Imagine if you never had to wear an earphone again and could just hear the music in your head. That doesn’t have have to be a dream, because the technology is already here, even if it’s a tad unusual.
What is it?
When you first see the Aftershockz Bluez 2S headphones, there’s a good chance you’re going ask what that very question: what is this?
That’s exactly what we did with people in the office, asking them what they thought they were.
The best answer we had returned to us was “some sort of headset for controlling computers like in ‘Minority Report’”, and we can see why that person would think that way: when you look at the Bluez and how it’s supposed to sit on your head, it does look like the sort of thing that could scan brain waves.
But it does something different.
This pair of headphones is unlike any other pair of headphones you’ve ever tried on, simply because it doesn’t look like a pair of headphones. It looks more like a headband with a couple of squares on each end.
And yet, it technically is a pair of headphones while also not being a pair of headphones.
Traditionally — generally or commonly, even — headphones rely on little tiny speakers (drivers) and space to get the sound to your ear drums, and that’s where it goes. It’s one of the reasons why doctors, audiologists, and your mum tell you not to turn the music up too loud, because if you jam too much volume into your ear canal, you have the potential to damage your hearing by damaging the little hair cells inside your ear through exposure to that noise.
Kill the cells and you kill your hearing, because there’s only so much noise we can take before it’s replaced by a humming sound, or worse: no sound whatsoever, with everyone going faint.
So there’s a good reason to keep the volume down in your earbuds, earphones, in-earphones, canalphones, and headphones of all other sorts.
Aftershockz are different, and don’t play to the same tune, even though they can play the same tunes, so to speak.
Instead of sending them music through to your eardrums via your ear canal, these are a very unique piece of technology called bone conduction which works by sending audio travelling through your skull, vibrating the cranial structure near your ear to send the audio that way to your ear canal.
Forget blocking your ears, because you wear these and the audio sinks in, while still keeping your ears clear of obstructions and letting you hear the outside world.
Are they the future?
Before we get into this, we need to note that bone conduction isn’t terribly new. It has popped up over the years, and Aftershockz is one of only a handful of companies experimenting with the technology, which allows people to hear music and sound without blocking your ears.
That makes it ideal for running and exercising, or even having background music while you talk to someone, you know, in case you’ve ever felt like you needed a soundtrack to get through a conversation.
Aftershockz has been in this space for quite some time, even, and started out with wired versions of what we see today.
The Bluez 2S are not wired, though, with these a pair of wireless “bonephones” — yes, that is what people call bone-conduction headphones — that send the audio to your head without touching your ears.
Looking at them, you’d never really realise that. We’re not kidding when we say they look like a headband, because they really look like a headband.
In fact, the Aftershockz Bluez 2S are so headband-like that you even wear them like a headband, slapping them around your head and placing the square sections near your ear, but not on it. These are where the sound will be pounding against your head, knocking on your bone structure and sending audio to your eardrums.
One thing to be aware of is that it’s worth trying them on in-store, because if you happen to have a particularly large head, they may not fit terribly well. Ours was fine, but some people in the office couldn’t fit the water small and not remarkably flexible size.
Indeed, this is one pair where one size does not fit all. It will fit most, but certainly not all.
The Bluez 2S are also Bluetooth, so you’ll need to pair them with a phone or tablet, but they do lack support for multiple concurrent devices, so you can only do one at a time. Pairing is easy, however, with a pretty standard “hold the power button until the lights start flicking between blue and red” sending the 2S into pairing mode.
From there, connect your phone or tablet to the headset, and you’re good to go. Provided you’re wearing the headset in way you’re supposed to — not with the square bits on your ears, but instead nearby — you’ll get audio the moment you start playing it.
You only need to remember the locations of a few buttons, with a volume rocker under the right part of the band, just behind that of the port for microUSB charging and the main power button, while a button on the left bone pad can be used to pause and play the music, as well as skip ahead by double tapping.
Testing with the 2016 GadgetGuy Sound Test, it is easily one of the more unusual reviewing experiences we’ve ever felt. Ever. Ever ever ever.
It’s as if the audio is coming from inside your head, because it sort of is.
With no sound being sent down your ear canal, that isn basically what is going on, and it opens up your ears to hearing the outside world, resulting in one of the more curious sensations, as if the media player lived inside your brain, and not just that random song you keep on singing to yourself.
As for how it sounds, the Aftershockz bonephones produced a sound quality that we mostly anticipated: decent highs, a little bit of muddling in the mids, and a bottom end that was hard to hear unless it was a solid thwack of bass.
Punchy bass is very clear, and it’s so clear that you can feel it tickling the side of your head as it pounds.
Interestingly, we found the audio was quite clear at the bottom end of volume, and here it gives everything a nice background music effect to life, as if you’re walking around with your own soundtrack that no one can hear while you still appear social.
Testing it with the 2016 GadgetGuy Sound Test, we found the highs took priority here, something we could hear as the subtle electronic tones from Imogen Heaps “Headlock” sonf Demi Lovato’s “Cool for the Summer” kicked in, all evident though lacking the ominous sound each tends to offer.
Without that bottom end, the tracks can sound a little empty and shallow, but it’s still quite easy to listen to, with much the same result in R&B from The Weeknd and Mark Ronson.
Punchier pop manages to break through the withdrawn undertones that can’t be handled by the bone conduction earphones, and we found with Sara Bareilles’ “Brave” the sound was bright and punchy, while any rock with an emphasis more on rounded mid-tones and highs sounded not too shabby, even if the drums were hollow in comparison as more of that bass failed to get into our skulls.
Classical and jazz finish up the test, and it’s here you find a sense of clarity as Claude Bolling and Yo-Yo Ma’s “Baroque in Rhythm” lacks the need for excess bottom end, and as such sounds quite good while Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” pulls out a lovely tonality for the properly acoustic instruments with no excess instruments.
In fact, jazz was one of the surprise areas, because here we found the music was basically beaming to our head with only a skerrick of sound leakage, and that was only if you got within a head’s distance from our own.
Bass is still otherwise missing, though, and if you’re expecting to hear the undertones and low sound in your music, it just won’t happen.
We’re not sure if it’s a lack of power or just a driver issue inside, but the low sounds are only here when it’s a solid punch, and usually you’ll feel that because it will tickle the side of your skull.
Despite the imbalance in the bottom end, we actually really liked the Aftershockz Bluez 2S, because while they’re not the most balanced of headsets, they deliver a really interesting sound that comes from the inside of your head.
We do need to say that they’re not to everyone’s taste, and the office was quite divided. Some liked the way these performed, and others were a little more vocal about it.
That said, we found it interesting, and very wearable. More than we expected actually, and started using it as an every day earphone, simply because once your ears are open to the world around you and yet you can still hear music on the bus, on the train, and where ever you go, it’s hard to let go.
When we want higher quality sound, we’ll return to our earphones, but if you need to listen to the outside world, the Aftershockz Bluez 2S are an intriguing proposition your head will find most curious, even if the name is a touch silly.