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Bone conduction headphones: Gimmick or godsend?
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. These have deep-seated roots in the hearing aid industry, but naysayers and die-hard fans are abound. Let’s break down whether or not bone conduction headsets are a gimmick or something more.
Editor’s note: this article was updated on April 19, 2022, to add a section on the best bone conduction headphones and to answer an FAQ about the company Shokz, formerly AfterShokz.
How does bone conduction technology work?
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 in lieu of the eardrum.
Why you shouldn’t get 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.
If audio quality matters to you at all, avoid bone conduction cans.
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.
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.
Why you should get bone conduction headphones
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.
What are the best bone conduction headphones?
You’ll notice that the company Shokz (formerly AfterShokz) makes most of the bone conduction headphones around. Shokz has a real hold on this very niche market, and many of the third-party options fall short of Shokz’ offerings. Currently, the Shokz OpenRun is the best set of bone conduction headphones around, and it’s a rebrand on the famed AfterShokz Aeropex. With the Shokz OpenRun, you get Bluetooth 5.1, 8th gen bone conduction technology, and fast charging. Unfortunately, you have to deal with the company’s proprietary two-pin connector, but there are worse things.
To see the rest of your options, check out our list of the best bone conduction headphones.
The Bose Sport Open Earbuds are a great alternative to bone conduction headsets
Like bone conduction headphones, the Bose Sport Open Earbuds feature an unoccluded design that leaves your ear canals completely open. You get all the same safety benefits from Bose’s chunky earbuds as you do from a set of bone conduction headphones, but Bose’s earphones sit where your ears meet your skull and use precisely placed speakers to funnel sound down your ear canals. If you have fine hearing abilities and want something to keep you safe, these IPX4 earbuds are a great option. They sound much better than bone conduction headphones and serve a similar purpose for those (without hearing impairments) who need a pair of earbuds that are safe for outdoor use.
Frequently asked questions about bone conduction headphones
Yes, AfterShokz changed its name to Shokz in December 2021, and has been releasing new headsets under the Shokz name.
Possibly! This is a difficult one to answer, but if what causes your vertigo is the seal over or in your ear and the change in pressure that results, bone conduction does not seal anything, therefore, it shouldn’t alter the pressure in your ears.
This is not a guarantee, because we aren’t medical professionals and the canals of the ear are complex, as is the interplay with the ear’s connection to sinuses, and vertigo has a number of different causes. But, if it’s the change in air pressure that is your main culprit, have you tried open-back headphones which generally have very little in the way of air pressure change by virtue of being open? Clamping force may also play a role, so perhaps an open-back headphone like the AKG K240 which tends to have a looser fit and is very much an open-back design could also work.
Unfortunately no: bone conduction may bypass your outer ear, but needs the inner ear bones, cochlea, and your nerve to work in order for you to hear audio. An acoustic neuroma is a tumor on the nerve bundle that connects these organs to your brain, and if that nerve is severed, there’s no longer a link from the ear to your brain. Bone conduction can’t bypass this.
In theory yes: because your ear canal is unoccluded, outside noise can make it to your inner ear much more easily than it would if you were wearing headphones or in-ears. However, you still need to listen at a responsible volume, as your brain can make it harder for you to hear certain noises if you’re listening to loud music. Remember, auditory masking takes place in your brain, not your ear.
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.
Unfortunately, bone conduction headphones get sound to your inner ear by vibrating the bones removed in your surgery, so it’s unlikely they’ll work for you.
Yes. Earplugs physically block the entrance to the ear canal, while bone conduction headphones work by sending vibrations to the bones in your inner ear. In theory this should work, though you would lose out on the advantages of bone conducting headphones.
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.
This will depend on the extend of the sensitivity and the specific model. Bone conduction headphones still attach to your head or your ears.