When I first saw the AfterShokz headphones at the 2012 International CES, I knew the company was onto something. Instead of going in or over the ear, these use bone conduction technology, borrowed from the Navy SEALs. AfterShokz rest in front of the ear, and use the jawbone to convey sound into the middle ear. I had a suspicion my father —a retired electrical engineer with a background in aeronautics, an audiophile from way back, and one of the original gadget gurus —would love them.
He was thrilled at a chance to try them out. His initial opinion was that while the sound wasn’t truly spectacular, it offered some unique advantages. One thing he likes to do is listen to music while stargazing at the beach, late at night after everyone else has gone to sleep. He loads his iPod into a Pelican case that’s watertight and salt-spray proof, with a clever headphone jack. Typical headphones blocked out the sound of the ocean. And while other headphones say that they let in some ambient sound, the AfterShokz let in all of the ambient sound. He could listen to Holst and the waves at the same time.
He enjoyed the AfterShokz so much that he showed them off to his friends, and they discovered other advantages. One of his friends uses hearing aids, and typically, he has to remove the aids to use in-ear headphones. It’s awkward and he then has to find a place to keep the aids handy without misplacing them. Over-the ear headphones are tough as well, since he has to worry about feedback problems from the aids, and the tonal balance and sound quality of the hearing aids are tuned for human speech, not music. The AfterShokz lets him keep his hearing aids in, and gives him a much better sound quality than he gets with typical headphones.
Another friend has a granddaughter with significant hearing loss. Because of the nature of her loss, she can’t use regular headphones, but has no problem with the vibrations generated by the AfterShokz. Plus, they look like cool headphones – not some medical device. For a child with a disability, looking normal is a big deal.
Right now, there are two versions: Sport and Mobile, the latter adding an inline microphone for cellphone use. Perhaps a modification of the Mobile model could be developed. Right now, it has a microphone for sending out the user’s voice to a cellphone. In the future, perhaps that could be modified to pick up external voices and amplify it up to the transducers? There’s certainly room for a new product category here.
While the AfterShokz might seem like a gimmick to users with a multitude of options, for some specialty users, they represent a breakthrough technology.
Leslie Shapiro has been an audio engineer for 25 years, with experience in television, film, and the music industry. She is also a member of NARAS, which gives her the coveted privilege of voting for the Grammy Awards.
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