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How do bone conduction headphones work?

If you’ve been on the hunt for a new pair of earbuds or headphones, you’ve surely come across a unique technology called bone conduction. Offering an alternative to the traditional way that headphones and earbuds send sound to your eardrums, the tech uses vibrations through your own jawbone and skull instead.

That’s obviously a pretty basic description, and we’ll expand on it below, but bone-conduction headphones, and the way they sit outside the ear, are an excellent solution for users such as runners, swimmers, and cyclists who want to be able to enjoy music while still hearing potential hazards around them.

But bone-conduction headphones tend to be a bit of an outlier in the greater world of wearable audio products. One major reason is that there are just not as many companies producing them, but they’re also pretty unique when it comes to both fit and performance. Did you ever think you’d learn about headphones that don’t even need your ears? Well, it’s time to get schooled, friends, and learn about how bone conduction works.

Welcome to your ears (and brain)

A person wearing Shokz OpenRun bone conduction headphones.
Amazon

In order to best understand how bone conduction headphones produce sound, we should also explore the science behind a traditional set of headphones (or earbuds) and the different parts of our ears. And to best understand that process, we should also explain how audio drivers and speakers work in general. 

Speakers have one very basic job: to push and pull air to produce vibrations. These vibrations are converted to airborne pressure waves (perhaps better known as sound waves), which our ears detect as sound. The process of deciphering these waves is handled by our eardrums and other parts of the inner ear. After passing through the outer and middle sections of the ear canal, the waves knock on the cochlea’s door. For those unaware, the cochlea is a snail-shaped structure in our inner ear that converts sound waves into electrical impulses, which are decoded by our brains as “sound.”  

With traditional headphones, getting these vibrations into electrical signals requires the participation of every part of the ear canal, from the eardrum to the cochlea. But is there a way to get vibrations to the cochlea without pestering our eardrums? Yes — through the bones in our heads.

Puppeteering your skull: The science of bone conduction

A person wearing Shokz OpenRun bone conduction headphones on a bike.
Amazon

Believe it or not, you don’t actually need the outer and middle parts of your ear to hear sound, because you’re not technically “hearing” anything. Remember: it’s our brain that turns pressure waves into audible sound. 

If you’ve ever seen a pair of bone-conduction headphones, you’ll notice that they have transducers (the part that produces pressure waves) that sit right next to the ears instead of over the ear canal like traditional headphones. Shokz, one of the leaders in this technology, explains its tech really well on its website, but the basics of it are that the transducers “send vibrations through the cheekbones and deliver sound directly to the inner ear.” This quick A-to-B process completely bypasses most parts of our ear canal, short-cutting those pressure waves directly to our cochlea.

It’s science at its harmonious best, but what are bone conduction headphones best used for, and which brands make the best models? Let’s unpack both of these mysteries.

Bone conduction headphones for the win

A person wearing Shokz OpenRun bone conduction headphones.
Amazon

Bone conduction headphones have long been championed as an excellent audio alternative for folks who suffer from conductive hearing loss. You may have heard of cochlear implants. These amazing hearing aids actually function in a similar way to bone conduction headphones — they bypass most parts of the ear canal and go straight for the cochlea. Bone conduction audio allows the listener to experience sound even if parts of the inner ear are compromised. And even if someone is only partially deaf, bone conduction audio lets the listener hear full stereo sound, while leaving the ear canals accessible for hearing aids. 

Beyond medical assistance, bone conduction headphones are also ideal for gym goers who need a set of headphones that don’t require constant adjustments. Most bone conduction headsets are equipped with a supportive band that wraps around the back of the head for stability, making them much harder to budge than traditional headphones. 

Even everyday commuters and those of us working in chatter-filled work environments can benefit from bone-conduction audio. You’ll be able to leave your ears open to pick up on essential sounds, like oncoming traffic, emergency vehicles, and vital water-cooler discussion. 

Bone conduction audio also helps to reduce the damage one can do by listening to music at excessive volumes using traditional headphones. This is because the eardrum itself is far more sensitive to wear and tear from loud listening than your body’s cranial bones.  

What kinds of bone conduction headphones can you buy? 

For a while now, the bone conduction marketplace has been cornered by one standout brand: Shokz (formerly AfterShokz). And honestly, if we were recommending a set of bone-conduction headphones, we’d point them right toward this brand. Not only does Shokz have a number of different models to choose from, but the company has been perfecting its engineering for more than 10 years. Flagship products like the Shokz OpenRun Pro even offer a companion app for iOS and Android that lets you customize your listening experience and set up Bluetooth multipoint for quick switching between your devices. 

You’ll also be able to find several other party companies that make solid bone-conduction headphones. When shopping, though, be sure to carefully read whatever user reviews are available. 

Audiophiles be warned

Bone conduction headphones are truly remarkable in more ways than one, but if your number one concern is sound quality in your headphones or earbuds, don’t look to bone conduction. To put it simply, bone conduction headphones are just not designed for superior hi-fi listening. Sure, spending a few dollars more on a flagship set of Shokz over the basic model may get you slightly better audio, but no bone conduction headset is going to come close to the kinds of prolific sound you can expect from brands like Sony, Bose, and Apple.

Additionally, because of the way the tech works, bone-conduction headphones just aren’t as loud as traditional headphones, and when they’re cranked up as loud as they go (which we do not recommend), the extra-pronounced vibrations can make your head feel a little weird.

However, if you’re the athletic type in search of a set of headphones to provide you with the motivational music you need while being able to hear that bus screeching just meters away, or you like to be able to be aware of what’s going on in the office while you file your TPS reports (Office Space reference, y’all), then bone conduction headphones might be a good option for you.

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Michael Bizzaco
Michael Bizzaco has been writing about and working with consumer tech for well over a decade, writing about everything from…
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