This is Kind of Obsessed, a column about all the stuff our team is really, really into right now.
While I’m hardly what you’d call an audiophile, I have struggled with how to listen to music while exercising outdoors for years. It doesn’t help that I’m not super tech-savvy, a weakness that translates to problems when someone tries to speak to me while I’m running or biking or snowboarding or motorcycling with earbuds in. I try to stop the music and inevitably jack the volume up, skip a song or somehow dial a random contact in my phone instead.
Throw in the inherent danger of fully occupying one of your most vital senses while participating in high-speed activities, and you’re asking for, well, broken bones — or worse. The best solution I could come up with to mediate that risk was rolling with just one earbud. But it’s kinda goofy and, the way most music is recorded, also means I miss a lotta notes.
Recently, though, I’ve become kind of obsessed with a clever product that solves these problems. And unlike often pricier — and frankly goofier-looking — bone conduction headphones, these cost just 40 bucks. In my experience, Zulu Audio’s Alpha Wearable Bluetooth Speakers are quite possibly the smartest, safest, cheapest way to rock out and ride a bike — or run or skateboard or rollerblade or whatever — at the same time.
A couple of sound-amplifying discs connected by a wire, the Alphas are essentially a happy medium between tiny earbuds that close you off to the world and bulky speakers that weigh you down during exercise. They tip the scales at just three ounces, and I find that once I attach them to my workout shirt or bike jersey using the included magnets, I pretty much forget they are there.
But once I’ve paired them with my phone, I can celebrate The Ramones’ entire catalog while going for a long-ass bike ride. There’s also a built-in microphone so I can take calls on the road, and the pause button is big and round and easy to find, increasing the odds that a spontaneous conversation with a real-live human won't be awkward as hell.
Because the sound emerges from around your collarbones, rather than being directly injected into your ear canals, it’s quite easy to pick up on all the normal sounds around you and feel safe even when darting in and out of New York City traffic. While the max volume is not nearly as obnoxious as some of the Bluetooth speakers some people use to let everyone know just how terrible their music taste is, it seems to be just loud enough to give pedestrians a little heads up as I approach.
I was also pretty stoked to discover that even after a driving rainstorm during a group ride in Brooklyn the other day, the Alpha was utterly unfazed. When I hit the bridge back to Manhattan, I pushed play and my tunes carried my drenched body all the way home. (It’s waterproof-rated IPX4, meaning basically sweat- and splash-proof, so the fact it shook off a deluge is impressive.)
Now, is this product flawless? Nah. I wish the USB-chargeable battery — which lasts for four hours at 75 percent volume — had a bit more life. I also wish the max volume went just a bit higher, though I realize that would kinda defeat the purpose of hearing ambient noise. And I’m sure actual audiophiles would scoff at the overall aural quality.
But I’m not sitting in a soundproof room trying to pick out every note of some obscure Yngwie Malmsteen solo. I’m riding a bike with punk rock-fueled pedal strokes and trying not to get run over in the process. For that sort of scenario, a pair of $40 Zulu Alphas are just about perfect.