A sign that used to hang in my studio said “Music is what feelings sound like” and for a lot of us, this is true. It has a way of sneaking inside our lives and defining the curves of our emotional landscape.
Music is tied to emotion and connected to memories.
You can thank dopamine for this – the same chemical transmitter in our bodies that makes sex feel great and riding a motorcycle an incomparable thrill. We don’t just hear music, we experience it, so it ends up that music and motorcycles go together a little like chocolate and PMS. It’s kind of an inevitable combination.
The question is: What’s the best way to do it? And perhaps more importantly, how can we do it safely?
If you’ve ever tried to put in a set of ear buds then fit your helmet over top without disturbing their perfect placement in your ears, you know how frustrating it can be. Even if you do get it just right, the road vibrations tend to jiggle them out before the end of the first song. Earbuds with over the ear loops to hold them in place might be slightly better, but it still doesn’t account for hair, sunglasses, or road vibrations, not to mention a cord that wants to whip in the wind at sixty miles per hour. Bluetooth earbuds eliminate the cord, but still don’t stay put in your ears while you’re head is on a swivel.
Now add in futzing with controls, trying to change songs or playlists. It can be easily argued that all of these things make for a dangerously low awareness of the miniscule changes in road conditions, environment, or other drivers, making us vulnerable to a crash. And let’s face it, no one wants the last thing they hear to be Stairway to Heaven. Luckily we have lots of options, from touring bikes with built in sound systems, to bike-mounted after market sound systems and helmet-mounted speakers with Bluetooth functionality.
There is, it seems, a solution for every bike and every rider.
But, before we talk about options, it seems fair to mention that there’s a good deal of controversy surrounding the safety of listening to music while riding. Even though women in particular seem to be really good at multi-tasking, the fact of the matter is, the emotions and memories that are fueled by certain songs can be – well, distracting. Regardless of the way you choose to listen, it will require your senses to multi-task.
It’s not just a matter of preference. It’s also a legal question.
Some states forbid the use of earphones, only allow one earphone, or restrict helmet speakers to communication only. It’s your responsibility to know the laws for the states that you’re riding in.
Not sure? The American Motorcycle Association (AMA) has a clickable US map that lists the motorcycle laws for each state, including helmet use as well as helmet speakers.
The other thing to consider is ear protection.
It's hard to say what's more damaging to our hearing – constant wind and road noise or blaring music. Many helmet manufacturers have worked really hard to make helmets quieter and buffer the wind, which is great, but a lot of riders still choose to ride with ear plugs. You're only born with two ears, and once you're hearing is gone it's gone, so it pays to protect your ears, either with ear plugs or volume control.
As a trauma nurse in a specialized Intensive Care Unit (the place they bring all the worst accident victims) I’ve learned a thing or two about the dangers of distracted driving, and safety is my number one priority when I get on my bike.
That being said, if you’re a brand new rider, I recommend putting at least a couple thousand miles on your bike before you start listening to music. That’s right, I said thousand.
Even experienced riders need time to adjust, especially with a new bike. Regardless of how many years you’ve ridden, when you get a new bike, don’t listen to music for the first month or two. Get used to the sounds that your bike makes. Know which sounds are normal, and which ones to pay attention to. Get really comfortable riding it. Remember that every bike is different and don’t take anything for granted.
Ok, let’s talk about options:
Touring Bikes: Most of the large touring bikes (and pretty much every brand has their version) have some sort of built in sound system with integrated speakers, which means you can thump down the road and listen to your music with ease. The downside? Everyone else is listening to your music too – at stoplights and on the freeway, which is great when you get a fist bump from a fellow fan, maybe not so nice when you’re being flipped off by those less appreciative of your musical tastes. Either way, volume and playlist controls are usually integrated as safely and seamlessly as possible into the experience of riding.
What if your budget or simply your taste in motorcycles doesn’t call for a big touring bike? Aftermarket options include handlebar or crash bar-mounted speakers,
such as those made by Cycle Sounds and Rumble Road, which both make mountable speakers with amplifiers. The amplifier isn’t included in some of the lower price point mountable speakers, so do your research, and be sure to read the questions and reviews surrounding the products you’re considering.
Still other options include a sound bar, like this one made by Kuryakyn
which also mounts to your handlebars and has a directional speaker pointed straight at your helmet. Sound bars run about $400. Along those same lines, individual speakers can be installed in the tops of your saddlebags.
I personally like to keep my 2013 Super Glide Custom pared down, and my handlebars already have a Ram mount for my phone and one for my Go Pro, so I’m not looking to mount something else up there. I also like to ride out into remote areas, camp and hike so I don’t like to leave things on my bike that someone could just up and walk away with while I’m using the restroom, so here’s what I use:
Helmet Mounted Bluetooth Headset:
A combination of internally mounted helmet speakers and microphone for hands-free listening as well as rider-to-rider communication. I went with the Sena SMH-10. It’s highly rated and really user friendly. Another popular brand is the Cardo Scala. Most of them now can “intermingle” as far as the intercom function goes, so you don’t have to worry if your riding buddy has the same brand of headset as you.
Not everyone rides with a full-face helmet (or any helmet at all) so this solution isn’t for everyone, but it does provide several advantages, the most notable being that you get a more private and controllable listening experience, with all the extra sound buffering that happens through the helmet itself. It also allows you to talk to other riders as well as interact with your phone or GPS, keeping your eyes and attention focused on the road where they belong.
Most of the higher end helmets have built-in, recessed spaces for the speaker pads, but they do have Velcro and will fit in almost any helmet. My first helmet was a Bell Vortex and it worked just fine in that one as well.
I chose the boom microphone but there is also a padded Velcro version. The control mounts onto the left side of your helmet and is really easy to use. Because it integrates with your smart phone, most of the hands-free options you enjoy while driving your car are integrated into the helmet control, including a button to activate “Siri” or “Hey Google”- depending on your Apple/Android preference. If you don’t have a smart phone and just want to use the Bluetooth functionality for a compatible iPod or Mp3 player that works too.
For the phone I use a handlebar mounted Ram Mount X-Grip Tough Claw, (priced at about $50) which not only allows me to see my phone’s GPS while I’m riding, it also allows me to take my grip on the road with me, so whether I’m renting, borrowing, or riding my own, I have a safe way to see my phone while riding.
A note on cell phone battery life:
For about $15, Battery Tender makes an adapter that can charge to USB off the same system you use to trickle charge your battery, so I have my charging cable attached under my tank and I run it up to where the phone sits. Otherwise on long rides with continual GPS, music and / or talk functions you’ll lose battery too quickly.
Other options include putting your phone in a pocket or tank bag with a portable charging pack. I even have a charging pack that can be recharged with solar power for camping trips and off road adventuring!
Perhaps the cheapest fix I’ve found so far is using a combination of an Earson ER 151 Wireless Waterproof Bluetooth Speaker – which is not only shatterproof, shockproof, and waterproof – but also fits in that same type of X-grip holder right on your handle bars. The cost of this sturdy little speaker? A mere $28!
There are a lot of different ways to listen to music while riding, and each rider will undoubtedly individualize their musical experience. Whatever method you choose, make sure you ride wisely and ride safely.
And as always, rock on!