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How Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work?

  A man with AfterShokz bone conduction headphones. He looks very thoughtful. Maybe he's listening to a podcast.

If you have not heard of bone conduction headphones yet, prepare yourself for something weird. They are extremely quiet, do not sit on (or in) your ears and vibrate your skull. But how can you hear sounds through your skull?

Noise is Just Vibration

Before we begin with bone conduction, let's first look at how sounds work. Like light, sound moves in waves through the air. In contrast to light, sound can also travel through dense objects. For this reason, noises are usually referred to as "pressure waves". They make objects vibrate even when you can not see them.

There are a number of tiny organs in your ear that are designed to respond to noises. In other words, they can excellently vibrate. The star of the show is your eardrum, a thin flap of skin that vibrates like the head of a drum or the diaphragm of a microphone. It stimulates your other ear organs and tiny ear bones to vibrate. (As a side note: Do not look at pictures of the eardrum.) It's rough.)

  A diagram of the ear. The eardrum (middle ear) and the cochlea (inner ear) are highlighted.
miha de / Shutterstock

As soon as everything shakes, your cochlea looks around and records what's going on. These data are then sent to the brain, where they are transformed into music, voices or other sounds that you are exposed to.

So far, listening seems to be a relatively simple process. And guess what? Bone conduction is just as easy.

Bone conduction skips your eardrum

Okay, such a typical ear depends on the eardrum vibrating all the tiny organs and bones of your inner ear. The eardrum is not necessary for hearing, but without it your inner ear bones and organs would be static. Do you see where that leads? Bone conduction bypasses your eardrum by transmitting vibrations through your skull to your inner ear. Once all the tiny bones and organs of your inner ear begin to move, your cochlea will not recognize the difference. It records the vibrations, sends them to the brain, and you suddenly hear music, podcasts, or disgusting videos that are automatically played on news sites.

That does not mean the bone conduction headphones are completely quiet. They are still audible (much less audible than earphones), but they are used to push sound waves through the skull and not through the air.

Why bone conduction headphones?

Bone Conduction Headphones Again Skip the eardrum and do not push much sound into the air, so they have several practical applications. On the one hand, you can use them to clear your ears while exercising, talking to people, or watching for traffic. You can also use them to avoid the harmful noise level of typical headphones. They are essentially the opposite of noise canceling headphones.

Interestingly, you can use headphones with bone conduct some hearing impairments, especially conductive hearing loss. Even some hearing aids use bone conduction. It is said that Beethoven held a solid rod between his teeth and his piano to make music deaf.

  A woman with AfterShokz headphones for bone conduction. She looks like she's having fun, but she might betray a passerby.

Conductive hearing loss is most often a problem of the middle ear (ie, the eardrum), which is exactly the part of the ear that skips the bone conduction headphone when sending vibrations to the inner ear. The extent of your hearing loss, of course, determines how well your bone conduction headphones work. Inner ear problems (especially nervous or cochlear problems) also affect the effectiveness of bone conduction earphones.

Should I buy bone conduction headphones?

Before you buy a new pair of bone conduction headphones, you should think about your needs. If you want to avoid hearing loss or hear your surroundings while listening to music, you should definitely buy the best bone conduction headphone you can afford. (Not only are we sweet – many bone conduction headphones suck, buy a good pair, or you'll be disappointed.)

If you're just looking for quality, stick with what you know. A good headset always sounds better than the best bone conduction headphone. Bone conduction is a solution to many problems, but at the expense of sound quality.

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