There’s nothing quite like the breathless bliss of cranking up a climb to the perfect beat, body and brain in perfect sync. Listening to music while biking can bring on an endorphin-fueled high like nothing else. I’ve passed many thousands of happy miles in this state of flow while bikepacking across countries and riding near my home, and I can’t imagine my cycling life without it.
If you’d like to add some rhythm to your own rides, or perhaps a podcast or audio book, you might be wondering about the best way to use headphones while cycling. Is it safe? Is it legal? How do I get the ear bud to stay in my ear? What’s the easiest way to control the audio while I’m busy riding my bike?
In this post I’ll go over the safer ways to listen to music while riding, what to look for in headphones and earbuds for cycling, and advice on what to do with your phone. Read on!
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Is It Safe?
Let’s get this out of the way first: is it even safe to listen to music while biking? Some people say it’s not safe to bike with headphones because it makes it harder to hear motor vehicles. This is a totally valid concern, and not to be taken lightly. Cycling near motor vehicles is unfortunately more dangerous than it should be, and we all need to focus on riding as safely as possible around cars.
You’re probably thinking “I always pay attention! I can see the cars around me.” Though your eyes may be enough most of the time, there could come a moment when your ears detect a dangerous situation a millisecond sooner, and that millisecond could save your life. Sorry to be a downer, but I do think it’s important to consider safety when cycling with music and to not do it when the conditions aren’t right.
On the other hand, listening to music while biking can be a blissful path to relaxation and even a training tool; we all pedal a little harder when our favorite song comes on. Furthermore, it doesn’t necessarily make us worse at avoiding danger. One study from 2013 proposes that cyclists use music as a “sensory strategy” to manage mood and mitigate stress in busy urban environments. I can relate to this; sometimes the most useful state of mind for avoiding danger is one of calm alertness rather than stressed-out overwhelm.
Ultimately it’s your decision when and where to bike with music (and potentially also your government’s decision; check your state’s regulations). Our brains all process the world a little differently, so do what works for you and you alone.
Is It Legal?
Just as some U.S. states prohibit driving a car with both ears covered by headphones / earbuds, a few states also don’t allow cyclists to ride on roads with earbuds in both ears. California is one such state; please Google your state or country to find the most up-to-date information.
Bone conduction headphones (more below) are one way around this requirement. As far as I know, “hear-through” modes are not; your ear must not be physically covered.
Safety Tips for Biking With Headphones
If you do use headphones while cycling, here’s how to do it as safely as possible.
Only wear one ear bud at a time if using typical ear buds that cover the ear opening. In some states this is even a legal requirement. I suggest wearing your earbud on the side away from traffic (your right ear in the US), otherwise it can be disorienting to perceive the sound of traffic on your left as if it’s coming from your right. Another option is to use open-ear types like bone conduction headphones – more on this below.
Only listen to music or other audio on car-free bike paths and relatively safe roads. If you’re lucky enough to have a nice long bike path nearby, perfect! (Though make sure you can hear other cyclists and pedestrians.) A quiet backroad or wide bike lane might also work, depending on your experience and comfort level. Commuting through busy city streets, on the other hand, demands full sensory attention. With practice you’ll learn to recognize when your full attention is needed.
Keep the volume reasonable. It’s nice to have ear buds with easy volume control so you can dial it up for breezy descents but reign it in when you want a little more situational awareness.
Take the ear bud out in busy or chaotic conditions. When I bike with music I take my ear bud in and out often; it has a dedicated pocket in my stem bag. If I’m coming off a long quiet stretch and into a busy town with lots of intersections, out it comes. Gearing up for a long climb in a wide bike lane: in it goes.
Never use noise cancelling mode while cycling, and consider ear buds with a hear-through feature. To be honest, hear-through doesn’t usually work very well while cycling, especially fast or downhill. It mostly just amplifies the whooshing sound of the wind. But at slower speeds and with the right volume balance, hear-through (sometimes called transparency mode) can help you stay aware of traffic or other cyclists coming up behind you.
Use a rear view mirror. If you’re going to block some of your audio perception, Make up for it by enhancing your visual capacity. I use the Bike Peddler helmet mirror any time I’m riding on roads with cars, and find it especially key when biking with an earbud.
Choosing Headphones for Cycling
Now that the safety stuff is out of the way, what’s the best way to actually bike with headphones?
Honestly, you can bike with any headphones you want. I‘ve logged a LOT of miles with cheap wired headphones tucked under my helmet strap, one side in right ear and the other tucked down my shirt.
These days you can do a lot better thanks to rapidly improving Bluetooth headphone tech. In addition to the usual table stakes for headphones (good sound quality, long battery life, etc) the best headphone models for biking offer these features:
- Mono audio mode that plays both audio channels in a single ear when using only one earbud. Otherwise you’ll miss any audio that’s only in the other ear’s channel.
- Hear-through / transparency mode, which allows the sounds around you to pass through and mix with the music for better audio awareness of your surroundings.
- Easy play / pause control, and ideally volume and forward skip, so you can make adjustments with minimal fiddling and distraction. Often these are programmable so you can choose at least a couple.
- Water and sweat resistant, and relatively robust to dirt and dust.
