Ear buds — do you use them?

earbud2Every organized ride has them — warnings that riders are not allowed to wear headphones during the ride.  The rationale can’t be faulted — if your ears are full of blaring music, you might not hear cars coming up behind you, and could get into an unsafe situation.

But there’s a different take on that issue.  My friend Jared claims that earbuds make you more aware of your surroundings.  They cut the wind noise, and actually make it easier to hear other vehicles.

I’ve had an iPod for a couple of years, but never listened to it on a ride.  I took to heart those warnings about safety.  But this evening, I decided to bring the iPod along and test Jared’s idea.

I mixed up my riding.  Some of it was on the shoulder of a four lane divided highway, where cars and trucks routinely go 65 mph or faster.  Then, I turned onto suburban neighborhood streets with very little traffic.  I took a few laps on the Veloway, where the only other traffic was bikers and rollerbladers.  Finally, I rode an arterial street through the neighborhood — one with heavy traffic during the evening rush hour, but with much lower speeds than the highway.

Earbuds cut the wind noise? The prevailing wind in Central Texas is from the southeast, as it was today. And when you’re pedaling into the wind, the earbuds do nothing to cut wind noise.  If anything, the airflow swirls around the earpieces and amplifies the wind noise.

But when you’re riding with the wind, or even across it, the earbuds do seem to have that magical effect.  The music certainly comes through more clearly.

Earbuds make it easier to hear approaching vehicles? Well, yes and no. I had no trouble hearing cars and trucks coming up behind me on the highway. What I couldn’t figure out was whether I was hearing them later than I would if I rode without the earbuds. On the Veloway, I did not hear other bikers come up to pass me until they were right next to me.

One other earbud effect I noticed: I didn’t feel as connected to my bike as I am on a typical ride. The earbuds blocked out the little noises that the bike makes — the noises that remind you to feather the front derailleur, or to take a look at the bottom bracket, because it might need cleaning and maybe lubing.

Does riding with only one earbud in make a difference? You bet. You can’t hear the music as well. And if it’s a song with distinctive stereo separation, that means you’re not getting the sensory experience of the song. Doesn’t matter if it’s quieter stuff like Diana Krall’s “Let’s Fall In Love” and Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” (Man, am I dating myself!) or raucous stuff like Little Richard’s “Lucille” or LouAnn Barton’s “Tee-Ni-Nee-Ni-Nu.”  I’ve gotta have both earbuds in, or it’s not worth it for me. Oh, was I supposed to talk about whether the one bud makes it easier to hear traffic? I didn’t notice a difference.

As far as the safety concerns, In My Humble Opinion, they are overblown. I heard surrounding sounds quite well. The earbuds did not block out those noises.

Will I ride with earbuds again? Probably. But it’s not something I’ll do on a regular basis. I’ve never felt it necessary to add to the sensory enjoyment of biking when I can take in the sights and sounds all around me. For me, it’s the biking experience that counts.


  1. Ramon H. says

    Nope, never used earbuds and probably never will: I need all the focus and attention I can get for the road. I do the same thing when driving, whenever I need to focus, or I am about to do a difficult maneuver, I turn off the radio completely.

    I agree with the bike noob’s point on wanting to hear traffic and other bikers, but I will add an additional one: I need to hear the *patter patter* of the occasional over-protective canine that has decided my bicycle has become their sworn enemy and is about to give chase. That happened to me earlier this afternoon and a 1 second lead-time makes a huge difference.

  2. CR1 Rider says

    I have been riding with them for about a year now. Initially I used my Ipod mini, but since getting an Iphone I use it every time (built in ipod software). I work freelance so it is nice to have my phone with me, not chancing missing a call for work. As far as music goes it really motivates me, sometimes on a hard effort it is nice to have an extra boost of adrenalin. I dont listen super loud, and the buds let plenty of sound in. I think it would be unsafe to use in ear phones though.

  3. vcspinner says

    Here’s what traffic sounds like as it approaches you from behind:

    vrooom. vrooom.

    Now you know. If you are in an urban or busy suburban environment, it’s constant. So ignore it. Take a safe place in the roadway. The danger is in front of you, at intersections. Overtaking traffic has the responsibility to pass you safely. If you are far enough from the curb, they will pass you safely. You can’t afford to check out every single vehicle approaching from behind, so let it go.

