We set ourselves a challenge – to find the best cycling and hiking headphones – neat, comfortable, wireless and safe.Headphones that let you hear a car behind you or the sounds of nature when you’re walking.
We don’t often devote an article to one piece of kit, but we came up with one choice – the rather perfect Aftershokz Trekz – and a super-cheap alternative, the JLab Retro.
We waded through hundreds of recommendations, spent hours on internet research, visited all the hifi equipment shops in Manchester and Leeds…and we still didn’t find what we were looking for. Most people want headphones (or earphones) that block out the world. So, when you go into a shop and ask if they have headphones that allow you to hear outside noise, prepare for at least a raised eyebrow!
But here’s why noise cancellation or isolation is not always a good idea:
- Cycling – you need to be able to hear the bus about to overtake you, the car horn, the sound of kids just about to step out in front of you.
- Walking – you want to be able to hear nature, chat with friends and feel like you’re there in the countryside. So why would you be wearing heaphones at all? For some, it’s because they need to answer phone calls; for others, it’s a chance to catch up on podcasts or study a language or listen to music.
- Work – if you use headphones for telephone interviews, the sound of your own voice is awful when your ears are blocked by headphones. In everyday work situations, you want to be able to hear when colleagues ask a question or you need to ask them something.
Shops will offer you earbuds, on-ear headphones and the like, but anything that blocks your ear – even if it doesn’t have active noise cancellation – will block out most ambient sound. What we realised we needed were headphones that didn’t cover the ears at all – daft, eh!
Aftershokz – conducting sound through your cheekbones
The Aftershokz are different in that the tiny Star Trek-like device, made of titanium, sits round the back of your head and two sound conductors sit close to, but not on, your ears. It’s called bone conduction.
The headphones connect by Bluetooth 4.1 or 4.2 (Air model), and can pair with two devices at once – a phone and a laptop, for example. There are three simple touch controls, a built-in assistant for prompts and confirmation and a microphone for making calls. There’s a £50 wired model too, by the way.
The whole thing weighs just 30g (Air) or 36g (Titanium model). You’ll get six hours of continuous music or calls and a 10-day standby (20 on the Air). Charging takes 1.5 hours (two hours on the Air).
It takes a bit of time to get the positioning of the conductors right, but the device is so flexible that it’s easy to play around till you hit the best spot for you.
- The device is tiny, so the controls are tiny too. The main function button is a decent size, but the switches for volume, power off and so on might be a problem for anyone with meaty fingers.
- While the sound is good, it’s not immersive, full hifi quality. The kit comes with earplugs if you do want to block out the world.
What we liked:
- Good, clear sound (after changing the equaliser setting).
- Superbly clear microphone – callers really don’t know you’re speaking into a mic.
- Easy to set up and reliable pairing/connection.
- Very comfortable – a single, flexible band that holds without feeling tight. The Titanium model comes in a mini size too, for children or those with a small head.
- No sound leakage so you won’t annoy your neighbour on the train.
- If you wear glasses, they sit perfectly over the headphone. Helmets and hats work too, but take some adjusting if they come down low at the back.
To buy or not to buy?
They’re not cheap (£90 to £149), but they’re excellent. It’s why they’re the official headphones for England Athletics and the only brand to be fully approved for use on road races in the UK. We loved them for their lightness, ease of set-up and great quality. An absolute best-buy, in our opinion, if hearing the world around you is as important as hearing music or phone calls.
An alternative – the JLab on-ear headphones for £25!
These are by no means as high-tech as the Trekz, but look at the price! The JLab Audio Rewind are retro-styled, tiny, foam-cupped headphones that barely cover the ears, so you can hear what’s going on around you.
Bluetooth is excellent, controls are simple – a voice even gives you feedback when you turn on and off and for battery level. They paired perfectly, sound is decent and you can make calls using the built-in microphone. USB charging and a two-year warranty.
When my Trekz were stolen, I was more than happy to make do with these. They won’t work inside a cycle helmet, of course, but for walking (and running), they’re great.