It’s very important that the earbuds fit your ears snugly and won’t easily fall out. Some models offer multiple tip sizes that can be swapped depending on ear size, while others use an around-the-ear hook or silicone nubbins. I have small ears and often struggle to get a good fit, so I put a Buff headband over my ears to make sure the earbud doesn’t bounce out. Bonus: it prevents sunburned ears and soaks up sweat too.
Finally, when choosing headphones for biking be sure to test them with your bike helmet to make sure they fit well together. This isn’t an issue for most standard helmets and small ear buds these days, but it’s always worth checking. Sometimes I need to adjust my helmet straps so they don’t rub against the back of the earbud and make annoying noises.
Wind Noise Reducers
Wind noise can interfere with listening to music while cycling, especially if you ride at higher speeds or in windy places. It often forces cyclists to avoid safer headphone options, like hear-through mode or bone conduction, because the audio is overpowered by the whooshing of the wind.
These simple “Cat-Ears” helmet attachments are a clever solution to this problem, and they work surprisingly well. I’ve just started testing them out, but so far they’ve allowed me to ride with bone conduction headphones even on speedy downhills when I previously couldn’t hear any audio. They’ve also allowed my husband to ride with hear-through mode turned on for his single ear bud. I’ll report back if my assessment changes, but so far I’d say they’re worth a try!
Best Headphones for Cycling
There are plenty of good headphones for cycling; chances are the ones you already have will work fine. If you’re looking for something a bit fancier here’s a selection of notable models.
Jabra Elite 4 True Wireless Earbuds: These are my personal favorite earbuds for cycling (and everything else) thanks to their small size, great battery life, and quick pairing. They have mono mode in both ears, hear-through mode, programmable button controls (large button works well with gloves), and a rainproof protection layer. I often have trouble getting a secure fit in my small ears with other earbuds, but these work great for me. Jabra offers a number of other models and honestly most of them are good; just avoid the older 65t as much has been improved since then.
Apple AirPods Pro 2: A favorite of iPhone users (but they work with Android devices too), they are expensive as heck but good quality. As with most Apple products you can expect good design and plenty of features. Of note for cycling: water resistance, force sensor control on the stem, and transparency mode apparently works well even with wind noise. Though the stem control offers all the options you could want, it’s a bit fiddly with thicker gloves.
Shokz OpenRun Bone Conduction: Bone conduction headphones are a very appealing concept for cycling. Sound is conducted to the ear along the bones of your head instead of through air in the ear canal, so the ear remains uncovered and surrounding noises aren’t blocked. The Shokz OpenRun consistently earns top marks among reviewers for its robust waterproofing and excellent sound quality. Though bulkier than regular earbuds, bone conduction headphones hook over the ear and thus won’t fall out or get lost as easily.
What About Speakers?
What if you want to listen to music on your bike without blocking your hearing with headphones? Another option is to carry a small Bluetooth speaker and play your music out loud, the old fashioned way.
I can’t say I recommend this in busy places. Please don’t be that person who forces their musical taste on everyone else trying to enjoy the outdoors in their own way. But by yourself on the road or in an empty place it might be just the thing. (And as a bonus, if you’re mountain biking in grizzly territory it helps avoid bear encounters!).
There are tons of portable speakers these days across a range of price points. For an affordable option I like the EWA A106 Pro. It has surprisingly good sound for its size, including bass, and comes with a clippable travel case.
Handlebar Phone Mounts
Once you start listening to music on your bike, you’ll need to give more thought to how you carry your phone while riding. Some earbuds can be programmed for full control with a series of taps and holds on a single button. If yours don’t offer this or it’s awkward to use, you may want a handlebar holder for your phone. This way you’ll never have trouble skipping ahead to your favorite song or cranking up the volume on a breezy descent. It’s handy for navigation too!
There are many cheap phone mounts on Amazon, but you don’t want to trust your precious smartphone to just any chunk of plastic and rubber. I’ve tried several models and most eventually wore out, so I’m cautious about using them on rough gravel roads or dirt trails. If you mostly ride pavement, however, you can be a bit more daring.
Here are the best handlebar phone mounts I’ve used personally or seen recommended often:
QuadLock: The gold standard for many serious cyclists and especially mountain bikers who ride rough surfaces. It’s the most expensive option and requires a compatible phone case, but is svelte and very secure.
Lamicall Bike Phone Holder: Bulky but affordable (opposite of QuadLock), secure, and works with any phone. Of all the clamp-style mounts it’s the only one that can be loaded and unloaded with one hand, which I personally love because I take lots of pictures during my rides. I’ve been using this for thousands of miles of bikepacking and it’s still going strong. See my Lamicall phone holder review here.
I don’t recommend styles that depend on a stretchy silicone band, like this or this. While both of those did hold my phone successfully, it was a pain to get in and out of the holder and the bands will eventually break with enough use.
There’s really no describing the magic of perfect synergy between pedaling and music. You’ll know it when you feel it. Please stay safe in pursuit of that high by leaving at one ear open, using hear-through mode, and going without music when conditions aren’t safe for it. And with that, you’re ready to rock and roll on your next bike ride.
More Cycling Resources
If you found this post helpful, you might also like these:
- How to Prevent Saddle Sores
- Drop Bars vs. Flat Bars: Which is best?
- Rigid Mountain Bikes: Why (or Why Not) and Top Picks
Or visit the cycling section for lots more.
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