What if I were to tell you that some of my favorite headphones in recent memory sound okay at best, and offer nary an ounce of noise cancelation or isolation? And that you should definitely buy them nonetheless, especially if you exercise outdoors? I don’t have to be a mind reader to sense you reaching for the X at the top right of the page, but stick with me for a minute. Because with AfterShokz Bone Conduction Headphones, pure audiophile-caliber sound quality isn’t the point, and sound isolation — one of the factors integral to so many headphone designs — is completely contrary to the point.
Relying on a much improved version of the same bone conduction sound transmission technology designed for military special ops communication (where clear communication is crucial, but environmental sound is also helpful when, you know, avoiding bullets and such), AfterShokz transmit sound into your noggin without going in, over, or around your ears. (And also without requiring any telepathy at all).
Since the Aftershokz rest on your jawbone in front of your ears, your eardrums are mostly removed from the listening equation. (I say “mostly,” because while virtually all of the bass and midrange bypass your normal auditory chain of command, some high frequency sounds do take the short path through the air from your jaw to your ear, but not as much as you’d think at first listen.)
What’s that sound like? Not as weird as you’d think. And not as bad as my introductory hook may have indicated. Sitting in my quiet office at home, granted, they don’t sound anything like my favorite Paradigm Shift e3m or HiFiMan HE-400s. Throw in something like Björk’s “Army of Me” or the Black Keys’ “Howling for You,” and the sound that reaches your brain is probably best described as a significant step up from AM radio, but a step down from FM. And any appreciable amount of bass quite frankly tickles until you get used to it.
Honestly, though? None of that really matters. It isn’t until you strap on the AfterShokz (AfterShokzes?) and go for a jog or a brisk walk that you really start to appreciate their performance. Not that the sound magically transforms or anything, but suddenly you’re listening to really solidly decent sound, while still hearing the world around you unimpeded. Who knew birds actually lived in my neighborhood? And you know that swish-swish-swish sound you usually get while exercising while wearing headphones? There’s none of that. None of it at all.
For that matter, there’s no fussing with placement. In the month or so that I’ve been seriously working out while wearing the AfterShokz, I haven’t found myself repositioning them once. Because even if they slip a little, as long as they’re touching your jaw, the sound is conducted with crystal clarity. And as much as bass-heavy tunes sort of draw attention to the unique frequency response of the AfterShokz, I’ve found that podcasts — even ones that rely really heavily on stereophony and inventive sound design, like RadioLab — sound surprisingly good.
Again, though, judging the AfterShokz for their sound quality — even when it’s really good — kind of feels like critiquing the engine growl of a Tesla Roadster. In fact, the one time I’ve forgotten to charge the AfterShokz before a jog (yes, you do have to charge them via USB; that old idiom about “getting through your thick skull” has never been used to indicate an effortless task), I found myself less enthused about the superior fidelity of the earbuds I brought along and more annoyed by the constant fiddling with them and the swish-swish-swish I had forgotten about and the loss of natural environmental sounds I had gotten used to.
I can’t say that AfterShokz have saved my life or anything (given that I tend to look both ways before crossing the street, and, at least in my suburban Alabama neighborhood, trucks tend to mostly stay off the sidewalk), but if you live in more bustling areas, that’s something to consider, too. And even if they’re not protecting your tuckus, they’re protecting your eardrums, no matter how hard you crank them. There’s a lot to be said for that, even if you’re not the sporty type.
They’re also incredibly comfortable. I’ve never liked behind-the-noggin, neckband-style headphones. Never in the history of ever. But these are incredibly comfortable, and despite initial concerns, they fit my Wookiee-sized head just as well as they do the smaller cranium of my sidekick.
The one sole, single, solitary complaint I have about the AfterShokz is that the cord is a little too short for my Wookiee stature. But hey, that’s what 3.5mm extension cables are for, right? The cord is pretty much the perfect length for regular human-sized humans.
And honestly, it’s a very minor quibble. It’s heartening to see at least one manufacturer offering a truly unique headphone in a market flooded by me-too products, most of which are sourced from the same handful of OEMs. At this price point, they’re a no-brainer. (Oh, yeah, did I mention how ridiculously inexpensive they are? Less than sixty clams! Or ten bucks more for an upgrade model with an in-line mic.)
No doubt, we’ll see a number of AfterShokz me-toos down the road, given how well these work and the void in the marketplace they fill. If you’re looking for a solid listening experience without all of the downsides and discomfort that come with putting a headphone in, on, or around your ear — or, heck, if you have a disability or eardrum damage that makes wearing regular headphones impractical, impossible, or ineffective — there isn’t much else on the market quite like them, especially at anything approaching this level of value. If you want to try out a pair now, Amazon has the Sport model for $59, and the Mobile model for $69. The AfterShokz website should also be stocking them again sometime in March, if you’d prefer to buy direct.