STORY: Mountains & Music - The Story of earSHOTS
I love a good coming-to-be story, especially when the topic on hand is a Kiwi business. I think it’s something ingrained in all of us New Zealanders – we love seeing our own punching above their weight. I think there’s something especially rad about Kiwi companies trying to make their mark in our mountain biking community – riding is what we all love, and when a company tries to make that experience better for us, it’s hard for me not to get excited about it.
Along with riding, music is a big passion of mine and I spent a decent chunk of my teens playing in janky bars, community halls and houses around New Zealand. It’s tricky to combine riding and music – all the headphones I’ve tried have either been uncomfortable, constantly fall out, or both. There’s the option of strapping a speaker to myself or my bike, but I’ve never been able to bring myself to do it, knowing that for many, being away from the noise of our modern world is one of the things that draws them to riding. When local company, earSHOTS, reached out asking if I’d like to test out their headphones, I couldn’t say no and whilst waiting for the headphones to arrive, took it upon myself to find out more about earSHOTS and how they came to be.
When you’re designing headphones, there’s a few things you need to consider, especially if you plan on using them mountain biking. You don’t need me to tell you how rough a mountain bike trail is, so obviously retention is a big factor. Along with sweating, we’re also outside and exposed to the elements when we ride, so being durable is key. We go through saddles, shorts, helmets and more ‘til we find the gear that makes us most comfortable, so comfort is a big one and lastly, mountain biking is a dynamic sport made up of a bunch of different movements, so it’s important that our range of motion isn’t affected.
Banded headphones would help with retention but are obviously next to impossible to wear with a helmet so they’re a no go. I’ve had okay luck with in-ear earphones, but they’ve cancelled out any-and-all ambient noise and even then, retention is average. I’ve tried earphones targeted at active markets with the loop around your ear and all that fun stuff, but they’ve all had plastic arms that have been at best, tolerable, but not tolerable enough for me to use them regularly. When all was said and done, I decided riding wind rushing past my ears and sounds of nature would be my go-to.
James Bell-Booth, founder of earSHOTS, found himself in a similar boat. James was training for the T42, an event that requires a fair bit of fitness as I’m sure a few of you know, and was over spending his hours training in silence. Music, or podcasts, can make the monotony of training a lot more bearable particularly for endurance rides, and after trying a ton of headphones that were available, also came to the conclusion that there were no good options available. James wanted to create a set of headphones that were comparable to a watch, in the sense that they’re set-and-forget – once they’re on, you don’t need to worry about them.
Armed with a vision, James re-mortgaged the house, drew together some funds and hired some product designers, a move that didn’t work out in the end and left him empty handed. James wanted to utilise a magnet system to help retain the headphones, and along with co-founder John Grayson, came to the conclusion that they’d need to do a lot more protyping and development to get the headphones made before working on a final design. This started with James buying some moulding plastic and teaching himself how to create moulds by hand on his dining room table, which eventually moved into 3D-printed designs, before finally moving into real prototyping, so to speak.
One of the big hurdles James and John faced was the development of their magnet retention system. The earSHOTS have two magnets: one in the speaker that sits over your ear, and one in the part that loops over and sits behind your ear. These magnets had to be strong enough to keep the earSHOT from falling out, but not so strong that it was uncomfortable and pinching at your ear, which as you can imagine is a pretty fine balance. As well as the magnet strength, it was important to make sure their prototypes were comfortable on a wide range of people and over a long period of time, given that when you’re hurting and trying to push through, the last thing you want to be thinking about is how uncomfortable your headphones are and finally, they had to make sure that the headphones could stand up to the elements, not only did James and John have sweat to contend with, but they also had to consider anything and everything that mother nature could throw their way. When combined with their passion to create a set of headphones unlike anything else the world has seen, it took a total of five years’ worth of development to get to where earSHOTS are today.
earSHOTS now have a team of staff scattered all around the globe, however their roots are still firmly planted in New Zealand with James based in Palmerston North, with the Arapuke Mountain Bike Park pretty much on his doorstep, and their design team are based out of Queenstown. earSHOTS have opted to operate on a direct-to-consumer basis, meaning they charge less for their product as there’s no middleman to feed, and more importantly, they can engage directly with their customers. This benefits us, the consumer, greatly as it means our feedback gets back to the people who can use that feedback to then improve future iterations of earSHOTS, along with cutting out waiting times for warranty issues and giving you the benefit of working with a customer services team that know their product inside out. They’ll be tackling the NZ and Australian markets first and are currently working on getting some pretty rad Kiwis on board as ambassadors, before pushing into areas further afield.
Now that you know a little about earSHOTS and their coming to be, let’s talk about how they perform.
As mentioned earlier, James sent me a pair of earSHOTS about four weeks ago now, and I’ve been using them plenty out on the bike and even around the house instead of my Sonos system. The first thing I noticed was the packaging. In a world that’s becoming overrun with single use plastics, I was stoked to see the box the earSHOTS came in is made of recycled materials and is obviously recyclable itself. Upon opening the box, I was then stoked on the lack of cluttler, presented with nothing more than the earSHOTS case and the charging cable underneath. No instructions, instead they’ve printed a link on the inside of the box that takes you through to a tutorial section on their site , although the headphones are super simple to use and I managed to figure them out and get them paired and running without needing to check ‘em out. Points for simplicity.
