Bone conduction headphones are an excellent alternative for those wishing to listen to their music without tuning out the outside world. Still, the words ‘bone conduction’ sound relatively intimidating. Is hearing music through your cranium safe?
Bone conduction headphones are safe as long as you use them correctly. Listening to music at loud volumes for long periods on a bone conduction headset can damage your hearing as much as traditional headphones. Also, those susceptible to migraines and vertigo should avoid them.
Read on to learn all the facts about bone conduction headphones. If you’re looking to buy a set, keep reading for the pros and cons to make an informed decision.
How Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work?
Bone conduction headphones are a relatively new trend in the audio world. Still, the concept of hearing through bone conduction is nothing new. On the contrary, humans hear through bone conduction all the time. If you’ve ever listened to yourself talk or chew, you were listening via bone conduction. We also aren’t the only species known to do so. Whales are also known to hear sound via bone conduction too!
So, how does it all work?
First, let’s focus on how we hear through our eardrums. When air carries a sound wave through our ear canal, the waves create vibrations in our eardrum. The cochlea, connected to our auditory nerve, picks up these vibrations and sends them to our brain.
Traditional headphones work with ear-based hearing in mind. These headphones contain speakers or drivers that produce sound waves that travel through the air to our eardrums. Our cochlea picks up these vibrations and sends sound info through the auditory nerve to the brain. Many headphones are out there to suit different lifestyles and purposes, including earbuds, closed-back, and open-back headphones.
What if we told you sound could travel to the cochlea without going through the ear at all? This phenomenon is known as bone conduction, and it happens more often than you think. Bone conduction occurs when vibrations from sound waves pass through the skull and jawbones directly to the cochlea. In this case, sounds are heard from inside the ear rather than outside of it.
People have used bone conduction to assist their hearing for centuries. For instance, Ludwig Von Beethoven — who faced severe hearing loss — listened to his compositions by biting on a metal rod connected to his piano.
Additionally, modern hearing aids have utilized bone conduction for almost a hundred years, dating back to Hugo Gernsback’s inception of the osophone in 1923. However, bilateral bone-anchored hearing aids wouldn’t come about until the 1970s.
In sum, bone conduction headphones send vibrations through the skull to the cochlea instead of through the ear. Since this technology bypasses the eardrum, you may assume that these headphones reduce the chance of hearing loss. However, as we’ll examine, that isn’t the case.
Bone Conduction Headphones: Pros and Cons
Bone conduction headphones can offer some significant benefits. For instance, the design will keep your ear open and alert to any environmental hazards. However, they’re not a catch-all solution to hearing fatigue and can cause some significant inconveniences. It all comes down to your body’s preferences and how you use the headphones.
Here are the pros and cons:
Are bone conduction headphones safer? Or is it all gimmick and hype? Honestly, bone conduction headphones may not be for everyone, but they still boast an array of benefits.
Here are some examples below:
Since bone conduction headphones use your skull and jawbones, your ears are entirely free to pick up auditory information. This availability will keep you aware of your surroundings, offering multiple benefits.
There’s a significant safety benefit in this regard. For example, those working in construction or other hazardous workspaces can use them without losing situational awareness.
Hearing Aid Capability
As we mentioned earlier, bone conduction has a long history as a potential hearing aid. Since hearing loss can originate in different areas, bone conduction headphones aren’t a catch-all solution. However, bone conduction can circumvent hearing loss caused by outer ear obstructions. So these headphones are a safe option for those who cannot use traditional headphones.
Bone conduction headphones can serve specialized purposes to cater to different jobs.
For example, law enforcement officers gain heightened levels of communication through bone conduction headphones.
Bone conduction headphones send sounds through the bones. Thus, officers can whisper to each other without suspects listening in. Furthermore, bone conduction headphones don’t pick up ambient noise, which reduces radio interference.
Does wearing a safety helmet mean you must sacrifice your music intake? Not necessarily. Bone conduction headphones can luckily fit under a helmet. Thus, you won’t lose situational awareness while listening with the helmet on.
You may be thinking, “I wonder if anyone has tried building bone conduction headphones into a helmet.” I certainly was, and so was Instructables member, Matlek.
Matlek, like many commuters, uses his bike to get to and from work in Marseilles, France. Unfortunately, traditional headphones are prohibited when riding bikes there due to heavy street congestion. In response, Matlek created a helmet prototype with bone conduction headphones built-in to listen to music safely while commuting.
Granted, I would research your local traffic laws before trying this out for yourself. Still, it’s an intriguing idea!
Bone conduction headphones can significantly assist some people but can cause discomfort and damage for others. Additionally, if you misuse them, you still risk damaging your ears. For these reasons, it’ll take testing these headphones yourself to see if they’re a fit for you.
Here are some adverse effects of wearing bone conduction headphones:
Potential Hearing Damage
The claim that bone conduction headphones offer no risk of hearing loss is false. The CDC states that close or prolonged exposure to severely loud noises causes hearing loss. In sum, these noises break down hairs and membranes in the inner ear and cochlea, which bone conduction headphones still affect. What’s worse, inner ear and auditory neural system damage are often irreversible.
Headaches, Vertigo, and Other Discomforts
Bone conduction headphones don’t sit on your head in the same way traditional headphones do. According to a review published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information, bone conduction hearing can occur in multiple places:
- Against the skull (Direct-Drive)
- Against the skin (Skin-Drive)
Where this conduction occurs may affect your listening experience. For instance, those who regularly suffer from vertigo and migraines may wish to avoid direct-drive headphones. On the other hand, physically active listeners may discover that skin-drive headphones, combined with excessive sweat, may irritate their skin.
Not Suitable for Audio Purists
Audiophiles wishing to hear every detail in their music will find themselves disappointed. The open design of these headphones eliminates any isolation from outside noise, leaving listeners vulnerable to auditory masking.
Furthermore, where the headphones get placed may affect which frequencies become more pronounced.
For example, let’s revisit Matlek’s story. When he experimented with the headphone’s placement in his helmet, he noticed significant changes. However, he stresses these results were purely empirical.
How To Monitor Yourself for Hearing Loss
When it comes to hearing loss, the type of headphones doesn’t matter as much as your exposure to loud noises. Therefore, mindfulness of volume levels and how long you listen to music on headphones is vital. Furthermore, if you suspect your hearing is damaged, consider one of these diagnostics:
- Conduct a ringing test.
- Listen to your headphones while held out in front of you.
- Refer to the volume control.
- Ask a friend if they can hear your headphones while sitting beside you.
- Check for hearing loss symptoms and signs.
- Use a sound meter.
In short, bone conduction headphones are safe as long as you use them correctly. We recommend monitoring what you listen to, its volume, and for how long.
However, bone conduction headphones don’t suit everyone. Bone conduction headphones are fabulous for some who suffer hearing loss or require situational awareness in their daily lives. Still, audiophiles or those prone to headaches, migraines, and vertigo should stay away.