Sound Showdown: Air vs. Bone Conduction Headphones

Headphones are great as they offer a personalized listening experience, but since there are air conduction and bone conduction models, it can be confusing to decide which to use. The two technologies are vastly different, each with unique advantages and disadvantages. So, which is the better option – air conduction or bone conduction? Let’s compare.

Air conduction is the “normal” way we hear sound and music, where sound waves travel through our outer and middle ears into the cochlea. Bone conduction sends sound directly into our cochlea through our skulls. Air conduction offers better quality, but bone conduction doesn’t obstruct our ears.

Interested in how these technologies compare in real products? Consider checking out the comparison between the Shokz OpenRun Pro and Apple AirPods Pro, exemplary representatives of bone conduction and air conduction headphones, respectively.

There’s more to the differences between air and bone conduction than we tend to think. The two technologies interact with our ears in entirely different ways, which means they have different use cases and unique benefits. Let’s dive a bit deeper and learn more about air conduction and bone conduction.

Air Conduction

Air conduction is the formal term for the traditional way we hear anything since it relies on air to carry sound waves to our ears.

How Air Conduction Works

Our ears are incredible; the number of technical intricacies required to hear makes it amazing that we can hear at all.

In the most basic sense, “sound” is nothing but a sequence of vibrations moving at various speeds and wavelengths (frequencies). The process of hearing through air conduction headphones works as follows:

  1. The headphones or earphones contain speakers. Every speaker has a type of diaphragm that vibrates as electrical signals pass around a magnet that forms part of the speaker.
  2. The diaphragm’s vibrations create pressure waves in the air around it. This is how sound passes into the air.
  3. The sound waves travel through the air into our ears. In the case of headphones and earphones, they don’t have to travel very far. This is the “air conduction” part.
  4. Now the hearing part begins. The sound passes through our outer ears and into the ear canal.
  5. At the end of the outer ear, the sounds vibrate the eardrum, which vibrates against a tiny bone called the malleus in the middle ear.
  6. The malleus then passes the vibrations to two other bones called the incus and stapes. This process amplifies the sound.
  7. These vibrations then pass through to the inner ear, where they are picked up by the cochlea.
  8. The cochlea contains fluid and tiny hair cells. The vibrations from the incus and stapes make the fluid vibrate as well.
  9. As the fluid vibrates, it causes the hair cells to bend at varying degrees according to the vibrations’ waves.
  10. As these hair cells bend, they release chemicals.
  11. The auditory nerve detects the chemicals and turns them into electrical signals, which it then passes to the brain.
  12. The brain reads these electrical signals and interprets them as sounds.

So, technically, air conduction itself makes up a tiny portion of the entire hearing process.

Air Conduction Headphones And Earphones

Air conduction headphones and earphones are the most common types. They contain small (or even tiny) speakers that play sounds directly into your ear canals through the air and have specific characteristics.


Air conduction headphones have cups that fold over or around your ears. They serve two purposes: keeping external noise out and keeping the sound you’re listening to inside. They can be pretty heavy, and many people don’t like how their bands fold over their hair. However, they tend to have excellent sound quality because they are larger than earphones and have bigger speakers.

Earphones / Earbuds

Air conduction earphones and earbuds tend to be more popular than headphones because they are so compact. They fit inside your ear canal, creating some kind of seal. The efficiency of the seal varies between brands and models, but its aim is the same as the cups on headphones: to keep the noise out and the sound you’re listening to inside.

Earphones or earbuds don’t usually have the same sound quality as headphones because they are much smaller. Their speakers are tiny, and they don’t have the space for much of the post-processing that headphones sometimes have. However, their proximity to your inner ears helps to negate the slight loss of quality, so many users don’t notice the difference.

Pros Of Air Conduction

Air conduction offers several advantages over bone conduction:

  • A study on a hearing test called “Rinne’s Test” found that sound is transmitted more efficiently to the cochlea through the air than through bone. This means that normal, healthy ears can hear sounds more clearly through air conduction than bone conduction.
  • Some air conduction headphones offer better sound quality than bone conduction headphones.
  • Most air conduction headphones use techniques to limit outside noise. These can be passive methods, like blocking your ear canals, or active methods, that cancel out noise by generating negative sound waves.
  • Air conduction headphones are also effective at insulating your ears to keep the audio you’re listening to inside. The same techniques they use to block your ears from external noise help to keep your audio from escaping your ears, which means you will experience little to no sound leakage.

Cons Of Air Conduction

Air conduction comes with a few disadvantages as well:

  • People with hearing problems can’t listen to music using air conduction headphones (or not clearly).
  • Air conduction headphones often offer little to no environmental awareness.
  • The lack of environmental awareness makes it illegal to use air conduction headphones in most marathons or while driving (in certain states or countries).
  • Some people find it uncomfortable to wear air conduction headphones or earphones because they don’t like the pressure on their ears or in their ear canals.
  • Air conduction can bother the people around you if you’re not using headphones or earphones. Because the sound travels through the air, anyone can hear it. This mainly applies to regular speakers.

Bone Conduction

Bone conduction is a technology that’s been around (formally) since the 1800s, mainly in the medical field. Still, it’s become commercially available in the form of bone conduction headphones since Shokz released its first model in 2011.

