How Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work?

A man wearing AfterShokz bone conduction headphones. He looks very thoughtful. Perhaps he's listening to a podcast.AfterShokz

If you haven’t heard of bone conduction headphones, then prepare yourself for something weird. They’re ultraquiet, they don’t sit on (or in) your ears, and they vibrate your skull. But how can you hear sound through your skull?

Sounds Are Just Vibrations

Before diving into bone conduction, let’s first look at how sound works. Like light, sound travels through the air in waves. But unlike light, sound can also travel through dense objects. This is why sounds are usually referred to as “pressure waves.” They cause objects to vibrate, even if you can’t see it.

There are a bunch of tiny organs in your ear designed to react to sound. In other words, they’re great at vibrating. The star of the show is your eardrum, which is a thin flap of skin that vibrates like the head of a drum or the diaphragm of a microphone. It encourages your other ear organs and tiny ear bones to vibrate. (As a side note, don’t look up pictures of the eardrum. It’s gross.)

A diagram of the ear. The eardrum (middle ear) and the cochlea (inner ear) are highlighted.miha de/Shutterstock

Once everything starts shakin’, your cochlea looks around and records what’s going on. It then sends that data to the brain, where it’s translated into music, voices, or any other noise that you’re subjecting yourself to.

So far, it seems like hearing is a relatively simple process. And guess what? Bone conduction is just as simple.

Bone Conduction Skips Your Eardrums

Alright, so typical hearing depends on the eardrum to vibrate all of the little organs and bones of your inner ear. The eardrum isn’t necessary for hearing, but without it, your inner ear bones and organs would be static.

See where this is going? Bone conduction bypasses your eardrum by sending vibrations to your inner ear through your skull. Once all the tiny bones and organs of your inner ear start moving, your cochlea doesn’t know the difference. It records the vibrations, sends them to the brain, and you suddenly hear music, podcasts, or the obnoxious videos that automatically play on news websites.

Now, this doesn’t mean that bone conduction headphones are totally silent. They’re still audible (a lot less audible than earbuds), but they’re designed to push sound waves through your skull, rather than through the air.

Why Use Bone Conduction Headphones?

Again, bone conduction headphones skip the eardrum and don’t push much sound into the air, so they have several practical uses. For one, you can use them to free up your ears while exercising, talking to people, or listening for traffic. You can also use them to avoid the harmful sound levels of typical headphones. They’re essentially the opposite of noise-canceling headphones.

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