If you’ve always wanted to listen to music without losing sight of your surroundings, maybe it’s time to get some bone conduction headphones. These special headphones don’t have speakers, leaving your ears free to hear external sounds like voices or oncoming cars.
But bone conduction headphones aren’t for everyone. They come with a few downsides, including audio quality. So how do bone conduction headphones work and are they right for you?
How does bone conduction work?
Unlike regular headphones or earbuds, bone conduction headphones don’t rely on speakers to produce sound. Instead, they use two transducers to vibrate your skull — or more specifically, your cheekbones.
These vibrations find their way to your cochlea, where they are translated into “sounds” for your brain. Bone conduction effectively bypasses your eardrums, freeing them to hear external sounds while you enjoy music, podcasts, phone calls, or other sounds through your headphones.
Bone conduction is very different from air conduction, which is what we usually think of when we think of hearing. With air conduction, sound creates pressure waves in the air, and this pressure causes your eardrum to vibrate. Your eardrums then vibrate your cochleas, which transmit the sound to your brain.
Some people think bone conduction is gross or scary, but it’s pretty natural. For example, when you speak, you hear a combination of airborne sounds and bone conduction sound. That’s why your voice sounds different in recordings; These recordings don’t capture all of the bone-conducted sound vibrating through your head.
To be clear, bone conduction headphones are not quiet. Generate the vibrations generated by these headphones some audible sound that other people might hear, especially when you are close by.
The benefits: Increased security and awareness
Bone conduction headphones leave your eardrums free to receive any incoming sound. So the benefits are obvious – you can use bone conduction headphones without blocking out external noise.
Headphones that let you hear your surroundings are a bit unorthodox. But depending on your responsibilities or hobbies, you may find yourself in a lot of situations where you need to be aware of your surroundings.
Cycling is probably the most popular use case for bone conduction headphones. You need to be aware of your surroundings when riding your bike on the road. otherwise you could be the victim of (or the cause of) an accident. A pair of earbuds will block out your surroundings while cycling, but bone conduction headphones will let you hear oncoming cars or emergency vehicles.
Swimmers will also appreciate bone conduction headphones, which are often waterproof and sometimes work in salt water. In fact, some models of bone conduction headphones, like the AfterShokz Xtrainerz, double as portable MP3 players, eliminating the need to swim near your phone.
And because bone conduction headphones bypass your eardrums, they’re a solid option for people who wear earbuds or full-ear hearing aids. They’re also a great alternative to traditional headphones if you have hearing loss in the outer or middle ear. (That said, bone conduction headphones can damage your inner ear at high volume, just like regular headphones.)
Of course, bone conduction headphones don’t always need specific use cases. For example, maybe you are preparing a barbecue and still want to hear the voices of your family. Or, if you have young children, you might want to listen to music without taking your eyes off the outside world.
The bad news: sound quality and price
You should never buy bone conduction headphones for their sound quality. By their nature, these headphones tend to emphasize the upper mids and lack any kind of bass. And because bone conduction headphones leave your ears open to outside noise, you don’t get an isolated listening experience.
Now, bone conduction headphones don’t sound terrible. They get the job done, and if you’re mostly listening to podcasts or on the phone then sound quality doesn’t really matter much from the outset. (I should note that some bone conduction headphones come with earbuds, since plugging your ears actually improves the quality of the bone conduction sound.)
But there’s another downside to bone conduction headphones — cost. Almost all bone conduction headphones start at $70, and high-end models can cost several hundred dollars. I realize that $70 isn’t unreasonable, but it’s a lot of money to spend on headphones don’t sound great.
Should You Use Bone Conduction Headphones?
The use of bone conduction headphones is a matter of taste. Are you willing to sacrifice audio quality to hear your surroundings? Or are you a swimmer who likes to listen to music while exercising? Then, hey, you’re probably a perfect match for a set of bone conduction headphones.
Of course there are situations where you should do it absolutely Opt for bone conduction headphones. For example, wearing traditional headphones or earplugs while cycling is extremely dangerous. It is also illegal in some states and countries.
Those obsessed with audio quality should steer clear of bone conduction headphones. However, there are some alternatives, like the Sony LinkBuds and Bose Sport Open earbuds, which feature an open design so you can hear some environment without sacrificing audio quality.
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