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 12, 2021, to make note of the Bose Sport Earbuds as an alternative to bone conduction headphones.

How does bone conduction technology 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 in lieu of the eardrum.

Why you shouldn’t get bone conduction headphones

The headphones gently wrap around your head making and feel like a cozy hug. Pictured: The Aftershockz Trekz Titanium wrapped around a cold brew coffee. These are the safest Bluetooth headphones for running.

The headphones gently wrap around your head making and feel like a cozy hug.

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.

Related: Best workout earbuds

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

A woman wears the Aftershokz Trekz Titanium bone conduction headphones.

The Aftershokz Trekz Titanium is great for street sports since they completely allow ambient noise though.

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.

Learn more: Types and signs of hearing loss

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.

The Bose Sport Open Earbuds are a great alternative to bone conduction headsets

The left Bose Sport Open Earbud faces up with its connector pins, speaker grill, and

When you want to listen in mono mode, the right earbud must be nearby, even if it’s in the case.

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.

Next: Best bone conduction headphones

Frequently Asked Questions

I had acoustic neuroma years ago and the hearing nerve for my left ear was severed during operation. Would bone conduction headphones work for me so I can hear sound coming from my left side?

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.  

My hearing aids are fine for listening to conversation, but hearing music is an entirely different story. All music sounds chaotic and discordant. I really miss my music. Any thoughts?

Hearing aids are intended primarily to enable us to communicate and the signal processing they use will boost speech signals are suppress anything else, assuming it to be noise. Some hearing aid manufacturers provide switchable modes that will allow music to pass through unhindered by this processing. If yours don't have this feature, another approach to restoring your ability to enjoy music would be to purchase a pair of headphones and equalize the response to compensate for your hearing loss (here's a handy guide) and take the hearing aids out of the equation while you're listening to music.

Are they less likely to cause hearing loss than regular headphones

Not really. Noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) generally happens in the cochlea by loss of stereocilia (the tiny hairs that move and start the chemical process of your brain interpreting sound). Because of this, anything that moves those tiny little hairs can cause NIHL if there's enough force. Be careful with how loud you listen!!

I’m missing the three inner ear bones on my left side from brain surgery. I’m 100% deaf on the left side now. Would these headphones work for me?

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.

What are the best bone conduction headphones?

The Aftershokz Aeropex are the best bone conduction headphones: they use Bluetooth 5.0 technology, have an eight-hour battery life, and are IP67-rated. To learn more, check out our list of the best bone conduction headsets.

Are bone conduction headphones safer for jogging near cars?

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.

Can you use bone conducting headphones with earplugs in?

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.

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.