Ten or so years ago, I stumbled on the early versions of commercially available bone-conduction headset.
Instead of putting tiny speakers inside your ears, this technology bypasses the ear canals and eardrums by transmitting vibrations through the bones of the skull directly to your inner ear. As someone who commutes on a bicycle, both at home and in most places I visit around the world to teach, I immediately recognized the advantage of leaving my ear unencumbered: I could listen to music, radio, podcasts, and books while staying aware of the world around me.
You see, I have never been comfortable getting around wearing headphones, cut off from the world around me. Seeing other cyclists with these on their heads, especially on busy bike paths at rush hour in Amsterdam, was always perturbing and worrisome. A noise-canceling headset may be a wonderful way to immerse yourself in a piece of music or create an oasis of quiet on a loud airplane but, if you ask me (and even if you don’t), it’s in no way to ride or walk down a street.
The first bone-conduction gizmos I bought weren’t even headsets; instead, the equipment was part of a bike helmet, cap, and hat. They were clunky and quite unreliable; the sound quality was not very good, and the microphones were pretty bad. But they were basically invisible.
When I started sporting the early models of open ear headphones, which sit on your temples instead of covering your ears, I would get all kinds of odd looks. People would do a double-take, give me that perplexed “what’s wrong with this picture” look, and often turn away, shaking their heads. Some folks even approached me to shyly ask, “Do you know your headset isn’t on your ears?”
After I’d say something about the tech, explaining it had been around for more than 150 years and was the basis of modern hearing aids, I noticed the responses ranged from disbelief to curiosity. Regardless, I’d offer the person a listen and then watch their delight as they heard the sounds in their head. It is kind of eerie to be listening to music and hear, equally clearly, someone asking, “Pretty cool, isn’t it?”
More than a few times, someone who had lost their hearing was shocked to find out that they could still hear or, at least, hear better than they ever imagined possible.
Nowadays, you can find sleekly designed stereo headphones that are lightweight, comfortable, and water/sweat resistant. The best have batteries that charge fast, hold their charge on standby for days, and work for hours on end.
My favorite model, the one I’m wearing in the image above, is the Aftershokz OpenComm. It features a boom microphone that works so well that I can have a conversation on a windy stroll or, even, during a bike ride.
What’s more, the quality of the microphone is so outstanding that I have been using it when I teach online. The clarity is truly exceptional.
(If you don’t need the top-notch microphone or the super-long talk time, I heartily recommend the Aftershokz Airopex model.)
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