Hands on: Richard Solo FreeWheelin bluetooth speaker set
Whatever your personal feelings are on the matter of listening to music while riding, like it or not, there are those that will. Simply heading down to the local bike path confirms this with everyone from walkers to cyclists plugged in – many oblivious to anything that is going on around them.
Some try to get around this issue by only using one headphone, or listening to music at a low volume, both with varying results. So what is the answer for someone that wants to take their music with them, but wants to be able to hear their surroundings?
Richard Solo thinks that answer is FreeWheelin, a Bluetooth speaker set that attaches to almost any helmet.
Does FreeWheelin actually work? Find out after the break.
FreeWheelin may be the audio equivalent of one of those beer dispensing football helmets, it does actually work. While FreeWheelin certainly isn’t going to win you any style points out on your ride, it will keep you in tune with your favorite jams mile after mile. FreeWheelin is attached to any helmet with the use of 3M DualLock strips, which are essentially industrial strength Velcro. At just over 96 grams for the entire system, the added weight to the helmet is hardly noticeable, especially with it equally distributed at three different points. Following installation instructions is simple and results in a very secure bond – even the most aggressive mountain biking won’t knock these things off – unless you crash, but that’s a different story. Having knocked a speaker off while moving things around in the car, I would have to assume that if you did crash the speaker would pop off and likely reattach without any issues, as long as you don’t break the wire. Light rain had no effect on the performance of the system, which matched Richard Solo’s claims of water resistant, not water proof. Compared to using headphones, trail days that required multiple dismounts to bust out the trail saw and clear downed trees and limbs were a treat with FreeWheelin. Normally, that would require removal of headphones and usually my helmet since the earbuds are wrapped around the helmet straps, only to go to work with the saw 10 feet down the trail. Do this every 50-100 feet after a big wind storm, and it can get pretty old. FreeWheelin meant I could leave the helmet on, grab the saw, and leave the pack by the bike and keep listening to music as I hacked away at a tree as big as my saw. With a Bluetooth range of 10 meters, you have to go pretty far from your bag to lose the music. It’s amazing how much faster you can saw through a log when you have a soundtrack.
Relying on two small speakers that sit just above each ear, music is transmitted the way any speaker would: through the air. Since you ears aren’t covered or blocked with a headphone, you are free to hear your surroundings. It really is surprising how much ambient noise you notice, even with the music loud enough to annoy someone 10 feet from you, ambient noises are still noticeable – much more so than with any standard headphone. With the volume as loud as I would want it on a ride, I was able to have a conversation with a friend who was riding in front of me and had no problem hearing his replies.While this is the opposite of what you usually want when it comes to picking out a pair of headphones, it is exactly what you want so you can hear that oncoming car or rider. Sound quality is decent from such small speakers, but certainly wont qualify as high fidelity. FreeWheelin has almost zero bass, and a bit of a hollow tone at higher volumes though it certainly didn’t affect my riding.
What is surprising however, is how little wind noise seems to affect the sound. Only at speeds greater than 20 mph or so on the road will you start to hear the wind more than the music. Phone calls are a different story. Oh yeah, Freewheelin is a hands free headset too.
For those that would never consider answering a call before, during, or immediately after a ride, skip to the next section. Anyone else, read on.
The Bluetooth compatibility of Freewheelin allows not only for wireless streaming of music, but also allows you to answer phone calls without getting your phone out of your bag, or pocket. If you get a call, simply press the left button once and it will switch to the call while a built in microphone captures your voice. As a headset, FreeWheelin again works pretty well allowing conversation without interference. However, if you try to talk while you are moving on your bike the wind noise will become so unbearable for the person on the other line, they’ll hang up. Which is a good thing. You shouldn’t be talking on the phone while riding a bike, pull to the side, stop, and answer the call if you must. If you do that, it works really well. When the call is over, either hit the button again, or simply let it end and your music starts right back up.
If you don’t want to answer calls on your bike, but you could use a hands free device in the car, FreeWheelin comes with a visor mount so you can use it for taking calls while driving. While most of us wish everyone would just hang up and drive, inevitably people will be on the phone while driving so FreeWheelin at least frees up your hands so you can drive.
If you hit the left side button when you don’t have a phone call, it will simply pause your music, while hitting it again starts it back up. Holding down the left button also powers the unit on or off. The right speaker of FreeWheelin features two buttons that function as both volume controls, and track back/forward controls. While the unit itself is wireless, each speaker has a wire that runs to the control pod which attaches to the back of the helmet. This pod features an LED indicator for charging status, and indicating if the unit is on or off, and houses the USB charging port. Even after using Freewheelin for around 14 hours of continued use, the battery still had some life, and charging is extremely quick – usually less than an hour. If you don’t have a Bluetooth equipped device, Freewheelin also comes with a stereo mini cable that allows you to hook up to an iPod or similar through the headphone jack.
Honestly FreeWheelin seems very well thought out. It does everything it claims, while remaining extremely simple to use. It certainly seems like a safer alternative to traditional headphones thanks to the ability to still hear your surroundings, while still jamming to Bieber, or whatever the kids listen to these days. Really, the only thing that will keep most riders from FreeWheelin is the price – $149.99. However, if you gotta have your tunes while you ride – a hands free, easy to use, lightweight Bluetooth speaker set for the price of a good pair of headphones may seem like a bargain.