What are bone conduction headphones?

A quick introduction to hearing without your ears

Most people probably don’t even know that bone conduction headphones are a thing.  In fact, when you tell them about bone conduction or even better show them, the reaction might be that you are playing around with some really high-tech, state of the art, concept.  What if I told you that hearing things from bone conduction was a century’s old practice?  Would you believe me if I said that bone conduction has played a huge role in making some of the best and most listened to the music of all time?

How Beethoven could hear whilst be deaf

If you have heard of Beethoven then you might have heard someone, at some point, exclaim that, arguably the greatest composer of all time, was in fact, deaf.  In reality, that is only a partially true statement.  Born in 1770 Beethoven actually spent most of his years with full hearing.  It wasn’t until much later in life, around 1802 that the first documented evidence that he was on his way to permanent hearing loss started to surface. 

By that time, the great composer had already written the majority of his most lauded works.  He was widely recognized as a genius and one of the premier musicians of his time.  Now that he was losing his hearing, the obvious thing would be to throw it in the towel and retire.  I mean, could he really go on with diminished hearing and possibly tarnish his legacy with tainted performances in his later years? The answer was that yes, Beethoven did continue to write. Not only that, he got arguably better, and what better proof of this is there than the outstanding 9th Symphony.

Beethovens 9th Symphony,y otherwise referred to as “Chora,l,” was completed in 1824, many years after he had gone completely deaf.  It is the one that most critics and fans laud as his greatest work. How was this possible?  How could someone create such an intricate, layered and detailed work of art when they couldn’t even hear?  

The answer is that Beethoven could still hear.  Just not in the conventional way that you might be familiar with.  Instead of having sound waves traveling into his ear canals and hearing the music in the way you and I would, Beethoven would now employ a listening method known as bone conduction.

Bone conduction works by passing the soundwave, you guessed it, through your bones instead of through the air.  Beethoven achieved this rather advanced feat for the time by connecting a metal rod to his piano and then biting down on an attached mouthpiece.  He was now able to listen via his jawbone and compose the 9th Symphony.  To me, it’s pretty spectacular to think that something as in-depth and famous as the Ninth Symphony was created this way. That at a stage when most would give up on their dream Beethoven adapted and kept moving forward.

Bone Conduction in the modern environment

Today bone conduction technology is becoming more and more popular.  Doctors have developed several sub-dermal methods that attach bone conduction hearing aids directly to bones in patients with hearing loss.  Google implemented it in the first iteration of their Google Glass project, with the conductor being placed behind users’ ears for voice and calls.  Runners use them to fully hear traffic with their ears while they run and still listen to music. 

One of the most famous uses was when Seal Team 6 used bone conduction to capture Bin Laden back in 2011.  The team communicated with each other and their central command through what the military calls “Bone Phones” These headsets have several military advantages, such as leaving the ears free for situational spacing and awareness.  Your ears are still free to hear what is happening around, pinpoint shots and also work with remarkable clarity underwater.  

So should you run out and buy a set of bone conduction headphones?

From the standpoint of an everyday guy who won’t be taking down bad guys or going deaf and writing masterpieces, what do I think of bone conduction headphones? Well, as an alternative to regular headphones, they are pretty much stuck right now.  They don’t exactly suck, but it’s just that traditional headphones sound so much better than bone conduction across the board.  There is much more investment into regular headphones, so naturally, technology advances faster. 

Still, bone conduction headphones have their uses, and if the situation suits it, they can have many benefits to traditional standards. If you are into running and cycling they are great and can literally be lifesavers in that you will still be able to hear traffic around you. They also make the perfect headphones for swimming.  As a fully developed and mature technology, they aren’t quite there yet, but with more companies providing competition in this space than ever before, there are still many potentials. 


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Audiophile Onhttp://www.audiophileon.com
Audiophile On is a website dedicated to high-end audio products. With over 15 years as a reviewer, all articles are hand-written by one person to allow the comparison of products. Headphones, earphones, speakers, amplifiers, or DAC's we cover here.

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