If you’ve ever wanted to listen to music without losing track of your surroundings, it may be time to shop for some bone conduction headphones. These specialized headphones lack speakers and leave your ears free to hear external noises, such as 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?
Unlike regular headphones or earbuds, bone conduction headphones don’t rely on speakers to create sound. Instead, they use two transducers to vibrate your skull—or, more specifically, your cheekbones.
These vibrations find their way to your cochleas, where they’re translated into “sound” for your brain. Bone conduction effectively bypasses your eardrums, leaving them free to hear external noises while you enjoy music, podcasts, phone calls, or other sounds from your headphones.
Bone conduction is very different from air conduction, which is the process we usually think of when we talk about “hearing.” With air conduction, sounds create waves of pressure in the air, and this pressure vibrates your eardrums. Your eardrums then vibrate your cochleas, which transfer the sound to your brain.
Some people think that bone conduction is gross or creepy, but it’s pretty natural. When you speak, for example, you hear a combination of air conducted sound and bone conducted sound. That’s why your voice sounds different in recordings; these recordings don’t capture all of the bone conducted sound that vibrates through your head.
To be clear, bone conduction headphones aren’t silent. The vibrations created by these headphones produce some audible sound that other people might hear, especially if you’re close to you.
Bone conduction headphones leave your eardrums free to receive any incoming sounds. So, the benefits are pretty obvious—you can use bone conduction headphones without blocking out external noise.
Headphones that let you hear your environment are a bit unorthodox. But depending on your responsibilities or hobbies, you may find yourself in a ton of situations where you need to stay aware of your surroundings.
Cycling is probably the most popular use-case for bone conduction headphones. You need to be aware of your environment while riding a bike on the road; otherwise, you could be the victim (or the cause) of an accident. A pair of earbuds will block out your environment while cycling, but bone conduction headphones will let you hear oncoming cars or emergency vehicles.
Swimmers will also enjoy bone conduction headphones, which are often waterproof and sometimes work in saltwater. In fact, some models of bone conduction headphones, like the AfterShokz Xtrainerz, double as portable MP3 players and eliminate the need to swim near your phone.
And because bone conduction headphones bypass your eardrum, they’re a solid option for people who wear earplugs or fully in-ear hearing aids. They’re also a great alternative to traditional headphones if you have hearing loss in your external or middle ear. (That said, bone conduction headphones can damage your inner ear at high volumes, just like regular headphones.)
Of course, bone conduction headphones don’t always need specific use-cases. Maybe you’re preparing a barbecue and still want to hear your family’s voices, for example. Or, if you have young kids, you may want to listen to music without losing track of the outside world.
You should never buy bone conduction headphones for their sound quality. By nature, these headphones tend to emphasize the upper mid-range and lack any sort of bass. And because bone conduction headphones leave your ears open to external sounds, 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 mainly listening to podcasts or taking phone calls, the sound quality honestly doesn’t matter much in the first place. (I should note that some bone conduction headphones come with earplugs, as plugging your ears actually improves the quality of bone conducted sound.)
But there’s another downside to bone conduction headphones—the cost. Nearly all bone conduction headphones start at $70, and high-quality models can cost several hundred dollars. I realize that $70 isn’t unreasonable, but it’s a lot of money to spend on headphones that don’t sound great.
Using bone conduction headphones is a matter of preference. Are you willing to sacrifice audio quality to hear your surroundings? Or, are you a swimmer who wants to listen to music while exercising? Then hey, you’re probably a perfect fit for a set of bone conduction headphones.
Of course, there are some situations where you should absolutely opt for bone conduction headphones. Wearing traditional headphones or earbuds while cycling, for example, is extremely dangerous. It’s also illegal in some states and countries.
Those who are obsessed with audio quality should skip bone conduction headphones. That said, there are some alternatives, such as the Sony LinkBuds and Bose Sport Open earbuds, which feature an open design to let you hear some surroundings without sacrificing audio quality.