AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphones

by Michael in

I like running. I also like listening to things while I run. I've never purchased headphones specifically for running, so listening to my headphones on a run inevitably becomes more annoying the longer a distance I run. I've long wanted to purchase some headphones specifically for running, but have had a list of points I needed to be addressed which I was never quite convinced a prospective purchase would solve.

The basic lists of prioritized conerns I had for headphones to use while running were as follows:

  1. Safety. The biggest problem with wearing ANY headphones while running is the necessary obstruction of traffic noise. I generally don't run in traffic heavy areas, but it would still be nice to be able to hear things around me in order to avoid a fluke accident. Standard headphones ALL make it more difficult to hear things around you as you run.
  2. Comfort and Fit. The Apple earbuds, alternative earbuds, and simple over-the-ear per-ear headphones I've had over the years have all been uncomfortable while running. Per-ear athletic headphones would put enough weight on the ears that a long run would leave the backs of my ears aching. Earbuds would either have to be pushed in uncomfortably and cause the ear to ache on the inside or would become loose as I sweat, potentially falling out as I went.
  3. Durability. When a person runs, there will be a certain amount of wear and tear on the cable leading up to the headphones. Combined with the constant sweat coming into contact with the unit, the physical stresses of running can be surprisingly rough on headphones--sometimes meaning I go through several pairs a year.
  4. Sound quality. By far the least important of the points, the sound quality needs to be good enough for me to hear most of the frequencies involved in the music I'm listening to or to make out distinct voices and easily understand any podcasts or audiobooks I want to use to get me through an especially long run.

Looking at these qualities in aggregate is pretty simple. No headphones will be considered if they can't provide enough sound quality to be worth bothering. Once I've determined a pair can deliver a sufficient not-particularly-high level of audio such that I can hear what I'm attempting to listen to, no more consideration will be given to audio quality over the other points. Durability matters when I take into account whatever price I intend to pay for that particular pair of headphones. As it stands it is already easy to blow through a surprising amount of money by simply wearing through numerous cheap headphones. As long as a pair will last long enough to make up for most (not necessarily all) of the price increase over some cheap earbuds, the durability is satisfactory. Comfort is essential. If the headphones make me uncomfortable, I'll be constantly thinking about the irritation of the headphones instead of relaxing my mind as I run. The best pair of headphones for running is a pair you can forget you have on, and that stays on your ears without any continued effort. Finally, safety is a wild card. I certainly can't purchase sound isolation headphones because that could cause major accidents, but running with headphones almost requires a certain acceptance of environmental hearing impairment. If I could find a pair of headphones which obstructed my hearing minimally, that would be eccellent, but I can make do as long as horns and close by sources can be heard.

Considering all these points, it's no wonder I could never make my mind up on a pair of decent running headphones. About a month ago, that changed. During episode 8 of The Nickel, a podcast about the intersection of sports and technology, the host talks to the creator of AfterShokz. These headphones are different from what the normal pair. They don't go in your ears at all. Instead, they have soft pads which rest on the skin right in front of your ears. The speakers lie behind these pads, sending the vibrations of the audio through the bones in your jaw into your head. As is addressed in the podcast, these are not the first headphones of their kind. That said, every pair of bone conduction headphones I've heard of before has generally been regarded as sub-par. You can imagine my surprise, then, when a quick investigation of online reviews indicated these were truly a nice pair. I decided to give a pair a try.

