I recently got myself a pair of bone conduction headphones, the Aftershokz Sportz Titanium and put them through some good testing.
In this post, I am reviewing the Sportz Titanium for various applications, including listening to audio while keeping an open ear and awareness of my surroundings, and the opposite: using them together with the best earplugs to block noise while streaming my favorite tunes and podcasts.
Normal headphones either plug your ears (earbuds) or sit on top of your ears (on-ear and over-the-ear headphones).
Bone conduction headphones, on the other hand, keep your ears completely open.
They have transducers—small vibrating speakers—that sit on your cheekbones and transmit sound through the skull into the inner ear (cochlea).
Thus, they mostly bypass the eardrum and the middle-ear bones (ossicles) that connect the eardrum to the inner ear.
I got the wired version for three reasons:
- For some applications, I need a full day / night of continuous streaming: the Sportz Titanium can continuously play for 12 hours while the Bluetooth Trekz Titanium only allow for 6 hours.
- I already have a Bluetooth receiver that works great with my other wired headphones and for making phone calls (15 hours battery life). I wanted to just keep using that one.
- I wasn’t sure whether these bone conduction headphones would work the way I wanted them to, so I went with the cheaper model.
If you primarily want to use bone conduction headphones for running and outdoor sports, 6 hours (10 days standby) may be plenty and you might prefer the Trekz Titanium (no wires and dongles whatsoever).
I have tried the Sportz Titanium in two different listening modes: (1) open-ear and (2) plugged-ear— each with its unique characteristics and use cases.
Open-ear-mode: Keep your ears open and hear your environment while listing to your headphones at the same time
Why is this useful? You can keep better awareness of your environment compared to earbuds or over-the-ear headphones, for example, when jogging or cycling along a road. In the following I’ll call this open-ear-mode.
Other use cases:
- Keeping an ear on your toddler or your cooking while still listening to your audiobook.
- You don’t want to put earbuds in your ears because they get easily irritated.
- Conductive hearing loss—e.g., a ruptured eardrum or a problem with the middle-ear bones. Because these headphones mostly conduct sound directly into the inner ear, they may enable you to once again listen to music. Because my hearing is mostly intact, I can’t test this, but some people suffering from this condition have reported that they work for them.
Plugged-mode: Plug your ears with earplugs and block out external noise
Because bone conduction headphones don’t rely on the ear canal to conduct sound to the inner ear, you can listen to music and podcasts even with plugged ears.
You can protect your hearing when working in a loud environment and still listen to your favorite tunes.
And if you are a student or office worker, they can help you to concentrate better.
I initially bought the Sportz Titanium so that I can use earplugs to block external noise and still listen to sound via bone conduction.
And In a nutshell, this combination Sportz Titanium + earplugs is very effective.
Plugged-mode allows for several interesting applications:
1. Use earplugs to protect your hearing while working in a high-noise environment (wood or metal workshop, mowing the lawn, other landscaping work, etc.), and stream sound through the bone conduction headphones.
I think this is a very attractive alternative to noise-isolating earphones.
Most work earphones provide triple-flange and/or foam ear tips to block environmental noise. If the tips seal well, noise-isolating earphones are very effective. However, the ear tips don’t always fit, and you don’t get your free choice of earplugs.
I own two different models that don’t properly seal my ears with one set of tips and become rather uncomfortable with the other set.
Call this caught between a rock and a hard place.
Besides, the replacement ear tips are generally quite expensive.
With these bone conduction headphones, I can select any earplugs I want and adjust the insertion depth for optimal noise reduction and comfort.
Besides, foam earplugs are cheap and the highest-rated ones (NRR 33) generally outperform even the most effective ear-tips.
2. Bone conduction headphones together with earplugs make for very effective noise blockers for studying and working in open office environments or coffee shops.
Earplugs substantially reduce the noise around us and allow us to focus better.
Loud conversations, however, cannot be completely blocked by earplugs alone. Streaming white noise through bone conduction headphones, you can effectively remove the rest of the chatter.
