They are, and you might want some
One could argue that we are currently in the Golden Age of Headphones. Everyone is carrying smartphones that can stream infinite hours of listenable content, including not only music, podcasts, and audiobooks, but also games, video, social media, Zoom calls, and new live audio entrants like Clubhouse. So it makes sense that dozens, if not hundreds of companies have stepped in to sell a dizzying number of personal listening options of every type, size, connectivity, feature set, and price point.
It’s also becoming more obvious that, budget permitting, it makes sense for a lot of people to own multiple types of headphones for different activities. Maybe you need something with noise isolation or active noise cancellation (ANC) for working or studying in distracting environments, and a different Bluetooth pair that are light, secure-fitting, and water-resistant for exercising. Maybe you need a comfortable over-ear pair for watching TV or playing video games next to a sleeping partner, or something with a great microphone if you teach an online class. With so much audio to listen to in so many different situations, it only makes sense that one set of headphones probably won’t fit every occasion.
So with that, I’d like to ask you a question: Have you considered bone conduction headphones?
That question usually leads to two more questions: “What are bone conduction headphones?” and after hearing the answer, “Does that really work?” I’ve definitely asked myself these questions over the years, but I’ve never known anyone who owns a pair I could try out. So I was very excited when a company called Naenka sent me a pair of their new Runner Pro bone conduction headphones to review. And they not only work, they’re actually kind of great — if you can accept their compromises.
How Do They Work, And Who Are They For?
Every speaker or headphone you’ve ever listened to works by using drivers which cause vibrations that create sound/pressure waves that travel through the air and into your ears. This causes your eardrums and a trio of tiny bones to vibrate in a way that your brain (via an organ called the cochlea) interprets as sound. Even earbuds that you stick right inside your ears work this way — you don’t need a lot of space to move enough air to create sound, though the more air you can vibrate, the better. By contrast, bone conduction headphones use little pads that press against the areas right in front of your ears and send vibrations into your skull, bypassing the eardrum while still making those three tiny bones move.
It sounds futuristic, but it’s actually based on concepts that have existed for over a century. It’s rumored that Beethoven was able to “hear” the music he was composing after he went deaf by holding a rod between his clenched teeth and touching the other end to his piano as he played to channel the sound vibrations into his skull. Hugo Gernsback — writer, inventor, futurist, and publisher of the first-ever science fiction magazine — first described an “osophone”, a bone conduction hearing aid, in 1923.
Because bone conduction headphones don’t obstruct your ear canal in any way, they allow you to hear your preferred audio while also letting in sound through your outer ear and eardrum from the environment around you. This is simultaneously the biggest advantage and disadvantage of bone conduction headphones — they allow you to have great situational awareness, but also limit volume, sound isolation, and sound quality, particularly on the low end. But that main advantage is a huge one for joggers or cyclists — the main users bone conduction/open-ear headphones are marketed at — who could easily become roadkill if they aren’t able to hear the sound of an oncoming car. Because bone conduction headphones don’t involve vibrating air at your eardrums, you can even wear them while you’re swimming or showering (the Runner Pros have IP68 water resistance).
My Experience With Runner Pros
I don’t jog, swim, or do much road cycling, but I still really like these somewhat odd headphones because I’m an avid walker. Every day, I leash up my dog, strap my one-year-old baby in her stroller, and go out for a roughly 2.5-mile walk that usually lasts 45–55 minutes. I live in Los Angeles and my walks take me through residential streets of houses and low apartment buildings, and sometimes across some busy major surface streets. During my walks, I usually wear 2nd-generation, original-design Apple AirPods (the ones with the longer stems), which I’ve found to have solid though unimpressive sound quality that also allows in plenty of ambient noise so I don’t feel like I’m sealed off in a soundproof bubble. These daily walks would be my main testing ground for the Runner Pros.
The pairing process with my iPhone was pretty standard, and I was happy to find that Runner Pros reliably re-paired with my phone whenever I turned them on. The three nicely clicky buttons on the bottom of the oval behind the right earhook are used to control the Runner Pros and are easy to find and use by touch. There are + and - volume buttons that you can long press to skip tracks forward or backward, and a power button that handles all the other controls — long press to turn power on and off, quick press for play/pause, long press until a beep to activate your phone’s digital assistant, and double press to switch between Bluetooth and the headphones’ 8GB hard drive if you want to listen to content without your phone around. The right oval is also where you find the proprietary magnetic port for charging and copying songs onto the headphones’ hard drive.
