Bone Conduction Headphones; How Can You Hear Something That’s Not In Your Ear?

by John Mortensen

Bone Conduction Headphones; How Can You Hear Something That’s Not In Your Ear?

Bone Conduction Headphones; How Can You Hear Something That’s Not In Your Ear?

AfterShokz Titanium Open-Ear Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones with Brilliant Reflective Strips, Slate Grey, AS600SG-BR

This was a question I received from my father in law earlier this week while we were on a family vacation. He asked because while I was working on my laptop surrounded by close and extended family, I had my Bone Conduction headphones on, with the melodious tones of Brandon Flowers in my ears from my writing while surrounded by distractions’ playlist. His question was a good one, and I answered him by letting him use the headphones for a little while so he could hear for himself.

Bone Conduction Technology

The truth is my father in law is the sort of guy who really needed to experience the headphones to truly appreciate how they worked. My efforts to explain it to him the traditional way just caused him to become perplexed. My words fell on deaf ears. Literally, because he uses a hearing aid. However, this actually helped him understand how Bone Conduction technology works, as it allowed me to compare that to his hearing aid technology. I think they won him over, which is good news because at the time of writing I’ve still not got him anything for Christmas. Now I know exactly what to get!

When You're Wearing Bone Conduction Headphones What is Happening?

The “How can you hear something that’s not in your ear?” question is one I’ve actually heard quite a lot recently, so hopefully, this blog will shed some light on this for those who are still on the fence or new to Bone Conduction technology. In a recent blog, we briefly explained how Bone Conduction technology works by describing an experiment. We won’t go into the whole thing again, as it’s been described in more detail elsewhere on this page, but we will explain the basics of it.

When You're Wearing Bone Conduction Headphones What is Happening.png

Hearing Perception Experiment

The experiment involved two simple gestures and then an analysis of how the human body, particularly the ear and inner ear, received this sound, and why. The first gesture is scratching your scalp. Go on then, do it now, I’ll wait… There, that noise you heard was caused mostly by Bone Conduction. I’ll explain further in a moment but now clap your hands with your arms outstretched. That clapping noise was heard mostly by traditional hearing and a small amount by Bone Conduction. Allow me to explain.

Air Conduction

We hear most noises by our ears picking up on soundwaves, this is called Air Conduction. Soundwaves bounce into our ears and down into our eardrum, from here they are transmitted directly into our cochlear. The main organ of our ear that converts soundwaves for our brains to understand. So, when you clapped that’s how you heard the noise. Although your body picked up on these vibrations another way.

Bone Conduction

Bone Conduction is when the body hears sound internally. Hearing is the wrong word in all honesty, ’feeling the sound’ may be more appropriate. When you scratched your head the vibrations of you doing so rumbled all around your skull and made their way to your cochlear that way. Your outer ears probably had little to do with it.

You heard the noise but not in the way you normally do. This is also how Bone Conduction technology works. The sound vibrates through your bones and into your inner ear, and for many people, it feels like a deeper way to listen to music or the spoken word. This is the appeal of Bone Conduction headphones and why they are becoming so popular. We all want to hear our music or audiobooks on a deeper level and this allows it.

Bone Conduction and Air Conduction Complement Each Other

Bone Conduction and Air Conduction Complement Each Other

Bone Conduction and Air Conduction can actually work in tandem and complement each other. For example, when you clapped just now that noise was indeed mostly detected by soundwaves hitting your ear before being directed to your eardrum and then inner ear. But the vibrations also traveled through your bones too, allowing you to hear it in two ways.

This is also true for when you scratched your scalp. While you mostly heard this noise through Bone Conduction, although much quieter than a clap, your ears probably did detect some of the noises. However, most of what you consciously heard went straight to your cochlear directly through your bones, bypassing your ears almost completely.

Bone Conduction Has Been Used Since The Start Of Time

Bone conduction has been used since the start of time, and human beings have been aware of its benefits for much of that. Examples of its use in history have been surprising. It is said that the Romans and other armies of the ancient world, would wear armor with ear guards not just to protect their ears in battle, but so the vibrations caused by enemy cavalry or infantry could be felt’ before it was heard the traditional way.

Roman Helmet

The ground rumbling could be misleading to the outer ear, but ordering an army to stop marching then feeling the noise increase through their helmets and ear guards could allow a general to predict when an attack from an enemy was imminent and perhaps where it was coming from and how far away.

