Just before Christmas, a friend brought me a new pair of headphones back from the US. I still haven’t quite decided yet whether they are the future of personal audio or just a step in the right direction, but I am finding them a bit of a revelation.

The headphones are the AfterShokz Sportz M2, which are relatively cheap, bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction means that instead of the headphones sending sound into your ear canal (like in-ear or full size headphones), they sit against the bones of your skull and send vibrations along them to your inner ear. The main advantage is that while listening to audio from these headphones, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you. The main disadvantage is that, of course, you can still hear all the environmental sound around you.

Clearly, this is not desirable for an audiophile. Obviously, you don’t get these sorts of headphones for their audio quality, and while I find them perfectly decent for listening to music or podcasts, the bass is not as good as typical headphones either. That said, if I want to hear the sound better, I can pop a finger in my ear to block out external noise.┬áSometimes I use the headphones for telephone calls on my mobile when traveling on the tram, and it probably looks a little odd to the other travelers that I am wearing headphones and putting my finger to my ear, but it is very effective.

For the first week or so that I was wearing them, I had strange sensations in my head, very much like when I first get new frames for my glasses. They push on my head in a way that I’m not used to, and it takes a little bit to get used to. The fact that I can hear music playing in my “ears” and yet hear everything around me was also initially a bit surreal – a bit like I was in a movie with a soundtrack – but the strangeness here diminished very quickly and now it is just a delight.

While they are marketed to cyclists or people who need to be able to hear environmental sound for safety reason (like, well, pedestrians crossing roads, so almost everyone I guess), it’s not the safety angle that really enthuses me. I am delighted by being able to fully participate in the world around me while concurrently having access to digital audio. When the announcer at a train station explains that a train is going to be cancelled, I still hear it. When a barista calls out that my coffee is ready, I still hear it. When my wife asks me a question while I’m doing something on the computer, I still hear it.

A couple of years ago, I yearned for this sort of experience:

For example, if I want to watch a TV program on my laptop, while my wife watches some video on the iPod on the couch next to me, we are going to interfere with each other, making it difficult for either of us to listen to our shows.

Being able to engage with people in my physical environment and yet access audio content without interfering with others is very liberating. I had hoped that highly directional speakers were the solution, but bone conduction headphones are a possible alternative.

Initially I had tried headphones that sat in only one ear, leaving the other one free. They were also very light and comfortable. One issue was that these were Bluetooth headphones and had trouble staying paired with several of the devices I had. However, and more importantly, I looked a bit like a real estate agent when I wore them, and was extremely self-conscious. Even trying to go overboard and wear them constantly for a month wasn’t enough to rid me of the sense of embarrassment I felt. Additionally, others would make a similar association and always seemed to assume that I must be on a phone call. If I did interact with others, I always had to explain first that I wasn’t on a call. What should’ve been a highly convenient solution turned out to be quite inconvenient.

The AfterShokz have none of these issues. I did try coupling them with a Bluetooth adaptor, but it had similar Bluetooth pairing issues. I see that AfterShokz have since released headphones with Bluetooth built in, but I haven’t tested these.

One potential new issue with the AfterShokz that I should discuss relates to the ability for others to hear what I’m listening to – this had been mentioned by some other online reviewers. While at higher volumes, others can hear sounds coming from the headphones (although this is not unique to AfterShokz’ headphones), at lower volumes it is actually very private. In any case, I’ve got a niggling sense of a higher risk of damage to my inner ear from listening to music at higher volumes: bone conduction headphones surely need to send sound-waves at higher energy levels than normal headphones because the signal probably attenuates more through bone than through air, and this is coupled with the fact that it needs to be operated at higher levels in order to be heard over background noise that would be otherwise blocked out by normal headphones. So, I try to set it at as low a volume as I can get away with, and block my ear with my finger if I need to hear better. In quiet environments, it’s not an issue.

Perhaps I am worrying about something that isn’t a problem, since I note that some medical professionals who specialise in hearing loss are advocating them. For that matter, the local group that specialises in vision loss is also promoting them. Although, I guess the long term effects of this technology are still unclear.

In any case, I find using this technology to be quite wonderful. I feel that I’ve finally found stereo headphones that aren’t anti-social. I hope if you have the chance to try it, you will also agree.

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