WRITTEN BY: MARC NUSSBAUM – APRIL 11, 2013
Bicycle Speaker Review: What’s New for iPhones, Androids, iPods and Other MP3 Players
Today there are many clever ways to add music to your bicycle, with offerings at various levels of sound quality, convenience and price. Most speaker systems mount on your handlebars. They come wired or wireless, battery powered or rechargeable, with and without volume control. Some can even recharge your smartphone while you ride.
All these systems make cycling safer by eliminating the use of headphones or ear buds. When set at an appropriate volume, riders can listen to music and still hear safety cues from their surroundings. Although getting a ticket is rare, it’s illegal to block your hearing with ear buds while riding a bicycle in many localities (New York and California are just two examples). Bicycle speakers reduce exercise boredom, make riding more fun and are great for recreational cruising, distance riding, biking to school or commuting to work. They make a great gift for anyone who rides.
BICYCLE SPEAKERS – WHAT TO LOOK FOR
There is a huge difference between speaker systems that have been specifically designed for bicycles compared to general purpose portable speakers. The list that follows identifies the 6 most important considerations when it comes to selecting the best bicycle speaker system for your own riding; 1) safety, convenience and control, 2) loudness and sound quality, 3) Overall case size and protection of phone and valuables, 4) power source, 5) mounting, and 6) service and support.
1. Safety, convenience and control
You need control over certain critical functions, the most important being volume. This needs to be one-handed and the controls should be large and easily accessible without looking. Your right hand should always be available for that all important rear brake. Think about it, you will be slowing down and adjusting volume at the same time! The safety, convenience and control of the speaker system is so important to bicycle riders that we will use this to categorize different types of bicycle speakers in the ‘Products Overview’ section of this article.
2. Loudness and quality of sound
It can get pretty noisy out there so you better have sufficient volume to overcome traffic noise, perhaps even freeway noise. Most off-the-shelf general purpose portable speakers will not put out enough volume for use outdoors on a bicycle with the wind blowing past your ears. Beware of general purpose speakers that are being marketed with add-on bicycle mounts. They may not play loud enough and their sound quality may be compromised at the higher volume needed for riding.
The quality of sound and how loud the speakers will play without distortion are important criteria for most buyers. They are also the most difficult features to judge when you are shopping online. The size and quality (electrical parameters, magnets, cone material of drivers) are important, however most suppliers don’t tell you their speaker size and it is not the most telling specification when it comes to sound quality anyway. The inside secret is that among bicycle speaker systems, amplifiers and their maximum operating voltage has by far the largest impact on sound quality. This is because the response (excursion, speed and accuracy) you can get out of the speaker are determined by the voltage rails of the amplifier. Since we are talking about battery power here, the voltages are pretty low.
More volts means more power to the speakers, faster speaker response and less distortion at a given volume. Since most speaker systems on bikes run off of either two or four AA batteries (connected in parallel for 3.0 volts) or one Lithium Ion rechargeable battery (3.6 volts) they pretty much sound the same. You can’t hear a difference. Also, the Lithium Ion battery will drop to as low as 2.8 volts as it discharges. Quality of the sound in rechargeable systems will often deteriorate as the battery is run down between charges.
Bicycle speakers that run on significantly higher voltage will almost always sound better. For example, one system uses three Lithium Ion batteries in series for a total of 10.8 volts (3.6 volts x 3) and as a result, plays much louder without distortion and sounds more like a home or car stereo system. The higher sound quality of these 10.8 volt systems is very obvious when you listen.
With 10.8 volt speaker systems you are getting close to automobile sound quality, rather than portable speaker sound quality. If you ran your small portable speakers with a car amplifier they would sound much better! The difference is substantial because higher voltage produces wider dynamic range, quicker speaker response and up to a point, can drive a given speaker with lower distortion at higher volume.
So if high voltage is the secret to great sound, why don’t all manufacturers just use higher voltage? Simple answer; cost. Rechargeable batteries are expensive so using just one is the general rule. Also chargers that handle the higher voltage are more expensive than chargers for a single Lithium Ion battery. Also, the higher voltage amplifier chip is more expensive as are the rest of the electrical components.
In summary, if you want the best and loudest sound, look for speakers that run close to 10.8 volts but be aware they will cost more. If you don’t step up to a higher voltage system, then the bicycle speakers that run off of two AA batteries and the ones that run from a single Lithium Ion rechargeable will sound about the same. With two smallish speakers you can only get so much sound quality and undistorted loudness out of 3 volts.
