helmet to change it.
Having the player mounted on the helmet also means that if it comes loose, your player is probably going to get damaged. This didn’t happen to me, and I have no reason to suspect it will, but it could happen. The velcro-like material does bond the speakers and mp3 player to the helmet quite strongly. Of course, you now have velcro-like pads stuck to your mp3 player and helmet, even when you’re not using the O-tus system.
So I’m happy to state that the mini-speakers work the way that they’re intended to work if they’re set up properly, with the players I tested at least. Given the player suggestions from O-tus and the video on their site, I had to test the mini-speakers with an Apple device. I borrowed an iPod nano and an iPhone to try them out, but I didn’t ride with these devices (they weren’t mine), I just compared the players in my office.
The mini-speakers with the iPod and iPhone did not perform well initially, but this didn’t surprise me. Apple are known for beginning-to-end product integration, so these players are designed to work with very specific output devices. The mini-speakers are not such devices. You either need some sort of amplifier or you need to increase the volume of the songs. The video on the O-tus site shows you how to do this in iTunes, but you can do it better and quicker in other music programs. Suitably amplified, the mini-speakers do work with the Apple devices I tried, but the sound quality of these amplified songs seems lower. I suspect it’s a side effect of the amplification process. While I didn’t ride in traffic with these devices, I think the sound quality would be sufficient for riding with and at least as good as that from the other cheap players I tried.
The other thing I didn’t try was using a bluetooth receiver. If I did have a smartphone, I wouldn’t be riding with it stuck to the back of my helmet and, given that smartphones can be used for navigation, displaying speed, and controlling your video cameras, I would prefer to have it mounted on my bars or stem. A bluetooth receiver would mean I could control the music from my bike’s cockpit, which is something I can’t do with the player mounted behind my hear. If the bluetooth receiver also had an amplifier built into it, then problem solved!
So, after all of that, here’s my verdict: these speakers are no good for blocking out the world around you and sailing away on an awesome guitar solo while riding. The moment you have a car or truck anywhere near you, you can hear it. That’s the point, you’re meant to hear the traffic while riding. Where the O-tus mini-speakers would be really good is in situations where there’s a bit of quiet. I’m thinking of Sunday rides along bike paths, long tours on quiet country roads, riding the streets at 4am to get to a group ride, and doing laps on the velodrome. Team the O-tus speakers up with an iPhone mount and a bluetooth receiver and you have a whole entertainment system on your bike.
If you really want music while you ride, the O-tus mini-speakers might be the option for you. They’re not as simple to set up and use as a set of earphones, but they do the job safely – provided you have a music player that will give you enough volume and/or you’re willing to modify your music. If you’re willing to go to the effort, you will reap the melodic benefits.
O-tus speakers come with enough mounting blocks to fit two helmets and are available from www.o-tus.com for $39.73 (shipping to Australia is between $6-8). Mounting blocks for tricky helmets are also available at no extra charge. The mini-speakers are available in black or white.