Cycling for me nowadays is mostly about medium-to-long rides by myself, squeezed in between various obligations as I continue to chase some sort of physical fitness before the idea of it is gone. It’s not hopeless, nor is it dull; if anything, cycling is both exerting and relaxing at the same time.
This makes me the target audience for smart helmets. These are helmets with electronic features, particularly bluetooth connectivity and speakers to play whatever is on your phone. I need a soundtrack, or want one at least, to knock out a couple podcasts while I ride, or to set my tempo to some inspiring beats. Add children to that, and their propensity to steal and/or misplace my earbuds, and the need becomes all the more acute.
The makers of the 318 SH50 seem to get it. 318 is a Chinese company founded by Thomas Liu in Dongguan and named for the G318 highway which runs from Shanghai all the way to Lhasa, Tibet. Sections of the G318, particularly from Chengdu in Sichuan province, the jumping-off point for the Tibetan Plateau, have become traveling legends. Search the internet and you will see stuff like this and this, describing the “southern route” (as opposed to the G317, the less spectacular northern route from Chengdu to Lhasa) as a ride into paradise. I can’t attest as to how much fun it is to do this ride, but it looks utterly spectacular and if you forget about the possibility of trucks whizzing by, it’s not hard to dream on this experience. Click on one of those links, you’ll see what I mean.
Mr. Liu decided that, whatever his experience on the G318 was, it could have been improved with better sound and better communication with his friends. Bone conducting speakers have been around, I’ve tried them, but like any emerging technology the first attempts didn’t quite get there. So there was room for something better, and Mr. Liu moved to fill it with his invention, the MARS system.
“MARS” is the Mobile Athletic Retention System — basically, it’s the plastic straps that tighten the helmet to your head, and that also contains the electronic features. The MARS system can be removed from the 318 helmet and inserted in another helmet, and really is at the core of what 318 does. But for practical purposes, 318 has designed the SH50 as a complete helmet, and the effort isn’t limited to the MARS portion. For example, the polycarbonate shell has an extra skeleton of plastic straps to absorb impact built into it. But the MARS and its electronics are the heart of the SH50. Its features are:
- Bone conducting speakers that are attached to the MARS system, that rotate into position and extend for proper placement. I’ve been using them for weeks and the system is very well designed for a firm fit to the correct spot, where they stay put. The sound quality is as good as you can expect — perfect for podcasts and acceptable for music — considering the speakers’ job is to allow you to hear the world around you, not drown it out.
- Safety lights in the back of the helmet, with sensors detecting low-light conditions. When activated, the system flashes red the entire time the helmet’s power is turned on, for a very useful be-seen light.
- A speaker near the front of the MARS system. When engaged through the 318 mobile app, apparently you can talk to your teammates who have the same helmet on, or listen to the same sounds, for the full team communication effect.
- A battery that lasts up to nine hours, which sounds about right. I’ve charged the helmet once a week, and only after letting it go for close to two weeks did I get a “battery low” message in my ears.
- A handlebar controller, for changing the volume on the speakers and for engaging the walkie-talkie feature with your teammates. I have yet to use this; it’s sized for standard diameter bars and mine are oversized, so it doesn’t fit.
- Finally, a helmet shell that’s reasonably light, aerodynamic and stylish. This is not a race helmet; I don’t think there is much if any overlap between those and smart helmets. But the SH50 won’t slow you down.
My only criticism is that, for a fairly expensive helmet, it hasn’t incorporated any rotational impact safety measures, like MIPS, which have been shown to reduce the severity of head trauma from a fall. It’s not a deal-breaker for me, but I would expect the next evolution of this and other forward-thinking helmets to make this a standard feature.
Given that the MARS system can be moved to another helmet, maybe that’s a way to take advantage of the smart features without sacrificing maximum protection. Certainly the company is touting the safety advantages of the bone conducting sound and the ability to communicate with other people, as well as the purported 18 safety certifications the helmet has received. The extra skeleton shows that 318 takes safety very seriously. But there is room to add rotational impact measures too. Do that, and you’re really at the safety pinnacle.
Retail cost for the SH50 is $229.99. The helmet is available in blue and yellow, in addition to the white shown here. Customers in the US, Europe and Oceania can buy it through the company’s US distributor, FiTech sports.