    Bottom line, your ears aren’t that much help.

  4. trainingfromabarkalounger says

    No earbuds ever…ever. Used them mtn biking, but never on the road. Seen to many crashes caused by them. Group riding mostly. Riders can’t hear instructions from others. Zone out and touch wheels. Besides conversing is the best part of the ride. Not a good idea. Screws up a fast paceline bigtime. We don’t allow them in either of the clubs I ride for.

  5. Chris says

    I got a iHome for bikes off Amazon. It goes in a bottle cage. I love it. Its actually illegal to ride with headphones in FL so I like this alternative. Its plenty loud when Im on busy streets but I can still hear traffic. Only problem is that it is mono so you lose some of the texture of the music but you cant have everything. I saw a trike where the rear basket had been removed and replaced with a car stereo system. That was a sweet musical ride.

  6. says

    Earbuds sometimes when I’m riding alone, usually at a volume that the music gets drowned out by a passing car. I find that the sound of the wind going past my earbuds is actually louder than wind noise without earbuds. I keep the mp3 Player in a pocket on the strap of my messenger bag, so I can shut the player down if necessary.

  7. says

    I found that ear buds do help to reduce some wind noise, but it could just be the ear buds I’m using and how they fit into my ears. However, I rarely use them. Generally only on long group rides and pretty much only on sections where I’m all alone. In a pace line they can be dangerous and I don’t really like the idea of using them while I’m in heavy traffic. While I did tell Noob that I thought they made it easier to hear vehicles I probably should have said that it didn’t impede hearing them. Anyways, as with all things cycling to each their own :-)

  8. says

    Earbuds are a big no-no in all group rides. And like barkalounger says, chatting with your fellow riders is part of the experience. I never use them, whether riding alone or in a group.

    And not to start a tiff, but VCSpinner — I’m often in the “bike lane”, hugging the white line to avoid debris. If I hear a vehicle approaching, I move over a little to the right. I don’t care who has the right of way, or who should be watching for whom. I’m not going to use my body to try to make a point on who has the right to use the road. So hearing the vehicle is important to me.

  9. says

    I use earbuds, but I don’t listen to music with them. I tend to listen to podcasts or audiobooks and I find it no more distracting than talking to someone I’m riding with. IMHO, they are not distracting or dangerous in the least when used this way.

  10. says

    I spend enough time wearing headphones at work to block out the noises in a cube farm that the idea of wearing headphones while having fun just doesn’t do it for me. No headphones, no bluetooth headsets.

    I’ve also been deliberately not purchasing an iPod or other portable music device.

  11. says

    No earbuds for me. I have a pet peeve of riders with earbuds, whenever I overtake them it seems they are always smack dab in the middle of the shoulder/lane. I’ll give the old “on your left” and 9 times out of 10 they won’t budge. So I blow by them fairly close (at least closer than most non group riders feel comfortable with) and scare them out of their iPod induced trance. I’m not trying to be mean or spiteful, they just don’t give me much of a choice since they are taking up the middle and aren’t moving over. I also have this problem with joggers/runners/strollers, they are so into their tunes that they don’t hear me approaching or my calling out.

    I did win an external speaker system that hooks up to the saddle, it’s like a big saddle bag. I haven’t used it on the road though.

    • says

      When I rode the MS 150, I came upon several cyclists with external speaker systems — even small radios that attached to the handlebars. They all put out a powerful sound. Trouble was, their taste in music rarely matched mine, so I found the external speakers even more annoying in their own way.

  12. says

    I don’t listen to music because it’s too constant and does disconnect me. But I am hooked on PodCasts and AudioBooks for my commute and solo rides. I think I can hear the world around the words better than around music.
    Besides, if they come from behind, they either get you, or they don’t.

  13. says

    I bought a cheap Chinese MP3 player from eBay that has two tiny stereo speakers built in. It’s about the size of a box of matches. I stuck it with velcro to the rear of my helmet, there’s just enough room to hang it there. It’s close my ears so the volume is plenty, I still get a bit of stereo separation, and, most importantly, no reduction in ambient noise. Win win win 😉

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