Bone conduction headphones aren’t exactly a new phenomenon, but I’m a very late adopter. The Shokz OpenRun Pro, a great set of bone conduction headphones, have topped our best running headphones buying guide for ages; however, it's only after I got the chance to test a pair of the non-pro Shokz OpenRun that I’ve come to fully appreciate the benefits of open-ears.
For a few years now I've been using a cheap set of in-ear buds, the Anker Soundcore Life P2, on my runs. They’re a steal at around $50 /£40 (and they're often on sale for less). They're some of the best cheap wireless earbuds I’ve used for the price, they're relatively stable, and they offer average but perfectly good sound quality. My position as TechRadar’s fitness and wearables editor notwithstanding, I’m a stubborn person, and outside of reviews I tend to stick with something cheap and cheerful for personal use.
However, the Soundcores, after four years of hard wearing, have begun to fritz on me, dropping the connection to my phone on occasion. Perhaps it’s one too many heavy road-running sessions in the rain that’s doing it, or perhaps they’ve bounced on a concrete floor one too many times. Either way, the time is coming when I'll need to retire my trusty but ancient earbuds.
Unlike the Ankers, most new in-ear buds come with some degree of noise cancellation, which is exactly what I didn’t want – nobody wants to forget to look while crossing the road during a demanding run, only to be blindsided by a car or cyclist.
Pounding the streets of London in safety demands that you remain aware of your surroundings. I was dimly aware of the Ankers partially blocking my ear canals to ambient sound, even though they weren’t noise-cancelling buds, so I decided to try something new to keep me running safely.
The best bone conduction headphones don’t transmit sound waves into your eardrums; instead, they hook over the ears, with a transducer resting against the ear, rather than inside or over the ear canal. They work by transmitting sound through the temporal bone in the skull to the auditory nerve, where we pick up those vibrations and recognize them as, for example, Taylor Swift’s perennial banger Bad Blood (don’t judge me, it’s great). After getting a test pair of Shokz OpenRun headphones, which are similar to the Pro, but with slightly shorter battery life and a softer, less protective carry case, I hooked them up to my phone and went out for a light jog.
Initially, the stimulation from both the traffic and the headphones at once, with both at full volume, was almost overpowering. It was like trying to hold an extended conversation with a loud TV in the background, with your attention drifting between two very different audio sources. I didn’t think this was going to be an experience to enjoy.
But once I turned away from the busy main road towards my local park, the quieter streets allowed me to get used to the Shokz’s way of transmitting sound, and I really liked the change. I could hear birds tweeting. I had more sensory awareness of other pedestrians around me. I could even hear the obnoxious readouts from the speaker of the watch I was testing at the time, which hadn’t been set up to pipe those notifications into my ears (or bones, I guess).
Plus, pounding the pavements with Wolfmother and Iron Maiden literally vibrating through my very bones seems quite metal to me.
Leaving the park and heading back towards the main road, my brain had become a bit better accustomed to processing multiple streams of audio information. The traffic, although noisy, didn’t turn into a wall of sound when meshing with the vibrations being transmitted by the Shokz. The headphones themselves were comfortable and didn’t budge, even though they felt like they were only sitting gently over my ears.
Bone conduction headphones vs in-ear buds is a hot debate, with each design having its own pros and cons, but after many years of avoiding bone conduction headphones, consider me a convert.