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These open-ear headphones ditch the bone conduction tech for something shockingly better

Shokz excels at bone conduction technology, but its latest OpenFit buds ditch the vibrational output in favor of better audio performance.
Written by Matthew Miller, Contributing Writer
A person wearing the Shokz Openfit earbuds
Matthew Miller/ZDNET

I discovered bone conduction headphones in 2018. And since then, it's the only type of headphones I use for running and biking. 

Of course, there are some compromises with bone conduction technology, such as limited bass support, vibrations that may cause discomfort to some people, and lower audio performance than that provided by traditional earbuds or over-ear headphones.

Also: Why these bone conduction headphones are my go-to for outdoor listening

However, the ability to retain awareness of your surroundings and wear the headset for many hours trumps the audio performance for people who run in cities or the dark or ride their bikes on roads where safety is paramount.

For the past few weeks, I have been walking, running, biking, and commuting with the new Shokz OpenFit mounted to my ears. The earbuds are a significant departure for Shokz since they do not use the company's signature bone conduction technology to provide the audio experience. Rather, the headphones use an open-ear approach with technology Shokz calls "air conduction."

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Unlike traditional single-piece bone conduction headsets, the OpenFit are designed with individual left and right earbuds that use a Dolphin Arc flexible ear hook (made with 0.7mm ultra-fine flexible memory wire) to go around your ear. The main audio component rests on the outside, meaning there is no silicone piece that extends into your ear canal. As a person who has sensitive ears, this is, as they say, music to my ears.

Also: Upgrade your Apple Watch for summer adventures: Ultra or Series 8?

Each earbud weighs in at 8.3 grams and the silicone-covered ear hooks provide an extremely comfortable fit. When you first position the earbuds on your ears, you may think they are not securely in place and that they will fall off easily. But, go ahead and shake your head like an 80's metal lead guitarist and you will be surprised that they don't shift or move at all. 

I was able to wear the OpenFit earbuds for several hours, and many times forgot that I was even wearing them. They have IP54 dust and water resistance so you can use them while working out, as well as while commuting or working.

With the main audio component on the outside, you still maintain some situational awareness with the open-ear design. I wouldn't put the audio transparency of the OpenFit above bone-conduction headsets, but I was able to hear well enough to identify approaching runners and cyclists.

Also: These $130 bone conduction headphones handle sweaty runs, and replaced my Shokz

The audio experience on these is better than what I've heard from previous Shokz headphones, and I was very pleased with the clear sound of music and podcasts. Enhanced bass is provided through Shokz's DirectPitch technology. I was even able to mow the lawn with my unsurprisingly loud mower and still enjoy music, which I can't do with bone conduction headphones.

In addition, phone calls are much better with the OpenFit than with the OpenRun I previously used. While I occasionally make calls while working out, I also use voice-to-text to capture any ideas I have while running. The OpenFit works perfectly for that purpose.

Shokz OpenFit in the earbuds case.
Matthew Miller/ZDNET

Each earbud can last up to seven hours, with the charging case providing up to another 21 hours. A five-minute charge provides up to one hour of listening. The case does not support wireless charging.

There is also a Shokz smartphone application that provides the battery charge status of each earbud, equalizer mode options (including a custom one), button customization, firmware updates, and a user guide. Double tap and press/hold options include play/pause, next/previous, volume up/down, and launching your phone's voice assistant.

Also: These $169 Apple-owned earbuds were made with Android users in mind

To be clear, the OpenFit buds aren't perfect; I'm not a fan of the method used for pairing these buds -- pressing down on both earbuds in the case at the same time is tedious, the lack of multipoint support, and the button performance while running (tough to control the touch-sensitive area while bouncing up and down).

But, the extreme comfort, long battery life, customizable button configuration, and ability to still provide situational awareness are enough for me to recommend the Shokz OpenFit earbuds, even to folks who are more acclimated with bone conduction headphones. These are available now for $179 in Black and Beige.

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