Although true wireless earbuds have been hogging the limelight as of late, there’s another breed of specialized wireless earphones garnering attention: bone conduction headphones. While they sound like something from a Frankenstein spin-off, bone conduction headphones have deep-seated roots in the hearing aid industry. Seeing things like the Aftershockz Trekz Titanium on Best Buy shelves seems like it would be indicative of an effective audio product; after all, it’s popular enough to make it to a mainstream brick and mortar outfit. However, there are some who consider it to be a gimmick while others find them to be invaluable.

Editor’s note: this article was updated on February 20, 2020, to include information about noise-induced hearing loss various types of hearing loss.

How does it work?

Bone conduction headphones - Noise-induced hearing loss: Two diagrams. The one on the left shows how sound travels into the ear and the right is a close-up fo the middle and inner ears.

Those with hearing issues may benefit from bone conduction headphones since they don’t rely solely on the eardrum.

The abridged version of bone conduction headphones is that they rest directly on the listener’s cheekbones. Unlike traditional headphones and earbuds, the eardrum doesn’t vibrate to pass the information along to the cochlea. Instead, the vibrations from the bone conduction bee-lines for the cochlea.

Due to the lack of eardrum involvement, this technology is good for people with hearing deficiencies, as the bone conduction vibration acts as in lieu of the eardrum.

The case against bone conduction headphones

Bone conduction nay-sayers harp on the importance of isolation, but it’s more than repetition for the sake of repetition; it makes an audible difference. Insulating your eardrums from outside clamor benefits clarity because a good seal mitigates auditory masking. What’s more, if your eardrum isn’t being used, transmission accuracy is compromised. You’ll get the gist of your media playback, but audio quality is severely degraded.

Sound quality aside, the fit may be uncomfortable. Let’s take the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium, one of the more popular options; it rests atop your cheekbones and balances its weight on a small portion of your ears. It’s hard to maintain a stable fit when walking, let alone when doing more vigorous activities like running.

If audio quality matters to you at all, avoid bone conduction cans.

Those who fall into this camp believe you’re paying more for less. The concept is novel, but real-world use reveals many deficiencies. Of course, there are always two sides to a coin.

The case for bone conduction headphones

Bone conduction headphones: Aftershokz Trekz Titanium wrapped around a cold brew coffee in mason jar.

Aftershokz’ bone conduction headphones wrap around the back of the head but don’t sit securely compared to alternatives.

All right, so consumers in favor of bone conduction headphones champion the technology for safety reasons and because it’s beneficial for those who are hard of hearing. Regarding the former, being aware of your surroundings during outdoor workouts is a necessity, especially for runners. Since these don’t seal around or even touch the ear canal, they allow you to hear other pedestrians, passing cars, and any other potential hazards.
What’s more, if you suffer from hearing loss and, or use hearing aids, bone conduction headphones are a viable option. While conventional earbuds and headphones may interfere with or jostle hearing aids, bone conduction headphones bypass this. Additionally, listeners who are deaf in one ear may enjoy stereo sound that can’t be heard with traditional in-ears. Bone conduction headphones give certain listeners a sense of hearing that may otherwise be unavailable to them.

Although audiophiles likely won’t be endorsing bone conduction headphones anytime soon, the fact remains that they serve a purpose for those with impaired hearing. To call them a complete gimmick would be oversimplifying the technology and its various use-cases. Yet, to call them the best thing since the TRRS plug would be a severe exaggeration. If your hearing ability is unimpaired, there are plenty of great wireless and true wireless earbuds out there that provide better audio quality. If you are someone who experiences hearing loss, bone conduction headphones are a great option.

Next: Best workout earbuds

Frequently Asked Questions

Can I use bone conduction headphones with hearing aids?

This depends on the design of your hearing aid. If you have in-the-ear (ITE) or invisible (IIC) hearing aids, you should be able to use bone conduction headphones with hearing aids without issue. However, if you have behind-the-ear (BTE), receiver-in-canal (RIC), or open-fit hearing aids, you could experience some discomfort when wearing bone conduction headphones because they may make contact with the top part of the hearing aid module.

Why is the earbud's output audible to other people?

Although bone conduction headphones bypass the eardrum, they still have to transmit vibrations to the inner ear for your cochlea to receive and funnel to the brain via stereocilia vibrations. Therefore, bone conduction headphones still must emit the same frequencies and vibrations to reach your cochlea, meaning some sound will be heard to those around you due to the lack of seal.