It seems that more and more people prefer to buy open-ear earphones or bone conduction headphones these days. That probably has to do with the convenience of listening to music all day without losing your environmental awareness. But which one should you choose, and how do bone conduction headphones differ from open-ear earphones?
Bone conduction headphones don’t block or plug your ears, and they don’t play audio using traditional air conduction technology. They send audio vibrations directly into the bones around your inner ears. Open-ear earphones also keep your ears unplugged but use normal air conduction for sound.
Interested in a face-off between open-ear and bone conduction headphones? Don't miss our OneOdio OpenRock Pro vs Shokz OpenRun review
It sounds simple, but these differences significantly affect your listening experience, so knowing what you’re buying is crucial before you spend your money. Let’s compare bone conduction and open-ear technologies more closely.
Open-Ear Vs. Bone Conduction: What Does It Mean?
To understand these terms, let’s start with a brief look at how sound works.
Sound travels through vibrations. Any medium that’s capable of transmitting vibrations can carry sound waves. This includes air and solid objects, like wooden floors or walls (have you ever heard the bass thumping from your neighbors’ home so loudly that you could almost feel it?).
When these vibrations reach our ears, usually through the air, they pass through the various layers of our ears until they eventually release chemicals that send signals to our brains, where they are then interpreted as sounds.
How Bone Conduction Headphones Work
Bone conduction headphones have become popular because they don’t cover or plug the listener’s ears. This means people can listen to music or podcasts without losing environmental awareness since nothing is blocking out external sounds, which is why bone conduction headphones are particularly popular with athletes.
Bone conduction headphones don’t contain speakers. They have transducers that vibrate against your skull, passing those vibrations directly to the cochlea (inner ear) and bypassing the outer ear entirely. The technology was first used for people who suffered hearing problems and then adapted for commercial headphones.
How Open-Ear Earphones Work
Let’s clear up some confusion quickly. Bone conduction headphones are technically open-ear earphones since they don’t plug or cover your ears. However, when people talk about open-ear earphones, they aren’t usually referring to bone conduction.
The most significant difference is that open-ear earphones have speakers or drivers that use normal air conduction, not bone conduction.
Most open-ear earphones are similar to regular earbuds, but they hook around your ears with the drivers hanging somewhere in front of your ear canals without blocking out any external noise. Their shape somewhat resembles the old Bluetooth earpieces that people used to make and receive phone calls in the middle and late 2000s.
Similarities And Differences
Apart from how they produce sound, there aren’t many other differences between the two technologies. But there are a few, and some similarities as well.
Different Form Factors
The most noticeable difference between bone conduction and open-ear headphones is their form factor.
Bone conduction headphones are usually a single unit similar to over-ear headphones. The two transducers are connected to each other with a band or strap that fits around the back of the listener’s head or neck and then hooks over their ears.
Open-ear earphones are more similar to earbuds. The drivers are two separate devices that are not connected in any physical way. Each one hooks around an ear separately from the other.
Similar Environmental Awareness
As mentioned, environmental awareness is probably the most significant reason why people would consider buying bone conduction or open-ear headphones rather than traditional in-ear earbuds or over-ear headphones, and both options excel at this.
Neither of the two will cover or plug your ears in any way, and they don’t feature any kind of noise-canceling technology, so you can always be fully aware of your environment. Sounds from traffic, people talking to you, or announcements during your commute will all carry to your ears clearly, which means you won’t miss a thing.
This also makes both options great for listening to music all day long, even when you’re at the office since you can still hear when someone is trying to tell you something.
Similar Health Benefits
Another significant advantage of bone conduction and open-ear headphones is that they are a healthier option than in-ear earbuds. Because regular earbuds plug your ears, they can cause a range of health problems, and we’re not talking about hearing loss or tinnitus – we will get to that in a moment.
In-ear earphones can cause ear infections. They spend a significant amount of time in your ears, creating a warm, dark, moist environment for bacterial growth. When they’re not in your ears, they usually lie around somewhere, collecting all kinds of bacteria and dirt, which you often stick into your ears again without cleaning.
They can also cause a buildup of earwax. Our ears have a self-cleaning mechanism, and earwax should remove any foreign entities from our ears to keep them clean. Wearing earbuds for too long stops the earwax from draining out of your ears as it should, causing a buildup.
Because bone conduction headphones and open-ear earphones don’t enter your ears, they are considered healthier options.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that people have a few misconceptions about both options. The first is that bone conduction headphones and one-ear earphones offer perfect environmental awareness.
Though it’s true to some extent, the statement doesn’t account for our brains’ ability to get distracted. Just like people often turn down the car radio when they’re driving and looking for something to minimize distractions, the sound you’re listening to can still be distracting, especially at higher volumes.
