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I review a lot of headphones and earphones. Many of my reviews appear here in these virtual pages, but I also cover a lot of mainstream stuff for other outlets. Recently, I’ve had a few pairs of delightful weirdness come across my desk that I’m not reviewing on Solo, but I felt them worthy of a mention here. They’re ostensibly sports earphones, in that they’re intended primarily for outdoor exercise. Broadly, they’re considered “open” designs, though how they achieve that varies greatly. The overall idea is they let ambient sound in, while also supplying you with music.

They’re all weird. Not weird in a bad way; they’re just a very different way of listening to music, podcasts, etc. What’s really interesting, and why I want to provide a sort of overview of the category here, is how well they do this. Unexpectedly, I’ve found that many of these seemingly “compromised” designs actually sound good, while at the same time letting you stay aware that there’s an angry car or accelerating moose behind you.

Bones

One of the more familiar open designs uses a technology called “bone conduction.” Each transducer fits the area of your head where your jaw and skull meet; sound is physically transferred to your inner ear. You can hear the music if you hold the pads close to your ears, but they sound better when mounted to your skull. It’s an odd feeling, and if you turn up the volume, you can feel them vibrating. The company that popularized this tech was called Aftershokz, which later became Shokz.

Bones

Sound-wise, these are okay—better than you’d expect and far better than early generations. You can even use some versions while swimming.

Donuts

The Sony LinkBuds ($178, all prices USD) fit in your ears and let ambient sound pass through. Each bud comprises two joined circles that look like a figure eight. One half has a hole in the middle like a donut. Small silicone wings help secure the buds to your concha (the cup area just outside your ear canal). The LinkBuds are tiny and surprisingly comfortable.

Linkbuds

Their sound isn’t as good as that of the Bose ’phones described below, but they’re smaller and far cheaper.

Clips and earrings

This design is what got me curious about the category. The new Bose Ultra Open Earbuds don’t fit like any ’phones I’ve ever seen. They’re more like earrings. A small cylinder on each bud fits behind your earlobe, and then a piece wraps around to grip your concha. Nothing goes in your ear canal. They fit comfortably, feel secure, and surprisingly, sound really good.

Bose

For “workout” earphones, they’re very expensive: $300. That gets you some impressive engineering, though, as they’re some of the best-sounding Bose earbuds I’ve heard, despite not working like traditional earbuds.

Hovercraft

If it’s not already obvious, all these sub-category names are my own invention. This last design attaches to your ear but doesn’t put anything in your ear canal. Typically, these models have a loop that goes over your ear, with the sound-generating portion hovering outside of the entrance to your ear canal. A few companies sell variations on this design, and they’re fairly typical in the “running” earphone world.

Hovercraft

Shokz has a version, and the marketing for it is amusing: “Shokz DirectPitch technology uses reverse sound waves to optimize the distance and angle between the sound source and the human ear, resulting in relatively greater sound pressure toward the ear and less sound pressure in directions other than the ear canal.” Reverse sound waves, you say? Aren’t those just . . . sound waves? Marketing aside, Shokz’s OpenFit earphones ($179.95) sound pretty good and are quite comfortable.

What are these for?

As I mentioned in the intro, all these ’phones are ostensibly for outdoor exercise, but their use goes beyond that. Music can be a delightful escape—a transport to another place and time, often linked to a memory or feeling. Why would you want to let the real world intrude on that experience? Because we all lead busy lives, and sometimes music just needs to be a distraction from, or addition to, something else. The same can be said about podcasts, audiobooks, or even the sound from a random YouTube video. Being aware of your surroundings while you’re multitasking can be invaluable. Wearing one of the above while you go about your day lets you hear a horn honk, a baby cry, or a phone ring when such things are the greater point, not the disturbance.

It’s great to see that even in situations where audio isn’t the sole focus, technology has advanced enough that the sound quality is still a priority, if not the main one.

. . . Geoffrey Morrison
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