I found the Runner Pros to be comfortable to wear. The headphones are held in place by the hooks over the tops of your ears and the tension from the loop that wraps around (but doesn’t rest on) the back of your neck. Even though I have a larger-than-average head, the pressure on the sides of my head from the vibration pads never caused any soreness, and the soft-touch, matte black coating on the headphones looks and feels nice and easily wipes clean of water, fingerprints, and dust. Even with a mask, headphones, and sunglasses vying for real estate on my ears, I was able to wear all three comfortably if I put them on in the right order — mask, then headphones, then sunglasses. With their light weight of just 33 grams (1.16 oz), the Runner Pros were comfortable to wear and didn’t seem to slip or bounce at all during a 30-minute high intensity interval training workout that involved jumping.
Because you don’t have anything over or inside your ears, the experience of listening to music/podcasts with the Runner Pros is very much like having two small speakers positioned an inch or two from your ears. In fact, I was so convinced that the headphones were playing out loud that I had to ask my wife if she could hear what I was listening to. Maybe that’s why Naenka includes a pair of foam earplugs in the box with the Runner Pros so you can confirm that the sound is actually coming via bone conduction instead of through your outer ear, though wearing earplugs is also a way to block out ambient noise while playing content. However, if you have the volume up all the way, there will be some sound leakage since the entire pad vibrates — and sound, as we’ve learned, is caused by vibrations. In fact, if you hold the outside of the pad against your head, you’ll still “hear” the audio just as well as if you were wearing them normally.
It’s when I got out on the street, put a podcast on, and started walking, that the Runner Pros really excelled. While the streets in my neighborhood have sidewalks, plenty of stop signs, and are never so busy or treacherous that I ever fear for my life, there’s something really wonderful about feeling more in touch with the world around you while also listening to what you want and not annoying others (unlike that dude in my neighborhood who walks his dog with a Bluetooth speaker clipped to his belt loop). While my AirPods already let in a good amount of sound from the environment, it was definitely nice to have my ears totally free of obstruction. When I’m wearing my AirPods and walking by another person with a dog, I’ll usually pause whatever I’m listening to in case the person says something to me or I need to be paying better attention in case their dog turns aggressive — with the Runner Pros, I rarely felt the need to do that. When crossing streets, I didn’t feel like I had to do that one extra check to look for a car I maybe couldn’t hear, nor did I feel like I had to pause my audio if a passerby wanted to tell me how cute my baby is (she’s very cute and gets lots of compliments). And when I was wearing the Runner Pros while I was gardening, I could still hear things like a bird chirping in the distance or an insect flying by.
When it comes to music, sound quality is pretty important to me — I’d rather listen to nothing than listen to music playing from a smartphone’s tinny speakers. This is where the Runner Pros, like apparently all bone conduction headphones, suffer when it comes to richness and bass. Some types of music, like acoustic guitar and certain kinds of rock, are better than others, but if you love the booming, thumping bass of hip hop or electronic music, you may end up disappointed. As I said, the sound from Runner Pros is a lot like having small speakers a few inches from your ears, with the pros and cons that come with that, including a small speaker’s lack of bass. Then again, I fully realize that sound quality is not nearly as much of a priority for most people as it is for me, so I think a lot of people will be satisfied by the Runner Pros when listening to music, especially if they understand that with bone conduction headphones, sound quality, immersion, and volume are the tradeoffs you must accept for situational awareness.
That said, it’s when listening to podcasts or other spoken audio that the Runner Pros have the fewest compromises. With spoken audio, you really just need to be able to understand what people are saying, and Runner Pros can easily handle that task. Compared to my AirPods or even my Studio3s, there wasn’t anything I felt like I was missing when listening to spoken audio, even though you’ll probably need to have the volume turned up close to maximum unless you’re in a pretty quiet environment. Since they work by vibrating against your head, bone conduction headphones simply can’t get too loud or you’d feel them tapping against your skull, which I did sometimes notice when listening to someone with a low voice when I was sitting still, but not when I was walking.
