Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The Great Headphone Debate

If you've ever found yourself on a narrow stretch of single-track stuck behind someone who can't hear your "Excuse me!" request to pass, you know what I'm talking about...

If you've signed up for a road race only to be annoyed to later discover that headphones are banned from the race, you know what I'm talking about...

If you're Karl Meltzer, you know what I'm talking about...

Basically ever since the invention of the iPod, the debate over whether runners should be allowed to wear headphones in races has raged on and on with the most productive outcome frequently being an "agree to disagree" scenario. Lots of races flat-out ban them (including all official U.S. Track & Field Championships, the Vermont 100, and the old-school Spartathlon), while others "strongly discourage" their use (NYC Marathon), and some allow them unless you're contending for $$ (LA Marathon).

The spirited debate among runners themselves has all sides of the argument backed as well. Regardless of which side you're on, no one can argue the fact that while you're plugged in you lose some (or all, if you're a fan of loud heavy metal like I am) of your ability to hear your surroundings. In the deep woods of a mountain 100 miler, it doesn't really matter too much (unless a stalking mountain lion is suddenly cuckoo for the Cocoa Puffs you're carrying in your pack). In a race that includes lots of open road sections/intersections, or on more crowded trail races, there are obviously some valid issues that arise (safety, courtesy, etc).

Just like all major historical debates on the level of 'Coke v. Pepsi', 'Yankees v. Red Sox', and 'Edible Underwear v. Planning Ahead by Simply Packing a Sensible Snack', this one seemed certain to rage on for years...that is, until now. The good news in Headphone Wars, I'm happy to report, is technology has suddenly brought us very close to a solution!   

Before I ramble on about the actual product here, I want to be clear that I have not been given any $$, nor do I have any financial interest in the product(s) I talk about on this blog. I'm not scamming anyone, just passing on the word of a product I think can make some people happy in the ultra/running world.

Every now and then I receive a sample of some running-related product from a company looking for a free plug on this blog. 99% of the time I thank them but politely decline their request. The instances when I have actually mentioned a product I've been sent can be counted on one hand. Those vary from the super-rare "Full Endorsement" (Drymax Socks), to the "Kind of an Endorsement, but Most Likely Not What the Company had in Mind" (like when I realized my free samples of POM juice tasted way better when mixed with champagne). When I recognize a new product to have the chance to affect our sport in a major way, like Drymax, I feel the need to help spread the word.  In the case of the aforementioned Headphone Wars, I'm happy to report there's at least one company thinking outside the box and is thisclose to changing the game completely.

AURIA sent me a pair of their Exceed "earphones" a couple weeks back, and my first reaction was, "Oh great, another pair of ear buds that will fall out 3 seconds after I start running.". Then I looked a little closer, read the accompanying literature, and realized these weren't regular old ear buds at all. The folks at AURIA have designed their "earphones" to lock onto the little nubs on the outside of your ear (as opposed to just jamming them into the ear canal like normal ear buds). As far as I know, up to now these nubs have pretty much only been utilized as alternative piercing spots for teenagers who are mad at their parents:
The nubs in question
The AURIA earphones have a rubberized opening that twists around and pinches those little ear nubs locking the phones in place. It takes a minute to figure out the right technique and fit, but once you get it right you realize how much more firmly they fit than normal ear buds. The reason why this unique fitting is noteworthy is not simply because this allows the earphones to stay in place while running, but because this positioning allows there to be enough space between your ear canal and the earphone for ambient noise to be heard (e.g. a car coming from behind, someone asking to pass you). Talk about a brilliant advancement in running headphone technology. From my first steps outside I was very impressed.

Unlike normal ear buds, that part on the right doesn't actually go into your ear canal. Its rubberized rim works with the blue rubber segment on the left to pinch those outer-ear lobes and lock into place outside your ear canal.
That said, they're probably a few clicks away from having their product be 100% perfect (e.g. they can still fall out, although much less easily than normal buds, and would definitely benefit from having a "soft coil" cord like Sennheiser uses on their sport models), but the idea and initial execution of this theory is very impressive. Also worth making clear: these are the total opposite of "noise canceling" headphones. They are designed to allow ambient noise in, so if you run on busy streets you'll hear nothing but cars blowing by you. The brilliance behind these earphones is realized in trail races: They're a perfect compromise for Race Directors seeking runner safety and alertness, and runners wishing to cruise the trails with an accompanying soundtrack of their favorite music. I would think that a couple samples sent to the folks who organize the Vermont 100, for example, might convince them to grant runners an exception to wear this style of earphones in their otherwise headphone-prohibited race. A runner is most definitely aware of ambient noise/surroundings while wearing these earphones, so the question of safety is no longer an issue.

So, what's your reward for reading this far? How about a free pair of these AURIA Exceed earphones to try out for yourself? I've got my nicely re-packaged pair here (only worn once!), and will be happy to pass it along to anyone interested in running their next trail race while enjoying both the sound of their music and the music of their nature around them at the same time! First person to claim the earphones in the comment section here gets 'em.  I love the thought and design behind this product, and while they're not for me, they're definitely the first giant leap toward a solution in the Great Headphone Debate!


nmp said...

Sound pretty nice. I'll take them if you don't mind ;) Although I think they are banned at UTMB!

Emma Nicole said...

These sound totally awesome! I'd love to try them out!!

Dan Rose said...

You're the winner of the quick-draw, Nick (sorry, Emma!).

Too bad you won't be able to use them at UTMB, especially since you could just hook them up to your iPhone for music since I seem to recall there being a requirement for a cellphone in your gear bag there, right?! Best of luck to you (and all the Colorado gang) heading out there next month!

Shoot me an email with your mailing address and send these things right out to you!

nmp said...

Thanks Dan! I guess reading blogs at work pays off every once in a while...although I was at least eating lunch at the time.

Yes, there is a laundry list of stuff to carry at UTMB, and phone is one of them. Seems a bit unnecessary to have to carry all of the required gear (I still havn't figured out exactly how I will manage it), but everyone has to do it so it is still a fair playing field I guess.

Stuart said...

Thanks for the info. I often do the one ear bud jammed in my ear and the other one dangling routine when running near traffic. I'll look for these.

Best Earbuds said...

Thanks for sharing this great content, I really enjoyed the insign you bring to the topic, awesome stuff!