Review: This Bone-Conduction Headset Probably Isn't Witchcraft

When I first heard about bone-conduction headsets, I thought, "A headset that will let me both listen to iPhone audio and hear outside sounds? What manner of witchcraft is this?!"

But it's true, and there's no witchcraft at all. Bone-conduction headsets sit on the bone in front of your ear, rather than sitting in your ear (like earbuds) or on your ear (like a conventional headset). The bone-conduction headset conducts sound directly into your noggin, bypassing your earhole entirely ("noggin" and "earhole" are technical medical terms). You can see the set-up in the vendor's photo, below.

Happy Women
I wonder whether these women also appear in any stock photos of women laughing  alone with salad.
I wonder whether these women also appear in any stock photos of women laughing
alone with salad

I heard about bone conduction headsets this summer, on the excellent Cortex podcast. But they've been around a while. Indeed, the Cortex podast wasn't the first place I encountered the idea; there was an ad for bone-conduction headsets floating around magazines way back in the last months of disco, in 1979, for a product called the Bone Fone. Which sounds like something dirty, but it isn't.

After scanning Amazon reviews, I bought the Aftershokz Bluez 2S Wireless Bone Conduction Bluetooth Headphones (AS500SR), in jaunty red, priced at $92.95, in mid-July. There's a more expensive model, the AfterShokz Trekz Titanium Open Ear Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones (AS600SG) ($129.95). The primary difference is that the Titanium is made of lighter material, and uses Bluetooth 4.0, with support for pairing to multiple devices, rather than 3.0, which only pairs to a single device.

I've been using the headset for more than a month, and I'm happy with it, although there are some problems.

A couple of caveats on this review:

  • Virtually all my listening is to spoken-word audio, rather than music. I listen almost entirely to podcasts, although I do listen to the occasional audiobook. I listen while walking our dog, Minnie the Upholstery Slayer, which I do for about 90 minutes a day. That's a lot of walking, but it's good for the health of both of us and burns off at least some of her infinite energy and keeps her from destroying more of our house than she already does.
  • I'm not audiophile -- matter of fact, I find myself saying "WHAT?" a lot lately when people talk with me, which tells me my hearing might be going south. So I can't tell you about bass and driver rattle and treble and other fancypants technical terms. I just know whether the headset works.

And the headset does, indeed, work. I can hear my imaginary podcast friends loud and clear when I listen to them over the Aftershockz Bluez headset. And I can hear surrounding sounds too, as though the audio was coming from nearby speakers rather than a headset. That's why I bought these headphones, so I'm happy.

However, these headphones aren't perfect.

The Bluetooth occasionally stutters. It's only for a few seconds every few days, and it goes away quickly, but it's annoying when it happens.

The microphone does a poor job of muting the sound of wind when making phone calls or dictating voice memos outdoors. Also, when using the microphone for phone calls indoors, it sounds like I'm on speakerphone.

The battery seems to run out quickly. I need to charge it every two or three days. I've had other Bluetooth headsets that lasted a week on a charge.

Outside noise sometimes drowns out whatever I'm listening to on the headphones. I regularly use the headset on my daily walks with the dog, which includes a short stretch down a busy four-lane street. I can't hear anything on the headphones when the cars go by. When that happens, I just turn off the audio and zen for a while. I suspect this is a problem with any bone-conduction headset that you buy; your ears are open when you're using it and they're letting in exterior sound, which will occasionally drown out the headphones. Oddly, the headset works better when you put your fingers in your ears. Unfortunately, that doesn't help with my specific problem -- you try listening to podcasts on a headset with your fingers in your ears while walking down a busy street with a badly behaved dog on a leash. As soon as you're out of the hospital, let me know how it works.

The on-headset controls are missing one key function. There's a multifunction button, which you can use to play or pause audio, activate Siri (or whatever it is you Android people have instead of Siri), or fast-forward a few seconds. But you can't go back a few seconds just by pressing a button on your headset. Instead, you have to take your phone out of your pocket or use your smartwatch controls, like an animal. There are also volume-up and volume-down buttons and a power button.

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The headset is very stiff and uncomfortable when you put it on the first time, but it loosens up after a few days, and now I sometimes forget I'm wearing it.

Because the headset is hard plastic and sits around your ear, it's tricky to wear with eyeglasses or sunglasses. I've found the best thing to do is put on the glasses first, then the headset. That's inconvenient if you want to take off your glasses -- such as if you're wearing sunglasses outdoors and want to check something on your phone screen.

Overall, the Aftershokz Bluez 2S Wireless Bone Conduction Bluetooth Headphones (AS500SR) are a great value if you want to listen to audio while also being able to hear background noise. And they're not witchcraft. I don't think.

— Mitch Wagner, Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud

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