Review: Aftershokz Bluetooth Bone Conduction Headphones

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I'm a little overweight and have issues with shin splints but I'm back in the gym and working from 260, to get back to my "fighting weight" of 210. Being heavier than my frame can work with comfortably means I don't run on concrete right now but I recently purchased 15 months at a local Powerhouse Gym for the whole family which means my sons are now working out with me. That's caused a slight problem with my personal routine, listening to music while I "grind" in the gym. Fortunately, I met the folks from Aftershokz at CES and they have an amazing solution for you outdoors runners who need to listen out for cars and folks on bikes, and for us parents who want to have our personal soundtrack playing while we coach our kids on their own fitness, or want our children safe while they're out running in urban areas and listening to their music. Meet the Aftershokz Bluez 2 bone conduction headphones.

Having played quite a bit of milsim paintball, I was no neophyte when it came to the concept of using bone conduction for sound but this was the first time I'd come across a company using the technology to provide high quality audio entertainment. My previous experiences were confined to communications devices. For the uninitiated, bone conduction devices use the bones in your face -in this case your cheekbones- as the medium to transmit the vibrations that we experience as sound. In the case of the Bluez 2, mini stereo sound vibrations produced by their PremiumPitch sound technology travel through your cheekbones directly to your inner ears. Your eardrums aren't needed as part of the auditory experience in this setup, leaving them free to receive outside stimuli from cars, or people on bikes shouting "on your right!" as they attempt to pass you. Or, in my case, carrying on conversations with my sons about the right way to perform certain barbell and dumbbell lifts while simultaneously keeping the music going so I have a little motivation for my own lifts. That's what the Aftershokz Bluez 2 purport to enable you to do and I'm happy to tell you that is exactly what they deliver on in my real-world use, just not without a caveat.

The Bluez 2 look like over-the-ear, wrap around the back of the neck, wireless headphones except for the fact that they don't actually sit in your ears. It takes just a moment of fiddling to get it right, but the Bluez 2 actually sit on your cheekbones, just outside the part of the ear known as the tragus (you know, that little flap of skin that sits right next to your sideburns in the picture above). With your music turned up, full blast, you'll actually feel the vibrations and in a quiet room, other persons may hear some sound bleed. These Bluetooth 3.0+EDR wireless headphones have a frequency response of 20Hz~20KHz and support A2DP, AVRCP, HSP, HFP with a play time of up to 6 hours. In my own testing, those battery stats are pretty close to the mark so you can plan accordingly whether you're only hitting the gym for hour-long workouts, or hitting the road for hours-long marathon training runs.

Having tested many high-end over-the-ear and on-ear headphones and having owned several pairs of in-ear heaphones, the thing you have to be aware of with the Bluez 2 is that the sound quality will differ slightly from the others you may have experienced. First of all, they sound great! The audio produced is clear and fairly balanced, for something that is passing vibrations through your cheekbones but it isn't quite the same experience as something that is pushing sound directly into your ear. It isn't a lesser experience, given the purpose of the headphones and that's what you're going to have to go into this purchase being aware of. If you like deep, rumbling bass, or a large, airy soundstage, this isn't the audiophile dream you're looking for. The Aftershokz Bluez 2 shine as a pair of headphones that are going to allow you to listen to your music without cutting you off from the rest of the world. Even being in a gym with relatively loud music playing over the in-house speakers, and conversing with my sons, I was still able to clearly and audibly "hear" and enjoy my music. That could be a little disconcerting for some people, with so much going on, but when you're a dad, you get used to multitasking so I found it to be a pleasant experience.

The headphones also double as a Bluetooth headset for your phone calls. You get dual, noisecancelingg microphones to ensure that you're clear to callers on the other end. The same button, the multi-function button, that answers and ends calls also controls music functions. Send/end, play, pause and skip track are all handled from the multifunction button. The right side of the headphones is where you'll find the other controls. Power button, charge port, volume controls and LED indicator are all there. Everything is well laid out and intuitive to use, including getting the fit right. When I let some co-workers test out the headset, and my own sons, the only problem they experienced was the bad that wraps around the back of your head being too small. Aftershokz thought of that and included a rubber band that attaches to the inside of the band, tightening it against the back of your head. There's room for improvement though. The headphones give great audio feedback via voice prompts for things like powering the device on and off, battery life and more. My only complaint is that the batter life warnings only tell you that your batter is at high, medium, low, or "charge me." I'd rather hear my battery life as percentages or play time left until a recharge is needed.

Overall, I have to say that these were among the best fitness, Bluetooth headphones I've used in some time. The sound is great and they're so light, you'll forget you have them on. The controls are intuitive and the call quality works as it should. Also, at only $99 they're really a great deal. If I sound excited about these, it is because I am. I hate earbuds. Most of the ones I've tried are just uncomfortable after a while and I dislike the feeling of something pushed inside my ear canal just to get decent sound quality. To date, there have been only two other pairs of fitness headphones that light that I've really enjoyed. The old Motorola S9 Bluetooth Active Headphones (circa 2007) and a more recent pair by another manufacturer that I'll have a review up on shortly- though they cost twice as much. At the end of the day, I have to say that these worked well enough for me that they're something I would definitely consider spending my own money on. Also, as a parent, if you have young ones who are on a cross-country team or spend a lot of time running in urban areas, I'd highly recommend buying a pair for them. $99 is a small amount to pay for this kind of safety in light of all the other headphones which drown out the sounds of the street.

Sensitivity: 100 ± 3dB

Microphone: -40dB ± 3dB

Bluetooth version: v3.0+EDR
Compatible profiles: A2DP, AVRCP, HSP, HFP
Wireless range: 33 ft (10m)
Battery: rechargeable lithium ion
Continuous play: 6 hours
Standby time: 10 days
Charge in: 2 hours
Weight: 1.45 oz (41g)
Warranty: two years
Compatible with: Bluetooth-enabled devices

Full disclosure: Aftershokz provided me with a demo unit for the purpose of this review.