But even with the volume all the way up, I was still able to get roughly 4.5 hrs of listening from Runner Pro’s 230 mAh battery, and the Bluetooth 5.0 connection never suffered any drops in normal use (Bluetooth won’t work if you’re swimming with the Runner Pros, but you can still listen to stored audio). The advertised Bluetooth range of 10 meters (about 33 feet) seems about right if you have a clear line of sight, though they didn’t fare as well if I went around a corner — it’s definitely a step down from what you get with AirPods or Beats headphones with Apple’s custom H1 or W1 wireless chips, which improve range, pairing, connection stability, and battery life. With calls, I was told that my voice sounded as clear as it did on my AirPods, though I found that the more muffled sound of a voice call was too quiet to be used near a busy street. I also wish the Runner Pros came with some sort of pouch to keep them from getting twisted up when thrown in a backpack.
For the sake of comparison with the Runner Pros, I thought I’d go in the opposite direction for one walk. My Beats Studio3s have ANC as well as passive noise isolation from completely covering my ears, but I would never wear those on a walk because I want more situational awareness and don’t want my ears to get hot and sweaty. So to contrast the experience of wearing bone conduction headphones, I went for a walk with a pair of Beats’ recently discontinued urBeats wired earbuds, which come with different-sized silicone tips that fit inside your ear to create a physical seal from the outside world.
And. I. Hated it.
While the sound quality and volume were way better when listening to music, particularly with the oversized bass Beats headphones are known for, the experience felt a lot like walking around wearing earplugs, which is very unsettling while navigating a city. Not only was it difficult to hear oncoming cars, but I also couldn’t hear the jingling of my dog’s tags, my baby babbling in her stroller, or any pedestrians who might walk up behind me. Even with music paused, I’d still need to take an earbud out to talk to someone. Strangely, the sounds from my environment that wereamplified were unwelcome ones, like the sound of myself chewing gum (I had to spit it out) and the urBeats’ cord rubbing and bouncing against my clothes, with the vibrations seemingly following the cord straight into my ears. It’s really got me wondering if I will like other headphones that use silicone tips like the AirPods Pro, Powerbeats, or Beats Flex.
When it comes to ambient sound, a lot of ANC headphones and earbuds now include a transparency mode that picks up sounds from your environment through microphones and layers it in over whatever you’re listening to. I’ve never had a chance to try out headphones with transparency mode, so I unfortunately can’t compare the difference between transparency mode and open-ear headphones. While some headphone makers are implementing transparency mode better than others, reviews I’ve read have confirmed that it’s the real deal when done well — John Gruber of Daring Fireball has likened it to audio augmented reality — in allowing you to have improved environmental awareness even if you’re wearing over-ear or silicone-tipped headphones.
While bone conduction and other open ear headphones are already niche products, it’s possible that transparency mode might be the feature that does away with the need for them unless you’re a swimmer. While I said at the start of this review that it makes sense for people to have multiple headphones for different use cases, that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t find a single pair of headphones that covered most of your needs. For instance, AirPods Pro have ANC, silicone tips, transparency mode, and water resistance, so they could block out external noise for travel, study, or a noisy gym, while also offering environmental awareness for jogging, cycling, and city walking in any weather. AirPods Pro even have spatial audio for watching supported video in virtual surround sound. As more headphones support both ANC and transparency, it’ll get easier and less expensive to find a pair of headphones that does it all, which could put niche headphones like bone conduction ones on the chopping block.
While I would never recommend Runner Pros or any other open-ear headphones for someone looking for headphones that work for most occasions, I’ve still been pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoy wearing the Runner Pros even though I’m not their target demographic. As the father of a one-year-old baby, I can see how useful open-ear headphones would be for people who need to be able to hear a crying baby or children about to get in a fight. They would be good for hiking so you can hear both the sounds of nature as well as your own footsteps, both of which could affect your safety on the trail. There may be certain retail workers who could wear them at work but still easily hear a customer asking for help. Bone conduction headphones might also be a good option for those who dislike earbuds (where one size doesn’t always fit all) or on- or over-ear headphones, and they’re still one of the only kinds of headphones that work while swimming. If I’m going to be listening to a podcast while doing chores around the house, the Runner Pros have become the headphones I reach for.
Bone conduction headphones and the Runner Pros are definitely for real, work as promised, and are a good option for particular needs. The biggest question about them is whether they’ve been replaced by a better technology.