It’s also becoming more obvious that, budget permitting, it makes sense for a lot of people to own multiple types of headphones for different activities. Maybe you need something with noise isolation or active noise cancellation (ANC) for working or studying in distracting environments, and a different Bluetooth pair that are light, secure-fitting, and water-resistant for exercising. Maybe you need a comfortable over-ear pair for watching TV or playing video games next to a sleeping partner, or something with a great microphone if you teach an online class. With so much audio to listen to in so many different situations, it only makes sense that one set of headphones probably won’t fit every occasion.
One could argue that we are currently in the Golden Age of Headphones. Everyone is carrying smartphones that can stream infinite hours of listenable content, including not only music, podcasts, and audiobooks, but also games, video, social media, Zoom calls, and new live audio entrants like Clubhouse. So it makes sense that dozens, if not hundreds of companies have stepped in to sell a dizzying number of personal listening options of every type, size, connectivity, feature set, and price point.
So with that, I’d like to ask you a question: Have you considered bone conduction headphones?
That question usually leads to two more questions: “What are bone conduction headphones?” and after hearing the answer, “Does that really work?” I’ve definitely asked myself these questions over the years, but I’ve never known anyone who owns a pair I could try out. So I was very excited when a company called Naenka sent me a pair of their new Runner Pro bone conduction headphones to review. And they not only work, they’re actually kind of great — if you can accept their compromises.
Every speaker or headphone you’ve ever listened to works by using drivers which cause vibrations that create sound/pressure waves that travel through the air and into your ears. This causes your eardrums and a trio of tiny bones to vibrate in a way that your brain (via an organ called the cochlea) interprets as sound. Even earbuds that you stick right inside your ears work this way — you don’t need a lot of space to move enough air to create sound, though the more air you can vibrate, the better. By contrast, bone conduction headphones use little pads that press against the areas right in front of your ears and send vibrations into your skull, bypassing the eardrum while still making those three tiny bones move.
It sounds futuristic, but it’s actually based on concepts that have existed for over a century. It’s rumored that Beethoven was able to “hear” the music he was composing after he went deaf by holding a rod between his clenched teeth and touching the other end to his piano as he played to channel the sound vibrations into his skull. Hugo Gernsback— writer, inventor, futurist, and publisher of the first-ever science fiction magazine — first described an “osophone”, a bone conduction hearing aid, in 1923.
Because bone conduction headphones don’t obstruct your ear canal in any way, they allow you to hear your preferred audio while also letting in sound through your outer ear and eardrum from the environment around you. This is simultaneously the biggest advantage and disadvantage of bone conduction headphones — they allow you to have great situational awareness, but also limit volume, sound isolation, and sound quality, particularly on the low end. But that main advantage is a huge one for joggers or cyclists — the main users bone conduction/open-ear headphones are marketed at — who could easily become roadkill if they aren’t able to hear the sound of an oncoming car. Because bone conduction headphones don’t involve vibrating air at your eardrums, you can even wear them while you’re swimming or showering (the Runner Pros have IP68 water resistance).
I don’t jog, swim, or do much road cycling, but I still really like these somewhat odd headphones because I’m an avid walker. Every day, I leash up my dog, strap my one-year-old baby in her stroller, and go out for a roughly 2.5-mile walk that usually lasts 45–55 minutes. I live in Los Angeles and my walks take me through residential streets of houses and low apartment buildings, and sometimes across some busy major surface streets. During my walks, I usually wear 2nd-generation, original-design Apple AirPods (the ones with the longer stems), which I’ve found to have solid though unimpressive sound quality that also allows in plenty of ambient noise so I don’t feel like I’m sealed off in a soundproof bubble. These daily walks would be my main testing ground for the Runner Pros.
The pairing process with my iPhone was pretty standard, and I was happy to find that Runner Pros reliably re-paired with my phone whenever I turned them on. The three nicely clicky buttons on the bottom of the oval behind the right earhook are used to control the Runner Pros and are easy to find and use by touch. There are + and – volume buttons that you can long press to skip tracks forward or backward, and a power button that handles all the other controls — long press to turn power on and off, quick press for play/pause, long press until a beep to activate your phone’s digital assistant, and double press to switch between Bluetooth and the headphones’ 8GB hard drive if you want to listen to content without your phone around. The right oval is also where you find the proprietary magnetic port for charging and copying songs onto the headphones’ hard drive. I found the Runner Pros to be comfortable to wear. The headphones are held in place by the hooks over the tops of your ears and the tension from the loop that wraps around (but doesn’t rest on) the back of your neck. Even though I have a larger-than-average head, the pressure on the sides of my head from the vibration pads never caused any soreness, and the soft-touch, matte black coating on the headphones looks and feels nice and easily wipes clean of water, fingerprints, and dust. Even with a mask, headphones, and sunglasses vying for real estate on my ears, I was able to wear all three comfortably if I put them on in the right order — mask, then headphones, then sunglasses. With their light weight of just 33 grams (1.16 oz), the Runner Pros were comfortable to wear and didn’t seem to slip or bounce at all during a 30-minute high intensity interval training workout that involved jumping.
Because you don’t have anything over or inside your ears, the experience of listening to music/podcasts with the Runner Pros is very much like having two small speakers positioned an inch or two from your ears. In fact, I was so convinced that the headphones were playing out loud that I had to ask my wife if she could hear what I was listening to. Maybe that’s why Naenka includes a pair of foam earplugs in the box with the Runner Pros so you can confirm that the sound is actually coming via bone conduction instead of through your outer ear, though wearing earplugs is also a way to block out ambient noise while playing content. However, if you have the volume up all the way, there will be some sound leakage since the entire pad vibrates — and sound, as we’ve learned, is caused by vibrations. In fact, if you hold the outside of the pad against your head, you’ll still “hear” the audio just as well as if you were wearing them normally. It’s when I got out on the street, put a podcast on, and started walking, that the Runner Pros really excelled. While the streets in my neighborhood have sidewalks, plenty of stop signs, and are never so busy or treacherous that I ever fear for my life, there’s something really wonderful about feeling more in touch with the world around you while also listening to what you want and not annoying others (unlike that dude in my neighborhood who walks his dog with a Bluetooth speaker clipped to his belt loop). While my AirPods already let in a good amount of sound from the environment, it was definitely nice to have my ears totally free of obstruction. When I’m wearing my AirPods and walking by another person with a dog, I’ll usually pause whatever I’m listening to in case the person says something to me or I need to be paying better attention in case their dog turns aggressive — with the Runner Pros, I rarely felt the need to do that. When crossing streets, I didn’t feel like I had to do that one extra check to look for a car I maybe couldn’t hear, nor did I feel like I had to pause my audio if a passerby wanted to tell me how cute my baby is (she’s very cute and gets lots of compliments). And when I was wearing the Runner Pros while I was gardening, I could still hear things like a bird chirping in the distance or an insect flying by.
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