Why you should care
Thanks to some good vibrations, music can now happen in our heads.
You know what makes solo activities like running or motorcycling even more awesome? Doing them while listening to your favorite music. What makes them less awesome? Getting hurt or dying because your headphones prevented you from hearing that car/semi/food-truck on a collision course with you.
A new category of headphones on the streets lets listeners enjoy music without sacrificing situational awareness, and thus safety. The technology is called “bone conduction audio,” and takes advantage of the fact that our ears can “hear” sounds from inside our bodies — bypassing the traditional outer ear and eardrum — by picking up vibrations with our inner ear via our skull bones.
The company wasn’t even focused on audio when it came up with the idea. It was working on a vest for virtual reality gaming.
The Cynaps Mint, by Max Virtual ($79), is a 3-D-printed bone-conduction headset that fits within your choice of helmet, whether it’s made for cycling, motorcycling, snowboarding or another activity where your noggin needs protection. It works by pressing the two transducers (devices that create vibrations) to the sides of your head using the included headband or by mounting them inside the helmet. Because the transducers are wired to a combination battery pack and receiver, you can pair the device with any Bluetooth-capable audio player, like a smartphone. Want to take a call en route? There’s also an embedded microphone.
Max Virtual’s CEO, Mike Freeman, says the company wasn’t even focused on audio when it came up with the idea. It was working on a vest for virtual reality gaming, Freeman recounts, “so you could feel the sound from the game.” Freeman and his team quickly realized that while their gaming accessory wasn’t right for the market, the transducers could be used for another purpose — like playing sweet tunes inside your head while you’re riding the open road.
Compared to regular headphones, however, the sound falls a bit, well, flat. Freeman says the audio quality isn’t exactly “hi-fi”: Some of the high and low frequencies are lost with bone conduction. But when you also need to hear the outside world, sound quality is never going to be as pristine as with typical headphones.
And for that reason, wearers should resist the temptation to crank it to 11. “If the ambient noise environment is louder, there will be a propensity to turn up the volume,” warns Lavina Rodrigues, a registered audiologist at Expert Hearing Solutions in Delta, B.C. But she also points out a potential medical benefit of bone conduction — one that can help those with hearing loss. “In conditions where the outer ear and middle ear are damaged, the bone-conduction vibrators serve to bypass the damaged areas directly stimulating the cochlea, resulting in hearing,” Rodrigues explains.
If bone-conduction audio feels like your sound solution, you might also want to check out competing products like the $99 AfterShokz Bluez 2 or the waterproof $139 Audio Bone 1.0. It may not have been what the Beach Boys had in mind when they wrote “Good Vibrations,” but we’re pretty sure they’d appreciate the ability to enjoy their music without risking a dangerous “Wipe Out.”