I am doing this just now, and it works great.
How do the AfterShokz Sportz Titanium sound?
We again have to distinguish between open-ear and plugged mode. In terms of sound quality, these are two completely different animals.
In open-ear mode, the headphones sound decent, but not great. I find the mids adequate and the highs detailed without sounding harsh, but the headphones definitely lack bass.
They sound fine when listening to podcasts and audiobooks and watching TV.
Some genres such as acoustic guitar, instrumental music, and pop work well; music that thrives on a punchy bass suffers.
Still, they are fine for easy listening as long as the background noise is not too loud.
In plugged-mode, I have tried them together with various types of earplugs, and they sound good, better than in open-ear mode—I would say on par with decent earbuds in the 20-dollar range.
But what really sets this plugged-mode apart is that it makes for an outstanding noise blocker—with music, audio books, or white noise readily streamed in.
In fact, because good foam earplugs block external noise so well, I often hear a lot more detail with the Sportz Titanium than with normal earbuds.
I tried them with trance, guitar, meditation music, pop, and even classical music.
Even in plugged-mode, the bass is not earth-shattering, but as far as I am concerned, it is adequate.
To make the Aftershokz sound good, I recommend you make yourself familiar with your phone’s equalizer. They can be equalized quite well. On a Samsung Galaxy J7, the following settings work for me in plugged-mode:
Comfort and compatibility with glasses and safety eye-wear
The longest I have been wearing the Sportz Titanium so far was continuously for 5 hours together with glasses. The headphones have a titanium neckband that creates the force necessary to keep them pressed to the cheekbones. I can feel this pressure, but it is quite light.
I have no problems wearing them and quite often forget that I have them on when they are not playing.
At times, I become sensitive to the pressure and the headphones become a bit uncomfortable. Then I slightly change the position of the transducer.
For comparison, I find them more comfortable than most noise-isolating earphones.
My experience with the open-ear-mode and external noise
With the Sportz Titanium, your ear remains open and allows for unhindered transmission of environmental sounds, including traffic noise, construction noise, and sirens.
Aftershokz are marketed quite heavily towards runners and cyclists: “Hear your music and the world around you.”
I have tried this in several different settings (in parks, along a river-walk, a quiet road, a busy road with heavy traffic and construction noise).
I would say keeping your ear canal open makes a lot of sense in a quiet environment in which you want to keep as much situational awareness as possible.
So for example, listening to the headphones at a moderate volume while jogging along a road with occasional traffic works well. I am more likely to hear sudden warning noises and be safer than if I had plugged my ears with earbuds or worn over-the-ear-headphones.
The same applies to personal security when going for a walk in the park or along a river.
Unplugged ears are also useful when approaching busy intersections and other higher erisk areas. You don’t have to keep removing and reinserting your earbuds. If need be, I can just press pause on the Bluetooth receiver clipped to my shirt.
But as advertised, in open-ear-mode, the music/podcast directly competes with external noise coming in via the ears. At the end both stimulate the same hair cells in the inner ear.
The consequence is that loud noise can mask your podcast to the degree where it becomes unintelligible.
Along busy roads with a constant high noise level, the Aftershokz in open-ear-mode, and most likely any kind of bone conduction headphones, don’t work for me.
Sure, I could turn up the volume and perhaps make them loud enough so that the podcast now mostly drowns out the traffic.
But that kind of defeats the purpose: if the road doesn’t have a designated footpath, I am now sacrificing safety. I am more likely to miss important warnings such as the noise of approaching cars.
Keep in mind that the sound is still stimulating the hair cells in the inner ear and these hair cells cannot distinguish between overstimulation by earbuds or by bone conduction headphones.
If you mostly run or cycle on a designated, safe footpath along a noisy road, listening to music via earbuds might be a better option.
You could, of course, plug you ears with HiFi-earplugs to strike a balance between hearing your environment and hearing your music. Then the bone conduction headphones work.
Sportz Titanium in plugged-mode: Running a circular saw, studying, office work, and riding a motorcycle
For me, the combination of these bone conduction headphones and foam earplugs is the ideal use case.