A word about speaker size and number of speakers. First, two is better than one, by a lot. Second, bigger physical raw speaker drivers will USUALLY sound better and reproduce lower frequencies (more bass) than small drivers but not necessarily. One of the systems reviewed has a pair of very tiny 1/2 inch drivers and this reflects itself in the sound quality rating. Another system in the group uses a pair of high quality 2 inch diameter speakers (home stereo variety, neodymium magnets, etc.) that delivers the best sound quality of the lot. The rest of these systems have drivers that fall somewhere in between and these speaker systems all sound about the same. Our summary table at the end of this article provides our informal sound quality assessment of each system. We did not try to report subtle differences in sound between units, just a relative figure of merit.
3. Overall case size and protection of phone and valuables
You want small but you also want the case to be big enough to fit and protect your MP3 player or cell phone. Don’t forget to check the size of the case to make sure the phone will fit. Also consider the weight of the bicycle speaker system. Some speaker cases that fit the same size cell phone weigh twice as much as others due to extra bulk that is not really necessary to store the phone. If you want to store your sunglasses inside, the extra space may or may not be useable depending on the phone and how the case is constructed. I’d personally forgo the sunglass storage space for a smaller and lighter solution.
If the speaker system does not have protection for your phone, an alternative is to purchase and install a separate handlebar carrier for the phone but this takes up more space and usually does not protect the phone as well. Another type of bicycle speaker comes hidden inside a quick-release handlebar bag that is capable of holding your jacket, wallet and other valuables. This is a neat solution for a single point of control of your valuables and helps keep things from getting lost on your ride. The tradeoff is that the bag is bigger.
4. Power source
We have already discussed how this impacts sound quality, now let’s consider the question of rechargeable vs. replaceable batteries. This is really a personal preference. I have spoken to users that fall vehemently into both camps and others that just don’t seem to care much either way. The pros and cons are as follows:
Replaceable Alkaline Batteries:
Pro: Speakers never have to be recharged. You can pick up replacements on the road. You never worry about running out of power if you carry a spare set. Most bicycle speakers like this use two inexpensive AA batteries. They can last a long time (over 20 hours). I find that with fresh AA batteries, that with a weekly ride, the units will last several months before I need to replace them.
Con: You have to buy new batteries and may want to carry fresh spares on the ride.
Rechargeable Batteries (all are Lithium Ion):
Pro: No buying or changing of batteries. Plays for plenty of time between charges (10 hours plus) though not as long as a pair of AA alkaline batteries. Usually this is the only option with better sounding/louder bicycle speaker systems.
Cons: Charge time can take a few hours with an empty battery, although this can be done overnight. Most systems don’t tell you how much charge remains so that to make sure you have enough power you may want to plug in the speaker system the night before a long ride, just to be safe.
There are two methods used for mounting the unit to your bicycle; Velcro straps and quick release rigid adjustable mounts. The Velcro is less expensive for the manufacturer and it is not surprising to find this method used on many of the lower cost systems. Velcro does lose some effectiveness over time and the speakers seemed to hang loose to some extent on the handlebar. The good news is you can move your speaker system from bike to bike without purchasing an extra mount.
The rigid solid quick release mount is a superior solution from a secure mounting standpoint however it does have two downsides. First, you will need 2 minutes and a screwdriver to mount the half of the bracket that goes on your bike. And second, that bracket stays on your bike when you are not using the speakers. For most riders this is not a problem as the bike side of the bracket is quite small and out of the way. These quick release mounts generally provide more adjustment than the Velcro method. The ability to quickly remove and re-install the speaker system when you stop for a lunch break without having to muck with Velcro is a plus.
6. Service and Support
Warranties for bicycle speaker systems are all over the map, from a low of 14 days to a high of one year. This is especially important on a device that will take the pounding (shock and vibration) and be exposed to environmental stresses such as heat (from outside temperature and your cell phone). A telling test is to Google the name of the company followed by the word ‘warranty’. Check the warranty before you purchase.
When buying on-line, consider who you are buying from and if they are likely to be in business 9 months from now. Some of the on-line sellers are simply distributors of Chinese manufactured goods that are exploiting a short term opportunity. On the other hand, there are companies that are dedicated to the bicycle music accessories market and have established a brand in bicycle or portable speakers. These are usually the manufacturers that put their company’s name on the product and also sell the product themselves as well as through other channels.
One way to check out a supplier is to search Google for their website by typing in the company’s name followed by the term ‘homepage’. If you find their website, see if they appear to be a distribution company (do they also sell door chimes?) or are they really designing their own products for bicycles. Check out their ‘about us’ page and also look to see if there is any information under Service or Product Support. Can you download the product manual from the website in advance of purchase? Also, if they don’t have a ‘contact us’ page, run.
