The Headphones of Tomorrow Won't Even Go Inside Your Ears

Daniel Varghese

AfterShokz Aeropex Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones
>$160, Buy now at Amazon

One of my favorite hobbies on my morning commute is a game called “Count the Airpods.” It’s a simple game that makes you realize just how ubiquitous the pair of kinda meh headphones has become in New York City. (Four this morning, by the way.)

But one of the side effects is that I spend a lot of time looking at people’s ears and have gotten good at recognizing other headphones. There are a few you see all the time—Bose Noise-Cancelling (the new golden standard), Beats Solo3 (which you can often get for free with Apple Computers), Jabra true wireless (one of our favorites). But a few months ago I saw something on someone’s head that I couldn’t identify, something that didn’t look like headphones at all. The person wearing them seemed to be bobbing his head to music, but he didn’t have anything actually plugged into or clamped over his ear. There was just a colorful band of plastic around his head, that seemed to be getting him through his commute. I took a picture and immediately forgot about it.

That is until the next morning, when I saw two more people wearing the same kind of headphones on the train. And the next week, when someone ran past me in SoHo wearing a pair. And the next week, when I heard someone talking into a pair while walking in Prospect Park. Sure, they weren’t nearly as omni-present as AirPods or even the conventional white Apple headphones, but at least in my own internal imagination, these started to seem like the must-have headphones of the future. It was time to investigate.

It turns out that what I was looking at were bone-conduction headphones, and more specifically, bone-conduction headphones made by AfterShokz—a Chinese company that reportedly got its start making headphones for the military. Bone-conduction headphones, as noted, don’t actually plug into or over your ears. Instead they have speaker pads that rest on your temples. You pick up some of the sound through your outer ear (it is a speaker after all), but the majority of it travels through the bones of your jaw in the form of vibrations to your inner ear. The technology is sometimes found in hearing aids.

The company’s newest pair of Bluetooth bone-conduction headphones is the Aftershokz Aeropex, a re-designed version of the company’s older, more colorful Aftershokz Titanium that I was seeing everywhere I looked. I unboxed the Aeropex with a heavy dose of skepticism, how well could this kind of technology actually work?

When you’re in a quiet environment, the Aeropex work pretty well. The sound profile is a little bit hollow, so something like Bon Iver’s "10 dEAThbREasT" from 22, A Million sounds way weirder than it should, like you’re missing half of the parts. But if you’re just listening to podcasts or random ambient music to get you through the day, you’re unlikely to notice.

Things get hairy as soon as you decide to take the headphones outside. Because you don’t insert the Aeropex headphones into your ear, they don’t provide any kind of seal from external noise. The company, and other manufacturers of open-back headphones, consider this an advantage. It certainly makes them better for indoor and outdoor workouts, where spatial awareness is key. But it makes the headphones horrendous for day-to-day use. Anywhere there is significant ambient noise, like the subway, where screeching wheels and rumbling engines can produce sound as loud as 90 decibels (as measured by my Apple Watch), anything played on the Aeropex is totally unintelligible at anything other than extremely loud volumes.

AfterShokz attempts to address this problem by including a pair of earplugs with Aeropex headphones. Beyond the fact that carrying around earplugs to make your headphones work is extraordinarily silly, it doesn’t really work. Without the sound that comes from the tiny headphone speakers themselves, the Aeropex make anything you’re listening to sound like it’s coming from a speaker 10ft away from your body and 6 ft under water.

If you’re looking for a new pair of workout headphones, the Aeropex are a totally adequate option. They’re light, have a great 8-hour battery life, are fully waterproof, and come with a two-year warranty. But at $160, I don’t think I would buy something with this limited of a use. I’d want my workout headphones to also be functional on my commutes, while traveling, or when I’m just hanging out. But the Aeropex just don't offer a good enough sound quality or seal to make that possible.

That's not to say the tech included in them isn't super exciting, and even miraculous for people born without the ability to hear. But that's not most people. If you want a dedicated headphone for workouts, the $80 AfterShokz Titanium might be worth it. But for anything else, we'll spend our hard earned bones elsewhere.

AfterShokz Aeropex Wireless Bone Conduction Headphones

160.00, Amazon

BUY NOW

Originally Appeared on GQ