Most of us have used traditional headphones that either wrap a foam pad around the ear or fit in the ear canal and can see the limitations of either solution.
The pads are the comfortable option to start with, but they’re not nice when the weather is warm and those that get in your ears can become uncomfortable with prolonged use as the ear canal was never meant to be jammed in.
Both approaches have a limitation in that they tend to block out local noise, making them potentially dangerous when situational awareness is critical, such as when cycling through a busy city.
There is an alternative that was discovered a long time ago: bone conduction, which solves both the problem of comfort and awareness.
In this review, we’ll try out some bone conduction headphones and see if they are able to deliver sound without harming the recipient’s ears.
Price and availability
The price directly from AfterShokz is $ 159.95 for US customers, £ 149.95 in the UK and € 169.95 across Europe. This design comes in black, slate gray, and light gray.
In addition to buying them directly, these can also be bought through Amazon and other online resellers. Usually, however, the costs remain unchanged.
Before we dive into the design of the AfterShokz OpenComm headphones, let’s talk about bone conduction, how it started, and how it works.
According to several scientists, the documented use of bone conduction dates back to AD 2 or even further, but the concept became increasingly popular in the 1500s as a means of combating deafness in the elderly.
It is believed that in order to continue composing after losing his hearing, Ludwig von Beethoven would place a stick on the lid of his piano and put it in his mouth so that the sound could spread through the bones of his skull.
Fortunately, the OpenComm doesn’t go in the mouth, but rather touches the skull in an area right in front of the ears. Here the skin and muscle coverings are relatively thin, so that vibrations can spread more easily to the bones.
Therefore, when you wear them over your ears, they do not cover the hearing openings, so that in addition to the data transmitted via the headphones, noises can also be heard entering them.
After removing the headphones from the case AfterShokz packed them in, our first reaction was that they looked remarkably weak.
A flexible band with a diameter of only 3.2 mm separates the two thicker sections, in which the electronics and the batteries are located, and then ends in two bone-contacting elements, one of which has a short and equally thin microphone boom. Most of the controls are on the left, and this is where they charge.
According to the manufacturers, titanium is used extensively in construction, which should make it more durable than its sleek design suggests.
Aside from some paper instructions covering the basic controls and pairing of the device, the only other item in the case is a charging cable that connects USB to a proprietary port on the headphones.
We’re usually not big fans of proprietary connectors. If you’ve misplaced the cable, replacing it might be a big problem, but we absolutely loved how this cable worked.
It’s magnetic and not only makes it easy to connect and disconnect, but it is also very unlikely to damage the OpenComm no matter how clumsy you are.
The number of USB connection devices we’ve seen where a perfectly usable device is thrown away because the charging port is worn out is numerous. That is why we are all in favor of innovative connection technologies that do not break easily.
We are missing a critical point in the OpenComm box: a Bluetooth adapter. Yes, anyone who uses this with a phone, tablet, or most laptops will have this technology built into their computer already, but this is not something that desktop computer users can take for granted.
In the nature of the volume these are made in, adding a small USB Bluetooth adapter could have added a dollar to the manufacturing cost. So it’s disappointing that AfterShokz doesn’t have one.
Features and battery life
The features of this design are basic but adequate for most users. Two easily accessible buttons adjust the volume, and the volume up button also triggers a Bluetooth pairing if held down while turning OpenComm off.
Pairing is very easy in Bluetooth 5.0 and can be even easier as the OpenComm includes a small NFC chip to make this easier when you bring it near a phone with this feature.
All buttons are on the right, along with a multifunction button that can be used to answer calls. Depending on how it is pressed, you will navigate through the audio tracks. Their placement is very convenient when you are right-handed and less helpful when you are not.
The charging process takes place via the aforementioned magnetic connection, and a full charge can be achieved in a few hours. According to Aftershokz, that should give you 8 hours of listening time and up to 16 hours of conversation pleasure.
Playback times suggest that listening to music wears out the headset faster than talking, twice as fast to be precise. They’ll last about ten days on standby in case you won’t need them for a while.
We should also mention that these are IP55 waterproof, which means they can take a light shower, but we wouldn’t swim in them.
The sound quality is the Achilles’ heel for bone-conducting headphones. Because as much as we liked them, they will never replace conventional headphones for the frequency range.
The range on offer is way better than expected, however, and unless you are an obsessive audiophile, they are more than adequate for listening to music or TV audio.
The only limitation to the output is that you can hear the music from them when you take them off and they stay connected when you place them on a hard surface. If you put them on something soft you will hear very little, but each table amplifies the sound and makes the OpenComm move with the vibrations.
But where they really shine is when they are used for phone or streaming conversations, where the voice of others is presented very clearly. The boom microphone has two sensors and uses them to provide external noise reduction. This will make your voice different from the ambient noise on the other end.
This noise canceling technology is nothing new as it is included in all Aftershokz headphones. However, it works very well, making it great for calling and conferencing.
From an audiophile point of view, bone conduction is a mixed bag. The density of human skulls lends itself to transmitting some frequencies, mainly the low range, and is less amazing at transmitting the high altitude end.
This division makes perfect sense as it would never be a positive evolutionary direction to have the human skull ring like a bell when it gets stuck and transfer that energy to the soft, squishy contents.
This makes music with large bass seem good, but high-end pieces appear cut off and less dramatic. We found that adjusting the position of the contact surfaces gave better results. However, when you run or move, that position can easily move to a less perfect position.
So if you want an epic soundscape, spend $ 800 on some wired cans and live with the other practical limitations of these devices.
The AfterShokz OpenComm is just right for those who need to listen to digital audio for a long period of time without discomfort and who need a microphone to be able to communicate freely.
After a few uses, it goes without saying that these should be dragged and positioned. Once you no longer need it, you’ll need to unplug it and plug it in to recharge it.
They’re much nicer to wear for a longer session and have almost no pain that in-ear designs and sockets can cause.
We would have liked a longer battery life, but it should get most people through a day of work, especially if they’re charging them during a lunch break.
Our only minor concern is that AfterShokz has the OpenMove, a remarkably similar product that is sweat resistant and leaves out the boom mic for almost half the price. As good as the microphone is on this design, is it worth that much more?
If you don’t need to speak but just listen, the OpenMove might be the AfterShokz product for you. For those who listen and also need to be heard, the AfterShokz OpenComm is an excellent choice.
We’re not unique on this as they are currently out of stock at AfterShokz in the UK. Fortunately, other regions and sources still have stocks, but this design should be very popular this year, we suspect.
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