Need tunes, but want to keep your ears uncovered? Aeropex have the answer with the Aftershokz Wireless Headphones.
Photos: Colin Levitch
They say music can evoke positive emotional responses, and that even sad downbeat tunes can lift you up. I know for certain that listening to music can help pass the time, and so on some long rides or hard rides I will often make sure I have a favourite playlist lined up. Heading out for a ride is normally a pretty good lift to my mood, but with some music on hand as well – it's a winning move.
Fiddling with headphones tied around helmet straps and interfering with eyewear is an all too recent memory, but with the explosion of wireless Bluetooth headphones on the market, taking your tunes on the trail (and anywhere else) has become much easier than ever before.
Of course, there is the elephant in the room. Just how safe is it to be listening to music, a podcast, audio book or self-help presentation while riding on trails – or on the road to the trails? This is a decision that you need to make for yourself. But if you take a look at the vast amount of runners, walkers and casual cyclists around, plenty have some sort of device in use, listening via wired or wireless headphones. The advantage with the Aftershokz Aeropex is it is an open ear system. That is, nothing covers your ears. Instead, Aftershokz use bone conduction for sound. So two little pods (transducers) sit in front of your ears and against your jaw, transmitting sound via vibration that is picked up via your inner ear. It's the same sort of technology used in bone anchored hearing aids. This means your ears are not covered, and theoretically, you can still listen to ambient sounds – the real world.
The headphones are a single unit, so unlike ear bud style wireless headphones you're committed to stereo sound – which is no bad thing if you're really into what you're listening to. The band that ties the Aftershokz Aeropex together is rigid and sits very low. I had no problem using them with any trail or XC helmet, but I suspect with a full-face helmet it might be tricky given the tight fit over the ears. The Aeropex Mini is also available, and is the same product but a little smaller, perfect for anyone with a smaller head size. Aftershokz also offer a few different colours if matching ensembles are your jam.
A closer look
The Aftershokz Aeropex are super light at 26g, and they have two buttons on the right for volume control and turning them on and off, and a large one on the left to pause, play, skip tracks, receive calls or call back your last contact. There's also a port for charging via their own USB cable – two come in the pack. Aftershokz state a playback time of 8 hours, which is really impressive for the size and weight of the headphones. A full charge only takes 2 hours.
I'm a plug and play sort of person, so at first I just looked for the on switch, turned them on and paired them to my phone, figuring out the buttons from there. It was very simple to do so, although once on the bike the buttons are best used at low speed. The sound quality is as expected. I wasn't expecting anything crazy clear and sharp, with strong bass, like a high end over ear set of headphones. But I found the clarity very good. Voice calls were ok at very low speeds or when off the bike. The built in microphones do a good job of cancelling other noise, but if there is wind noise – just forget it.
I thought the headphones would have a strange sensation when I first tried them, but in the end they just felt normal, and while I used them riding I also used them while working at my computer, in the shed, and even doing some yard work. Given Aftershokz have upped the waterproof rating since their original model, you can be comfortable getting pretty sweaty in these, or even caught in the rain.
On the trails with Aftershokz
There is always a happy medium in volume for what you want to listen to, and what you need to hear, if you choose to use headphones when riding. For me, that means that climbing I'll be able to hear whatever is playing very clearly, and same for flatter trails. But the faster I'm moving, and the more exposed, the more wind noise comes into play. While you could bump up the volume before a long descent, I do like to be able to hear my surrounds. Be it for a car on a long road descent back from the trails, or to hear how you're tyres and brakes are working, or if another rider is coming up pretty hot behind you. My preference is to use a single-sided option in my left ear, primarily for any traffic on the road to and from trails.
Having open ear headphones can assist with clear hearing – however there will always be wind noise. At lower speeds as well, if you have the volume right, hearing what people are saying, and what's going on around you, is pretty easy with the Aftershokz Aeropex. But bone conduction is not some weird science that streams music into your consciousness leaving you free to listen precisely to everything else. You may be bypassing your eardrum but you're still listening to something.
I found that as I was listening to music, my attention to listen to other things was reduced. If someone was talking to me it wasn't a problem as you're engaged in the conversation and that takes your focus, although I felt a bit rude still listening to music while talking to them. But when listening for something in the distance, or more subtle sounds, it's not something I found that I still picked up. In that sense, I wasn't as aware of my surroundings as if I hadn't been using the Aftershokz Aeropex. But I was more aware than if I was using two in-ear headphones or over ear noise cancelling headphones (not that I would even try to ride in those).
All that aside, in general the Aftershokz Aeropex blended into the background. Having used them through summer I guess I tested their sweat resistance pretty well, with no issues. They also never budged, and could easily be fitted before or after putting my helmet on. My sunglasses sat easily on top of where they sit above your ears, and I felt no undue pressure.
At $249, I was a little wary when taking these off to stash in my pocket when meeting to ride with others. They do come with a carry case for use when not riding, but given they are so light I certainly checked they were still in my pocket many times after removing them if I was on the trails.
For products like this, I think it's best to look at them for how they fit your day-to-day life. I think of all the time I spent using the Aftershokz Aeropex, maybe one third of that time was spent on a bike. A high-quality set of headphones like this has uses beyond music when pedalling, and when looking at the price tag of $249 that is worth remembering. The open ear design really makes the Aftershokz stand out from the crowd, as there are plenty of cheap Bluetooth headphones out there, but none that can let you hear what else is going on so easily, and with such a long battery life in a very light package.
I have ended up using these most days, if not on the bike, in my workshop or while working. Having a long battery life, fast charge time, comfortable fit and not closing me off completely to the outside world means that these are very easy to get along with. To me, the only downside is not being able to use them single-sided, as I do think being able to use them for sound only in the left ear would add an extra element of being aware of your surroundings, especially if your route to and from the trails has some extended time on the road.
Really light and comfortable
Long battery life
Open ear for greater awareness
Single-sided mode would be a bonus