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. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.

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

We at SoundGuys 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 it won’t sound true to form.

Sound quality aside, the fit is just 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.

You’re paying more for less. Yes, the concept of bone conduction technology is novel and unique, but real-world use reveals many impracticalities. I can’t imagine an instance where I’d opt for these headphones over a pair of in-ear or over-ear alternatives for daily use.

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.

OK, so this technology does have one thing going for it in the consumer market: safety. And while we shouldn’t overlook the importance of being aware of your surroundings while working out outdoors, it’s a niche market within a niche market. That said, if you do fall in the center of the “those who work out and those who work out outdoors” Venn-diagram, then bone conduction headphones are worth considering. They allow you to hear other pedestrians, passing cars, and any other potential hazards.

On the whole, though, bone conduction headphones are just gimmicks occupying physical and virtual shelves. While they may look cool… or at least strange, they’re just not worth the compromise in audio quality. When it comes down to it, we plug in to block out the world, not to let it in.

Next: Best workout earbuds

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