Bone conduction headphones have built up an impressive reputation over the last decade, and many users have flocked over to the new technology, often abandoning traditional headphones entirely. But the opposite is also true, as many people are disappointed in bone conduction. So, are there situations where bone conduction is worse than air conduction?
Bone conduction usually produces lower sound quality and perceived volume than air conduction. Some headphone models can also be uncomfortable compared to air conduction variants. Battery life on bone conduction headphones also tends to be worse. They also leak sound, maybe more than air conduction.
Bone conduction headphones have plenty of advantages, such as allowing environmental awareness and making media more accessible to those with hearing problems. But the technology is still far from perfect. Let’s look at the cases where bone conduction is still worse than air conduction.
What Makes Bone Conduction Worse Than Air Conduction?
You should consider various factors before buying your first bone conduction headphones. Note that these aspects vary between brands; some have managed to overcome many of these limitations to some extent. But here are the things you should be mindful of.
Lower Sound Quality
Some bone conduction manufacturers have made great strides in improving sound quality, but they are not a perfect option for audiophiles. They struggled with bass and lower frequencies in the early days, and the audio sounded flat.
Since then, companies like Shokz have improved the bass transmission of their headphones. Unfortunately, it has led to the opposite case, where the sound can sometimes be too low and deep with insufficient emphasis on mid-range and treble frequencies.
The point is it’s difficult to find bone conduction headphones with perfect sound quality. Because everyone’s audio needs differ, you will have to try a few models to find one that delivers the sound quality you’re willing to accept.
It’s also important to note that many headphones have equalizer apps or functionality that let you adjust the sound to your liking. Having said that, do not expect studio-quality sound from bone conduction headphones. The technology is not there yet.
Lower Perceived Volume
Bone conduction headphones don’t create an airtight seal in your ears as air conduction headphones and earphones do. This means you don’t have any form of noise canceling, which is the point of using bone conduction headphones in the first place since some people, like athletes, must be able to hear their environment at all times.
The consequence of this is that your audio may not seem as loud. Users who use bone conduction headphones for the first time often find that they get about half the volume that they would get with air conduction headphones, and they must push the volume considerably higher to be able to hear clearly.
The problem is that the perceived volume isn’t the actual volume, and you’re not hearing how loud it really is because your ears are uncovered. If you plug your ears with your fingers, you will immediately notice the difference, and that’s why bone conduction headphones could potentially be harmful to your hearing – because you don’t notice that you’re pushing them too high.
Some users overcome this by wearing earplugs with their bone conduction headphones, but that arguably defies the purpose of using bone conduction in the first place. In this case, air conduction earphones with transparency mode may be better than bone conduction.
They Can Be Uncomfortable
Bone conduction headphones are entirely different from air conduction headphones and earphones. Firstly, they must be very tight to transmit vibrations into your skull. Secondly, some people may find over-ear types uncomfortable to wear with glasses or sunglasses. Lastly, the vibrations themselves can often cause skin irritation and other strange sensations.
Most people won’t find it unpleasant and will get used to it fairly quickly. But others, especially those with extra-sensitive skin, may find regular headphones or earphones more comfortable. They don’t often interfere with glasses, don’t vibrate against your skin, and you don’t have to tighten them too much, if at all.
Lower Battery Life
This point constantly changes as better battery and charging technologies are developed. Still, the general rule is that bone conduction headphones don’t have the same battery life as air conduction headphones and earphones.
For example, Shokz’s flagship Aeropex/OpenRun bone conduction headphones have an estimated battery life of eight hours. That’s great for bone conduction headphones, though many users claim only to get between five and seven hours.
Compared to that, Apple’s AirPods Max over-ear headphones have 20 hours of battery life. The in-ear types indeed have a comparable battery life to that of the Aeropex/OpenRun. AirPods Pro, for example, has battery life ranging between 4.5 and 6 hours, but you can quickly charge them using the carry case to get an additional eight to ten hours.
Bone conduction headphones need to have more power to generate sound since they have to vibrate solid components and do so strongly enough to transmit the vibrations into your skull. The only way to improve battery life is by making the batteries larger, making the devices heavier and even more uncomfortable. For athletes (the primary target market), that’s not an option.
Strangely, one of the popular selling points for bone conduction headphones is actually a disadvantage.
Most people falsely believe bone conduction headphones don’t bleed or leak sound. Some dubious marketing campaigns have led to this belief in the past, and somehow it stuck. When you think about it, it could make sense that something that blasts vibrations into your skull should not be audible to anyone else.
However, the vibrations of the device can still vibrate the air around them, conducting the sound waves through the air to those around you. In fact, it can be worse than some air conduction headphones for two reasons:
- Most air conduction headphones and earphones aim to create an airtight seal in or around your ears to improve sound quality and help with the noise canceling. These seals have the opposite effect, too, where they can keep the noise inside from escaping to the outside. Bone conduction headphones don’t have these seals.
- Bone conduction headphones vibrate more as you increase the volume, which we’ve already seen is something you may often feel the need to do. The high-volume vibrations can rattle the headphones’ frame, causing even more audio to bleed around you.
The bleeding effect (especially the frame vibrations) shouldn’t happen too much if you buy a high-quality set of bone conduction headphones, and it’s comparable to an average, poorly sealed pair of air conduction headphones at its worst. But even expensive bone conduction headphones will leak more audio than high-quality regular headphones or earphones that seal correctly.
Bone conduction isn’t the perfect audio solution that many people claim it is, and it’s still inferior to air conduction, particularly in terms of sound quality, volume, and battery life. But we must remember that bone conduction fits a particular niche. It’s not meant for everyone or standard use. Someone who needs perfect environmental awareness will accept a few sacrifices.