Speaking of higher volumes, the other misconception is that open-ear or bone conduction headphones can’t cause hearing loss or tinnitus. In fact, there might be an even higher risk of hearing loss.
With standard earbuds or headphones, especially those with noise-canceling technology, it’s easy to hear when your volume is too loud. Since bone conduction and open-ear headphones don’t block external noise, we don’t realize how loud they actually are. But those extreme vibrations still enter the cochlea and could cause hearing loss or tinnitus.
Pros And Cons Of Bone Conduction
People often associate bone conduction headphones with Shokz (formerly Aftershokz), and no wonder. The company was instrumental in bringing bone conduction technology into the mainstream, and models like its OpenRun and OpenRun Pro are often considered the standard in bone conduction headphones. But there are others that offer great value, like the Phillips A6606.
There are several reasons for the popularity of bone conduction headphones.
- Excellent environmental awareness. As long as you keep your volume at a reasonable level, you won’t miss any sounds coming from your environment.
- Better ear health. Bone conduction headphones don’t cause earwax buildup or bacterial infections in your ears.
- Comfort. Most people find bone conduction headphones quite comfortable due to the added support of the frame, strap, or band.
- Bone conduction headphones don’t have excellent sound quality. This has improved in leaps and bounds recently, but it’s not on par with air-conduction headphones or earphones, especially at lower frequencies.
- Perceived volume is notoriously low on bone conduction headphones. Because your ears are unplugged, you don’t notice how loud the audio is. On some models, you can barely hear the sound in loud places like the gym, even when your volume is set to 60% or 70%.
- They can be bulky, especially compared to earbuds. Some bone conduction headphones, like the Shokz OpenRun Pro, come with a hard-shell carry case, but it’s much larger than those you get with earbuds.
- Some people don’t like the sensation of the vibrations against their skin. There have even been rare cases of skin irritations and rashes caused by bone conduction headphones.
Pros And Cons Of Open-Ear Earphones
The disadvantages of bone conduction headphones are enough to put many people off, even though they would like earphones that offer better environmental awareness. Open-ear earphones try to fill that gap to some extent. Even Shokz released its own open ear set, called the OpenFit, but there are several others, like Bose Sport Open Earbuds, Oladance‘s OWS Pro and OWS2, Cleer Arc 2, and OneOdio’s OpenRock Pro and OpenRock S.
Though they are pretty good at filling some of the gaps, they also have a few disadvantages.
- Very good environmental awareness. Most open-ear earphones offer the same level of environmental awareness as bone conduction models, but a few hang in front of your ear canal. These could slightly impair environmental awareness, but probably not enough to cause real problems.
- Better ear health. As with bone conduction headphones, you don’t have to worry about earwax buildup or bacterial infections in your ears.
- Comfort. People who don’t like earbuds because they don’t enjoy the pressure in their ears tend to love open-ear earphones, finding them much more comfortable. It’s worth noting that some models are more comfortable than others, and much of it depends on the size and shape of your ears.
Also, keep in mind that some people find them less comfortable than bone conduction headphones because they don’t have a support strap.
- They tend to have better sound quality than bone conduction headphones. Many open-ear earphones have powerful drivers that offer excellent sound quality. Even though it’s still open-ear, causing you to lose some quality, it’s usually much better than bone conduction headphones.
- Improved battery life because of charging cases. Most open-ear earphones come with charging cases or offer them as optional extras. This means you can quickly charge your earphones even when you don’t have a charging point near you.
- Most are small and compact. Because the earphones are two separate units, they usually fit into a small case that’s easy to carry around.
- The sound quality isn’t perfect. These are not earphones that audiophiles would want to use. They are convenient, but you probably won’t have goosebumps while listening to music on them.
- Volume is still an issue. Depending on the model and where the drivers are located, they can have the same low-volume problems that plague bone conduction headphones, mainly due to the open-ear form factor.
- Sound leakage is a big problem. The open form factor means that people around you will easily hear the music you’re listening to, especially if you’re listening at a high volume.
- Some don’t fit as tightly as they should. Again, this depends on the size and shape of your ears, but some open-ear earphones might swivel a bit as you move around.
Open-ear earphones and bone conduction headphones are similar in many ways. This causes some confusion because many people mistake one for the other. The most prominent difference is that bone conduction headphones don’t use airwaves to send audio, while open-ear earphones do.
The critical point is that there’s no right or wrong option. Both devices have their niche, and we must decide which suits us better. Open-ear earphones are probably the better choice if you want slightly better sound quality, but you might prefer bone conduction headphones if you’re looking for a more comfortable fit while running or cycling.