When is a helmet more than a helmet? Now, and it’s about time.
The expansion of digital stuff headed into our brains — music, directions, phone calls, etc. — has raised a lot of interesting dilemmas over the years. Cyclocomputers have evolved into machines capable of training us weekend warriors like the finely-tuned professional cyclist we might dream of being, for a moment or two at least. Information about what your body is up to is pretty standard. But with the advent of GPS computers switched over into giving us information about the world around us, which eventually brought them into conflict with our increasingly intelligent phones, and that battle rages on as we speak.
Lost in all this has been the role of the helmet, which has a unique position in terms of what we take in through our ears. For a while now, the helmet’s job has been to hold your ear buds or other sound delivery device in place. It’s not a bad arrangement if you like quality sound and don’t mind a wire hanging around. But if you ride in traffic, ear buds leave you deaf to traffic sounds and other moving threats... assuming they stay in your ear to begin with. And wires around your neck area are tolerable at best.
Into this gaping void comes Coros, out of Redmond, Washington (ring a bell?), a company that is still graduating from its Kickstarter status but is bringing its big idea to the market now — the LINX Smart Helmet. Picking up on the possibilities of Bluetooth connectivity that has already worked in motorcycle and ski helmets, the LINX connects wirelessly to your phone and delivers all the sounds and functions of your phone to your ears.
The Sound System
Or, more precisely, to your jawbone. Hopping on the newest sound delivery technology, the Coros LINX brings active audio a step forward for a community — cyclists -- that really need to hear ambient sound. Enter bone conduction sound, which delivers vibrations directly to your inner ear, while the rest of your hearing remains alert to your surroundings.
It absolutely works. I’ve ridden with the LINX for several weeks, listening to music and podcasts, and it sounds great. Not at the quality level of a really fine set of earbuds jammed into your ears. There are great sounding earbuds out there, and no bone conduction system can match that sound, but the tradeoff is safety, and as an urban commuter as well as a roadie in busy Puget Sound, I can’t afford to not hear traffic.
The audio system connects via Bluetooth, and after the first connection it happens automatically in about three seconds. The helmet powers up from the tiny control panel in the back, where the recharge port lives. Seems to be pretty foolproof, with no chance of water fouling up the works.
The only real trick involved is positioning the speakers over your upper jawbone. I’ve never paid much attention to exactly how my straps were aligned on my helmet, but to keep the LINX sounding great the position of the speakers is essential. I’ve worked it out, it’s not rocket science, it’s helmet strap alignment science. But as the LINX evolves they should consider using a coarser material for the straps so they stay in place a bit better.
Charging is through a USB port, and supposedly the charge lasts 10 hours, but I’ve tried to run the battery all the way down from a full charge and haven’t gotten there yet. Your phone will die before the LINX does. Oh, and the LINX comes with a remote controller that you can strap to your bars that stops and starts music, skips to the next track, and works the volume. You don’t need the remote if you have access to your phone (or iPod or whatever you’re connecting with). Pro tip, though: the speakers speak, so if you’re listening to gangsta rap and you stop for a bite to eat, bring the remote along and dim the sound as needed.
Music Is Just the Beginning
For the $200 (approx) purchase price, the Coros LINX delivers a pretty broad, clever array of features. That yellow U-shaped button? Press that when you hear your phone ringing and it will answer the call. The LINX includes a tiny microphone built into the hard foam, located right between your eyes but positioned inside the shell so it can hear your voice without picking up wind. The caller will hear you as well as you hear them, without you having to use your hands.
Got several Coros LINX users riding together? There’s a walkie-talkie function that I haven’t tested but sounds like something out of the pro peloton. Hit the deck? There’s a sensor that generates an emergency alert through the Coros app on your phone.
Oh, and the phone app, that’s where things get really clever. You’ve seen several different iPhone apps for mapping and recording your route and performance? Cool. But will they tell you when your turn is coming up? The LINX will. Enter a course and start the app, and without seeing or touching anything but your bike and the road in front of you, the LINX will direct you along your route just like your car can. I’ve only briefly tested it in the city, where it checks out. Performance probably varies as you get out into areas where the signal drops off, just like your mapping functions do. But you can see where this is going, and Coros are the clever chaps getting it started.
Bottom line, this is a pretty solid helmet -- stylish, light, aero — which comes with the smartest set of features I know, several of which you could call essential for an urban rider like me. The $200 cost combines the price of a good helmet with the cutting edge bone conduction speakers for a pretty solid bargain. [You can buy bone conducting earphones to attach to your existing helmet, but they start at $100 and mostly aren’t designed to fit bike helmets.]
Overall, this is a big leap forward for the bike helmet and a product I can completely recommend.