Recently, I took a gamble and bought some bone conduction headphones — the cheapest ones from Shokz (formerly AfterShokz) called Shokz Openrun.
I haven’t seen anyone try bone-conduction headphones under motorcycle helmets yet, so I thought I’d give it a whirl!
Bone conduction headphones, for those who don’t know, conduct vibrations directly to your inner ear through bones in your upper cheek and jaw, rather than through the air. They are like headphones that don’t sit on or in your ear, but near your temple. When using them, it sounds just like sound normally does.
My theory was that bone conduction headphones on a motorcycle would be a great way to have audio in any helmet without installing an intercom system (I use audio 95% of the time for navigation, especially when I don’t have a phone mount and riding in a foreign place), while wearing the best earplugs possible.
Short story: I was shocked that Shokz OpenRun bone conduction headphones worked better than I expected when under a helmet. Even with earplugs in. I could hear the directions and music clearly even when riding above 75 mph / 120 km/h. Beyond there, it did get a bit noisy. But I also didn’t have the headphones on full volume (about 75%).
If you’re thinking about using Shokz headphones in a helmet, you might be curious about the same things I was:
- Can you fit bone conduction headphones under a helmet?
- Can you hear bone conduction headphones as well as in-ear buds, or in-helmet speakers?
- Why do this, and why not get a communicator like a Sena or Cardo? (Good question, and yes, the latter are generally better)
- Tips and tricks on using bone conduction headphones with motorcycle helmets
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My Shokz + Motorcycle Helmet setup
As a preface, here is my bone conduction headphones setup I used to test.
Shokz OpenRun bone conduction headphones — This is the cheapest model of Shokz bone conduction headphones available.
Foam earplugs — I use foam ear plugs. I’ve also used my custom molded ones to compare — I found I prefer foam ear plugs.
A naked bike (I tested with a Yamaha MT-09 SP and a Triumph T100) for maximum wind in my face at speed!
How to use Shokz (or other bone conduction headphones) with a Motorcycle Helmet
Here’s how to do it, just in case it helps you:
- Put on the headphones. Wear them hooked above your ears. (Sometimes I like them going over my ears, to not make my ears stick out.)
- Put in your earplugs. If you’re using standard foam earplugs, moisten them slightly, twist, and insert.
- Adjust the volume. You probably want the volume a bit higher than normal.
- Open the visor of the modular helmet, and carefully pull it down over the bone conduction headphones.
- If one pops off your ear, push it back in place.
When putting on the helmet when wearing any earplugs (including noise-cancelling buds), I have the same MO: Open the front visor, slightly hold open the sides, and pull the helmet over my ears.
With Shokz, I first put in earbuds. I do this by moistening them slightly, scrunching them up, and stuffing them into my ear. Doing this, I get extremely good sound deadening.
Doing this with earbuds sometimes pulls them out of place. But with Shokz earphones, because they sit over the ear, the helmet pulls them into place and holds them against my head.
Overall Experience — How Well Do Bone Conduction Headphones Work Under Motorcycle Helmets?
Generally speaking, I found the Shokz OpenRun headphones to work very well under a motorcycle helmet.
Other things I’ve tried have been
- High-end communicators (mostly different Sena units, but yes I hear Cardo is better)
- A helmet with built-in communications (my Forcite “smart” helmet)
- In-ear buds wedged in under my helmet, either regular or noise-cancelling
General review of Shokz OpenRun (regardless of whether using them under a helmet)
It’s worth pointing out that even if I’m not using them under a motorcycle helmet, I really enjoy using Shokz bone conduction headphones.
The main reason for this is that they’re super comfortable. Having my ears open is a revelation. I don’t feel like my ears are all stuffed or that earwax is building up. And I remain “open” to the world around me.
The sound quality isn’t great. I’d equate them to earbuds of 20-30 years ago. They lacks bass and treble. It’s totally fine for voice, but for music it is like the quality of listening in to music that’s in the next room.
Still, when you’re on a motorcycle at speed, it’s hard to have a high-quality acoustic experience, so even in that situation it’s fine.