The Sportz Titanium already came with a pair of earplugs:
The beauty is that you can use almost any earplugs you like, including disposable foam earplugs and reusable earplugs.
Running a circular saw
I tried the Sportz Titanium while running a circular saw cutting through metal. I measured the noise level at 94 dBA, so I definitely need hearing protection.
To protect my hearing, I used the NRR-33 Flents Quiet Contour / Moldex Meteors earplugs and played music and podcasts via the headphones.
This worked like a charm. The earplugs brought the noise down enough so that I could listen to my podcast and music.
As I mentioned earlier, what sets this combination apart from work earphones with an NRR-rating is that you get to use your favorite earplugs.
You are not dependent on the limited selection of ear tips that most noise-isolating earphones come with, which for me is a huge plus.
Before using bone conduction headphones together with your hearing protector, make sure that this is actually allowed in your work place.
Studying/working in a coffee shop
To vary things a bit, I also tried the headphones in a noisy café with a different set of earplugs, the popular NRR-29 Flents Quiet Please. These earplugs are a bit less effective than the Meteors, but they are very comfortable.
Right next to me was a group of merry tourists sharing their latest travel tales. Normally this would be really distracting and keep me from doing my reading. Heck, I might even chime in.
I plugged my ears and played white noise through the Aftershokz at a very moderate volume.
Result: I could see the mouths moving, but I couldn’t hear a thing.
So if you want to block out noise to concentrate on your studying or office work, this combination is great.
If you need more earplug ideas and how to insert them for optimal noise protection, please also read my favorite earplugs post.
Riding a motorcycle
I tried the Sportz Titanium in both open-ear and plugged-mode.
In open-ear mode, I could still listen to music at speeds of up to 35 mph (60 km/h). Any faster than this and the wind noise was just too loud.
With my ears plugged, I had no problems listening to the Aftershokz at 55 mph (90 km/h).
When riding a motorcycle at higher speeds, the dominant noise is generally wind noise, which can exceed 100 dBA.
Many riders wear earplugs to protect their hearing.
Depending on where you live, wearing earplugs while riding your bike may be anything from encouraged to illegal.
Likewise, using a headset or bone conduction headphones may also not be permitted.
Please inform yourself about the regulations that apply to you before plugging your ears or using bone conduction headphones while riding your bike. Stay safe.
I like the Aftershokz Sportz Titanium bone conduction headphones best together with earplugs, and in particular foam earplugs. They do really well in most noise-blocking situations.
I can block out noise and at the same time listen to podcasts and audio. This works for when I need to protect my hearing as well as when I want to get rid of office and coffee shop noise so that I can concentrate.
A big advantage compared to work noise-isolating earphones is that you are not limited to a certain type of ear-tip. You can choose the earplugs that work best for you and your noise-reduction requirements. Also, using a fresh pair of earplugs is a lot cheaper than using a new pair of ear-tips.
I combine the Sportz Titanium with an Mpow Bluetooth receiver (I attached a clip with Velcro tape) to create a wireless headset. I use this receiver with most of my wired headphones. This way, I can answer phone calls and use them with devices that don’t have a headphone jack.
So combined with earplugs these are great!
In open-ear mode, they do what they say: You can listen to audio while staying aware of your environment. By design, this works as long as your environment isn’t constantly loud.
I can use them while walking around the house or jogging along a quiet road with the occasional busy intersection or in a park.
Keep in mind though that bone conducted sound competes with the sound coming in through your ear. Each can drown the other out.
And this is exactly what happens if you walk along a busy city road with unplugged ears.
Cranking up the headphones isn’t the answer. You lose the situational awareness for which you got them.
Besides, playing bone conduction headphones at an excessive volume isn’t any better for our hearing than using earbuds. I keep them at a moderate volume. When I can’t, they are probably not the right tool.
That’s it for this review. If you have enjoyed it, please share it with whoever might benefit.
If you have any questions or feedback, please let me know in the comments.
Have a great day.