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by James Huang
February 6, 2018
Photography by James Huang
TECH NEWS BROUGHT TO YOU BY BIKEEXCHANGE
Many riders like to hit the road with earbuds in their ears. After all, while road riding can be fun, it can also sometimes be monotonous, and having music (or the CyclingTips podcast!) to accompany you can often make the time fly by. But traditional earbuds do a poor job of letting ambient sounds through, and even if you leave one ear open, you still can’t hear the world around you as well as you probably should.
The AfterShokz Trekz Air, on the other hand, uses a bone-conduction design that supposedly lets you can listen to music just as well as with standard earbuds, but without shutting out everything else. And you know what? They actually work. Rock on, Wayne!
Human ears are incredible wonders of anatomy. Sound waves are funneled by the outer ear into the ear canal, eventually encountering the eardrum and causing it to vibrate. Three tiny bones in the middle ear then amplify those vibrations, which are finally translated by tiny hairs in the inner ear into nerve signals that are sent to the brain.
Traditional earbuds pipe sound waves directly into the ear canal, which is why such a comparatively low volume can sound so loud. But in doing so, the outer ear is typically sealed off from any other sounds. In the context of cycling, that would include approaching vehicles, your own bike, and other road or trail users — include your buddies who might be trying to say something to you.
Alternatively, bone conduction headphones bypass the eardrum entirely, sending vibrations directly into your inner ear, and leaving the ear canal open to receive ambient noise. The technology isn’t new — it’s been used by the military for ages — but it’s only been fairly recently that it’s been more widely adapted for general consumer use.
The AfterShokz Trekz Air’s bone conduction transducers sit just in front of your ear. They’re impressively small, reasonably weather- and sweatproof, and quite comfortable on your skin.
One company that’s been in the bone conduction game longer than most is AfterShokz, who released its first bone conduction headphones in 2012. That initial wired model quickly gave way to a wireless version, with several redesigns offered since then.
At this point, I’ve used nearly all of them, but each fell short of the mark for one reason or another: poor sound quality, odd fit with helmets and sunglasses, too much wind noise, etc. But with the latest Trekz Air, Aftershokz seems to have finally hit the target — mostly.
The concept of bone conduction sounds awfully hokey, but it does actually work, and quite well, in this case. Sound quality with the Trekz Air is much better than you might expect, and very good overall. High- and mid-tone frequencies are especially strong, and while the bass is still lacking — a trait I’ve always found to be true in bone conduction headphones — it’s much better on the Trekz Air than anything I’d used previously from AfterShokz.
At just 30g (actual weight), the AfterShokz Trekz Air bone conduction headphones are barely noticeable when worn.
Sound clarity is excellent regardless, and while there’s a generous range of volume available, I was surprised at how low I could go while still being able to clearly hear my music. Either the Trekz Air is as effective at transmitting sound waves through bone as the company says, or I’m not so thick-headed after all (my money is on the former).
More important, however, is that you can still hear everything that’s going on around you. That includes approaching motorized traffic for sure, but also more subtle sounds such as gear changes, the whir of your drivetrain as you pedal, and tires on tarmac. I recently used the Trekz Air to listen to some music while walking my dog, and I could hear her claws scratching the concrete and the rustling of shrubs as she sniffed around in the underbrush.
I am most definitely not a fan of cyclists who shut out the world with traditional earbuds. The AfterShokz Trekz Air’s bone conduction design, however, lets you listent to music or podcasts without cutting off ambient sounds like traffic and other riders.
That sort of auditory awareness is predicated on keeping the Trekz Air volume to a reasonable level, of course, but it’s nevertheless amazing that that sort of duality can exist at all. Even better, and unlike open-air speakers that try to accomplish the same goal, other people aren’t forced into the same music tastes; not everyone wants to hear the latest Kendrick Lamar track.
Ultimately, whereas I was never previously willing to ride with music, I suddenly found myself bringing the Trekz Air with me more often than not, sometimes listening to music, and other times catching up on my favorite podcasts or the latest news. But in doing so, I never felt like I was compromising my safety.
Nor was I compromising on comfort, either. AfterShokz’s latest frame design uses an embedded titanium wire, drastically cutting down the bulk of earlier iterations and producing a softer hold on your noggin. The two sides of the Trekz Air are still physically joined together, but the loop is unobtrusively thin and light, and never comes into contact with the back of your neck.
An embedded titanium wire allows for an ultra-svelte frame. The loop holds the transducers gently on your head, and never comes into contact with your neck (or at least it never came into contact with my neck).
The profile is especially tidy around the tops of your ears, too, and I had no fitment issues with any of the helmets or sunglasses I used during testing. The low weight — just 30g — obviously helps as well. If you sweat profusely, AfterShokz says the Trekz Air is splash proof and dust-resistant; it’s officially rated to IP55 on the universal weatherproofing scale.
The claimed six-hour battery life seemed fairly realistic, although still a bit short for all-day jaunts even under ideal conditions. Recharging is done via a micro-USB port.
Operation of the Trekz Air is pleasantly straightforward. There are instructions printed right on the device to guide you through the pairing process, and there are just a handful of buttons to contend with. The tiny volume and power buttons are tricky to operate when wearing gloves and sometimes difficult to find while rolling along, but you thankfully don’t have to fiddle with those much after you get started. Much easier to tap is the bigger multi-function button on the left side, right in front of your ear, allowing you to play, pause, skip, and repeat as desired.
The volume and power buttons are exceedingly tiny, and difficult to operate while riding, especially if wearing full-fingered gloves. The flap immediately behind the ear covers the micro-USB port used for recharging the six-hour Li-ion battery.
That button is also what you use to receive and end calls, although I found that there’s little point in doing so, at least while you’re riding. AfterShokz claims to have improved the built-in microphone’s ability to cancel out wind noise, and I definitely found that to be the case when standing still. But the outgoing sound quality is still nowhere near what it needs to be when you’re on the bike: you can hear people on the other side of the call, but to them, it sounds like you’re standing inside a tornado.
Unfortunately, wind noise remains an issue. Although the sound quality of the Trekz Air is pretty good, much of it is still drowned out at higher speeds. I found it acceptable up to around 30km/h, but upwards of that, all you hear is the air rushing over your ears. In my opinion, AfterShokz is missing a prime opportunity here by not incorporating into the Trekz Air’s shape some sort of functionality to reduce the din. Add-on widgets such as those from Cat-Ears and WindBlox have already proven themselves to work at reducing wind noise, and seeing as how the Trekz Air’s bone conduction pads are situated in the exact same place, surely there’s a potential solution.
If the sedate grey color isn’t your fancy, AfterShokz will soon have the Trekz Air available in midnight blue and forest green.
In a more general sense, the effectiveness of bone conduction seems to vary a bit from person to person, so I can’t guarantee that the sound quality I experienced will carry through for everyone. Those infrequent vibrations don’t just feel strange for some users, too, as there are occasional reports of motion sickness-like symptoms.
Finally, the Trekz Air is quite expensive. A quick look at Amazon reveals heaps of knock-off options that are far less pricey, but I can’t vouch for how well they work; buyer reviews are mixed.
Overall, I found the Trekz Air to be not quite perfect, but far better than I expected them to be. Maybe even more telling is that while I’ve steadfastly avoided listening to music in my 28 years of riding, I do so regularly now. Most of my rides these days may be done solo, but now they don’t feel quite so lonely.
Price: US$180 / AU$220 / £150 / €170