Bone conduction headphones use a cool technology that’s been around for a century to send sound through your bones.
Have you ever seen someone wearing their headphones on their cheekbones instead of on their ears?
You might have been tempted to tell them the headphones go somewhere else, but it’s a good thing you didn’t.
What you saw them wearing were bone conduction headphones. These are a special type of headphones that’s useful for athletes, outdoor adventurers, and those who are hard of hearing.
You may be curious. Should you get a pair for yourself? We help you decide below.
What Are Bone Conduction Headphones?
Bone conduction headphones send sound to the inner ear through the bones. They’re sometimes called bonephones.
These headphones have a band that goes around the neck or back of the head. The band ends with two tiny earpieces that rest on cheekbones or temples.
There are no earbuds that go inside the ears or earcups that cover the outer ears. The earpieces send the vibrations of sound through the bones of your skull, bypassing the outer and middle ears to reach the inner ear.
How Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work?
To understand how bonephones work, you need to understand how sound travels through the air to the ears and eventually to the brain.
When something moves, say a guitar string or the vocal cords of a person, the movement sends sounds waves that vibrate through the air.
These vibrations enter the pinna, which is the part of the ear we can see, and pass through the middle ear, where the ear canal and eardrum are located.
When the vibrations hit the eardrum, the eardrum vibrates to send the sound waves to the ossicles. These are the three bones in the inner ear that transmit the sound waves to the cochlea.
The cochlea is a spiral-shaped cavity filled with fluid. When the sound waves reach the cochlea, the fluid vibrates and converts them into an electric signal that goes to the brain.
The brain processes this signal and sends it back as information about the sound we’re hearing. Of course, this all happens extremely fast so that we hear the sound of the guitar string just fractions of a second after it was plucked.
This is how sound is normally transmitted.
But there’s also another way. This is by transmitting the sound through the bones in your head.
When sound waves reach the jaw, cheekbone, or temple, the bones also vibrate. These vibrations travel through the bones to the cochlea without having to make their way through the ear canal and ear drum first. The cochlea then creates the same signals that are sent to the brain.
This is called bone conduction. And believe it or not, bone conduction technology has been around for about a hundred years. You can see it used in bone-anchored hearing aids (BAHA), which have a magnet implanted just under the surface of the skin to pick up sound waves from an external microphone and send it to the cochlea through the skull.
Ludwig van Beethoven himself used a basic form of bone conduction to develop his compositions. Beethoven became increasingly deaf toward his later years, but that didn’t stop him from composing classical masterpieces.
He discovered that if he attached his composer’s wand to his piano and bit into it, he could hear his own music transmitted through the vibration of sound through his bones.
In modern times, bone conduction headphones were originally devised for the military, but they’ve also been making their way into the mainstream recently.
Why You Should Use Bone Conduction Headphones
Bonephones are a special type of headphones that provide specific advantages for people with specific needs.
- Situational awareness for outdoor users
Since you’re not plugging up your ears, you can still hear the sounds from your surroundings. They’re just like open-back headphones, which let ambient sound into the ears.
That may not be helpful if you want to block out background noise and avoid distractions, but bonephones provide a safe way to listen to music if you like staying outdoors.
Runners, cyclists, and even hikers need to be able to hear when there’s a speeding car or a bear rustling in the bushes.
Swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers also prefer bone conduction headphones. Since they don’t have to plug up the ear, bonephones don’t add to the discomfort you may feel caused by the changes in pressure underwater.
- Listen to music even if you’re hard of hearing
Bone conduction headphones allow people with hearing problems to enjoy their favorite music or podcasts that they otherwise wouldn’t be able to hear using regular headphones.
They may also be helpful for those with tinnitus because the ambient sounds can mask the ringing sounds associated with this condition.
- Decent sound quality for casual listeners
Bonephones produce surprisingly crisp and clear sounds. Granted, they aren’t anywhere near the best headphones designed for audiophiles and power users, but most people will find that they can easily enjoy their favorite tunes through these headphones.
A note on safety: Some manufacturers claim that bone conduction headphones are safer than regular headphones. Apparently, because sound doesn’t get to the eardrum, there’s no risk of causing damage if you listen at a high volume.
This is absolutely not true. Listening at high volumes, whether through regular headphones or bonephones, still puts you at risk of damaging the inner ear and causing hearing loss.
Why Bone Conduction Headphones May Not Be Right for You
Because of the way these headphones were designed, they aren’t the best option for people who are looking for a certain type of listening experience.
- External noise coming in
If you wear headphones to drown out background noise so you can concentrate on tasks, you shouldn’t be using bone conduction headphones.
They don’t create a seal around your ears, so every little sound around you will make its way into your ears, from the distant hum of traffic to your coworkers chatting just a few feet away.
You may use earplugs with your headphones, but it’s not the most convenient or practical solution.
- Sound leaks that disturb other people
Bonephones, like other headphones, are essentially tiny speakers. When you’re walking down a busy street, people won’t likely hear what you’re listening to.
But inside a tiny coffee shop or a narrow train carriage, those sitting next to you will likely hear sound coming from your headphones.
- Low-quality sound for music enthusiasts
Bone conduction headphones clearly aren’t a great option for you if you like to listen to music at the highest quality possible.
While most people won’t complain about the sound quality, audiophiles won’t be happy with the tinny sound at low volume, the distortion at high volume, and the lack of a discernible bass.
Bone conduction headphones may sound like the future of listening, but the technology has actually been around for a while.
While they’re not likely to beat out conventional headphones when it comes to sound quality, they make a great alternative for athletes, outdoor enthusiasts, and those who are hard of hearing.
If you’re one of these, you may want to check out a pair of bone conduction headphones and see how these work for you.