You may have never heard of bone conduction, but you probably experience it every day without realizing it. If you can hear your own voice when you speak, you’re experiencing bone conduction. One of the newest audio device technologies uses this natural process to transmit sound to listeners.
Bone conduction headphones work by transmitting sound vibrations through your facial bones directly to your cochlea (inner ear) rather than through the eardrum. They are similar to earbuds, but they sit on the area just outside the ear instead of being inserted into the ear canal.
In this article, we’ll explain in more detail what bone conduction headphones are, how they work, and some information about whether you should consider using them.
What Are Bone Conduction Headphones?
The easiest way to explain what bone conduction headphones are is to explain what they are not. Though they share the same name, they’re not like your average headphones. They’re also not exactly like earbuds. So, what exactly are bone conduction headphones?
Bone conduction headphones rest directly on the listener’s cheekbone area, just outside the ear. They generate sound by transmitting vibrations through the facial bones and skull to the inner ear.
Normal headphones and earbuds work by transmitting sound waves through the ear canal, where they interact with the eardrum to allow us to hear the sounds. For many people, listening to sounds this way isn’t a problem. But, if someone has hearing loss or damage to their eardrum, they may not be able to use this type of listening technology.
How Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work?
To understand the science behind bone conduction headphones, it’s important to first understand how we hear sounds at all. Let’s take a closer look at that now.
How Sound Travels
Sound travels as waves, just like light. Unlike light waves, however, sound waves require a medium (or something to travel through). That’s why you can’t hear sound in space – there’s no medium!
In other words, sound requires movement, or vibrations, to travel. What sound is traveling through can change its properties. Think about when you try to scream underwater. It sounds totally different than a scream let out into the air, right?
Check out this video from Khan Academy to see what sound waves look like and how they work:
How We Hear Sound
- Sound waves travel to our ear, shaped like a cup to capture the waves and direct them into the ear canal.
- The ear canal narrows to direct the vibrations to the eardrum.
- The eardrum vibrates, sending the vibrations into the three small bones inside the inner ear.
- The three bones increase the vibrations even more before sending them to the cochlea, which is about the size of a pea.
- The cochlea is filled with fluid, and the sound vibrations cause the fluid to ripple.
- Tiny hairs inside the cochlea ride the waves in the fluid.
- Movement in the hair cells creates electrical and chemical signals.
- Chemical signals (called neurotransmitters) bind to the auditory nerve and create an electrical signal that’s carried to the brain.
- The brain translates the signals into sounds that we recognize and “hear.”
For an animated look at this process, check out this video, Journey of Sound to the Brain, from the National Institute of Health:
How Sound Travels Through Standard Headphones
A simple explanation of how sound travels through headphones is that an electrical current interacts with a magnet, which pushes air through the speaker to make sound waves.
Soundwaves come through the tiny speaker and into the ear canal, where they are pushed down to the eardrum through the same process that we use to hear all other sounds in our daily lives.
Bone conduction headphones are slightly different because they don’t use the same path as typical headphones and earbuds.
How Sound Travels Through Bone Conduction Headphones
In these headphones, the same processes are used to transmit sound from the device into the electrical current of the headphones. However, unlike standard headphones and earbuds, the sound is transmitted to the listener through vibrations inside the skull and face bones.
Sound waves produce vibrations. When the bone conduction headphones are placed on the face, the vibrations are carried into the face and skull bones. The bones carry the vibrations straight to the inner ear (cochlea), bypassing the ear canal and eardrum.
From here, the normal internal process is followed, where the cochlea vibrations create rippling in the inner-ear fluid, vibrating the tiny hairs and ultimately sending a chemical signal to the brain that allows you to hear sound.
Bone conduction technology is great for people who suffer from hearing loss or have damaged eardrums because they can hear sounds without engaging those parts of the ear.
Can You Feel the Vibrations in Bone Conduction Headphones?
Because these headphones send the vibrations straight into your bones, you might wonder if you can feel the vibrations in your face.
You shouldn’t feel anything different than when you use other headphones. The physics of sound waves work the same, whether inside or outside your ear.
Some people have reported feeling a little bit of a tickle with certain sounds, but again, nothing different than what you would feel inside the ear.
Who Should Use Bone Conduction Headphones
Bone conduction headphones are great for many types of listeners because they deliver audio in such a novel (yet natural) way. If any of these situations apply to you, then you should consider using bone conduction headphones:
- Hearing-impaired or eardrum damage. As long as you have at least one functioning cochlea, you will be able to hear sound with bone conduction headphones. Because they bypass the eardrum, people with damage can still hear the sound just fine.
- Biking or running near traffic. Because these headphones sit outside the ear canal, you will be able to hear ambient sounds around you along with your music. This is perfect if you want to stay safe while listening.
- Uncomfortable putting things inside the ear. If you hate earbuds and don’t like the sweat that is cupped around your ear with standard headphones, then bone-conduction might be a great alternative.
- Visually impaired. Individuals who have impaired vision and need to hear what’s going on around them can still enjoy listening to their music or podcast while being alert to their surroundings.
- Running alone at night. If you like to take your runs alone at night, but don’t like being shut off from your surroundings, then these are a great solution. You can still get your groove on while being able to hear if someone is running up behind you or if an approaching car is suddenly slowing down.
If you want to give these super comfortable headphones a try, we recommend these AfterShokz Aeropex Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones, which are available on Amazon.com, and they come with a sport belt for carrying your phone or keys. They’re waterproof and have awesome 8-hour battery life.
Who Shouldn’t Use Bone Conduction Headphones
These headphones may not be for everyone, especially if you like to get lost in your music or you really need to focus on what you’re hearing.
Bone conduction headphones are not noise-canceling, so if you’re trying to listen while on a bus, in an airport, or subway station, they may not be the best option.
If you want the purest, high-quality sound, it probably won’t be possible with bone conduction headphones. This is simply because when you can hear other sounds around you, you aren’t getting the true experience of just hearing the audio in its natural form.
Some people have also reported that certain frequencies sound better than others when using these headphones.
Lastly, if you want your media to be totally private, then bone conduction headphones probably aren’t your best choice. There’s a chance that people around you will be able to hear what you hear because they do sit right on the outside of your ear.
If you’re skeptical about whether bone conduction headphones work, you should feel confident knowing that they absolutely will allow you to hear sounds clearly without having to wear them over or inside your ear. They’re a great option for people with hearing loss or who want to be able to hear what’s going on around them.
They’re totally safe to use and healthier than other options because they don’t go inside your ear. There are even options that are waterproof for the most rugged adventures. I would recommend giving them a try to see what works best for you.