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

If you haven’t heard of bone conduction headphones, then prepare yourself for something weird. They’re ultraquiet, they don’t sit on (or in) your ears, and they vibrate your skull. But how can you hear sound through your skull?

Sounds Are Just Vibrations

Before diving into bone conduction, let’s first look at how sound works. Like light, sound travels through the air in waves. But unlike light, sound can also travel through dense objects. This is why sounds are usually referred to as “pressure waves.” They cause objects to vibrate, even if you can’t see it.

There are a bunch of tiny organs in your ear designed to react to sound. In other words, they’re great at vibrating. The star of the show is your eardrum, which is a thin flap of skin that vibrates like the head of a drum or the diaphragm of a microphone. It encourages your other ear organs and tiny ear bones to vibrate. (As a side note, don’t look up pictures of the eardrum. It’s gross.)

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

Once everything starts shakin’, your cochlea looks around and records what’s going on. It then sends that data to the brain, where it’s translated into music, voices, or any other noise that you’re subjecting yourself to.

So far, it seems like hearing is a relatively simple process. And guess what? Bone conduction is just as simple.

Bone Conduction Skips Your Eardrums

Alright, so typical hearing depends on the eardrum to vibrate all of the little organs and bones of your inner ear. The eardrum isn’t necessary for hearing, but without it, your inner ear bones and organs would be static.

See where this is going? Bone conduction bypasses your eardrum by sending vibrations to your inner ear through your skull. Once all the tiny bones and organs of your inner ear start moving, your cochlea doesn’t know the difference. It records the vibrations, sends them to the brain, and you suddenly hear music, podcasts, or the obnoxious videos that automatically play on news websites.

Now, this doesn’t mean that bone conduction headphones are totally silent. They’re still audible (a lot less audible than earbuds), but they’re designed to push sound waves through your skull, rather than through the air.

Why Use Bone Conduction Headphones?

Again, bone conduction headphones skip the eardrum and don’t push much sound into the air, so they have several practical uses. For one, you can use them to free up your ears while exercising, talking to people, or listening for traffic. You can also use them to avoid the harmful sound levels of typical headphones. They’re essentially the opposite of noise-canceling headphones.

More interestingly, you can use bone conduction headphones to get around some hearing disabilities, especially conductive hearing loss. Even some hearing aids take advantage of bone conduction. It’s been said that Beethoven held a tight rod between his teeth and his piano to compose music while deaf.

A woman wearing AfterShokz bone conduction headphones. She looks like she's having fun, but she might be telling off a passerby.

Conductive hearing loss is mostly a problem of the middle ear (namely, the eardrum), which is precisely the part of the ear that bone conduction headphones skip when sending vibrations to the inner ear. Of course, the extent of your hearing loss will determine how well bone conduction headphones work for you. Problems with the inner ear (especially nervous or cochlear issues) will also limit the effectiveness of bone conduction headphones.

Should I Buy Bone Conduction Headphones?

Before you go out and buy a new pair of bone conduction headphones, consider your needs. If you want to bypass your hearing loss or hear your surroundings while listening to music, then, by all means, grab the best pair of bone conduction headphones you can afford. (We’re not just being cute—a lot of bone conduction headphones suck. Buy a good pair, or you’ll be disappointed.)

If you’re just looking for quality, then stick with what you know. A good pair of headphones will always “sound” better than the best pair of bone conduction headphones. Bone conduction is a solution to many problems, but it comes at the expense of sound quality.

Profile Photo for Andrew Heinzman Andrew Heinzman
Andrew Heinzman writes for How-To Geek and Review Geek. Like a jack-of-all-trades, he handles the writing and image editing for a mess of tech news articles, daily deals, product reviews, and complicated explainers.
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