There are three categories of systems to choose from based on the level of control the rider has over the music source. FULL CONTROL BICYCLE SPEAKERS let you change any control on your MP3 player or cell phone while you are riding. VOLUME-ONLY CONTROL BICYCLE SPEAKERS let you adjust only the volume while you’re riding. NO CONTROL BICYCLE SPEAKERS do not allow any adjustment while riding. In this article we’ll consider what’s available today in these categories and weigh the pros and cons of each.
Full Control Bicycle Speakers
The most capable bicycle speaker systems provide access to the player’s controls. You can select a song or adjust volume to fit the moment. Need an upbeat song to power through that looming hill? Embarrassed to be seen listening to ‘Sugar Sugar’ (a ‘bubble gum’ song from 1968) while passing those 30 somethings up ahead? Just hit the ‘next song’ button. This makes listening particularly fun and satisfies the subconscious ‘control freak’ in all of us. Being able to select the perfect song for the particular terrain and social setting at the moment is way empowering.
Full control systems also allow on-the-fly volume changes. Let’s say the music is set just right and then you turn onto a portion of trail that parallels a busy street or freeway. Without volume control, the music can be overpowered by the road noise making your speaker system useless. There will also be plenty of times you’ll want to adjust that volume way down. Proper etiquette dictates you either pause your music or lower the volume when you are waiting at a stoplight alongside other riders. Or say your buddy is trying to tell you about his date last night, or that there is a sharp turn coming up. No volume control and you’re at best rude, and at worst, an accident waiting to happen.
If you use a smartphone, full control systems allow you to take advantage of all the phone’s cool features. You can answer that important call and talk over the speakerphone without missing a pedal stroke. It’s also possible to use GPS navigation or listen to Internet radio stations such as Pandora. You could listen to Internet radio without full control but some riders like the ability to skip songs, change stations and restart the Internet station when it reaches it’s timeout limit without having to pull over and fumble around.
The downside to full control systems include higher cost and sometimes larger size.
Audible Rush Jam-Pac Bicycle Speaker
Audible Rush makes the Jam-Pac, a full control bicycle speaker system ‘hidden’ inside a handlebar bag. Your cell phone or MP3 player sits in a protected area inside the top compartment and the top section opens to expose the player when riding. there is a large separate front zippered compartment for storing personal items such as a wallet, book or light jacket. A quick-release mount prevents theft by allowing you to carry the bag at break time.
The player is held under a touch-screen compatible protective film and works with any player including all iPods, iPhones, all MP3 players and most Android phones. Jam-Pac provides a thumbwheel volume control on the left side (freeing up your right hand for the rear brake). We found the thumbwheel reinforces the current volume setting with physical feedback and is a welcome feature since players sometimes time-out or change screens making it impossible to change volume.
The unit attaches to the handlebars of a bike with a quick release mount that includes an anti-rotation cable to prevent rotation of the bag when it is fully loaded. The mount was solid and all worked as advertised although it did take time to mount the handlebar bracket. The company includes a color installation guide and a YouTube video to help with the install.
As discussed earlier, most speaker systems run at about 3 volts. The Audible Rush Jam-Pac is rechargeable and is the only solution that uses 10.8 volt technology. This creates sound quality like a car stereo with high dynamic range, crystal clear mid-range and decent undistorted bass performance even at very high volumes. This unit can fill a living room or small auditorium and play for 10 plus hours on a single charge. The Jam-Pac is priced higher than most 3 volt speaker systems but when you consider the sound quality and the cost of a quick-release handlebar bag, it looks like a bargain. For iPhone and Android users there’s also a model that shares the Jam-Pac batteries with your smartphone so you never have to worry about running out of phone power while you ride. The Jam-Pac is by far the best sounding bicycle music system we have heard. Audiophiles will smile.
Syba and Cy-Fi Bluetooth Bicycle Speakers
Although the rider does not have handy access to all of the player’s control screens, Bluetooth enabled speakers are worth a mention. The Syba SY-AUD23018 and the Cy-Fi Bluetooth version (left and right photos respectively) have buttons for volume, pause and next/previous song. Syba mounts on the steering stem while Cy-Fi attaches to the handlebars as shown. You can keep your Bluetooth enabled player in your pocket.