How Bone Conduction Works

Bone conduction uses the fact that sound travels mainly through vibrations and changes the way those vibrations reach our ears. It works as follows:

  1. Bone conduction headphones don’t contain speakers. Instead, they have transducers that fit tightly against your scalp (close enough to vibrate the bones underneath).
  2. The transducers vibrate against your skull to pass the vibrations into the bones near your ears.
  3. This way, the sounds vibrate the tiny bones in your middle ear (the malleus, incus, and stapes).
  4. These vibrations then pass through to your inner ear, where they are picked up by the cochlea.
  5. The cochlea contains fluid and tiny hair cells. The vibrations from the incus and stapes make the fluid vibrate as well.
  6. As the fluid vibrates, it causes the hair cells to bend at varying degrees according to the vibrations’ waves.
  7. As these hair cells bend, they release chemicals.
  8. The auditory nerve detects the chemicals and turns them into electrical signals, which it then passes to the brain.
  9. The brain reads these electrical signals and interprets them as sounds.

As you can see, the last six steps are identical to air conduction; the only aspect that changes is how the sound reaches your inner ear.

For a detailed look at the technology, explore How Bone Conduction Headphones Work

Bone Conduction Headphones

Bone conduction headphones don’t cover or plug your ears at all. They have a strap that fits around the back (or sometimes front) of your head or neck and over your ears. The transducers fit snugly against your temple, the top of your cheekbones, or behind your ears, depending on the model. They should be tight and have as little skin as possible between them and your skull.

This means that your ears will remain open even while you’re listening to your music, which is one of the two main advantages of bone conduction headphones.

Pros Of Bone Conduction

Bone conduction headphones offer some advantages over air conduction models:

  • It’s safe to use bone conduction headphones outdoors. Because they don’t block your ears, you have near-perfect environmental awareness while wearing them, which makes them safe to use in marathons or even while you’re just out on a casual run or participating in other sports.
  • You can also maintain awareness in other situations, even while listening to music. For example, if you work in an office where people often want to talk to you or you have to take phone calls, bone conduction headphones can help you communicate and be aware of announcements without pausing your music or turning down the volume.
  • Bone conduction can help people with hearing loss to hear. Many hearing aids work on the principle of bone conduction. Even commercial bone conduction headphones can let people listen to music if they’re suffering from certain types of hearing loss, as long as the problem is limited to their outer ears.
  • Bone conduction headphones are more hygienic than air conduction headphones and earphones. Because they don’t go inside your ears, they are less likely to cause bacterial infections in your ears.

Cons Of Bone Conduction

There are also a few negative aspects you should keep in mind:

  • Bone conduction headphones don’t offer perfect environmental awareness. Even though they’re better than noise-isolating headphones and earphones, it’s still possible to get distracted by whatever you’re listening to and miss essential sounds around you, especially if you’re listening at high volume.
  • They can still damage your hearing. This con applies to air conduction, too, but it’s worth mentioning because it’s often overlooked. High volumes can damage your hearing, even over bone conduction headphones, since they can wear out the hair cells in your cochlea.
  • Bone conduction doesn’t have the best sound quality. Manufacturers like Shokz are drastically improving this aspect with every new model. Still, at the moment, you cannot expect bone conduction headphones to offer the same audio quality as some high-end air conduction models.
  • Bone conduction headphones also suffer from low volume issues, though this is mainly related to your ears being uncovered. Zero insulation means that external noise can come in and interfere with whatever you’re listening to, making it seem less loud than it actually is.
Dive into the Bone Conduction Headphones: What Works and What Doesn’t

Ideal Use Cases – Air Conduction Vs. Bone Conduction

Now that we understand air conduction and bone conduction and the pros and cons of each, we can start to compare which is best. The purest answer to that question is that it depends on your situation and what you want to use it for.


An audiophile will not be satisfied with bone conduction headphones. Their quality isn’t terrible anymore, but it’s not close to audiophile standards. The low volume issue can be solved with earplugs, and you can usually adjust the ranges using an equalizer app on your smartphone or audio device. However, the quality is still not as good as audiophiles expect from such expensive devices.

So, if you’re an audiophile who listens to lossless audio or prefers vinyl over CD for their authentic sound, it’s better to invest in a good set of air conduction headphones.

Casual Listeners

Someone who only listens to music casually will be satisfied with air conduction or bone conduction; it really doesn’t matter. However, casual listeners will be happy with headphones or earphones that cost a fraction of the price of the cheapest bone conduction set, so there’s no sense in paying more. With that in mind, air conduction makes the most sense for casual listeners.


If you’re an active sporty type who likes to jog, cycle, or swim, and you want to listen to music while doing so, bone conduction is the ideal solution for you. Because they allow for better environmental awareness than air conduction headphones, they are safer when outdoors and participating in your favorite activity.

That’s even truer if you often participate in marathons or similar sports events like triathlons. Many such events don’t allow headphones but recently made exceptions for bone conduction units.

People With Hearing Disabilities

Many people who suffer from hearing disabilities find that they can hear their music clearly when they’re using bone conduction headphones.

This doesn’t apply to all types of hearing disabilities, though. People with sensorineural hearing loss usually get little or no benefit from bone conduction since the damage is in the inner ear. However, most people with conductive hearing loss (located in the outer ear) can listen to music with no problems if they get a set of bone conduction headphones.


Air conduction and bone conduction use vastly different approaches in getting sound to our ears. Unfortunately, bone conduction technology is still far from perfect, making it less ideal than air conduction for most people. However, people with conductive hearing loss or athletes may benefit enough from bone conduction to invest the money for it.