Anyone who’s ever been out on a bike path or trail knows the hazard of approaching another runner who’s wearing earphones. You know you should announce that you’re passing them, but you know they can’t hear you. As a cyclist, I always shout out “passing on your left” or even just a friendly "hello" to let someone know I’m behind them. Lately, though, whenever you see the almost ubiquitous white headphone cable, you know it’s gonna be a crapshoot whether or not they’ll hear you. Just the other day, I was on a bike path, shouted out a warning, to no avail, and sure enough, the guy I was trying to pass decided to turn around right in front of me. We missed colliding by inches. Wouldn’t it be marvelous if there was a way for people to listen to their tunes, but also hear the world around them?
AIRbudz is a new product designed to do just that. AIRbudz are not headphones. They are merely eartips designed to replace the tips that came with your in-ear earphones (they fit many common models), but in this case they're whittled away to just a skeleton of the original design. (If you're having trouble visualizing this, check out the video overviews.) They allow almost all of the ambient sound around you in, while still letting you enjoy music or audiobooks. The creator of AIRbudz, Tammy Erdel, recently completed a successful round of fundraising for her invention on Kickstarter (which has been a terrific place for innovative products to receive funding based on an idea, with ordinary people turning into backers for a product they think stands a chance to make it big)
Knowing I ride my bike quite often, they sent me a pair to try. I was impressed with how easy they were to swap out with the standard tips on a few pairs of my in-ear monitors. I was afraid that they might be too fragile, but they were substantial enough. I checked them out in my listening room at home — and I’ll have to be honest and say that I was not impressed with the sound. Let’s face it — in-ear 'phones are designed to have a tight seal in your ear canal in order to create any bass at all, and obviously that depends on their being fitted with a solid eartip. I tried them with three different models – two high-end Audio-Technicas and a mid-range iFrogz pair. They all had a similar thin, bright sound.
But fidelity aside, out on the bike, with wind noise and all, I appreciated their benefits. I was able to bring along my favorite riding songs, but I was also able to hear the people I was riding with talk — even two guys riding in front of me. I heard another cyclist announce he was passing me, and I could hear a truck coming up behind me. I was also able to hear my own voice when I called out to a runner that I was coming up behind her.
Honestly, on the bike, you really need to stay focused on the outside environment, and not get lost in your music. Music on the bike is a motivator; and that should be all. They sounded adequate with an audiobook, so maybe you can get lost in your favorite novel next time you're training for a marathon.
There are certainly times in life when you should have the best possible listening devices available to you, but there are also times that safety should override your need for sound quality. AIRbudz is perfect for those times.
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.
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