Is Bone Conduction The Future of Headphones?

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Is Bone Conduction The Future of Headphones?

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Bone-conduction-small.jpgDuring Panasonic's CES 2013 press conference, the company announced that it was debuting a new pair of headphones, which use bone-conduction technology. If you follow the headphone industry, then you may already know a bit about this technology; companies like Madcatz, Audio Bone, and AfterShokz have offered bone-conduction headphones for the past few years. But Panasonic's announcement of the RP-BTGS10 headphones (due out this fall) marked the first time I can recall one of the big-name manufacturers embracing the technology. Now we're hearing reports that Google might enter the fray; there's speculation that the much-anticipated Google Glass virtual-reality headset may use bone conduction. So what is it?

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Just as the name implies, bone conduction transmits sound waves through the bones in your skull. The vibrations reach the cochlea, or inner ear, which converts them to electrical impulses that travel the auditory nerve to the brain. The technology itself is not new. Perhaps one of the earliest pioneers was Beethoven, who would bite a special rod that was connected to his piano in order to transmit sound vibrations through his jawbone. Inventors dating back to the early 1900s have used the technology in telephones and hearing aids.

Anyone remember the Bone Fone, introduced back in the 1970s? It was a radio that hung around your neck and used bone conduction to send sound waves to your inner ear via your neck, shoulders and chest. The sound quality was apparently pretty poor, and the product was soon killed by the Sony Walkman. However, the concept lived on, the research and development continued, and now we're seeing a growing number of bone-conduction headphones, sometimes called bonephones. These headphone designs usually wrap around the back of your head, come over your ears, and rest on the bones near your ear - sometimes on the cheekbone just in front of your ear. As Audio Bone describes how they work, the headphones "perform the role of your eardrums," decoding the sound waves and converting them into vibrations.

Bone-conduction technology is often employed by the military so that soldiers can receive commands through headsets while still being able to hear what's going on around them, which is obviously of critical importance in combat. That same philosophy of safety is one of the primary marketing approaches for consumer-oriented BC headphones. Bone conduction is essentially the opposite of noise cancellation. These headphones are designed for people who want to be able to listen to music while still hearing the sounds around them: joggers, bikers, hikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who need to be aware of their surroundings and to hear cars, sirens, and other audible dangers.

The open-ear design can also be beneficial in an office environment, if you like to casually listen to music throughout the day without disturbing others, but still need to hear a ringing phone (or a yelling boss). As a mom, when I do have a moment to listen to music or podcasts through my iPhone, I generally only wear one earbud so that I can remain fully aware of what's going on in the house; bone-conduction headphones provide an alternative solution.

Read on to Page 2 to hear about hands-on time with bone conduction headphones . . .

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