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I tried bone conduction headphones for running safety, now I won't go back
Noise-cancelling headphones are incredible. There’s nothing like blocking out the entire world around you — until you almost get hit by a bus like my colleague Edgar with the Bose QuietComfort 2. As an avid runner, I think I take safety pretty seriously, but there’s always more to do. I run in the daytime, stick to populated places, and look both ways more than once. However, there are times when a speeding car or truck can sneak up on you on winding small-town roads.
There are a few ways to tackle this problem, but they all have flaws. Regular earbuds are out because they block sound too well, and streaming through my phone speakers is out because, well, not everyone wants to hear what I’m listening to. I’ve tried running in silence, but I can only tolerate that for so many miles. That leaves me with one option: bone-conduction headphones or, more specifically-suited for a runner like me, the Shokz OpenRun Pro.
From the minute you liberate the OpenRun Pro from their well-padded case, it’s clear these are no normal headphones. The speakers (for lack of a better term) sit in front of your ear while the controls, battery, and charging connector sit behind, bound by a thin band around the back of your head. It’s not immediately clear where to position the speakers for the best bone-conducting results, but I found that playing some music and fiddling with the placement helped. Once you figure out the right fit, putting them on and off becomes second nature.
The controls are easy to pick up, too. Shokz stashed the power and volume controls on the right side while there’s a multifunction button on the left. It works like your standard earbud touch controls, with single, double, and triple taps for playback and answering calls.
It takes a few minutes to perfect the positioning, but using the OpenRun Pro quickly becomes second nature.
You’re looking at 10 hours of battery life from the OpenRun Pro, which I’ve had no problem matching during my testing. That’s about a week’s worth of running for me, so it’s been easy enough to charge the headset as part of my Monday rest day routine. You’ll have to keep the proprietary charging cable close at hand, but a five-minute burst is enough for an hour and a half of playback. There’s an IP55 rating as well, which is good enough to block most dust and sweat but not quite worthy of showering or swimming.
I had initial concerns about how the Shokz OpenRun Pro would fit with a hat or sunglasses, but there’s no need to fear. The thin over-ear connectors sit tight to your ears, offering more than enough room for the arms of your glasses. You eventually start to feel like RoboCop with this much on your head, but you get used to it. Just be ready for the occasional “phantom earbud” sensation when you feel pressure where the Shokz sit after you take them off.
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I’ve made the Shokz OpenRun Pro my trusty podcasting companion while out on the run at this point, and it’s tough to see myself wearing anything else. I’m a big fan of the true-crime genre, especially during fall, but it usually means my podcasts aren’t for everyone. Your average dog walker or mom with a stroller doesn’t need to hear the soothing tones of Keith Morrison recounting the most recent episodes of Dateline, after all.
The vibes — vibrations, rather — are excellent, just like the environmental awareness. Shokz’s open-ear design means I can still hear everything going on around me, from the ding of a bicycle bell to a little kid yelling hello and waving furiously. It’s a nice social twist, as previously, I would have blown by just about anyone and anything with little more than a wave.
Not every dog walker or mom with a stroller wants to hear the sweet sounds of a Dateline podcast streaming from my phone's loudspeaker.
Sure, I could use a traditional pair of headphones to improve isolation, but safety concerns hold me back, as mentioned above. There’s only so much running I can do on a flat, straight rail trail before I look for turns and hills. Eventually, I have to trade the crushed gravel of the trail for some thin shoulders lined with cows and crops. That means swapping the risk of flying cyclists for cars and trucks enjoying the few restrictions of country roads. I’ve tried balancing safety with noise-cancelling, but I found myself skipping music altogether at that point.
Unlike other models, the OpenRun Pro come with a dedicated Shokz companion app. There’s not a ton you can do with it, though it does offer a choice between two basic EQs — standard and vocal. They’re pretty self-explanatory, with standard as the better option for music and vocal as the podcasting preference. You can also control multipoint Bluetooth pairing and playback, but that’s about it.
I’m also pretty impressed with how well the OpenRun Pro stay in place when I’m out racking up the miles. I fully expected some shifting and bouncing, but the main speakers have stayed tight to my ears so far. If anything, I’m still learning where to position the headband in relation to my hair, and even that is easy to ignore on the back of your neck.
Although they started as my dedicated running companion, I quickly found myself reaching for the OpenRun Pro at other times, too. Whether it’s a simple, mindless task like doing the dishes or working my way through some article updates, it seems to pass much faster with headphones on. The bone conduction style lets me catch up on my podcast backlog without taking me out of conversations, and I don’t look like “that guy” trying to talk with earbuds in my ears.
I’m not afraid to wear the OpenRun Pro and take a phone call, either. All it takes is a tap of the multifunction button to pick up or end a call. It does feel like the voices are coming from inside my head, but the dual noise-cancelling microphones — both on the right side — make it easy to hear me clearly on the other end. I’ve taken calls mid-run more than once, and there have been no complaints other than my huffing and puffing.
Open(Run) to suggestion
Podcasts, audiobooks, and cooking videos all have one thing in common — they rely heavily on spoken words. Music quality still lags a bit behind on the Shokz OpenRun Pro, though it’s come a long way since the earliest generations of bone-conduction headphones. The headset now packs ninth-generation Shokz TubroPitch Technology, but some lower tones, like bass, tend to give way to higher pitches and voices. There are two new bass enhancers, but it often seems like you have to crank the volume to get decent results. You may not mind if you’re a podcast junkie like me, but if you have to run to music, you may find yourself wanting more.
Despite Shokz's strength with podcasts and audiobooks, the bass enhancers could use a little more punch.
I think Shokz could also stand to share some features between its models. Right now, you have to choose between a high-end Bluetooth model for some features or a dedicated swimming model for top-tier durability. The Shokz OpenSwim follows the same design language but bumps to an IP68 rating for longer dips in the pool. It also skips Bluetooth connectivity in favor of 4GB of onboard storage, which I’m envious of. I run my harder efforts and races without my phone, so I’d love an option to download a podcast or two and keep my hands free.
Outside of those precious few points, it’s hard to go wrong with the OpenRun Pro or bone-conduction headphones in general. They’ll probably never sound as clear as in-ear headphones with top-notch isolation, but it’s the very lack of isolation that makes them shine. I feel safer when I’m out on the run, and I’ve come to love my Shokz when lounging around the house, too. There’s no good way to advocate for letting the voices into your head, but you won’t regret it.