You grab your favorite MP3 player, twist your earbuds into place, and head off down the road. The crisp autumn air filling your lungs feels invigorating, and the woodsy smell of freshly fallen leaves tickles your nose.
Everything is perfect ... until a car comes out of nowhere and nearly takes you out. By the time you hear the horn, it’s already disappeared around the bend, taking the sanctity of your morning with it.
There has got to be a safer way to listen to music. And as it turns out, you’re absolutely right — it’s called bone conduction headphone technology. Here’s what it is and how it works according to an industry expert, including our top recommendations.
What Are Bone Conduction Headphones?
Bone conduction headphones let you listen to your music without blocking your ears, allowing you to maintain ninja-like levels of environmental awareness that would make Batman proud. Well, okay, “ninja-like” is a bit of a stretch, but whatever your normal state of awareness is, you can keep it and listen to your music at the same time with bone conducting headphones.
To understand bone conduction, it helps to know the basics of how hearing works. It all starts with your outer ear, that curly piece of cartilage that may or may not be pierced. Think of your outer ear as a big dish that collects sound and funnels it toward your eardrum. Your eardrum is a flap of skin that vibrates when sound waves hit it, and it’s super important because it works like a translator by changing sound waves into vibrations.
Your eardrum sends vibrations to your cochlea, which is full of fluid and tiny hairs that move with the groove of the vibrations. The cochlea then sends the signal along to the brain, which is where the magic happens, and you realize you are listening to language or music or a really gross sound that triggers unpleasant reactions in sympathetic vomiters.
Bone conduction headphones do what they do by cutting out the middleman: they completely bypass the eardrum. They wrap around your skull using a headband and rest near your ears. The headphones send vibrations directly to your fuzzy little cochlea by conducting vibrations through the bones of your skull — hence the term bone conduction. The cochlea picks up the vibrations and transmit them to your brain, as per usual.
How Bone Conduction Headphones Beat The Buds
So, how does the quality of sound on bone conducting headphones compare to traditional earbuds? For an expert opinion on this issue, we interviewed Caleigh Nevin at AfterShokz, one of the most popular bone conduction headphone producers on the market.
We asked about sound quality in bone conduction headphones as it compares to traditional earbuds, and Nevin had this to say:
“Bone conduction is the process of hearing through mini vibrations that are sent through the skull and into the cochlea. Therefore, it’s difficult to compare the sound to any traditional headphones or earbuds. The biggest benefit our headphones offer are comfort and safety.”
Related: The Best Earbuds For Runners
Beyond sound quality, bone conduction headphones offer some sweet perks. They let you stay connected to the outside world, whether it’s on the trails, on the road, or in the workplace. Some models are submersible, making it possible for people to listen to music while underwater. They can even let people with certain forms of conductive hearing loss hear again, along with anyone unable to use earbuds due to a physical obstruction.
Bone conduction doesn’t work for all types of hearing loss. For example, auditory processing disorders, in which the brain's processing center is the culprit, or sensorineural hearing loss, in which the cochlea is damaged, aren’t candidates.
Bone Conducting Headphones vs. 3D Sound
3D sound is a contested issue with bone conduction headphone technology. Traditional headphones stay in one place on your head, but they can give you the illusion that sound is coming from different places and directions — a pretty key feature for gamers who want to know where those footsteps are coming from and home-cinema enthusiasts who want a truly immersive experience.
Some people say that 3D sound isn’t possible with bone conduction headphones, and others say it is. Time will tell if bone conduction headphones can offer the same kind of 3D sound quality as traditional headphones.
Still not sure if you’re ready to take the plunge into bone conduction technology? Consider this Nevin’s advice: “Safety is always a good idea, and bone conduction headphones lend themselves to a safer user experience!” In particular, AfterShokz bone conduction headphones offer an open-ear design that lets users remain open to their surroundings.
“A runner who is aware of other runners, or a cyclist who can hear approaching traffic, will be much safer than one who is wearing earbuds and is completely unaware and tuned out,” Nevin said.
The Best Bone Conducting Headphones
Solid advice, but buying new technology always feels a little risky. That’s why WearableZone compiled some choice models that come with an iron-clad 45-day return policy, so you can try them for yourself risk free. Only the best bone conduction headphone companies, like AfterShokz and AudioBone, are able to stand behind their products 100%.
AfterShokz Trekz Titanium, $129.95
The AfterShokz wireless Trekz Titanium is super lightweight at 1.27 ounces. It uses Bluetooth 4.1 technology, and the multipoint pairing feature is convenient for anyone who wants to use it for multiple purposes, such as running, using a cell phone, and enjoying an entertainment center.
It lasts for 6 hours on a single charge, which is good enough for most workouts, commutes, and couch-veg-out time. At $129.95, this is one of the more expensive choices on the market, but it’s also one of the lightest and most feature-rich.
AfterShokz Sportz Titanium With Mic, $59.95
The AfterShokz wired Sportz Titanium with Mic has double the battery life at 12 hours for less than half the cost: $59.95. Despite being wired up, it only weighs 1.48 oz, so it’s still a solid choice for outdoor athletics. If you are interested in trying out bone conduction headphones, but aren’t ready to drop over a hundred bucks on a set, this version has a great balance of price and functionality.
AudioBone 1.0, $139
Both of those products are sweatproof, but for a fully waterproof model you can dunk into the pool with you, consider the AudioBone 1.0. Waterproofing these bone conduction headphones didn’t come at the expense of weight. They are still light at 1.3 ounces, though they are on the pricier side at $139.00.
This is a great time to try out bone conduction headphones, and it’s definitely an industry to watch in the future. When asked about developmental focus, Nevin said, “Our focus is on safety and comfort, so we’re designing a headphone with a lighter, more comfortable fit with enhanced audio quality that will be released late summer.”
So, even if right now isn’t the right time for you, check back in to see what AfterShokz is up to later this summer. Do you use bone conduction headphones? Share your story below.