There are a couple of downsides; the wireless Bluetooth music transmission can quickly drain batteries and this approach only works if your player has Bluetooth support. Some smartphones have stereo Bluetooth protocol but MP3 players do not. Syba and Cy-Fi do not have storage for your cell phone or player and sound quality is below average for both units.
Volume-Only Control Bicycle Speakers
At this point it should be obvious that volume-only systems allow for adjusting the volume while riding, but don’t provide for changing songs. You start out by either creating a playlist or telling the player to simply play all your songs randomly. The lack of on-the-fly song control would bug me but this is a good compromise if you’re looking for low cost while still maintaining the most important control, volume. All these systems work the same, you set up and start your player and then tuck it inside a protective compartment (usually zippered). These solutions are smaller than full control systems because they don’t have to hold the player in a manner to provide full access. There are good quality systems in this category at very reasonable prices.
All the systems in this category run on about 3 volts and most people find the sound level and quality sufficient for bicycle use. They generally sound best on a bike when the speakers are aimed at the rider’s head. If you live in an area with significant road noise or you just like your rock and roll loud, consider a more powerful 10.8 volt system.
Audible Rush Jam-Lite Bicycle Speaker
Audible Rush makes a low cost volume-only speaker system called the Jam-Lite. The tilt adjustable, handlebar quick release speakers uses two AA batteries (one of the few systems we received with AA batteries included) and will work with all iPods, iPhones, most Android phones and other MP3 players. This system has the smallest footprint we’ve seen that can still hold the new large phones including the iPhone, the Droid-X and the Samsung Galaxy 3 and 4. It also weighs less than most other systems, coming in at under 1/2 pound with batteries and the mount included.
Sound quality is quite good and is loud enough to be heard while pedaling along the bike paths, beach areas and along most roads here in Southern California. When cycling along highways, or areas with heavy traffic, the sound will seem a bit low but for a budget system they are a good tradeoff.
We really liked the quick release solid mounting bracket for the Jam-Lite compared to the Velcro straps provided on some systems. When removed from the bike, the portion of the mount that remained around the bicycle stem was tiny and out of the way. Note that the Jam-Lite mounts on your steering stem, out of the way of most things on your handlebars and allows the speakers to be aimed directly towards your face. The mount can rotate 90 degrees so alternatively you can attach it to your handlebars and the angle can be changed if necessary.
Hipe Bicycle Speaker
The unit is deeper than the Audible Rush Jam-Lite and has more vertical height in the storage compartment. It’s big enough for most phones and if the player is small you might be able to fit in a pair of sunglasses, although this will probably only work with small iPods. There is a fabric divider inside that some users have cut out to make things fit better. The Hipe attaches to your handlebars using three Velcro straps. We worried about the straps eventually deciding not to hook-and-loop with age but this did not seem to be a problem at time of install. Note that the unit sits hanging off the front of your handlebars as shown in the picture and due to the Velcro mount, this is pretty much the only place it works. This might mean you will need to find another place for a headlight or other accessory.
Sound quality is good for an inexpensive 3 volt system and the rechargeable Lithium Ion battery may be a plus for some users.
No Control Bicycle Speakers
As the name implies, before riding you select a playlist, set the volume, tuck the player inside a protective compartment and go. These are AA battery powered 3 volt systems and have sound quality similar to the volume-only systems.
Examples: The Soundshell Bike/Bicycle Speaker Case and the Cycletunes Speaker from Biologic (pictured left to right).
Depending on handlebar space, it may be possible to combine these units with a separate mount for your player, giving you a multiple piece set-up with the attributes of a full control system.
I feel strongly that being able to change the sound level while riding is an essential safety and ‘etiquette’ feature. Since you can get the same sound quality with one of the volume-only systems at about the same price, I would look hard before settling for a no control speaker arrangement.
There are several configurations possible for bicycle music speakers and they all achieve the same objective of eliminating headphones while riding. Don’t settle for speakers without volume control. Consider the background noise in your riding environment and select a 10.8 volt system if you need to hear over road noise and want the best sound quality possible. A handlebar bag arrangement works well for convenient theft prevention and also doubles as a carrying bag for your valuables.
Bicycling while listening to music adds a whole lot of fun to the experience and can even make those uphill pulls seem shorter. Happy riding.
See the summary matrix on the last page of this review.
by M. Nussbaum
- Cy-Fi : no company website found
iPhone, iPod are trademarks of Apple Inc., Android is a trademark of Google Inc., Jam-Pac, Jam-Lite are trademarks of Audible Rush, Cycletunes is a trademark of Biologic, Cy-Fi, Syba, Soundshell, Hipe and iHome are trademarks of their respective owners.