I purchased the cheaper of the two pairs and it took no time at all to appreciate these headphones were exactly what I had been looking for. Before I start listing off the positives I want to quickly address the only negatives to the headphones. First: audio quality is not especially high. You are not going to want to substitute these for stock Apple earbuds or any decent pair of headphones when you're simply sitting on a chair, couch, or at a desk. The difference in quality essentially disappears once you're outside and environmental noise surrounds you, but if in a quiet environment where you're hearing nothing else you'll want to be using something else. Next, these headphones produce plenty of audio bleed. If you're sitting around with these on, other people will absolutely hear what you're listening to. You can't use these in constrained environments without annoying others. These headphones are absolutely only for running. If you're not willing to buy a pair of headphones to dedicate to running, don't bother with these. The final two negatives are related to one another. These headphones are a powered pair of headphones, meaning that instead of drawing power from your audio device they use power from a separate source: in this case a built-in battery pack. The downside here is that you could conceivably pick up the pair of headphones for a run and find they're out of power and, therefore, useless. Thankfully a single charge takes just a bit more than 2 hours to complete and is rated for 15 hours of active use. I generally charge the set every two weeks without any problem. You need to make sure to have the small USB charger (which looks like a USB flash drive)to plug the headphones in for charging, but there is a nice soft Velcro-sealing bag included which you should use for transporting the headphones in anyway. The final downside relates to the positioning of the battery and control pack. This small box is too close to the headphones. The box has a clip on it for fastening, but it's positioning means you have to be wearing a shirt, an arm band of some sort on your left bicep, or presumably a sports bra (I can't speak from experience here) to fasten the control box to. Leaving it loose is not an option as the weight is easily high enough that it would become an irritation at your very first jogging step. I run without a shirt with my iPhone in an arm band on my left arm, so it's not a big problem for me, but if I were to use a smaller music player (like an iPod shuffle or equivalent) which could easily clip to my shorts I would have no solution without wearing a shirt. This is something to be aware of.

Now, though, I can talk about the positives. As discussed above, the audio is plenty sufficient for listening to things clearly while running. I can easily make out both parts of a conversation when listening to podcasts and am surprised at the quality of the entire range of audio when listening to music. It's no replacement for my higher quality headphones I use while working or relaxing, but it is well above the threshold I've set for running headphones. The only thing to be aware of here is that you might not place the contacts correctly the very first time. If the audio sounds tinny, shift the pads slightly closer to your ear until you hear a sudden increase in depth of the audio. I have only had the headphones for just over a month now, but the construction seems excellent. The contacts are very comfortable against my skin and wipe clean easily. The around-the-back-of-the-head design has exactly the right amount of tension to fit my head as well as heads larger and smaller without getting tiresome. The build quality feels solid and rugged, extending even to the angled entry point of the audio cable into the headphone unit at your head. It is angled behind you in such a way that seems to reduce stress on the joint, a frequent failure point of headphones I have had in the past. The fact that there are no drives sitting on or in the ears means irritation from sweat and heat inside the ears is drastically reduced. In terms of comfort and fit, these headphones are well above any pair I've used in this capacity. Only one month in to use is too early to speak conclusively about durability, but every indication is the AfterShokz should be given just as much credit here. The final area, safety, is where this pair truly shines, though. Simply put, you can not have a standard pair of headphones that is as safe as these. Because these do not obstruct your ear in any way, you are able to hear all environmental noise, including vehicles, just as well as if you had no headphones on and were simply listening to a friend talking right next to you (presuming you leave the volume at a healthy level). In other words, the main issue becomes one of concentration and awareness, and the only way to be safer is simply to not listen to anything at all.

After using these headphones for a while I can give a hearty recommendation to anyone willing to deal with the (in my opinion minor) issues I've mentioned. These are a better solution than any I could have dreamed up on my own. If you're looking for a solid pair of running headphones, you can stop looking now.

The company sells two varieties. I bought the cheaper AS300 AfterShokz Sport variety, which has a control box with volume controls, a power button, and a blue power indicator light. These are not controls for your iPhone or other smart device, but dedicated controls for the headphones. The more expensive AS301 AfterShokz Mobile variety has the same power button and indicator as well as a line-in microphone on the control unit instead of volume controls with a call answer button that will also operate as the single play/pause button if plugged into an iPhone. You have to make the choice between volume controls or microphone and play/pause functionality.

If you decide you want to buy these, I'd appreciate using my Amazon referral links here. If you don't want to buy from Amazon, though, you can purchase directly from the manufacturer's website.


AfterShokz Website