Traditionally you either use headphones that cover your ear or sit in your ear. This is because, obviously, you hear sound. Therefore, to listen to music, you need a device that makes sound, ideally near your ear.
Bone conduction headphones are different, in that they don’t really make any sound at all, they vibrate. As you may have guessed from the name, bone conduction headphones, vibrate your bones, specifically the cheekbone, just in front of your ear. Through careful manipulation of the vibrations, it’s possible for the sound to be conducted through your skull, straight to your inner ear, skipping your eardrum entirely.
Tip: Bone conduction headphones are different from cochlear implants, as no implant is required. Furthermore, cochlear implants use low-level radio transmissions from an external source to transmit data to the implant rather than using vibrations.
Originally, bone conduction headphones, specifically Bone-Anchored Hearing Aids (BAHA) were designed to work as hearing aids for people with certain types of hearing difficulties. The concept is based on how we hear our own voice and why it sounds so different when we hear our own voice played back to us. Our bones vibrate as we speak and as bone conducts deeper sounds better, we hear our own voice deeper than others do.
One of the big advantages of bone conduction headphones is that they don’t prevent us from hearing ambient sounds in any way. This makes them ideal for use in environments where communication is necessary as well as situational awareness. For example, in the 2017 America’s Cup yacht race, the Land Rover BAR team used bone conduction headphones to effectively communicate in the noisy race environment while being able to maintain situational awareness.
While the sound isolation is obviously never going to be anything like over- or in-ear headphones, the audio quality of bone conduction headphones is pretty solid.
One thing to be very aware of is that bone conduction headphones can still damage your hearing permanently and cause tinnitus if they are turned up too loud. This is because tinnitus is a degrading of the inner ear.