Would you try a pair of headphones that rests on your cheekbones and sends audio to your ears through your bones? This is possible through a technology called “bone conduction,” and it’s most used in consumer headphones. These products aren’t too expensive and may be a good alternative for people who don’t enjoy using headphones or those who want to try something different. Here’s what to consider before buying a pair yourself.
What is bone conduction?
Normally, when you hear something, you’re hearing it because sound waves have travelled through the air and reached your ear. However, sound can travel through liquids and solids, too — in fact, sound travels fastest through solids. If you were to place your ear on a railway track, you’d hear an oncoming train much sooner than if you simply stood near the tracks (not that we recommend you test this out yourself).
Our bones are solid, too, so they can act as conductors of sound vibrations to our ears. Ever wonder why your voice sounds different to your own ears when you speak, versus when you hear a recording of your voice? That’s because you can hear a part of your own voice being transmitted through your bones — which is, of course, not audible to anyone else.
How do bone conduction headphones work?
Bone conduction headphones bypass the outer part of the ear entirely — you’ll usually see them placed on the cheekbones to send audio vibrations through to the inner ear. That means, if you have normal hearing, you will be able to hear environmental sounds clearly while still listening to music, podcasts, or other audio with bone conduction headphones. This is particularly useful in situations in which you need to be aware of other sounds around you, such as when walking or running outdoors. Bone conduction technology is also helpful for some people with hearing impairment — the technology is used in certain types of hearing aids.
Critics of bone conduction point out that these headphones, by design, won’t “seal” your ears the way traditional headphones do, so the sound quality itself won’t be as good. And, because these headphones are placed on your cheekbones, you may find it uncomfortable or impractical to use them during intense physical activity.
These types of headphones, like open-back headphones, also tend to leak sound, so people around you will be able to hear some of what you’re listening to. That will be something to consider if you’re tempted to use them in quiet, contained spaces, such as a library or aeroplane.
Another challenge you may experience with bone conduction headphones comes from the vibration itself — because these products send sound through your bones, you’ll constantly feel the vibrations in your skull. How annoying those vibrations feel will vary from person to person.
Should I buy bone conduction headphones?
The answer to this question is subjective, depending on your headphone usage, needs, and desire to try out different technologies. For most people, they won’t qualify as a necessity — but they can be beneficial in some situations, including for swimmers who use the waterproof versions, people who have hearing impairment, and those who can’t wear regular headphones due to skin irritation or vertigo issues.
If the vibrations aren’t for you, something like the Bose Sport Open earbuds might be an alternative — they offer some of the benefits of bone conduction (they rests lightly on your ear and don’t block your ear canal), minus the vibration.