From the Tacitus Germania Anglo-Saxon Thegn AD 449–1066:

"They also have the well-known kind of chant that they call baritus. By the rendering of this they not only kindle their courage, but, merely by listenrng to the sound, they can forecast the issue of an approaching engagement. For they either terrify their foes or themselves become frightened, according to the character ofthe noise they make upon the battlefield; and they regard it not merely as so many voices chanting together but as a unison of velour. What they particularly aim at is a harsh, intermittent roar; and they hold their shields in front of their mouths, so that the sound is amplified into a deeper crescendo by the reverberation."

Many Cultures

Many cultures all over the world and throughout history have understood these benefits. Keeping one’s 'ear to the ground’ is just an expression today that means to stay alert. But throughout time it’s meant exactly that. Putting an ear to the ground has meant those doing so have been able to feel and hear certain vibrations that may tell them certain things.

Standing upright and listening for sound waves in the traditional way can’t deliver. This is the human body putting Bone Conduction to use before the term even existed. Even the animal kingdom makes use of Bone Conduction when hunting prey or when avoiding predators. Some smaller animals rely upon it for survival. They may not have the big or sharp ears their hunters have.

From "The Life of Sextus Julius Africanus, Part 2: The General"

"Somewhat more strange were his designs for “intercepting sound” by digging a hole and covering it with a cloth. He claimed that a man standing in the hole could hear distant sounds not normally audible to the human ear."

Bone Conduction Technology Was Employed By Hearing Engineers and Special Forces

Bone Conduction technology was employed by hearing engineers to help those who are hearing impaired and is a staple of hearing aid technology. This is why I’m betting my father in law will appreciate his Christmas present. But the technology was taken further and mastered by our modern military.

Military Bone Conduction Helmet

Bone Conduction headsets have allowed special forces teams to keep in contact with their headquarters and each other while being able to keep their ears free for other noise. Being able to hear on the battlefield can be the difference between life and death, and the last thing soldiers need is someone yapping in their ear drowning out everything else. Bone Conduction technology means they can hear each other clearly without compromising their senses.

Bone Conduction Headphones

Naturally, this technology isn’t exclusive to the military or to those who work in the hearing aid industry, so it was only a matter of time until it was employed for leisure and Bone Conduction Headphones.

Bone Conduction Headphones

One of the main benefits and safety features in the eyes of many is the fact that Bone Conduction technology is something we can use and still stay alert. We can listen to audio, be it music or an audiobook through our Bone Conduction headphones and still be aware of the world around us. This is especially useful for those who like to listen to the audio while cycling, running or any other activity that could be dangerous and where our sense of hearing should not be drowned out.

Retain Enough Awareness

In my own case, as mentioned above, it means I can carry on listening to The Killers while getting some work done on a family holiday, but still retain enough awareness to respond to my father in law’s question about the headset I’m wearing. Or when I’m out walking my dog. It means I can hear oncoming traffic when I cross the road, greet other people as I walk and actually hear the words they say instead of pretending I do.

I don’t use my Bone Conduction headphones exclusively, regular visitors to our blog will know myself and the other team members here own multiple sets of headphones that we all use for different purposes.

When at home playing video games or watching media on my iPad in bed, I tend to use my noise-canceling Skullcandy headphones. This helps me drown out whichever reality TV show happens to be on in the background, not something my Bone Conductors really work for. But they have plenty of other unique features and benefits that my noise armor headphones don’t possess. In all honesty, it’s the fact that my Bone Conduction headphones don’t shut out external noise that makes them so useful in many scenarios.

Bone Conduction Headphones Replacing Regular Headphones

Bone Conduction Headphones Replacing Regular Headphones

My Bone Conduction headphones recently replaced my Apple Beats as my regular gym buddies. A decision purely made for practical and comfort reasons, interestingly not having anything to do with sound. They just get less sweaty and can be relied upon to stay attached to my head when I work out. The Apple Beats had a habit of occasionally falling off.

Although the gym is a location I like to remain alert in, and my Bone Conduction headphones are useful for this. I can listen to what I want but still hear everything else that’s going on. Especially useful for not appearing ignorant when someone speaks to me.

Feeling The Sound

Essentially Bone Conduction works by feeling sound’ any physical action the human body takes that you hear will mostly be caused by Bone Conduction. The closer it is to your ears or head then the likelihood of hearing the noise this way increases. Think of it as the sound rumbling its way into your head rather than flying its way there.

This principle, when applied to music or other forms of audio allows us to hear on a level that we are all more used to than we know, although it may feel entirely new yet somehow so natural. And once we’ve listened to the audio in this way, we may not want to go back to any other way. I’ll let you know if this works with my father in law.

The Story of the Smartphone

The story of the Smartphone is so amazing and interesting it would be hard to make this entire narrative up. It is so intricately entwined in the ingenuity of humanity and the necessity to continue to discover and grow as a species. There is always hope!

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John Mortensen
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