AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphone ReviewMarch 31, 2012
I recently got some AfterShokz headphones, by VoxLinc, LLC. After looking on the net for reviews of these headphones, and not finding anything by qualified people, I figured I should post my own.
(Disclaimer: This review is based on my experience and opinion. That’s all. Don’t sue me if you don’t like what I have to say.)
The claim to fame for the AfterShokz is they don’t actually go into your ear. They sit on the cheek bone just in front of your ear and use “bone conduction” to get the sound to your ear. At least that’s what the marketing material claims. The benefit of this is that you can still hear whatever is going on around you. You can ski, bike, or even drive without the safety hazard of not hearing what is going on.
But let’s get to the meat of things, shall we?
These headphones work just OK for the stated purpose: listening to music while biking, running, skiing, etc. And that’s it. The sound quality is just barely adequate. They don’t sound as good as the standard Apple earbuds that come with every iPod/iPhone/iThing (the same earbuds that are universally panned by critics). But the sound quality isn’t distracting if you are doing strenuous exercise when sound quality isn’t your top priority. But if you’re just sitting around at home or in your office then these headphones will leave you wanting.
I should say that I apparently listen to music at a lower volume than most, and this does effect my opinion of these headphones. But I work in the audio field and my hearing is important. I’m not about to risk my ears, so I’m not going to make apologies for that. The AfterShokz do sound better at higher volumes, but not better enough to change my opinion. At slightly higher volumes still the pads that sit near your temples do dance around, particularly on bass heavy songs. When it does that the sound quality drops off again. It’s also very distracting when it does that.
At these higher volumes, just under the point where it starts dancing around, there is a significant amount of sound leakage. If you are in a quiet room then others in the room will hear your music quite clearly. In a noisy environment, like a public bus, the person sitting next to you will hear it.
One point of having bone-conducting headphones is that you can still hear the environment around you and listen to your music at the same time, without subjecting others to your music. At the “normal” higher volumes, this doesn’t really happen. The music is loud enough that you can’t here someone come up behind you and call your name, and those around you can still hear your music. Be forewarned!
VoxLinc makes several claims about these headphones that are worth investigating. The first is that the sound is conducted through your bone. This is easy enough to test. When I stick my fingers in my ears, being careful not to deform my skin around the ear or press against any bone, I can block the sound that is going through the air to the ear canal. In theory the sound going through the bone should be unaffected, while sounds going through the air are somewhat blocked. When I do this, the high frequencies drop out and I’m left with the mids and lows. This shows that the high frequencies are traveling mostly though the air and not bone. In truth, this falls into the category of “So what?”, as it doesn’t really effect anything about the usefulness of the product. It is, never the less, an interesting data point.
Another claim that VoxLinc makes is this:
Scientific studies have found that extended use of regular headphones and earbuds promote hearing loss and damage to the eardrum. Since AfterShokz headphones do not use the eardrums to transmit sound, they provide consumers with a quality stereophonic listening experience while reducing the risk of eardrum damage. –Voxlinc, LLC. about their AfterShokz Headphones
Did you catch that? It’s subtle. The implication is that use of AfterShokz prevent hearing loss, but careful analysis of the words they use don’t say that! The “scientific studies” they refer to are about earbud use, not bone-conduction use. I cannot find any study that talks specifically about the effects of bone conduction headphones. Next, they claim that bone conduction technology reduces the risk of eardrum damage. But is eardrum damage where the risk is? A branch of the National Institute of Health has this to say about hearing loss:
However, when we are exposed to harmful noise—sounds that are too loud or loud sounds that last a long time—sensitive structures in our inner ear can be damaged, causing noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL). These sensitive structures, called hair cells, are small sensory cells that convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, our hair cells cannot grow back.
Exposure to harmful sounds causes damage to the hair cells as well as the auditory, or hearing, nerve.
Nowhere is damage to the ear drum mentioned as a cause of hearing loss. Further, bone conduction technology does not, and can not, address hearing loss due to damage to the hair cells or nerves. You need the hair cells and nerves to hear anything at all, so if the bone conduction somehow bypassed those structures then you wouldn’t hear anything through your fancy headphones.
I’d be willing to bet that the “eardrum damage” that is mentioned is actually physical damage from the “stick it in your ear canal” type of earbuds, and has nothing to do with loud noises. Although this is just conjecture on my part, but from this perspective their claims are completely valid.
The bottom line is this: just like any other headphone, don’t listen to loud music! There is nothing magic about the AfterShokz, and the risks of loud music is real regardless of what kind of headphone you use!
The AfterShokz need more power than what a standard headphone jack can provide. Because of this they use a rechargeable battery located in a “line lump” on the cord. This battery is charged using a USB to 3.5mm stereo jack adapter. Also located in the line-lump is a power button, and on my model a microphone and “answer the phone” button. The line lump also has a clip so it can attach to your shirt.
I would have preferred if it had a micro-USB connector on the line-lump for charging, instead of the USB to 3.5mm adapter. In this way I could use the same charging adapters that I have on my phone, camera, and other gizmos. That adapter is going to be super easy to loose, and the Velcro closure on the “storage tote” bag has gaps in it big enough to allow this adapter to slip through.
This line lump is fairly heavy for its size, and the clip is badly designed. The clip opens to the bottom, which means that it’s impossible to clip it to a standard t-shirt without it flopping around. If the t-shirt has a pocket then it would work well on that. If there were buttons then it would work clipped sideways there. It would be secure clipped to the collar of a t-shirt, but the cord would be sticking directly into your neck/chin and be annoying. It absolutely doesn’t work if you pinch a section of your shirt and clip it on there. If you do that it’ll flop around and eventually fall off. If the clip opened to the side instead of to the bottom (like the current iPod Shuffle) then most of these problems would go away.
The next problem is with the auto-off function. If the headphones doesn’t detect music for some amount of time then it will automatically power off. My headphones are always powering off. Usually once every 3 to 4 songs. I suspect that my listening volume is too low for their music detection circuit, and it shuts off thinking that there is no music. While my volume is low, it’s not that low! I design audio equipment for a living and I know that you can easily detect my listening volumes while not false-triggering on normal electrical noise. So there really is no excuse for this. (Update: while writing this review I was listening to music loud enough to have the headphones dancing around and it still shut off. Not quite sure what’s going on here.)
The unit I have has a microphone and is “smartphone compatible”. I didn’t have a chance to really test this beyond saying that the mic does work. On my Android phone the “phone” button worked as a play/pause button when listening to Pandora. I didn’t do a sound quality analysis of the mic.
Comfort wise the AfterShokz were fine. It takes a little bit of getting used to, but what doesn’t? I don’t think I could wear them all day, as the pressure on my cheek bones is a bit fatiguing. But they are fine for a couple of hours. When the weather gets warmer it will be interesting to see how they work for all-day hiking in the Colorado mountains.
Conclusion: It works fine for strenuous activities where you need to hear what’s going on around you. Don’t turn it up too loud (like any other headphone). It’s not suitable for more everyday activities where sound quality is important. For every day use, a pair of US$20 headphones you buy at the local department store sounds better. But this is a niche product with a niche use. For that it seems to work as advertised. If this niche also fits with your needs then you have a match!