Nothing gets me through a workout like cranking up some bangers. And while in-ear headphones can create head-thumping bass by sealing your ears off from the world, they also isolate you from the sound of cars, bikes, and other people, which can be dangerous.
Bone conduction may not be the most popular headphone technology, but it’s been around for years, and aims to solve this problem. While most headphones transmit music through the air, entering your ear canal and vibrating your eardrum, bone conduction headphones are different. They sit outside your ear, vibrating the bones of your head until the sound reaches the cochlea—the same place the eardrum sends sounds to be converted for your brain. That means your ear canal is free to listen to the sounds around you.
There are a number of bone conduction manufacturers out there, but Aftershokz is pretty widely considered the best. I gave their $150 Trekz Air a try, and while the sensation is a little unsettling at first, they make fantastic headphones for running, biking, or just walking through a bustling neighborhood.
First of all, the comfort is pretty much unparalleled. Like most exercise headphones, they wrap around the back of your ears, but grip your head just above your jaw. This is huge for those of us that hate having things buried in their ear canals, and they’re so lightweight that you can barely tell they’re there when they aren’t playing music. (The cheaper Trekz Titanium are a bit heavier, but still very comfortable.)
Bluetooth pairing is fairly easy, once you actually read the directions (you have to hold the power button an extra few seconds when turning them on to put them in pairing mode), and multipoint pairing is a nice added extra if you want to pair them to more than one device at a time. In my usage, battery life even exceeded Aftershokz’s 6-hour estimate, though your mileage may vary.
Here’s the downside: these won’t sound nearly as good as regular in-ear headphones. Bone conduction is just not as efficient as transferring sound through your eardrum, and while it’s still incredibly effective, the bass response is severely decreased (though you will feel the bass vibrations against your skull, which is a rather novel sensation). Mids and highs are still well represented, and while you won’t get that same thump-thump-thump in your head, it should provide enough auditory juice to jazz you up for your run.
And in the end, it’s well worth the tradeoff, because you can hear an awful lot with these on. I’m not just talking about oncoming cars and bikes, either—at a light jog, I could even hear my footsteps on the pavement, giving me more awareness than any other earbuds have ever been able to provide. (I can see these being especially useful for hearing the cries of “more goldfish” from a stroller-bound toddler, too).
Of course, this assumes you’re still listening to your music at a reasonable volume—the more you crank it up, the more you’ll drown out other sounds—but being able to hear everything is almost as novel a sensation as the bone conduction itself, and if you’re out and about in a particularly busy area, you’ll appreciate the ability to hear both your music and the surrounding noises. I particularly liked the Trekz Air for podcasts, which I often listen to when walking or running, since they don’t really require high-fidelity audio anyway.
The Trekz Air also come with a pair of earplugs for times when you want to block outside noise, but it makes them sound absolutely terrible—even with the earplug-friendly equalizer setting—so for those situations you’re better off just getting a cheap pair of traditional earbuds. They’ll sound better.
Will bone conduction headphones replace your normal earbuds for all music listening? Probably not. But if you want a pair of exercise-focused headphones to go alongside them, something like the Trekz Air are a perfect alternative, and are well worth the tradeoffs.
The Trekz Air cost $150 and the Trekz Titanium are around $100, though they’re also available from other Amazon sellers for cheaper. You can buy wired bone conduction headphones for $50 too, though they’ll still require charging, since bone conduction requires a bit more power than traditional headphones.
If you’re willing to wait, Aftershokz just announced a new product at CES known as the Xtrainerz, which are IP68 water resistant and include 4GB of MP3 storage so you don’t even need to bring your phone on your workout. They should be out in Q2 of this year.