The supplied case has two purposes, the obvious purpose of storing your earSHOTS, and a second purpose as acting as the charger, even featuring an internal battery so you can charge on the go. I’m pretty good at losing anything smaller than my phone, so the charging case is perfect.I take it with me whenever I go riding not only because it gives me somewhere safe to leave the earSHOTS once I get back to the car, but also because I know it means my earSHOTS will be charged when I reach for ‘em next. At home I keep the earSHOTS on my desk for those times I need to block out the dog barking or the neighbours kids, so I plug the case into my computer once a week to keep it charged and I’m yet to run the battery on the case, or the earSHOTS completely flat.
Now onto the important part: the earSHOTS. The earSHOTS are designed as earbud, meaning the speaker sits at the entrance of your ear canal, versus in it, as in-ear headphones would, and feature a rubberised loop that goes over your ear and sits behind it. The speaker and the backing both feature magnets, which are strong enough to be attracted to one another through your ear, but not so strong that you can feel it. The magnet system is earSHOTS solution to the retention problem, and I can confirm it works a treat. Each earSHOT features a small button for pairing and powering-on, along with a small LED to give you the status of your unit.
In terms of performance, the earSHOTS are awesome. The earSHOTS are thin and flexible through the middle, so they’ll conform to the top of your ears and the rubber outer doesn’t feel uncomfortable against your skin. As the earSHOTS are an earbud design, there’s no pressure inside your ear and they don’t feel intrusive whatsoever. In terms of sound quality, the earSHOTS deliver a good, balanced sound. Out of the box, I found they sounded a little ‘hollow’ through the mid-range, with highs that were a little bit more pronounced then I’d like, but after a quick tweak of Spotify’s EQ I got them dialled in to a setting that I was stoked with. It is probably worth noting that I’m lucky enough to have owned some really nice guitar amps and speakers over my time, so I’m pretty picky when it comes to sound. If you were to compare them to a set of standard headphones that sell for the same price, the standard heaphones would win out in a battle of sound quality but that’s not to say the earSHOTS are bad by any stretch of the imagination, and ultimately the earSHOTS are designed to provide you with trouble-free listening in environments where other headphones would provide you with nothing but trouble, and that’s exactly what they do.
I wouldn’t say you forget the headphones are there once they’re in, but they don’t move around at all and are uncomfortable in any sense. It took me a minute to wrap my head around how to put them on the first time round, although as admitted earlier I oh-so-confidently skipped the tutorial videos, but once you’ve figured it out they’re a piece of cake to put on and despite my hardest efforts, I couldn’t get them to budge. They don’t interfere with my helmet or helmet straps at all, and because each earSHOT is a standalone unit, meaning no cable or bar to connect them like some wireless headphones, you’re free to move your head however you like without fear of earSHOT ejection. The magnetic retention system works perfectly, and you don’t feel the magnets attraction to one-another at all. After a little bro-science, I concluded that the magnets are strong enough to hang the headphones off your earlobe like a pair of over-priced, mildly deformed hoops, but not so strong that you could do much more than just sit there questioning why you’ve got two headphones hanging from your ears.
The question I’ve had the most with the earSHOTS is do they have a microphone to pick up noise from the environment around you. The answer is no, but the earSHOTS aren’t an in-ear headphone and they aren’t noise cancelling either, so you can still hear what’s going on around you, unless of course your music is cranked up so loud that you should be worrying about your hearing before anything else. Probably also worth noting that if you need to be able to hear what’s going on around you, chances are you probably shouldn’t be listening to music. After chatting with James, it is something they’re considering in the future and I think that’s one of the rad things about direct-to-consumer companies – the fact that us consumers can have these conversations with the people behind the product knowing that our feedback will get through to someone who can actually utilise it.
When all is said and done, if you’re wanting to ride and listen to music, I’m not aware of anything on the market that will do a better job than the earSHOTS. They’re comfy, they sound great and they’re easy to setup. It’s really cool to see a business establish purely around designing headphones for mountain biking and outdoor sports, as opposed to being an after thought on someone else’s product line, so if you want to keep your money within our sport, consider picking up a pair of earSHOTS.
I’ve said it a bunch of times and I’ll say it again; getting to showcase local businesses that are bringing something new to our sport is one of my favourite parts of this job. earSHOTS are a great example of this, and I look forward to following their journey over years to come.
Want to win your own pair of earSHOTS? Head over to our Instagram, find our post sharing this story on June 10th, comment your favourite riding song and go in the drawer to win! You can comment as many times as you like, make sure you're following us and @ride_earshots though! Winner will be drawn at random on 23rd June. Competition open to people residing in New Zealand only.
Words: Cam Baker
Images: Cam Baker with production photos supplied by earSHOTS