I stumbled across an innovative answer to using your iPhone when biking via an earlier post courtesy of TUAW (The Unofficial Apple Weblog). The FreeWheelin Bluetooth accessory seemed to be a promising way to enjoy the audio capabilities of your iPhone or bluetooth-capable iPod without sacrificing your ability to hear ambient sounds around you, unlike most sound-isolating earbuds. While the idea sounded promising (and far safer than listening to audio with earbuds), I’m skeptical of new products without being able to review them firsthand, and thankfully the makers of the SoundRyder FreeWheelin have made that a reality.
The concept behind the FreeWheelin is a simple one: rather than block all sound via earbuds or earphones, the makers opt to place the audio gear on your helmet, mounted via a velcro-like (but considerably more secure) strips that adhere to the non-styrofoam surfaces. The accessory is divided into three sections; two for each speaker, and a third between them as the Bluetooth module and battery. The three sections are connected by a coiled, sturdy-feeling insulated cable. While the body of the three sections are housed in plastic, it does have a solid (but thankfully light) feel to it. The overall build quality of the FreeWheelin was better than I had expected, considering the recent introduction of the product.
After ensuring the battery was charged via the included USB cable, I installed the FreeWheelin on my biking helmet. The process took minutes; the device clung firmly in place when pressed to the anchoring strips. It took me almost as long to decide where to mount the unit as the process itself; the instructions state that the mounting strips should not be placed directly on styrofoam, but my favorite (and admittedly inexpensive) helmet’s sides and back are mostly unvarnished styrofoam. As you can see in the photos, the center module had to be placed on the top of the back of my helmet. The pairing process was equally as straightforward, and I was on my way.
Operation of the FreeWheelin was as easy as its installation. Holding the single power/pairing button turns on the device; once paired your phone should connect automatically thereafter when the device is powered up. I didn’t notice a change in the weight or distribution of my helmet; it sat as comfortably as ever.
Now for the golden question- audio quality. The sound volume was likely impacted by my placement of the speakers; they were situated higher than the demonstration photos I’ve seen thanks to the construction of my helmet. The overall quality of the sound was adequate, but not overwhelming; in particular I would have liked more bass response on some tracks (low end sound is notoriously difficult to reproduce in small speakers). Once I had the sound levels set properly (thanks to controls on both the device and my iPhone) I was satisfied with the volume, although in particularly noisy settings I feel they would have been at least partly overwhelmed. On a better quality helmet I suspect both the volume and quality would have been markedly better, but bear in mind the device isn’t intended for high fidelity. [NOTE: SoundRyder pointed out to me after writing this review that the sound quality can be noticeably enhanced by using the iPhone's equalizer settings, a feature that I don't regularly use. I can now attest that it can make a marked difference. If you still have issues, they suggest checking the volume of your tracks in iTunes. Right click on any song (or a selection of songs) and go to options. You should see a volume slide; this can be the source of underwhelming volume when your sound levels are hit and miss.] The device was engineered to allow outside sound to be heard, unlike high quality headsets made to enhance the experience of your music; this alone would prevent your music from being concert hall pure.
The unexpected bonus of the FreeWheelin is that it’s not just wireless headphones, it’s a fully functional two way Bluetooth headset. I was able to make calls and text messages via Siri with good sound quality on the receiving end; the other party noted only minimal wind noise. The addition of Siri makes the Freewheelin far more useful; not having to interact with the touchscreen is even more valuable when cycling than driving.
The makers of the FreeWheelin thoughtfully included a mounting rack for using the device in other settings than cycling. The clip mount neatly affixes to a car visor or similarly thin target, allowing you to enjoy the benefits of the FreeWheelin in just about any environment.
Overall the FreeWheelin gets a thumbs up for overall usefulness. The only negatives I could find were the overall volume and quality of sound, but my test helmet was a worst case selection. It definitely earns my endorsement for its uniqueness; I have yet to see any other competing product on the market that offers anything even similar. While not a perfect product (and those are very rare), it provides distinct advantage to those that would like to enjoy and interact with their iOS device while on the go. The FreeWheelin is available now via the SoundRyder website for $149.95.
ADDENDUM: The FreeWheelin is more widely available than first reported- it’s being carried by The Helmet Man and the makers have a distribution deal with J&B Importers who share their impressive product with independent bike stores and chains. The organization has embarked on an aggressive campaign to get the FreeWheelin into a store near you.
As for future products, SoundRyder has disclosed that they have a version of the FreeWheelin in development for motorcycle helmets/full faced helmets; further improving the usability of my favorite iOS device. This is yet another unaddressed niche- while Bluetooth connections have become almost standard in many car makes, the lack of two wheeled options are as sparse for motorcycles as they are for bikes.
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