The Shokz OpenRun headphones I bought — the cheapest bone conduction headphones from the most premium brand — have very high battery life, are comfortable, and are sturdily built.
Since they’re only a bit more expensive than the non-name brands, I’d definitely recommend them.
Now let’s look at how they compare to the experience of other kinds of in-helmet audio / communication.
Bone Conduction vs In-Built Communicators
When I use helmet communicators, whether they’re aftermarket (like Sena / Cardo) or in-built (like Forcite), generally it’s a good experience. I use them with earplugs, and turn the volume a bit higher.
The net result is that I can hear quite well up to reasonable speeds (up to about 60 mph / 100 km/h) on a naked motorcycle, but it depends on the bike.
Up to that speed, with a helmet communicator on a naked bike, I can hear music, though it suffers from a bit of key shift due to the wind noise at speed. I can’t hear speech very well, but I can hear short instructions or understand that I should slow down to communicate better.
I can also communicate effectively up to about freeway speeds — but not at or above freeway speeds.
With my bone conduction headphones together with foam earplugs, I was surprised to see that I could hear better than helmet communicators at speed.
The reason for this, I believe, is that a) the earbuds isolated the wind noise, but b) the bone conduction headphones — pressed between the helmet and my head — were especially effective at conducting sound to my eardrum
With bone conduction headphones, I find that even at highway speeds, I could hear music clearly. It was really quite a revelation.
The other advantage of bone conduction headphones, similar to earbuds, is that I can use them on any motorcycle helmet, even if I switch out to other brands, or if I’m renting temporarily in another country. (I don’t often rent helmets, but some people might like to.)
Bone Conduction vs Noise-Cancelling In-Ear Buds
I’ve also in the past been an advocate of noise-cancelling earbuds under a helmet. I’ve used both AirPods Pro and Jabra 7 Pro noise-cancelling earbuds under a helmet.
These work, but it’s fiddly to put them in, and then they don’t always stay in the right position. Once they’re there, I find the noise and wind cancellation to be nearly (but not quite) as good as regular foam earbuds — but at least I can play music through them.
Like bone conduction headphones, you can’t use the microphone feature of noise cancelling earbuds when they’re under a helmet. I’ve literally yelled at them, but can’t get them to register a “Hey, Siri” or “OK Google” unless I’m at a complete stop and I get a bit lucky.
Drawbacks of Bone Conduction Headphones
There are three main drawbacks of using bone conduction headphones like Shokz OpenRun under a motorcycle helmet.
The main drawback is a bit of extra pressure against my head, around my ears. I find this tolerable, but it will depend on your head shape and your helmet.
Even though I wear a tight-fitting helmet (I try to wear medium instead of large, using Shoei or HJC helmets), after a 4-6 hour session of riding, I still am relatively comfortable.
The second drawback of any headphones over an in-built communicator is it lacks any communication ability.
The microphones don’t pick up voice well. And, of course, there’s no intercom function.
The next thing I’ll try will be the Shokz OpenComm, which has a boom microphone. I’m not sure how well it’ll work. Even if it does, it’ll only be suitable for phone calls and instructions to the phone, not for intercom communications.
The final drawback is that, like most electronic devices, they can be expensive.
I’ve seen decent reviews for no-name / knock-off brands of bone conduction headphones on Amazon. It’s a little hard to figure out what are fake reviews and what aren’t, but if you live in a place where you can take advantage of a return policy, then you can try them out.
Sanity check: Why use bone conduction under a motorcycle helmet?
The main reason I was interested in bone conduction is because of overall noise reduction while still being able to hear audio.
Because I can wear well-fitted foam earplugs at the same time as bone-conduction headphones, I can really effectively block wind noise, while still being able to hear the audio, as they conduct noise through my skull.
Wind noise is a big irritant for me when I’m riding naked bikes or bikes with a short shield (which is my favourite kind of motorcycle). It doesn’t bother everyone. But it makes my ears ring. (I have a small degree of hereditary tinnitus — I never was exposed to loud noises as a kid and yet I had tinnitus.)
I really like my Shokz OpenRun, and use them both without a helmet and with a helmet pulled over them.
I think more people should try them out. If this article tickles you, give them a look.