Bone conducting headphones, which transmit sound through your skull rather than your eardrums, are not new. They have been in use by special operations and SWAT teams around the world and have been available for commercial purchase for years. Initial offering, however, were expensive and performed poorly until Aftershokz entered the market with offerings between $35 and $70. Aftershokz generated a lot of excitement at CNET and, despite the relatively low price, had solid reviews.
I had been looking into bone conducting headphones for a while, and recently purchased the Aftershokz AS301, which are the basic model with an additional in-line microphone. Aftershokz are designed to be used by runners, bikers, and walkers to remain aware of their surroundings and traffic, but I got them for even broader use. I’m the sort of person who always has a pair of earphones with music on, which can cause several problems. The first is comfort, as over-ear headphones hurt after a while, ear buds tend to fall out, and extended use of either can damage eardrums. The second is, though I want my music, I don’t necessarily want to block out the rest of the world, and want to hear my friends and colleagues if they try to get my attention. Lastly, headphones greatly cut down on situational awareness, which is dangerous on a run but even more dangerous at night, in a sketchy neighborhood, or both.
Bone conducting headphones solve all of these problems, though they aren’t perfect and introduce a new set of issues. Because they don’t rest on or in the ears, instead sitting on the cheek bones right on front, they are much more comfortable to wear for long periods of time. They don’t interfere with your hearing at all, so you are aware of everything around you and can carry on a conversation. The AfterShokz are relatively noisy, and when the volume is turned up, people around you can faintly hear what you’re playing. For a moment, this made me wonder whether I was just hearing music near my ears rather than in them, but to my surprise, when I plugged my ears the music got clearer and louder rather than quiet and muffled, proving AfterShokz’s claim that they bypass the eardrum, going from your skull to the inner ear.
While this is their primary advantage, it’s also their greatest weakness. Unlike noise cancelling headphones or even regular over-ear headphones and earbuds which block outside sounds, bone conducting headphones compete with it, so in a loud environment you won’t be able to hear much of what you’re trying to listen to. If you’re trying to block out sound on the metro or to focus on your work, AfterShokz are not for you. On the other hand, by blending in with the sound around you, AfterShokz provide interesting listening experiences such as layering music.
And for you audiophiles, the sound quality is more than good enough, with a few caveats. Under ideal conditions, the AfterShokz sound great. They have plenty of treble and even bass, though at loud volume and heavy bass they vibrate against your cheek bones. Some might find this annoying, but I agree with most reviewers that it’s not unpleasant, even kind of cool. The only real problem is that, unless you’re sitting in a silent room or wearing ear plugs, conditions won’t be ideal. The sound gets washed out fairly easily in noisy settings, though the volume can go as loud or louder than conventional headphones without the same risk of hearing damage.
The microphone works well too. It’s in the battery box that hangs on the wire and thus is much larger than the iPhone microphone and needs to be clipped to your shirt so as not to bounce around and to be close enough to your mouth. I’ve been making calls with my AfterShokz and those on the other line can hear me well, though as the microphone will be farther from your mouth than usual it will pick up more background noise.
Overall, bone conducting headphones won’t replace your conventional headphones, no matter how well they work. They’re simply different, and all of the things that make them great in some situations hold them back in others. Still, for what they are, the AfterShokz perform extremely well and are a great value. They’ve become the headphones I wear most of the time, and I’ve even used them for teleconferences. It also doesn’t hurt that, as the headphone of choice for special operations that literally play music through your skull, bone conducting headphones are one of the most hardcore ways to listen to music.